Friday, February 08, 2008

Not Negative

My friends at Reading Through the Bible are contemplating the Ten Commandments, first presented to Moses on Mt. Sinai, after the people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Note that the commandments begin by mentioning this context: "I am the Lord thy God which brought you out of bondage...you shall have no other gods before me." God then goes on to list ten rules, ten commandments mostly having the form, "You shall not..." Does this seem odd? I have heard the complaint that the commandments are "negative", and that it would have been better for God to have used "positive language". Yet here He is, right after reminding his people that they are now free men and women, delivering this set of "negative" rules. Doesn't he get it?

Is such a formulation of law really negative? Or perhaps the question can be better formulated, "Which type of law restricts our freedom more, prohibitions (thou shalt not) or prescriptions (thou shalt)?" I propose that prohibitions are the least restrictive form of law, and that is why God casts his commandments in that form right after setting his people free. The Ten Commandments are not only consistent with their new freedom, but are excellent signs and symbols of their new freedom.

Consider the Garden of Eden. What could Adam and Eve do? Everything....except one single activity, one simple rule. They could climb trees, cut down trees, make love under the trees, make love in the trees, burn the wood, use the wood, eat the fruit from every single tree, run around, sing... whatever. In short, every conceivable activity under the sun was lawful except one: don't eat fruit from this one tree. "Thou shalt not eat the fruit from this one tree" was the absolutely least restrictive rule one could imagine, because it was negative. By saying, "Don't do this", God is allowing everything else. Imagine He had formulated His commandment in the positive. How would that be stated? "Act in accordance with My will." There's a positive formulation, but what does it mean? At every act, A and E would have to consider, "hmmm...is this according to God's will?" Talk about anxiety! Perhaps God could have said, "Do everything except eat from the tree in the middle of the garden." In the first place, this still contains the negative, but now it contains a daunting positive command: do everything else. So now they have to make love in the trees, and have to run around and sing, have to burn the wood and every other conceivable activity.

Most of our own laws work the same way. The laws in a free land generally do not prescribe behavior but simply forbid a small subset of specific behaviors, leaving its citizens free to do anything that is not specifically prohibited.

The simplest and least restrictive form of law, which is simply the declaration of God's will as distinct from His creature's, is prohibition. The Ten Commandments leave entire worlds of possible activity open to us. We can relate to God in all sorts of ways, exploring our own individuality in our worship, but we can't worship anything but our creator. We can say anything we want; we can sing, write poetry and plays, and explore all the rich possibilities of language written, spoken and sung; but we cannot dishonor God's name or use it trivially, nor can we malign our neighbor. We can enjoy all the aspects of sexual love, madly, wildly, as often as we want, wherever we want; only with our spouse. We can take all kinds of things for our own use, and create all manner of secondary things with them; only we cannot take for our use what someone else has taken for his, nor can we use these things as gods.

The Ten Commandments are simply the boundaries of our design as creatures. We were made a certain way, with certain wonderful strengths, and the commandments are in a sense our "specs". As Israel contemplated their new freedom from slavery, God was showing them that they were now able to make all sorts of choices they could not make as slaves. They could be merchants, or farmers, or herdsman, or craftsmen. They could live in what village they wanted. They could build their homes large or small, east or west, marry whom they willed, move when they wanted. They were free. Only, there were these ten kinds of things they could not do without harming themselves and their community. These commandments, in their simplicity and in their "negative" form, presumed and were emblematic of the people's freedom.

2 comments:

  1. As you well may know, I'm taking a Buddhism class right now. Most of the things I've run into during my readings have been less than enthralling. There was, however, one passage that I read recently that gave me something to think about.

    Under some of the Vedic idologies (elements of which made it into the Buddhist doctrine later), there are what are called the Five Prohibitions. The are negative, much like the Mosaic laws. They concern violence, lying, stealing, intoxication and lust.

    Sidartha runs into these prohibitions and tries to follow them. Ultimately, he decides that the prohibitions are acceptable, but they don't lend themselves to progress naturally (whatever that means). Essentially, he says that being a person dedicated to righteousness is very different from being a non-offender. For example...in order to honor the law, it is not enough simply not steal. Instead we ought to be generous. Basically, following the law is a proactive thing.

    Interesting idea I thought. Its one of a very few I've come up against in my reading thus far.

    ReplyDelete
  2. As you well may know, I'm taking a Buddhism class right now. Most of the things I've run into during my readings have been less than enthralling. There was, however, one passage that I read recently that gave me something to think about.

    Under some of the Vedic idologies (elements of which made it into the Buddhist doctrine later), there are what are called the Five Prohibitions. The are negative, much like the Mosaic laws. They concern violence, lying, stealing, intoxication and lust.

    Sidartha runs into these prohibitions and tries to follow them. Ultimately, he decides that the prohibitions are acceptable, but they don't lend themselves to progress naturally (whatever that means). Essentially, he says that being a person dedicated to righteousness is very different from being a non-offender. For example...in order to honor the law, it is not enough simply not steal. Instead we ought to be generous. Basically, following the law is a proactive thing.

    Interesting idea I thought. Its one of a very few I've come up against in my reading thus far.

    ReplyDelete