WORDS OF LOVE: A Healing Journey with the Ten Commandments. By Eugenia Anne Gamble. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022. 213 pages.
In recent years we’ve seen fights over the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and courtrooms. It’s all part of a larger culture war debate over whether God is being pushed out of the public square. Just to be clear, God isn’t being pushed out of the public square. At least, not according to my understanding of God’s nature as one who is omnipresent. While that political debate ranges, some of us wonder if those arguing for placing the Ten Commandments in the public square truly understand the words found in the Commandments. Consider the word about idols—does pledging allegiance to the flag involve idolatry? Jehovah’s Witnesses think so. What about that command about bearing false witness? Could Christian purveyors of the Big Lie (the election was stolen from Donald Trump) be breaking that command? In any case, it is worth pondering the meaning of these famous commandments that get so much publicity.
Many books have been written, many of which are scholarly, and others directed at a more general audience. Some are worth spending time with while others probably are not. Among the former, the books on the Commandments worth spending time with is Eugenia Gamble’s Words of Love. This book-length reflection on the Ten Commandments is both deeply spiritual and personal. In the course of reading Gamble’s book, we see sides of the commandments unveiled that I think many people miss when they read them. There is a tendency to envision these words in terms of a legal code, a series of rules and regulations that can serve as the basis of a modern legal code (or so I’ve been told). That is not the view held by Eugenia Gamble, as you can see by this book’s very title: Words of Love. Indeed, these are words that when embraced can lead to healing.
Eugenia Anne Gamble is a recently retired Presbyterian Church (USA) minister who authored a previous study guide on the Ten Commandments as part of the Presbyterian Women’s Horizon’s Bible Study. Having served churches in California, Alabama, and Colorado, in retirement she continues to be active as a speaker, retreat leader, and writer.
One of the reasons I liked the book is that Gamble presents a side of the Old Testament that many never see. We hear a lot about God’s wrath in the Old Testament, but rarely about God’s love. It always seems as if God got a makeover with Jesus. Before Jesus God was angry with the world, and after Jesus God loved the world. To me, that’s a very dangerous view of God, but here in Words of Love, Gamble offers the Ten Commandments as a testament of love that leads to a “healing journey.”
Gamble presents the Ten Words in the context of a divine love story that emerges out of the Exodus. She writes that “Divine Love holds the Ten Words together as one great vision of human and divine life intersecting. Nothing about the Ten Words will be ultimately transformative until we understand that it begins with love, ends with love, and is framed with love. Everything else distorts” (p. 13). So, here’s my question. If Gamble is correct, and I’m convinced she is, then why are the Ten Commandments held hostage in a culture war? Why have these ten words been weaponized? The answer seems to be, that we’ve misunderstood their intent.
With this question about why our understanding of the Commandments has been distorted in view, Gamble walks us through each of the Ten Words. She begins in chapter 1 with the first word, which involves God introducing Godself as the God who brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. Here she addresses hurtful views of God, helping us understand that these words emerge out of God’s act on our behalf so that our relationship with God might experience healing. Then, beginning in chapter 2, she speaks of the call to let go of destructive allegiances (You shall have no other Gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .. “ She writes that the “Second Word invites us to remember where our real source of love and power lies and to stop wasting time on lesser powers that are ineffective at best, and ‘dung pellets” at worst.” Might this be a warning to us about mixing Christianity and nationalism? From that word, Gamble moves on to the “Language that Lifts: Addressing the Trivializing of God.” In this chapter, she speaks of the wrongful use of the name of God. Here we are reminded of the power of the divine name and why we should be careful with how we speak of God or speak in the name of God. Then there is that word about keeping Sabbath in chapter 4, where she speaks of letting go of toxic busyness.
Chapter 5 begins our examination of what some call the Second Table of the Law, those commands that speak of interpersonal relationships. In this fifth chapter Gamble looks at the command to honor parents, and as such, she takes us into a conversation about family dynamics and family pain. This chapter will be quite relevant to many readers as most of us struggle with our family life and much of the family values debate isn’t helpful. In the chapter on murder, she expands the conversation to include our human tendency toward violence, anger, and cruelty. When we reach the command about adultery (chapter7), Gamble addresses questions of intimacy. She writes that “the Seventh Word reminds us that adultery is not just about who is doing what with whom behind closed doors. It is more fundamentally about who and what we are willing to harm in order to get what we think we want or to meet a need we don’t know how else to meet” (p. 142). As for the commandment not to steal, in chapter 8, Gamble again expands the conversation, noting that stealing takes many forms. Central to this conversation is recognizing when enough is enough. I mentioned at the outset the command about bearing false witness. She takes up this command in Chapter 9. Because of what I shared upfront, this is a chapter that needs to be read carefully as it addresses one of the big concerns of our day, the lies that are destroying lives and nations. Here is a call to a life of integrity. Here is a call to live into the truth, which is increasingly difficult but necessary. Finally, Gamble explores the command that speaks to the challenge of covetousness. David Noel Freedman in his book The Nine Commandments suggests that this command is the foundation for all the other commands, for it speaks to our desire to possess what does not belong to us, starting with God’s centrality in our lives. As for Gamble, in her chapter on covetousness, she speaks of the nature of desire and how it distorts life. She notes that not all longing is covetousness, but longing becomes a problem when “a deep and authentic longing for the good devolves into the basic lie that everybody else has it easier or their lives are more together, prosperous, or exciting than our own” (p. 188). It becomes a problem when it metastasizes into greed. So, here is an invitation to enter a life of authenticity where we let go of the harmful things that often drive us.
Are the Ten Commandments words of love? Are they a gift from God rather than a set of rules that we need to obey to please God? Gamble makes a good case that they are! That is because the Commands speak to living in the context of divine love. As such, these are not narrow, confining, harsh laws. They are designed to free, liberate, and empower. Gamble has provided us with a book that is designed to foster conversation about what it means to live in God’s love and to find healing in that context. Thus, each chapter provides a set of spiritual practices that embody the message of the chapters and a set of questions for personal group reflection. As you might expect, there are ten chapters in the book, making for a ten-week journey in the loving presence of God. So, Words of Love by Eugenia Gamble is a book worth exploring and embodying.
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest books: Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021) and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2nd Edition, (Energion Publications, 2021). His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.