Q: What does the seventh commandment forbid?
A: The seventh commandment forbids thinking, saying, or doing anything sexually impure.
Let me begin this week’s reflection by making an observation that I think is fairly self-evident, but one that I haven’t ever heard made: the latter half of the commandments have a bias in audience towards the hegemony, more specifically, men. That is, while these commandments are rules for the entire community, they are worded in a way that speak especially pointedly to the men in that community.
To be sure, the commandments are almost stamps of larger principles and concerns that reach across time, culture, and demographics to our essential humanity, as we’ve seen time and again every week. However, the way they are specifically worded, the literal “thou shalt not’s”, are generally more applicable to males than females at that time.
This is unsurprising for a number of reasons, including the inevitable differential across gender in education, literacy, political and cultural representation, and access to legal interpretation.
But also because these commandments are more easily broken by those with agency — those with the power to act, those with the freedom, ability, and opportunity to impinge upon others’ well-being. And that power has belonged, especially back then, more to guys than gals.
It is true that these laws were applied and adjudicated to women, children, and other minority groups–even perhaps more harshly–but the laws seem to me to stand as perimeters that unite typical citizens, even those in varying levels of leadership. In a fallen world, they check the corruptions of power, in persons and in societies, and they stand to judge history.
Why bring this up? Well, because when I reflect on the seventh commandment, I inevitably turn to the fundamental sinfulness of the male gaze, which I think goes back to Adam’s conception of himself no longer as steward of Paradise, but its owner. Once people are seen as objects or property, notably tools to satisfy a relational need, we have a problem.
This can even be a problem within marriage. Sure, Eve was a “helpmate” — but a partner in holy work and worship, not an appliance for the husband’s personal actualization. Jesus did not take on a wife, but his treatment of women, including “sinful women” like Mary Magdalene, gives us guidance on how they ought to be recognized, appreciated, and elevated independent of their use or desirability to the men around them.
The righteous gaze does not evaluate surfaces but finds what is divinely good.
We live in a society that states that it wants to efface any gender difference and simultaneously aggrandize that difference perversely, pornographically. By resisting one of these fronts, I think we in the church often fall for a false dichotomy and lapse on the other. We emphasize gender roles but falsely frame those roles in a kind of conservative objectification. Or we bemoan the hypersexual elements of our culture without critiquing the limitations and disadvantages leveraged against women in other ways. We need to recognize the fight is far more fundamental; it is in our heart and in our eyes.
The more sexual freedom young women are seen to have, the more we’re having to have hard conversations about how that freedom is still circumscribed by the privileges and sexual agendas of their male peers. The Bible suggests that freedom is not a function of permissibility but of transformation–the sacrifice of agency to salvation–from a power that leapfrogs the dark principalities of this world. We need not fear for our sons and daughters if we know they can serve the Lord of the garden and gaze upon His beauty.