Deuteronomy, the "second law" (or the second telling of the agreement between the Israelites and God), imagines Moses speaking to the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land, recounting their decades-long journey and reminding them of their spiritual identity as a community. As such, it contains some passages that read like pep-talks, and it is repetitious of information that was conveyed in previous books. Deuteronomy 4 is one passage in which Moses tells the Israelites why their god is the best god ever, and in many ways, he's right. Their concept of spiritual identity was indeed different from many cultures of their time. The writers of Deuteronomy also knew that by referring back to people who had supposedly been eye-witnesses to certain impressive events, later generations would be more likely to take that spiritual identity seriously. It's why some people believe in ghosts or alien abductions. Eyewitness accounts build credibility.
Out of this chapter, the passage on idolatry is of particular interest. When we read about the golden calf episode before, I wrote about our desire to worship things outside of ourselves. If you missed it, here's a link. Even once we get more comfortable with ascribing worth to ourselves, there will be moments of self-doubt. Moses reassures the Israelites that even if they are driven away and wind up carving little wooden idols for themselves, when they determine to earnestly look for God, they will find him. Spiritually speaking, this is a truth that bears repeating, or rephrasing at least.
If you should find that spark of divinity within yourself -- if you should recognize that deep truth, undeniable beauty, and intentional creativity -- and then later be overcome with doubt and look for something outside of yourself to place above you, it's alright. You haven't really lost anything, and the divine character within you will be there when you determine to recognize it again. It may get easier for you to see the more you connect with it, but it isn't something you can lose. You can't make yourself worthless.
Which brings us to the Ten Commandments. Jesus is recorded as rephrasing these commandments in a more positive light: Essentially, love God and love one another. The apostle Paul reiterates in his letters that to love others is to fulfill the law. It's hard to disagree with that. The Ten Commandments were likely influenced by Hittite and Mesopotamian treaties between lords and vassals, and they contain some of the moral absolutes that human cultures of every faith and creed have accepted to a certain degree, concepts regarding the value of human life and the sanctity of personal property. The Ten Commandments were in theory a pact between God and the Israelites, but in practical terms they were a pact between the Israelites and themselves. They were saying, in essence, "We agree to abide by these laws in order to have a unified and sustainable culture." I'm not saying that they didn't believe in God. I'm just clarifying the practical reality of their agreement.
We have many laws in our culture, too. Some of them are based on the same concepts about the value of human life and property. Acknowledging the Ten Commandments as the model of the American legal code is hotly debated from time to time when someone becomes offended that they are displayed at a courthouse somewhere. Instead of getting into the practical matters of legal code, though, it seems most appropriate for this venue to approach the Ten Commandments from a perspective of what can be spiritually reclaimed.
Slightly out of order, some of the commandments are covered by the idea that we will be generally happier people if we respect others, or love others if you prefer. We cannot honor others and still lie about them, steal from them, or otherwise betray their trust. When we are willing to recognize the universality of human value, we also recognize that we do damage to our own identities when we devalue others. We are not above anyone else, so we are not entitled to dehumanize anyone else. Honor and respect other people, and murder, adultery, theft, and false testimony become non-issues.
Coveting other people's possessions, relationships, or circumstances is not so much about devaluing another person as it is about devaluing ourselves. Be aware of what you have in your life. Acknowledge your ability to create a life focused on what matters most to you. Cultivate gratitude, and it won't be as tempting to compare what you have with what other people have. When you are grateful for your own life, it becomes easier to celebrate with other people rather than resent them.
Honoring one's mother and father is also good advice, if a bit vague. One must eventually think for oneself, and it can be debilitating to base every thought on what Mommy and Daddy think. That being said, parental wisdom is going to be an inevitable guiding force as a person develops. The relationship perhaps bears a bit more emphasis than other human relationships because of the sacrifice inherent in raising a child. It can be humbling to consider the choices parents make on our behalf. Having an even softer and more gracious heart toward the people that chose to make sacrifices for our benefit is powerfully connecting.
Not all parents are willing to make sacrifices, though. Not all parents make choices for the benefit of their children. Although they may be few and far between, some parents are dangerous to their children in one way or another. There is no obligation for us to bring ourselves into harm's way. Exercise wisdom and be as understanding as you can be. Be grateful for the gift of life if nothing else, and honor their humanity even if a close relationship seems harmful. The relationship is not more important than your well-being.
The first four commandments are the ones that are focused on spiritual things rather than our relationships with other people. In my post-Christian thinking, I place these philosophically closer to the bit about coveting because they are more about how we view ourselves than they are about how we treat other people. To begin with, recognize your worth and your capability. We've already revisited our tendency to find something outside of ourselves to worship. The truth is that we can find that worthiness within ourselves if we are willing to look there. Remember that there is nothing that you can do to make yourself worthless. Instead of placing other people or things or concepts above yourself and ascribing more value to them than you ascribe to yourself, become aware of how people and things and concepts work in cooperation with one another. Nothing is more worthy than you, and you are not more worthy than anyone else. Some people may have certain abilities that you lack, and you have some abilities that other people lack. That offers us opportunities to connect and co-create.
This concept of self-worth is at the heart of this endeavor, so it will come up again. It isn't a switch to be flipped. It's a journey, a process. It takes time and intention. For this reason, the concept of a Sabbath is a powerful tool. If we do not know ourselves and understand ourselves, we cannot hope to create truly fulfilling lives. It is important for us to set aside time -- sacred time that we prioritize -- to tap into that center of truth and beauty and creativity within us. It doesn't have to be a whole day every week, but consistent time set aside to engage with ourselves is how we learn to see the depth of our own value, and consequently recognize that quality in everybody else. It's tempting to find ways to numb ourselves to the things we don't like about our lives or to remain so busy bouncing from one thing to another that we never have to take a look within ourselves. You don't have to be afraid of what you'll find there. There may be layers of lies or negative beliefs about yourself to sort through, but if you go looking for connection, for beauty, for creativity, you will find it.
So, a suggested "covenant" we can make with ourselves, understanding that if we fall short or make a mistake that we can forgive ourselves and try again:
1. Recognize the deep truth, genuine beauty, and intentional creativity within you.
2. Value yourself as much as every other human being, and more than external things and concepts.
3. Prioritize time for self-examination to become more adept at seeing the truth, beauty, and creativity within yourself (and in other people).
4. Acknowledge the close relationships in your life and the sacrifices that other people have made on your behalf.
5. Honor and respect other people -- all people regardless of their culture or beliefs.
6. Be grateful for your life and celebrate what you have.