In the book of Deuteronomy, God delivers what have come to be called the Ten Commandments. Lightning flashes, a fog hangs low, and the booming, huge thunderous, wondrous, set-the-earth-quaking-and-your-knees-shaking, deep, sweet Morgan Freeman voice of God sounds forth: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor – and so on. The people tremble. Ten rules, ten big do’s and don’t ring out in their hearing, and the theater of the moment, if not the innate power of the moral principles themselves, reduces the people to awe. You would think that awe would be the end of the story, awe and obedience, but no; a more pipsqueak-y, Steve Urkel-type scampers to a hilltop and stammers, Moses, stammers: Ehhhhemmm … Uhhh … hi, hi there, everyone … (Is this thing on?) … Uhhh, if you will permit me … I do want to mention a few other things that God forgot to say… uhhh, that God meant to say … 602 things, to be precise … Now if I may … And Moses proceeds to tack on to God’s original ten commandments hundreds and hundreds of others with more of an in-the-weeds feel to them: for instance, If you happen upon your neighbor’s ox, and it has fallen into a ditch, you should … etc., etc., and If, in mid-swing, your ax-head flies from its handle and strikes and kills someone, you should not … etc., etc. Moses considers these and myriad other burning legal questions. The people yawn.
Compared with the drama of God’s giving the law, with the fog machine and the lightshow and the gorgeous, dreamy bass voice from the Beyond, Moses’ go at legislating is a bit of a let-down. He rambles and repeats himself; he digresses and drones on – and on and on. It’s no wonder that history and that tradition lift up the first, God’s Ten Commandments, and let those of Moses fall to the side. (Poor Steve Urkel never had a prayer, right? In a head-to-head match-up, of course religion and ethics a la Morgan Freeman would win the day.) And yet, you have to give it to him: the guy had chutzpah, Moses had chutzpah, had a spirit of cheeky daring that is just short of astounding when you think about it. Moses made God his opening act. Moses believed his twenty-some-odd-chapter dissertation on how to do good improved upon what, with a clarity and elegant concision, God had distilled down to two carved tablets of stone. To put it another way: Moses believed – Moses seems to show us – that when it comes to questions of right and wrong, God gets the first word, but then he, then we, must rise and give ourselves to the work of moral reasoning.
The book of Deuteronomy – most of which reads as one long address, sort of as a sermon, by Moses – it opens with the ten, God’s ten commandments. But they are just the jumping-off point. In what follows, Moses takes each of the ten, takes each commandment, in order, one by one, and ponders them, probes them, pokes at them, puzzles over them, poses to them all the questions that could arise in the course of trying to keep them. The mess of seemingly random, strange rules in the book of Deuteronomy is really a systematic exploration of how we, as humans, take simple, bedrock, God-given, guiding moral intuitions and ourselves apply them intelligently and imaginatively to the ethical decisions and conundrums we face across all facets of life and society. So, for instance: Thou shalt not kill. God said so. Thou shalt not kill – it does not get more clear-cut than that, no? But what about in a just war? What about as a judicially mandated punishment for some heinous crime? God decrees Thou shalt not kill, but what that means precisely, what that means in practice is up to Moses, is up to us to determine. Moses takes up these quandaries. Moses takes up these concerns, which God’s commandments invite us to consider, but do not speak to straight-on. Moses applies God’s Ten Commandments to the issues, to the thorny complications of the day to day that can confuse us in deciding and acting for the good.
Today’s scripture is a sampling from across the book of Deuteronomy which shows us something of how he goes about this. And I chose these passages because in them, Moses extends the deep logic of the commandments in an intriguing and unexpected direction: he brings the jumping-off-point sort of guidance God gives to bear upon the matter of how we are to relate morally to Mother Nature. What Thou shalt not kill means is much more than merely ‘do not murder’. As I mentioned, he wonders over the implications of this commandment in times of war, as concerns the appropriateness or not of capital punishment, and, and here, while out on the hunt. To kill (and presumably eat) a delectably plump looking mother bird, leaving the young to starve without her provision, is too senselessly broad a kind of killing to allow. The killing Moses permits must be discriminate and purposeful, ultimately serving some greater good. But immoderate or haphazard taking of life, of animal life even, falls short of this. Moses forbids us to live in ways that disrupt the flourishing and compromise the welfare of the non-human friends with whom we share the earth. We may not bring death upon whole families of creatures or species or ecosystems.
And Moses sharpens that same point in his thinking about the third commandment – Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. As Moses seems to understand it, this commandment means for us to honor what is worthy of honoring, and to reverence as holy that which is holy, for starters, God’s good name. But he takes that original big idea to a surprising conclusion: all life is holy in its way, animal life no less, and in our eating and whatnot, we must honor it as such. Hence the rules about so-called unclean animals. Now, as modern Christians, we mostly chafe at these rules – think them arbitrary and unwelcome, or maybe think them mean, suggesting as they appear to that a so-called ‘unclean’ animal is dirty or disgusting. But from the perspective of the animal: being called unclean is the best thing that could ever happen to you! Now, no one can eat you – or make a fur coat or a handbag or piano keys or a hide rug out of you. In place of ‘unclean’ we should substitute ‘too good and holy to touch’; it is in effect an endangered species designation.
And taken altogether, what are often written off as bizarre and retrograde food laws read like something out of a PETA campaign leaflet: as Moses’ would have it, almost every animal on earth is to be protected from human exploitation, and those precious few that are not may only show up on our dinner tables should we ensure they feel no pain in death and then eat with a gratitude and a reverence for the sacredness of their sacrifice for our sake. It is the same thing in the eighth commandment – Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Here, the moral essence as Moses sees it is that we guard the reputations – the standing in the community and the dignity – of others. You can see in the bolded text you have that he extends this concern for dignity down a hierarchy of perceived worth. He starts with the neighbor: no default on a debt can justify collection practices that would bring humiliation and shame upon them. He starts with the neighbor, then, setting his sights ‘lower’, so to speak, he considers the poor and needy, then children, then aliens, orphans, widows (that is – the dependent classes), then, remarkably, he considers criminals – the dignity that is due them, and then, more remarkably still, he considers the humble ox. Moses believes that even what is non-human has a certain humanity and must be treated with the appropriate thoughtfulness and compassion.
God delivers what have come to be called the Ten Commandments. Lightning flashes, a fog hangs low, and the booming, huge thunderous, wondrous, set-the-earth-quaking-and-your-knees-shaking, deep, sweet Morgan Freeman voice of God sounds forth: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor – and so on. But this is just the beginning, is a jumping-off point only, because when it comes to questions of right and wrong, while God gets the first word, we, like Moses, must rise and give ourselves to the work of moral reasoning. Like Moses, we must take the deepest, surest moral intuitions we have and intelligently and imaginatively apply them with surprisingly far reach to the issues, to the thorny complications of the day to day that can confuse us in deciding and acting for the good. And in this Advent season, as our church wonders together how – to borrow from the old carol – how we might ready the earth to receive her King, I would suggest we join Moses specifically in discerning and in deciding for ourselves how we relate morally to Mother Nature. The idea here is not necessarily to dust off his laws and live them at your dinner table. Rather, the idea is to take the deep values of the commandments, those big unassailable do’s and don’t, and use them to shape a personal ethic of concern for the earth that fits your own life and circumstances. How will you live out ‘do not kill’ and ‘honor what should be honored’ and ‘rest’ and ‘let enough be enough’ – how will you live this out in the grocery store and in heating your home and in thinking about gift-giving and holiday greeting cards and on and on? How will you come down out of the clouds and into the weeds of moral living and let the commandments address themselves to all the little burning questions of your own working and housekeeping and commuting and shopping?