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Two popular authors consider not only what the Ten Commandments say about the people who observe them, but what they say about God. They are not some set of universal rules-they simply offer ways for a certain people to know a certain God-our God. What truths about God can be known through the Ten Commandments? God cares how we treat other people. God cares how we behave in marriage. God cares about the importance of being truthful. God wants people to take a day off from work each week. Readers will encounter Willimon and Hauerwas at their best as they explore the overarching question-What does it mean for people and the way they behave when they know some of these truths about God?
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About the Author
Feeling most at home behind a pulpit, Will Willimon’s deepest calling is to be a preacher and truth-teller of Jesus Christ. He is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University Divinity School and retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, after serving for 20 years as faculty member and Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Will Willimon has published many books, including his preaching subscription service on MinistryMatters.com, Pulpit Resource, and Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, both published by Abingdon Press.
Read an Excerpt
The Truth About God
The Ten Commandments In Christian Life
By Stanley M. Hauerwas, William H. Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1999 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an Idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast lave to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The First Commandment
Our story begins with the voice of God. God is the initiator of this "conversation." If God had not loved enough to speak, there would be no conversation, no Israel, no nation of priests, no story called "church," no us. Unlike the laws found in Deuteronomy or elsewhere in Exodus, the commandments are in the form of direct address from God, thus underscoring their force. God speaks to Israel the way parents sometimes speak to children—directly, pointedly, without equivocation or much qualification. Do not steal. Do not kill.
Furthermore, everything rests upon, "I am the LORD your God." Command arises from relationship. Israel is owned, called, and therefore accountable. Anything that is demanded of Israel rests upon God's election and gifts to Israel, one of those gifts being the Law.
In few places in Israel's testimony about God is it more evident that our assumed distinction between ethics and theology is simply unknown than in the light of this commandment. Freedom from slavery to the empire first requires an active, holy God, a God whose holiness stands against every rival claim to sanctity. So the first commands assert the uniqueness, the oddness of the God who has loved Israel. The true God, who stands at some distance from Israel, is to be obeyed and worshiped, not used or recruited in behalf of our purposes—even when those purposes are called "ethics."
Israel's God commands. Walter Brueggemann calls command the "defining and characteristic marking" of the true God. The most striking characteristic of communication between God and Israel is that of command-obedience. Because we live in a culture where submission to any authority other than our own egos is considered unduly authoritarian and unfair, command-obedience is difficult for us. We have freed ourselves from all external authority except servitude to the self. This we hail as freedom, though Israel testifies that slavery (particularly slavery as the necessity to do "what I want to do") comes in many guises.
Sometimes slavery comes from Pharaoh, who ordered, "Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least" (Exodus 5:11). Sometimes slavery comes from an economy that says, "Buy a lot of Pepsi, get a lot of stuff."
So the issue is not if we shall live under some external command, but rather which external command will have its way with us. Israel knew the burden of imperial, governmentally sanctioned command. The Exodus was not the achievement of unrestricted, boundless freedom, for such freedom, as we have said, is a modern fiction. The Exodus was not liberation. It was about an exchange of masters, the false for the true.
We were created to be God's good lovers, but everywhere we find we have been enslaved by our choices. That we are so enslaved has everything to do, as we will see in our discussion of the last commandments, with desiring rightly. Part of the problem is our current presumption that freedom is choice rather than desire. God created us as passionate beings. We rightly desire. The problem is when our desire becomes disordered by desiring what is desirable as if God does not exist. The result is slavery.
* * *
For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not he soId ad slaves are sold.
— Leviticus 25:42
* * *
Just to the degree Israel is closely tied and utterly obedient to the commandments of the true God, and therefore animated by well-ordered desire, Israel is truly free. God knows that Israel, left to its own devices in the wilderness, is prone to reestablish Pharaoh's rule in different forms. So the commandments are given as a basis for a radically alternative society that is counter to all that the empire demands. There can be no resistance to the empire, no ongoing alternative without a counter institution. The commandments are the basis for this alternative way of life for Israel.
The first commandment is odd to lay upon modern people. It is irrelevant, some say, because modern people have outgrown the propensity to worship a plethora of gods— polytheism— rather than one God. Our modern problem is, they say, whether or not we should have any God at all—atheism. The trouble is, atheism is not a biblical issue. The Bible never asks, "Is there a God?" Rather, the Bible question is, "Who is the God who is there?"
Even atheism is parasitic upon a notion of God. We believe that the great problem of the modern age is not atheism. Our problem is the kind of limp, flaccid rejection of God so characteristic of late-twentieth century Europeans and their colonies. Seldom these days is atheism the angry shaking of the fist against some alleged injustice of God. More than likely, atheism is little more than the shrug of the shoulders that says something like, "I don't care what someone believes about God as long as he is sincere," or "It doesn't matter so much what someone believes as long as that person lives a good life."
That shrug of the shoulders, that simpleminded agnosticism is the result of Christians disobeying the first commandment, attempting to reduce God to a problem of belief rather than a call to worship. We are those who are not to have any other gods (and the commandment appears to assume that there are indeed many). Listen to us pray and one might get the impression that we think we are doing God a favor by believing in God. The commandment is clear: God does not want our "belief." God wants all of us, heart, soul, pots and pans, the whole ball, of wax:
* * *
Hear, 0 Israel The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
— Deuteronomy 6:4-5
* * *
Luther put the matter this way:
What is it to have a God? What is God? The answer: a God is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your god. The purpose of this commandment, therefore, is to require true faith and cling to him alone. The meaning is: "See to it that you let me alone be your God and never seek another." In other confidence of the heart, and these fly straight to the one true God and words: "Whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, come and cling to me. I am the one who will satisfy you and help you out of every need. Only let your heart cling to no one else." (The Large Catechism, 9)
Luther's God is no Deist. The first commandment is not about a God whom we construct out of our belief that something had to start the world moving, but whatever that something was is no longer capable of much action. The first commandment is about being addressed from outside our frames of reference, about being commanded by a God who is jealous. God's jealousy has everything to do with being a saving God. The jealousy of God can be understood as the logical attitude of the God who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Christians know this God as the same God who raised Jesus from the dead. Just as God delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt, we know this miraculous God as God of the Resurrection. Robert Jenson reminds us that God is jealous because our God is a God who is fully invested in time. Other gods not so invested care little about their identities because they have no stake in time. But our Lord is a jealous God who would be known by temporal events of Exodus and Resurrection. The worship of other gods may be enabled by identifying names and descriptions, but these are transcended in the name of still greater mysteries in which it is assumed the very boundaries of time are broken. Not so the God of Scripture. Our Lord is a passionate, timely Lord who can be found in Cross and Resurrection.
That God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the way God makes time. That is, by making covenant and partnership with Israel in order to redeem the world, God gives the people a story. This God jealously wants to be known as the One who yoked himself with a people. Christians, when we believe we shall have no other gods before us than the Trinity, believe not that we are superior to the Jews, but that we worship the same God who jealously demanded Israel's love in the first commandment. When we say "Trinity" or "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," it is our compressed, shorthand way of telling the whole story of redemption as narrated in all of Scripture, that is, the God who called Abraham out of Ur is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.
That our God is so known, so worshiped, has everything to do with why Luther could say that to know the Decalogue is to know all of the Bible. The commandments are storied in the sense that, to understand them properly, we must know the great overarching story— Creation, Exodus, kingship, prophets, exile, Jesus, death, Resurrection, Ascension, church. The commandments also story us, that is, they help subsume us into the story we call redemption. It is also true to say that the commandments make such a story possible. That is why, as we shall see, the commandments are necessarily interrelated—or, put differently, why all the commandments are constituted by the first commandment.
The first commandment is central to the life of Israel and that of the church. Here we are reminded that our God is not beyond this world, this life, this time, but enmeshed in time, making possible that which would otherwise be impossible. Any god who was above time would not do us much good. Calling God "jealous" is a biblical way of noting God's passionate involvement with us.
The God of Israel has a personality that is characterized by deep self-regard. The Hebrew word for "jealousy" denotes intense emotional reaction to any affront to God's sovereignty and glory. Moreover, the emotion stressed here is overbearing and white hot. As Walter Brueggemann says, this God is no "cool administrator of an ordered realm, but is engaged with strong feelings about all that is due Yahweh which is in every case." There can be no rival to this God. Because this God is so intensely, emotionally connected to Israel, any disobedience on the part of Israel evokes harsh and intense emotional response for God.
* * *
You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.
* * *
Time and again, Israel ventures a conversation with this God, hoping for a cool, detached consideration of Israel's situation. Immediately, Yahweh heats up the rhetoric. Angry words are exchanged. Israel, which hoped only to be chided for some small transgression, is called "adulterer," "fornicator." Conversations between Israel and God quickly become heated, emotional, loud, conflicted. God's relation with Israel often has the same heatedness that characterizes marital arguments, rhetorical flourish better suited to a bedroom or a kitchen than to a carpeted sanctuary full of good church people.
The words from the true God tend to be heated because much is at stake. God has risked much to deliver and to choose Israel, risked death and the cross to make church. Therefore, matters between us and God are rarely small or inconsequential. This God has a passionate, particular commitment to Israel and the church and expects passionate obedience in return.
* * *
The LORD goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up bis fury;
he cried out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.
* * *
God is engaged. Israel and the church forever attempt to tame and to domesticate God. It can be a fearful thing to be in conversation with a God who deals with such extremes of love and anger, anger that arises out of God's love for righteousness. There is some anxiety occasioned by our attempts in worship to be in conversation with a God who is free, just, and sovereign, a God who will not be enlisted, even by those whom God loves. Time and again, in submission to this God, we are reminded of the great gap between our kingdoms and the kingdom of God. There is huge space between us. And yet, one of the most beloved aspects of Israel and the church is the bold intimacy of a people who dare to converse with a living God. There is, in Brueggemann's words, in this claim that God is jealous, a "largeness and roughness ... a power and intensity.... This is a God who will be taken seriously, who will be honored and obeyed, who will not be mocked. The nations are warned; and Israel is also on notice. Yahweh must be taken in full capacity as sovereign; there is no alternative."
Something in us would like a calm, cool, and detached Deistic deity. We wish sometimes that our God could be a cool and dispassionate administrator, just applying and enforcing the rules, the great bureaucratic American president in the sky who is fair to everyone without distinction. But the true God is much more involved in creation than that. This God is jealous, like an angry, possessive husband (Ezekiel 16:38), and yet a loving one. This God, unlike us, cares so much about justice that God is capable of righteous indignation. This God, on occasion, even weeps (John 11:35).
Christians claim that this self-involved emotional attachment, this intrusive presence of God, finds its culmination in the Incarnation. For us, the Old Testament ends with God deeply concerned, filled with pathos for Israel. In the Incarnation, in the advent of the Christ, God's intense self-involvement moves toward enfleshment in Jesus. God becomes extravagantly, personally, fully engaged with God's people. Thus, the radical engagement of God as Incarnation in the New Testament is definitely prefigured by the radical engagement of God with God's people in the Old Testament. This God will have a family, even if the price is quite high. The detached god of the philosophers is countered by the God who tends to go overboard in determination and passion for his people. At times, that passion is Israel and the church's great gain, at times it is our great burden. It takes a great people to be loved by so great and living a God!
After a wholesale rejection and condemnation of Israel, Hosea hears God speak as a yearning husband,
* * *
Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
* * *
We would not know this pushy, passionate God if God had not first addressed us, saying, "I am the Lord your God who ..." Against the ideas of Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, this God is not our wishful projection of human needs, our egos inflated and called "God." If we were projecting a god, surely we could have projected a more compliant, congenial one than Trinity!
Excerpted from The Truth About God by Stanley M. Hauerwas, William H. Willimon. Copyright © 1999 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A People Owned by the True God,
1. The First Commandment,
2. The Second Commandment,
3. The Third Commandment,
4. The Fourth Commandment,
5. The Fifth Commandment,
6. The Sixth Commandment,
7. The Seventh Commandment,
8. The Eighth Commandment,
9. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
These gents urge us to revist our roots and not merely give the Almighty lip service because that is what gets us in less trouble from our friends! This book, if taken seriously, would be great for spiritual revival in any church (except for fundamentalist venues perhaps) where the spirit is willing!