I once heard it suggested that the Beatitudes could be interpreted so that each statement corresponds to a stage of one’s spiritual growth; that we begin as poor in spirit and meek, grow to be merciful and pure in heart, and eventually become peacemakers willing to suffer for righteousness sake. I’m not sure if this was what Jesus had in mind when he taught the Beatitudes, but it is an interesting interpretation.
As a thought experiment, I wonder if something similar could be done with the 10 commandments. I grew up finding these strictures rather dry, despite their obvious moral value. I prefer subtle narratives and symbolism to plain rules, so this is my effort to grapple with iconic scripture.
(And I’ll assume the reader can either remember the 10 in Exodus, or look them up.)
At the beginning there is God, before he issues any imperative, saying who he is and what he’s done. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt…” His actions are put first because he is the first actor, as in the creation account of Genesis. Then he commands that we (who are only now in the picture) are not to have any other gods before him.
Next we have humans that don’t just exist but can make stuff and talk; two commandments concerning our ability to create (don’t make idols) and to speak (don’t misuse my name). Again comparing with creation, Man’s work and speech (including naming the animals) follow God’s work and speech (including naming the light, the land, etc.)
Not only can we make stuff and talk, but we can also not do those things. Here we get the command on Sabbath. And so works, speech, and rest are all to revolve around God.
In four commandments we have a Genesis-steeped crash course in what humans are like, which itself is founded upon what God is like. Now we just have to learn how to get along with each other.
It is often remarked how the first of the six people-oriented commandments concerns how we relate to our parents, which is quite fitting since how God relates to his people is likened to how a parent relates to their children. It is also true that our parents are the first people we form relationships with, which may also be a good reason to put this commandment first of the six.
Our next relationships are usually siblings, who are our first rivals, first opponents, and first people we have to be told to stop fighting. Equating “Thou shall not murder” to sibling relationships is a bit of a stretch, but then again the first murder in the Bible was between brothers.
Later in life romance and marriage become priorities and there’s another kind of relationship to figure out (and a corresponding command). Then we continue to grow into active members of our community, at which time one’s property and repute may increase in priority (making theft and gossip all the more damaging.)
The last commandment is a longer list of things you aren’t supposed to covet. The positive flip side of this portrait is a person who lives a grateful and contented life, happy with their house, their family, their animals, and all the rest – someone who has learned how to relate to others in his world.
We start by knowing God and knowing how to relate to God, then carry that knowledge forth into expanding spheres of community around us. There is both a logical and chronological sequence to the 10 commandments that has us start with the peak of God’s identity, and then works its way down the mountain into all other areas of life. Of course, most of us will spend our entire lives regularly revisiting how we spend our sabbath, treat our parents, and take care of our donkeys. All the same, it might be useful sometimes to use the 10 commandments as a kind of checklist to make sure we’re letting God’s identity sink into our own.