for release Friday October 3, 2003
by Melodie Davis
The Ten Promises
Many of us grew up having watched Cecil B. DeMille's movie, "The Ten Commandments." Remember when Charlton Heston as Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments? Maybe it was the scary scene where those awesome "thou shall nots" are theatrically inscribed by lightening that helped instill fear and trembling about what would happen if we broke the rules. Maybe it was stern religious education teachers or "sisters" who "put the fear of God" in us. At any rate, most of us associate a certain amount of negativity with rules and some even feel like religion is only a bunch of rules and "thou shall nots."
Since the Ten Commandments have been in the news a lot lately, it gives me an excuse to share information on a book that has helped me look at those ten "old rules" in a whole new light. I won't debate the pros and cons of the removal of the stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama courthouse because those have already been much debated. While I'm a total supporter of these wonderful guidelines for personal life and society at large, they lose meaning when used symbolically or politically, and are not practiced.
So I found it completely refreshing to discover a book by Albert Curry Winn, a theologian and past president of a seminary. A Christian Primer, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), surveys several basic foundational and familiar documents of the Christian faith. Of course the Ten Commandments are shared by both Jews and Christians. He encourages us to look at these basic undergirding principles for moral and sane living another way: as ten promises rather than ten rules.
Winn points out that while Christians speak of ten "commandments," those of Jewish faith speak of them as the ten "words" - which is closer to the original Hebrew term. And it is helpful to look at the original setting for when these "ten words" were given to civilization. Israel had been enslaved in Egypt. Its existence had been threatened by genocide. Moses was the deliverer and after a long struggle with Pharaoh (and today's generation is more likely to think of the movie "Prince of Egypt" when they think of this struggle and the loathsome plagues), Pharaoh's army runs the Israelites into the Red Sea. They are again miraculously delivered, and God continues to provide for their care in the wilderness.
Then we get to the Mount Sinai scene, and although Moses is angry when he first comes down from the mountain and breaks the stone tablets after discovering that the people had really gotten out of hand while he was gone, that is not the context in which God gave the ten words. In fact, even though Moses is angry, God is patient and Moses makes a new set of tablets. So rather than thinking of these pronouncements as ten rules laid down by an angry God, Winn says it is perhaps more accurate to look at these ten "words" from God as ten "promises" for what it will be like to live now as God's free and much-loved people.
The ten promises are a liberation text: live like this and you will not murder, you will not commit adultery, you will not steal. Can you imagine what it would mean for society if just these three promises came to fulfillment? You will have stability in your life because you will honor your parents (and your kids will honor you), and take a day off every week. You will not have other idols, you won't want what other people have, you won't swear, and you won't lie or have to lie! You will put God at the first place in your life and everything else then falls into place.
When worded as promises the traditional "ten commandments" are revolutionary pledges of peace, goodwill and a description of society that we have not attained yet. Still, it is something to strive for. As commandments, they offer good moral rules for society. As promises, they are a little more world-shattering.
What if: there was no murder but rather a profound respect for human life; there was no adultery, but rather commitment and faithfulness; what if there was no stealing-or even need for stealing; what if there was no coveting or scheming and planning to get what other people have, and instead deep contentment.
Okay, so anyone who thinks this is achievable by society has probably been smoking something. But it can be a dream, and a reality in the lives of those who are willing to live by these promises. We don't have to be enslaved or bound by our natural inclinations or leanings. As first one person, then a hundred, then a thousand, then a million persons live by the ten promises, we move closer to a society that is content, peaceful, where people don't cross boundaries in relationships, and is generous.
It's something to think about.
What do you think? Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 835 words; end material = 105 words
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