Interpreting the Text
This sounds like the local deities of ancient times, who were said to be personally offended if their people didn’t worship them. It was like a competition between the local deities of each tribal group.
If they weren’t worshipped, they would get angry and punish the people. This is the gods made in the image of man, with our human egos.
This isn’t what the text above means. There are difficult passages in the Old Testament, which scholars interact with differently. Girard may explain some difficult passages in ways that I can learn from, but that I may not fully agree with. Girard wasn’t a liberal. He had great respect for the scripture, for God, for the historicity and values of the gospel and for the church. But his scholarly background wasn’t Fundamentalist.
Passages like this in the Old Testament reflected the consequences of sin, not God’s direct punishment. It was the “sowing and reaping” concept that Paul often spoke of. In the Passover, it says God smote the firstborn, however it wasn’t God, but the “angel of death.” The scripture reveals that the Passover means that God, in Christ, stands between us and the destroyer. He isn’t the destroyer.
In the Wilderness, it says God destroyed sinners in his wrath, but Paul reveals in Corinthians, that this destroyer was satan, not God. Paul also revealed what the wrath and judgement of God meant.
It meant God handed people over to their insistent choice and finally allowed them to go their way and bear the consequences. He took his hand of protection from them. This is God’s anger, punishment and wrath, allowing people their way. “Our desires lead to sin and sin, when it is grown up, brings death.” (James 1:15)
We see this kind of language in Job. Satan challenges God and God allows him access to Job, with the exception that satan could not touch Job’s body. Then satan went out and caused havoc, through the instrumentality of violent people. The text says, “Fire came down from God in heaven.” This clearly meant, in the language of the people then, that God allowed it, or passed the judgement, by removing his hedge. But satan did it, through his own motives, accusation and desire to destroy.
None of this motivation or action came from God.
The passage above tells us that God is jealous. The Prophets later told us that this meant God didn’t want harm to come to people. His jealously was love, not ego. He is jealous for our genuine wellbeing. His anger at sin, isn’t personal offence, but care for his creation.
When it says he punishes sin to the fourth generation, it means the consequences of removing his hedge, what sin will do, what the outcomes of it will be, if it is allowed to run its natural course.
God’s care here is about our children and their children. Our sin affects their lives also, and God doesn’t want that to happen.
It is also apparent that God condescended to the Hebrew people in their worldview and the time.
His language was the language of the day, in a way the people then could understand. Many of the stories related to the pagan myths of that time, but there was a transformation involved, that led the people to the values of the real God. Like in the law: God is jealous that we worship him, and we worship him by sharing Jubilee love with our neighbour.
There are many other points about the alleged “violence of God” in scripture, some of which I address in my book Violence in Scripture. The bible does not depict the God of Israel as violent, when we allow the text to reveal its view and plan. It reveals a God who is actively working against the violence of humanity, to bring about a new creation.
The Image of God
The first issue God had to deal with when he brought Israel out of Egypt was the matter of the image of God. We see God’s full image in Christ. It is from Christ that we are to interpret all scripture. Christ shows who God is, where in the cross he gave his life for his enemies, rather than retaliated against them. He overcame mimetic rivalry with forgiveness.
When Israel came out of Egypt, the world was filled with false images of God. Idolatry was the common occurrence with all Israel’s pagan neighbours. God’s issue with idolatry wasn’t jealousy, as humans experience jealousy in mimetic rivalry. God wasn’t in a mimetic competition with other gods. God’s issue with idolatry was the false images of God the idols portrayed.
Bowing down to idols gives people wrong ideas about God. The idols represented self-centred ideas about human life. The gods represented sinful human life styles. They encouraged mimetic rivalry.
Encouraging these ideas in our hearts fosters destructive communities. The weak people are prey. It is the strong who survive and everyone else is trodden under foot. This was the way before the Flood and this was the way in Egypt.
The image of God also represented the call of humanity. Adam and Eve were made in God’s image, and called to reflect that image into the creation, bringing wholeness to human community and to the environment. This image of God is his self-giving image we see in Christ. It is dominion by service, that we see Paul outline in Philippians two, when speaking about the cross. Man was to reflect this image, rather than the covetousness of the idols, ancient of modern idols of commercialism.
But Pharaoh assumed the whole image of God into himself. This means he was a dictator. He allowed no form of imagination from other people. Other people just had to follow Pharaoh’s vision of empire, or die. No one else was permitted to contribute creative imagination to community, according to their different gifts and talents, walking in the image of the creator God.
This is what commercialism does to us today. Advertisements provide an image of life. They paint a life of individualism, that becomes so persuasive, it is difficult to imagine a life of community, that can build something better into our nations. Commercialism breaks down any coming together of people, or churches, in any meaningful way, beyond our individualistic visions. The image of God isn’t reflected in individualism, but through male and female, through humanity as community. Idols, old and new, call for individualism, which is destructive of neighbour and foreigner.
The Ten Commandments strike immediately at the central purpose of creation: God made humanity to reflect his goodness into our nations, through our cooperative, loving encouragement of all our giftings. Idols destroy this community, bring people into slavery instead, destroy, rape and pillage the world, rather than build wholesome lives in sustainable environments. This vision of wholeness must come to the centre, rather than a vision of empire, or a vision of commercial enterprise.
Israel though did not imbibe this vision of the true image of God. They wanted to be like the nations around them. They eventually took a king and took on all the traits of empire: building fortresses, amassing wives, armies, horses, weapons, wealth, worldly knowledge and pride. They took in slaves to expand their building programs.
Israel ended up like Egypt, demeaning the image of God in women and the rest of humanity. And they got all this from the self-promoting idols of the nations. Mimetic desire from their idols worked in them to build kingdoms of rivalry. Therefore, God judged Israel, for the sake of the human being and for the sake of his creation.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
This is beautiful: the care the passage shows for those we have a potential relationship of power over. It is to limit power and to make sure power serves. It demands care for our children, servants, animals and foreigners in our communities. It brings leaders into accountability towards the weak. It says that mimetic desire will not govern relationships, but the people’s own interests are paramount. This care is an immediate contrast with Egypt.
The teaching of sabbath is set within the event of creation. God made the world and rested on the seventh day. This is to show how creation is to work. It shows how creation exists in wholeness.
Contrary to the pagan myths of creation, where creation comes about through mimetic force and violence, the real creation exists on the basis of rest and wholeness.
The sabbath reminds Israel how it will exist and perpetuate in the land in which it is going in to inhabit. If they take up this land on the narrative of the pagans, then eventually “the land will spew them out.” That is a false narrative about occupation and wellness.
Creation is built on wisdom. Wisdom holds it together in a fine ecological balance. Upsetting that wisdom brings the downfall of the creation around us. It brings our civilization into eventual collapse. This sowing and reaping issue plays out in our social fabric. A society that isn’t nourished by the sabbath, eventually eats itself up and breaks apart.
There was no sabbath in Egypt. They worked for Pharaoh and his glory seven days a week. There was no forty-hour working week, no trade union, no annual leave, or public rest days. In empire and in our modern commercial world, the sabbath gets squeezed out. People and resources of the environment become slaves to the bottom line of the amount of wealth that can be produced. If we don’t produce enough wealth, we can’t compete against our global rivals.
Sabbath was built into the whole of the Hebrew community. They had long feast periods, frequently, throughout the year. We look at them like just religious festivals, but they were also important rest and recreation periods for the families. Israel came together for extended periods of relaxation and sharing of food. These events were built into Israel’s life as creational harmonisers, to de-Pharaoh their relationships and economic structures.
Every seven years the land had to be rested. Sabbath is about how we treat our natural resources. It shows us that commercialism, or mimetic greed working in our competitive nations, must not damage environmental sustainability. This was serious in Israel’s law. Sustainability was built in many of their laws, about how they treated their land.
But, as Paul said, “Were these things written for the oxen’s (or land’s) sake, or for our sakes as well?
For our sakes also.” (1 Cor 9:9-10) He meant, does God just care for land and animals, or for people also? If God cares for land, and shows how we should care for it, so it keeps yielding for us, then how much more should we care for each other? If we wouldn’t hurt our precious land as farmers, then what does this show us about how we treat people?
Therefore, on the land sabbath, Israel had to set free its slaves. And every seven land sabbaths, that is, every fifty years, Israel had a Jubilee. It was a major celebration after seven sabbaths: the sabbath of sabbaths. In the year of Jubilee, all debts had to be forgiven, all land had to be returned to its original owners. All families who had undergone tough times, had to be restored financially. All economic contracts that had brought people into misfortune had to be dissolved. The wellbeing of the person, not the wellbeing of the economic data, was the first ethic of the community.
This would stop the failure of a family perpetuating in poverty throughout the generations to follow.
The Jubilee would intervene in and reverse the “to the fourth generation” consequences of our sin, that we spoke of above. The sins of the parents, that impoverished the family, could be turned around for the coming generations, if Israel followed the Jubilee. This is how God wants us to view those who sin, fall and come into ruin. Not to punish them, but to seek ways to restore them.
All of these are sabbath, creation renewal, creation wholeness principles. These principles were carried through all of Israel’s law. Relief for the widow was a carry over the sabbath idea. It was to give her rest in her affliction. Relief for the orphan, the poor, the foreigner, the refugee, the stranger, and the homeless, were all sabbath ideas.
They give humanity a rest from the harshness of empire and economic realities. They restore creation to wholeness and rest, as we see it in the beginning. They enter our mimetic rivalry and bring healing to those cast aside. Politics was not allowed to hinder this sabbath. No matter the “side” the person was on, they must be fully helped in their need.
Jesus claimed Solomon, at the height of Israel’s conquest of its neighbours, was not dressed as well as one flower in the field. He compared Solomon’s empire, its slaves, its wisdom and dominion, to his own refusal to enter mimetic rivalry with his enemy, portrayed in the Sermon on the Mount. This contentment would bring the world peace. This is the advice from the Prince of Peace himself.
The Pharisees turned the sabbath into a legalism that excluded others from love. This was the exact opposite of what the sabbath was designed to do. It isn’t about a day. It is about our care for people and for our environment, and not allowing our desire for things to override our desire for the welfare of our neighbour. This is to be the governing principle of our economic theory.
Mimetic idolatry brings war to our world. It brings an arms trade and an arms race. It holds debt over the heads of millions of people in poorer nations. Sabbath brings release. It forgives debt. It brings in the outcast for care. It heals the poverty of our communities. It puts people ahead of our own commercial desires. It builds fair trade. It cares for the stranger, no matter his or her faith or tribal/ racial background. This is the worship God is calling us to. A worship that is relevant to our nations and to healing our future.
The Ten Commandments show us that mimetic desire and rivalry will destroy our creation, but sabbath will rebuild our creation, both in its environmental conditions and in it social fabric. This care for one another is what brings atonement to our relationships, washing away the hurt, bitterness and hatred that fills our world through injustice. This is the Jubilee the gospel brings to us.
God forgives us and he asks us to forgive and restore our neighbour, spiritually and economically.
“Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.” (Exodus 20:12-17)
The Ten Commandments bring us out of paganism. They reveal the mimetic rivalry that builds up in idolatrous communities, until a destruction comes to our lives, even to the fourth generation. God’s answer for this mimetic rivalry is a sabbath orientation of care towards the weak. This is the image of the true God we are to follow, to replace the image of our rivalrous idols of commercialism. It is putting our desires for dominion to the side, and instead building a society that cares for others.
Someone said, “A civilization is judged by how it treats its weakest member.” This is like saying, with Isaiah, “A little child shall lead them.” This means the government of Messiah is one that is led by the interests and needs of the most vulnerable. The needs of the weak leads our leaders, not mimetic competition.
Coveting what belongs to our neighbour, leads our communities into strife. It is the foundation issue in this group of commandments. It leads us to false witness, to scapegoat, which is murder. It leads us to adultery, to steal what belongs to someone else, and to disobey our parents in rivalry in the home.
Covetousness is what destroyed the image of God in man in Eden. It destroyed the sabbath, the rest and harmony of creation, and filled it with a self-orientated violence. These are the three issues in the Ten Commandments. Through Christ, God is inviting us to follow him, to renounce selfcentredness, to live in a sabbath care for our neighbour, reflecting this true image of God into our global community.
This certainly means taking up our cross to do this, to live in self-giving, reconciling acts towards the stranger and enemy, rather than the mimetic desire that puts our own survival and interests first. It takes doing what Christ did, when he gave himself for us all. This the is discipleship God calls us to, to renew his creation.