I’m a sucker for a poet. As I look back on my two major love affairs, I find I’m remarkably consistent. As an agnostic sophomore in college, I read Leo Strauss’ “On the Interpretation of Genesis” for a philosophy course and fell in love with a God I knew only as a poet. When I was twenty-five and a man sent me a poem fragmented as if parts had been lost in time, I fell in love with a man I knew only as a poet. I’m now in two covenants, one with God and one with my husband. Both began with poetry.
Poetry still fascinates me. It’s not a literary genre for me, not something I spend hours reading; instead, it is a way of seeing life, a vehicle for truth and discovery. Good metaphors not only startle but teach. Poetry can tell the truth. As I listened to Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil on my recent road trip to Texas, I was heartened to hear Henry, the protagonist, remind himself and us that although fiction isn’t real, it can be—should be— true. I would go one step further and say that when people ask if something is real, it is the wrong question. The question should be, is it true? Or better, in what way is this true? In fact, if pushed, I might tell you that reality is poetry, one elaborate, inescapable, recognizable poem. Perhaps by knowing how invested I am in poetry, you’ll be less confused by what I’m about to say about poetry and the Law.
Here’s how this started: I asked Ama at The Mystery of God’s Books if she thought Jesus loved according to the law, in other words, if she saw love in the commandments. You can read her reply here, where to my delight she explored the question for each of the ten commandments separately! In response, I hope to make a case for love in each of those commands, but to do it, I’m going to tell you something that may sound absurd if I jump right into it. I’m going to say that, upon reflection, I think Yanki Tauber is right: the commandments read across and down. See? You probably think that’s nuts, creative misreading at best, willful misrepresentation at worst. You may even be thinking I’m some neophyte who’s never heard that ancient covenants always had two copies, so the two stones had the same ten commands on each, one copy for each party, and so forth. But I have heard that, and I still think the commands read across and down, two stones, five on each. I think they tell us the same thing over and over in different ways: I think they tell us how to love. I admit love is not always obvious in the commands, but by reading it poetically, examining the metaphors as we put them side by side, we can see something of love defined. My thought is that if God is love and love is defined by the law and Jesus is the Word made flesh, then there is a basis for reconciliation between the Old Testament and the New Testament, a recurring point of investigation in Ama’s blog.
In order to make the across-and-down case for the commandments, I want to bring in Leo Strauss because he shows that, basically, the creation narrative reads across and down. In other words, he says days 1-6 can be read in order as an increasingly complex series: from light, the medium of distinction (day 1), we get a separation (day 2), then a higher separation (land from sea and fruit from tree in day 3), then a higher separation still, the fixed motion of the heavenly bodies (day 4), then life (day 5) and finally free will (day 6). And days 1-3 and 2-6 can also be read as two parallel series: in this scheme, Strauss sees the principle of separation as the theme of the first three days and the principle of “local motion” in the second three days. But putting day 1 over day 4 allows us to read it “down”: we can compare what is written about light on day 1 with what is written about it light on day 4, and we can do the same with the waters on days 2 and 5 and the double creations on days 3 and 6. We’re being told the same thing, or similar things, in different ways. (The seventh day is the knock-out punch that underscores the whole, like a couplet at the end of a sonnet.) Now, I had heard of parallelism in the Bible before in the context of the prophets and the psalms, but this! This had me admitting that I may have underestimated the Bible, that maybe I was less intelligent that it was, that I might be able to learn truth–poetic truth–from it if I only understood its poetry. So the poetic parallelism of the creation narrative gives me some confidence about the idea of poetic parallelism of the commandments.
If you will allow me to take similar poetic license, I’d like to uncover what the commands can tell us about themselves and about love when we place the two tablets side by side and read them not as one list of ten (1-10) or as two tablets of five each (1-5 and 6-10) but read them across as five pairs: 1 with 6, 2 with 7, 3 with 8, 4 with 9, and 5 with 10.
Commands 1 &6, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” and “Thou shalt not murder.” The first command strikes me as a statement about identity–God’s and ours–and the fifth as a way to recognize that identity–his and ours. Genealogy notwithstanding, God is the one who takes us out of Egypt, figuratively if not literally. His offer and our acceptance begins the relationship. That he speaks at all gives him personhood. That he is our God, that he wants to be possessed by us is extraordinary and a subject for another time. So why can’t we murder? Because he’s God. That’s the rationale given in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (ESV). He’s a person, and he created each person in his image, so the murder of innocents is the figurative murder of God. So then while the first command is a crazy, romantic declaration of love in action, the fifth command is a preservation of man, the image of God on earth, without whom the love of God would have no sentient possessor. Juxtaposed, the first and fifth commands demonstrate and preserve love.
Commandments 2 and 7, the prohibitions against idolatry and adultery. No two commands are as inextricably linked in the Bible as these. Idolatrous Israel is, poetically, adulterous. An adulterer or fornicator is an idolater. Ama had an interesting thought here that adultery was dishonoring to everyone involved, but idolatry, on the other hand, pointless and powerless by nature if there is only one God, is a strange thing for God to concern himself with. She writes, “God is not that small, that frightened, [with] that fragile an ego, that It has to demand our undivided attention…” God’s jealousy, in this view, is a character flaw. But what if we consider the poetic adultery/idolatry metaphor and reframe his jealousy with the boundaries of his covenants, what if idolatry is adultery because we’re in a marriage covenant with God? We are his, or rather, he is ours, according to the first command. The prohibitions against idolatry and adultery preserve covenant relationships. To worship an idol is, metaphorically–which is to say truthfully–to run off with another man, a man who is perhaps a colossal waste of time and energy but moreover a supernal enemy, hell-bent, quite literally, on destroying both God and us. I agree that the prohibition against idolatry is pointless–outside the covenant. But inside the covenant, it is our relationship-preserving faithfulness, marital fidelity on a higher plane.
Commandments 3 and 8, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain and don’t steal. First let me clarify that I don’t believe command 3 is about the varied expletives derived from divine names, although, sure, it’s bad form to spout off like that. I also don’t think speaking the YHVH name breaks the command since David used it so liberally in his psalms, although as I’ve written before, I do think we should take at least as much care with the divine name as Jesus did. Rather, I think taking the Lord’s name in vain is a far more common thing, the practice of saying “The Lord told me” or “God said” when the Lord hath not told, God hath not said. That’s really dangerous but often encouraged in spiritual circles. It’s the practice of lending weight to our own words by tagging God in as our backup man. By doing that, we make his name cheap and disposable; worse, we implicate him in all sorts of vain endeavors; worst, we make him a liar when we say God said something that contradictions his word. Love allows God to be God even when it’s inconvenient to propping up our pet beliefs. Love doesn’t try to extort God or other people. Considered poetically as two sides of one coin, both these commands speak to the same thing: Stealing property diminishes a person; Stealing the name diminishes God. Love does not diminish; it builds up.
Commandments 4 and 9, remember and keep the Sabbath, and don’t bear false witness. Lying on the witness stand rips the fabric of the truth and denies a fellow man justice: it’s not love. By reading across, relating that to the Sabbath, I do think we learn something about the Sabbath that we otherwise wouldn’t know. Of course, the Sabbath is about love, a holy space in time set aside to meet with our beloved, a Friday night date with the King of the Universe. But paired with the ninth command, the Sabbath becomes a witness, a kind of live theater, testifying to a creator God by acting out creation week, week after week, every week. He asks those in covenant with him to do as he did, work when he worked but rest when he rested. It is a sign (Ex. 31.13 and 17; Eze. 20.12 and 20), which is to say a symbol or metaphor of a certain kind of bride and a certain kind of bridegroom both described well as “faithful and true.”
And, finally, the fifth and tenth, honor your mother and father, and don’t covet. A coveter says, “I am more important than you; I deserve X more than you.”A person raging against her own parents says, “I am more important even than those who gave me life!” I’m surmising here that pride is the destructive element, the unloving element, being rooted out in both these commands. Love is the opposite in both cases. But we can put away our pride and put off our malice and forgive and honor God and our parents. It’s healthy to recognize that some things are out of our control: the things other people have and the situation of our birth both fall into that category. Love is grateful, content.
So do the commands read in order, 1-10? Yes, they do, and like the creation narrative, they build on each other; I don’t think the order is accidental. Do the commands read as two tablets, 1-5 dealing in a straightforward way with God and 6-10 dealing in a straightforward way with man? Sure. I’ve heard that, and I can buy that too even if it takes a little fudging with commandment 5. But the question I’m leaving you with, what I really want to know is, do you think the commands read across, commenting on one another by virtue of their position? I’ve been thinking about this since reading Ama’s post back in November, and I’d love to hear what you think when you look at the commands side by side.