Boiling Down the Commandments

In Mel Brooks’ 1981 film History of the World-Part 1, Moses strides down the mountain with three stone tablets.

“God gave us fifteen—”

Oops! Moses (played of course by Brooks) dropped one. It shattered. Hmmm?

“God gives us ten commandments.”

Charlton Heston, surely closer to Moses’ appearance than Mel Brooks, witnessed the commandments being created, word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase. A holy fire blazed and cut each rock-bound letter. How many people are more familiar with Cecille B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments than the Bible’s top ten list? I mean, isn’t DeMille’s film really a documentary?

Long ago, at my regional United Methodist annual conference, with a thousand clergy and laity in a tense debate over the values of faith, a young pastor stood and declared that all churches should have the Ten Commandments visibly posted in the sanctuary. Every parishioner, every Sunday, would be reminded of God’s laws.

With loudspeakers amplifying his voice, he declared, “It should be exactly as the Bible said!”

Another colleague claimed a microphone and wondered if that meant the commandments would be written in Hebrew. After all, any English version of the commandments is rather Johnny-come-lately.

A character in a novel I’ve written, contemplating assisted suicide, mutters about a daughter-in-law who told him he’d break the Ten Commandments if he acted out his wishes. She . . .

. . . lectured me that the Ten Commandments said Thou Shalt Not Kill. With her finger wagging at me, she said, ‘That means you’re killing yourself!’

He chuckled again, this time with a grimace. “I told her, ‘Which of the three versions of the Commandments is that?’ And I said, because I wanted to be a nasty geezer, ‘I prefer the Exodus 34 version where the last divine command is You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’”

(Alas, those brilliant words were never published. They remain in the dusty digital basement of a computer file. But maybe some New York literary agent will accidentally stumble onto my web page and fall in love with my stuff? Ha!)

Whether we believe Moses looked Mel Brooks or Charlton Heston, or we debate original language and context, the Ten Commandments are a complicated, enduring gift of faith.

In a church I served, someone left a Bible in a classroom. There was no name on it anywhere. Who had forgotten it? Week after week, it remained. Abandoned. I finally grabbed it and stayed alert to anyone who might claim the Bible. Eventually it became part of my personal library. One of the first times I used it for sermon preparation, I discovered an odd thing.

A singular thin page was missing; it didn’t look torn or cut out. I flipped through the entire Bible, scrutinizing the page numbers. Still, only one was AWOL. The absent page included Exodus 20.

Ah, the Ten Commandments!

Or, as my novel’s character mused, one of the three versions. If you haven’t looked recently at Exodus 34—on a page that was still intact in that odd Bible—it’s most interesting.

In the familiar Exodus 20:17, the tenth command was about not coveting your neighbor’s possessions.

In Exodus 34:26, the final and tenth command cautioned about not boiling a kid in milk. I assume this commandment referred to a “goat kid” and not your or your neighbor’s sweet-faced third grader? God knows, I hope so!

Regardless of which Ten Commandments I read (Deuteronomy 5 also has a version), they are all radical statements. Simple laws. Easy to understand. Easy to read. And yet all of them are hard to live out.

Let’s choose a commandment to demonstrate!

What have I coveted recently? That earlier “joke” I made about finding an agent for my, er, brilliant novel? Joke-schmoke! Once I coveted a published novelist’s agent. Who cares about lusting after my neighbor’s wife (or my neighbor’s ox or donkey), I wanted C.J. Box’s or Sue Grafton’s agent. And I’ve spent miserable minutes (hours) envious of their successes and bemoaning my undeserved and unpublished situation. Poor me!

The commandments radically demand open, loving, simple, true, clear, honest relationship with self and others. They call us to impossible tasks, and the only tasks worth undertaking.

And Jesus, darn that persnickety Nazarene, made the radical even more radical. I’m sure Jesus knew all the versions of the commandments. I’m confident he never once plopped a baby goat into its mother’s boiling milk. But when he was pressed to “boil” down the commandments to the essential he said . . .

Well, you know what he said, don’t you?

Yup, just before Luke 10’s “Good Samaritan” parable, Jesus claimed the law (including the ten big time commandments and the 613 mitzvahs sprinkled throughout the Torah) focused on two interconnected truths. Love God. Love neighbor.

Radical. Yes? A cliché? Maybe, sadly, it has become that . . .

Sometimes, when regularly preaching back in the day, I’d procrastinate during my sermon preparation by playing a silly game with my one-page-missing Bible. I’d turn to Exodus 20. Nothing! Could I list all ten without the help of staring at a page? Usually I could. But every once and awhile, I’d get to the eighth or ninth commandments and not cross the finish line! Like Mel Brooks’ Moses . . . oops!

But Jesus made it impossible to forget by creating a list of two. Even feeble-minded me, randomly filled with lust about literary success or my neighbor’s possessions or regret about old or new sins, can remember Jesus’ short, life-altering list.

Jesus made taking a quiz about the essential commandments very easy and never easy!

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