Light from the Sidra

Yitro ('Jethro')

Torah: Exodus. 18:1-20:23(26). Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6;9:5-6(6-7)*

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Due to the atrocities of the Second World War, on 10 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the now famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is sobering to reflect that some of the drafters of the Declaration were and continue to be among the greatest human rights violators in the world and that, 64 years later, the Declaration continues to be flouted by UN members.

The concept of universal ‘human rights’ is so indelibly engraved on our minds and hearts that we rarely (if ever) stop to consider whether the very idea might be unsound. Think about it: who has the right to determine whether every human being has inalienable ‘rights’ and what those ‘rights’ are? Think, for example, what happens when the irresistible force of the inalienable right of the criminal meets the immovable object of the rights of the victim. Something has to give; and it’s frequently the rights of the victim.

Perhaps the reason no one stops to question the UN Declaration of Human Rights is that doing so raises some heavy questions. First of all, who gave the drafters the right to decide the inalienable rights we all are said to possess? Why, the United Nations of course.

And who gave the UN the right to decide who would be given the right to decide everyone’s rights? (See, it’s getting heavy already!) Once again, it was the United Nations itself.

The world in the 1940s was as religiously and ideologically divided as it is now. There were nations that were predominantly Catholic, or Islamic, or Hindu, or secular, all of them with their own ideas of right and wrong. There were some nations that were seeking to abolish all forms of religion apart from worship of the state. And in 1948, there was, of course, the nascent Jewish state in the Middle East. All these nations were ideologically split and so a committee was established to draft a Declaration that would spell out a series of self-evident truths and rights to which every nation could sign up. It is a testimony to the genius of the drafters of the Declaration that they were able to pull it off.

Like the Ten Commandments, the Declaration of Human Rights has a Preamble and a set of thirty ‘Articles’ or commandments such as: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’

Because there is much in the document that is eminently sensible and laudable, we tend to accept it without question. But the Declaration of Human Rights appeals to no higher Authority than itself for its authority to declare to the nations the way the world should be run. I can’t shake off the thought that on 10 December 1948, the world witnessed a re-run of the event in Gan Eden which cause the cosmos to go pear-shaped; the scene in Genesis 3 when the serpent declared: ‘You will become like God, knowing good and evil.’

According to the Bible, only God has rights. He has the right to be worshipped and obeyed. In the Ten Commandments, God doesn’t deal with human rights; he lays down human duties and obligations, to himself and to other humans. In summary, those duties are that we love our Creator with our entire being and we love others as we love ourselves, we treat them in the way we would want them to treat us.

If everyone lived according to that rule, there would be no war, no murder, no theft, no trafficking of people, no child abuse and no ‘greed is good’ philosophy. But here’s the rub. Unlike the UN Declaration, the Ten Commandments places God in prime position and the onus is on you and me to be good to others. The Bible begins with God (Gen 1:1) and man, made in God’s image (1:26,27). The concept of human rights is essentially humanistic, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights leaves God out of the equation and places the onus on others to respect me and my rights. The Human Rights Declaration was adopted for all the right reasons but the drafters of the Declaration could provide no solid basis for determining our rights or for demanding that others respect those rights.

The Ten Commandments are based, first of all, on the rock-solid fact that the God of Israel, the creator of the Universe, exists and that he is good. The Preamble to the Ten Commandments is: ‘God spoke all these words, saying: I am YHWH your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from a house of serfs’ (Ex 20:1. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses). God did something for Israel and they owed him big time. The appropriate and reasonable response to his kindness would be to love him and to love others.

A Jewish lady in Australia once told me that Moses had made up the Ten Commandments in order to control the rabble he’d brought out of Egypt. According to her version of events, Moses climbed Sinai, carved the two stone tablets and announced to the Israelites that God had given him the commandments. Apart from the fact that Moses failed in his attempt to control the people or that the people must have been incredibly credulous to believe such a porky, I pointed out to her that if she was right, then the greatest law code in the world was founded on a lie. So why should anyone obey it?

No man-made code of ethics can be binding. Only the Creator has the right to say what is right and what is wrong. And at this point there are many religious Jews who misunderstand a basic fact about the Torah. In the Talmud and Jewish sources there are stories about rabbis who know more about Torah than the Almighty himself. If that is the case then God is subject to his own Torah.

God does not simply know right from wrong, and truth from error. God is Right, he is Truth, and the Torah is a reflection of his character. God, for example, recognises no God but himself and the same should go for us. It is an insult to Adonai to worship another god or to bow down to an image we have created. Adonai never swears falsely by himself and neither should we; Adonai ceased from creation on the seventh day and, unlike the Egyptians, he blessed Israel by granting them to be like him by observing Shabbat.

Adonai does not murder, he is not unfaithful, he does not take what belongs to others, he never bears false witness and he does not covet. By prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and envy, he invites Israel to truly be his people by bearing his image. Adonai calls Israel to be holy, in the same way he is holy. When human institutions – even religious ones – issue unbiblical laws that they claim are universally binding, those institutions are attempting to usurp God’s place as the ultimate authority. Such bodies are trying to reinvent the wheel. And the problem with reinventing the wheel is that you end up not with a more functional version but usually a square one that will take you nowhere.

As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Back in the 1960s, many of us favoured ditching what we considered to be an outmoded, repressive ‘Victorian morality’ in favour of total freedom. We wanted rights without responsibility. The result was a square wheel. By jettisoning God’s laws, we now have more man-made laws than ever before (a few minutes ago, I heard John Humphrys say on the radio that 6,000 new laws are introduced by Brussels every year).

Any attempt to tamper with God’s law or to rewrite his laws is bound to end in tears. Not only in this life but, unless we repent, for ever.

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