Monday, May 17, 2010

More on the Ninth Commandment

            J. L. Speranza rightly wishes I had referred to the original Hebrew.  While I do not understand Hebrew directly, I do have several commentaries in English that are based upon the Hebrew.  One of the most reputable is the series called Word Biblical Commentary.   I gather that it has a good reputation as a scholarly treatment of the original texts in Hebrew and Greek.  The commentary on Exodus is by John I. Durham.  He translates the commandment under discussion as "You are not to give against your neighbor a lying testimony." 
            On page 296 Durham writes, "That the whole matter of the responsibility of the individual Israelite for the integrity of the legal process was taken quite seriously in the covenant community of Israel is shown by a number of OT texts (e.g., Exod 23:1; Num 35:30; Jer 7:8; Ps 24:4; Prov 25:18; and Job 31:30).  The testimony of at least two witnesses was required to sustain a charge (Deut 19:15; Num 35:30), and the penalty for false accusation was severe (Deut 19:16021).  In fact, there was even provision for punishing those who frustrated or defeated justice by refusing to come forward to give needed testimony.  The ninth commandment provided an obvious and no doubt needed protection of the legal process at the crucial point where the evidence of wrongdoing within the covenant community was given.
            "In addition to the obvious application of this commandment to the maintenance of justice in the covenant community, however, there is also a wider implication of the requirement of truthfulness, reflected not only in the broader statement of Deut 5:20 but also in the fact that the truthfulness in legal testimony is presented not as a requirement of a system of jurisprudence but as a requirement of Yahweh.  This commandment, like all the others, describes what the life of the Israelite obedient to Yahweh's expectation is to be like.  That he is not to give a lying testimony in a legal proceeding is at the root of the ninth commandment, but the testimony the Israelite gives before the elders in the gate is not to be considered something separate from his witness under less formal circumstances.
            ". . . The false witness was inimical to the relationship with Yahweh, upon which everything, including the very being off the Israelite, was dependent.  The Reputation of the neighbor was important, just as the Israelite's own reputation was important, of course.  But however important to Yahweh most of all, for these people, as his people, were to be his witness to the world."
            The Word Biblical Commentary on Deuteronomy is by Duane L. Christensen.  He is much briefer on the ninth Commandment.  He writes on page 124 of Volume 6a, second edition, "The ninth commandment: 'you shall not render against your neighbor a false witness.'  In one sense, the commandment concerns the legal process: false testimony in court such as that perpetrated by Jezebel in acquiring Naboth's vineyard (1 Kgs 21:1-16).  At the same time, the commandment also pertains to false accusation of a more general nature. . . ."
            Brevard S. Childs has written "A Critical, Theological Commentary" on The Book of Exodus.  On page 387 Childs translates the ninth commandment "You shall not testify against your neighbor as a false witness."  In his discussion of the ninth commandment on pages 424-5, " he writes "The ninth commandment contains several technical legal terms which point quite clearly to its original significance.  Their term ed saqer (lying witness), which in the Deuteronomic formulation appears as ed saw, arises out of the concrete legal procedure of Israel, a procedure which was common in the whole Ancient Near East.  A man testifies against another in a court of elders . . . He can be a true witness (Prov. 14.25) or a lying witness (Deut. 19.18; Prove. 6.19).  Their verb 'nh (answer) likewise reflects a legal background and points to the reciprocal response of the parties in a trial.  Again the term 'neighbor' (rea) refers to the full citizen within the covenant community.  The commandment is directed primarily toward guarding the basic right of the covenant member against the threat of false accusation.  The original commandment is, therefore, not a general prohibition of lying, but forbids lying which directly affects one's fellow."
            COMMENT:  Marcel Gauchet, though not a believing-Christian himself, has rather convincingly shown (in his The Disenchantment of the World, A Political History of Religion) that the modern "Secular" West grew out of the earlier "Christian" West.  Karl Marx sought to do the good works of Christianity without Christ.  And, surely, the Secular West can be seen to be seeking the same thing.  Gauchet argues that the Secular West does these good works better than the Christian Church did them previously.  He is referring to such things as caring for the sick, the poor, the orphan and the aged.   Higher Education is something else that was previously handled by the Church but is now handled by secular organizations.  As to the commandments, the secular world dispensed with the first three which deal with man's relation with God.  The fourth has to do with the Sabbath and remains, sort of, as a day when most of us needn't work, Sunday.  The remaining six commandments have to do with relating to one another and these have been seriously carried over into secular concerns.  The fifth, honoring your father and mother, is taken care of by Social Security.  The sixth, you shall not kill, is taken over by the courts.  The seventh, you shall not commit adultery has been eroded by a softening of the secular moral climate, but married individuals almost always disapprove of their spouses committing adultery.  There may be no law against it, but when Tiger Woods did it, he suffered serious consequences. 
            The eighth commandment, you shall not steal, has been taken over by the courts.  The ninth has sort of been dealt with in the courts.  Slander is somewhat against the law.  Lying to congress or to the courts is treated more seriously than lying to one's neighbor.  Giving false testimony in a court-trial is a punishable offense.
            In regard to the tenth commandment, which Childs translates, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's," the Secular West chose not to deal with it directly.  In fact, quite to the contrary, modern advertising encourages the individual to covet quite a lot of things.  He is free to covet the things of his neighbor in the sense of being encouraged to go out and buy the equivalent.  "Keeping up with the Joneses" is secular coveting. 
            On the other hand, as Childs tells us, "The original command was directed to that desire which included, of course, those intrigues which led to acquiring the coveted object."  And when we consider the tenth commandment in that light we see that the Secular West has dealt with this problem in an interesting way.  There is no point in engaging in intrigue to acquire what belongs to one's neighbor (unless it is his wife and that has already been covered under the seventh commandment) when one can more easily "intrigue" to acquire the equivalent of what one's neighbor has by means of credit cards, car and home loans.
            In the Christian world, at least in the U.S. there is a strong segment of churches that can be said to be "literalistic."  These churches, inspired largely by the Anglo-Irish Evangelist John Nelson Darby favor a literalistic interpretation of the prophetic books of the Bible.  People who belong to these churches favor the view that words ought to mean one thing and one thing only.  They seek to pour God into a verbal vessel of Darby's making.  A more open ended reading of the Bible will show that God loves poetry and tropes.  Jesus, popularly thought to be more loving than God the father is the one who would cast the legalists into outer darkness.  He encourages his followers to worship "in spirit and in truth."  What is the "spirit" of what is being said, we should ask ourselves.  Has God set a legalistic standard, "thou shalt not lie" where any violation brings the ruler sharply down on the backs of our hands?  Or is there something more loving involved?

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