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The Ten Commandments and “God as a Gentleman”

March 29, 2019


I was very grateful to have Rémi Brague’s help teaching my catechism class this year. The French historian of philosophy wasn’t sitting in on my fourth grade religious education class, but his 2018 Erasmus lecture “God as a Gentleman” was what I wanted to draw from when it came time to teach my students the Ten Commandments.

When I walk my students through the list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, I’m always trying to make it clear that these laws are given by God to us for our good, not a set of arbitrary rules that God is waiting to get us in trouble for. (Elementary-school-aged children are, often, already subject to a number of finicky rules, changing from teacher to teacher, that lead them to be a little skeptical of which rules really matter). I tend to reach for the metaphor of guardrails: God’s rules for us are meant to keep us safe, to keep us away from actions that corrupt and harm us.

But in his lecture, Brague interprets the Decalogue as granting more than simple safety through constraint. The Ten Commandments, he argues, are God leading the Israelites out of slavery. Moses, parting the Red Sea, led them out of physical bondage, but it was not enough to liberate their bodies. The Ten Commandments, Brague writes, are tutelary, healing the bruised heart and thwarted wills of God’s people to prepare them for freedom. He writes:

The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt and been set free under the guidance of Moses. The rules that were given to them address them as free beings. But after so much time spent in slavery, toiling under the whip of the warder, they had acquired bad habits of servility and could hardly get rid of them without some treatment. As a consequence, their newly acquired freedom was fragile, easily lost. Among other harsher remedies, the Ten Commandments were meant to salvage Israel’s freedom by staving off whatever could menace it.

Brague draws special attention to the commandment to honor the Sabbath as a commandment that teaches us how to live in freedom. The slave’s leisure is stolen, used up by the master for his own enrichment. But, in sudden freedom, the former slaves must now learn to govern themselves, and must not take the totalizing, rapacious hunger of the Pharaoh as a model.

Instead, we are called to be at rest, to put aside worldly concerns and worldly hungers. We must not view our own labor and our own bodies merely as a tool to achieve ends, even if the ends are now our own, and not an oppressor’s.

Brague is a Christian philosopher, but to my pleasure, I saw his argument anticipated in the writings of a Jewish rabbi born forty years before Brague. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s commentaries on the Pentateuch have recently been brought out comprehensively in print for the first time.

David P. Goldman, reviewing Soloveitchik’s collection in the Claremont Review of Books, highlights Soloveitchik’s exegesis of the first command God gives to his people to govern their life after slavery. In Exodus 12, God begins his description of how the Passover is to be celebrated by embedding it in time, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” Soloveitchik draws out the significance of God’s instruction:

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the Land of Egypt, saying, “this month shall be to you the head of the months, to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.” Freedom arises from the creation of time: “The slave lacks time experience. To the slave, time is a curse; he waits for the day to pass. The slave’s time is the property of his master….Life, to the slave personality, is motionless. To live in time means to be committed to a great past and to an unborn future. Time-awareness also contains a moral element: responsibility for emerging events and intervention in the historical process.

In leading the Israelites out of slavery, God does not simply set them free from Pharaoh, but sets them free to cooperate in his plan of salvation for the whole world. We are called out of slavery to sin into the freedom of adoption into God’s family.

When we become like him, we do not become unbound, able to do anything. We grow into stewardship, and we must properly exercise the responsibilities that he has granted us. Thus, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is not a solely individual responsibility—God tells us that we must order our lives so that “neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns” is constrained to work on the day reserved for God.

Brague and Soloveitchik’s stirring exposition of God’s commands may, on the whole, be a little beyond the nine-year-olds (with whom I have to be delicate in explaining the commandment against adultery). But their description helps me move past the purely horizontal metaphor of the guardrail, holding us back from danger. God’s law is vertical—a trellis showing us the way to grow to be like him, and supporting us as we draw near to him.