Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Purpose and Meaning of the Ten Commandments

We continued the discussion from last week (the meaning and purpose of commandments and what they teach us about God) by focusing on the Ten Commandments. The only one we didn't discuss this week was honoring parents, since we talked so much about it last week.

In each case, we talked about how the commandments can be read, based strictly on the words themselves, and, in some cases, discussed why we have to look at the overall concepts being taught (the purpose) to understand the meaning in a way that makes sense to us.

1) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

We talked about the cultural context of that statement - that the Israelites were part of a world that believed in competing gods, much like the gods about whom we read in ancient Greek mythology. This command originally wasn't about "competing interests" (like money, fame, jobs, etc.), as many people talk about now; it was about not leaving the "LORD thy God" - their deliverer - to start worshiping a different god. I told the students that I think it can be a good discussion to talk about other things that get in the way of our worship in this day and age, but I stressed that this command was direct, explicit and obvious in its time.

We talked about other religions and "their gods" - and how important it is to understand those other religions enough not to say they are breaking this commandment if they really aren't. First, it was given to a particular people who had accepted and followed "the LORD their God", not to all the world. Second, Muslims and Jews clearly worship the same God we do, even if they do so differently than we do and use different names. Buddhists worship a different god, but I told them that I still identify with Buddhism's teachings more than most of Protestant theology - so we shouldn't use this commandment to dismiss other religious teachings automatically.

2) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

If verse 4 is read literally and comprehensively, we would not be able to make any images of the sun, stars and moon - or trees, mountains and animals - or fish, corral or ocean animals. The key is found in verse 5, where it says, "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them." It's not making images that is the problem; it's what we do with them - how we use them - if we substitute them for God in our worship - if we can't worship without them - if they "become God" in a real way for us.

I asked the students about crosses and the rosary - if these things were graven images that should not be used. It was interesting to see them think about it, and one student finally said, "It depends on how they are used." We talked about the difference between them helping people remember God and their covenants and people not being able to pray to and worship God without them - that we could say the same thing about the Priesthood garment I wear or a CTR ring. Any of these things can be a symbolic reminder, or it can be an object of worship - and, if the second, it constitutes a graven image.

We talked about verse 6 and the statement that God is a jealous god who will visit the iniquities of people to the third or fourth generation. We read the footnote definition for "jealous" (possessing sensitive and deep feelings) and the natural effects of people's beliefs often being passed on for at least three or four generations - that it's not God saying, "I'm jealous, so I'm going to punish your grandchildren and great-grandchildren for what you do", but rather that actions have consequences that naturally last that long. We also read verse 7 where it says that God will be merciful to all who love him and keep his commandments, meaning the generational effects can be changed and avoided.

3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

First we talked about the Jewish prohibition of speaking the proper name of God, but that the actual wording doesn't teach that - since it includes the qualifier "in vain". We talked about what "vain" means: senseless or foolish; without real significance or worthless; ineffectual or futile; arrogant or without authority; etc. We discussed how each of these definitions can apply to using the name of God: using the name as nothing more than an exclamation, using it in a vow ("swearing" in the Biblical sense of that word), saying "God damn you" (multiple definitions apply to that one), etc. We talked about the purpose of the command being, at the core, humility and proper reverence.

4) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

We talked about why this is a commandment, focusing on verse 11 - which says that we are to keep it sacred as a day of rest, because God set it aside for rest after he completed the six stages of creating the earth. This means that God said, "I rested, and I command you to do the same thing." We talked about the practical need for rest (using the athletes in the class as an example they all would understand) and the need to clear our minds of earthly things in order to contemplate heavenly things.

One of the speaker in Sacrament Meeting did a great job talking about this one, so we didn't talk more about it.

5) Honour thy father and thy mother.

We talked about this last week, in detail, so we skipped it today.

6) Thou shalt not kill.

The same speaker in Sacrament Meeting (an active soldier in the army) talked about this one, as well, so we focused exclusively on understanding the original meaning. We looked at the footnote that gives the actual Hebrew word - "murder". I asked the students for reasons why that is an important difference to understand, and they came up with the following:

a) People can claim it's wrong to kill animals. (We talked about that justification for vegetarianism, and I told them that I can respect that stance, even if I don't read such a prohibition in the command itself.)

b) The people obviously didn't see the command at that time as all inclusive, since they were engaged in multiple wars to gain a new homeland.

c) A comprehensive prohibition would mean nobody could kill in self-defense or to protect someone else - or, for example, to stop someone from torturing someone else, no matter how gruesome.

7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.

We talked quite a bit about this one last week, as well, so we talked only about why the core command was focused on adultery and not fornication of all kinds. We talked about the personal and social effects of adultery, and I shared a couple of my experiences working in communities where the out-of-wedlock birth rate was 90% or higher.

8) Thou shalt not steal.

This also was addressed in Sacrament Meeting, with a great example of using the office copy machine to make copies of an invitation to a personal party, so we just listed a few more examples of stealing that are so commonplace most people don't see them as theft.

9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

I asked them what they normally hear this command shortened to say - how they think it would be explained to a five-year-old. They immediately said, "Don't lie." I then told them that is NOT what the commandment actually says - and that the difference is important.

We talked about what a "witness" is - an official testimony given in court. It is a statement describing what someone has seen. Thus, a "false witness" would be giving an incorrect description of something seen OR not giving a description of what was seen - actively giving a false witness or refusing to give a true witness. We talked about how they feel when they hear things that people say about them that are not correct - or how they feel when they know someone knows the truth but won't protect them by telling it.

We then refocused on the phrase "against they neighbor" - with the emphasis on "against". Bearing false witness means hurting someone in a real way, knowing that what is being said or not said is not true. This is why gossip actually is a FAR worse sin than lots of other things we tend to consider to be worse - because it very often is a case of bearing false witness, either by passing along something that is not true about someone else or by presenting it in such a way that people think it is a personal witness when, in reality, it only is a repeat of what someone else said - which that person might not have seen personally. It serves almost always as a "witness against thy neighbor" - and, lacking sure knowledge, it generally is "false" in some way.

(On a personal note, not shared in the lesson: This is why I try really hard not to make authoritative, declarative statements about people, currently living or dead, if I am not absolutely sure about what I am saying. Gossip isn't only about the living. I tend to use more qualifiers and disclaimers than most people, specifically because I don't want to "bear false witness" - especially when I have no personal witness to bear.)

I finished by pointing out that this command says nothing about lying to protect someone - like telling a Nazi that there are no Jews hiding in your house when there are Jews hiding there - or lying to a rapist about where your wife or daughter is - or any other instance where not telling the truth is not a "witness against" someone.

I told them that I do not advocate lying about very many things, but I understand the commandment itself isn't about all forms of lying; rather, it is focused on one particular kind of lie - the kind that hurts others, particularly in a formal, legal situation.

10) Thou shalt not covet.

We were out of time, so we hit the initial reaction regarding definition ("wanting something someone else has"), and I pointed out that it can't be that all-encompassing, since we are commanded to want some things others have if we don't have them. I told them the best definition of "covet" I have heard is "wanting something so badly that you are willing to take it from the person who has it" - not to gain it ALSO, but to have it ONLY - not to share something with, but to take something away.

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