Column: Ten Commandments bind not just us — but ‘me’ and ‘you’

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

From my studies of Greek and Hebrew, the languages in which the Bible was written, I have concluded that one of the most significant facts concerning them involves the second person.

Both those languages clearly distinguish between the singular and the plural, while modern English translates both of them as “you.” There often is no way to tell whether the “you” refers to an individual or to a group.

In the American South, colloquial speakers make an attempt to establish that difference by reserving “you” to a single individual and extending “you all” to refer to a group.

In part of the North, the phrase “you guys” sometimes serves to make that distinction. But that difference does not enter into the written language.

In that respect, modern English is somewhat lacking, compared to other languages. That was not true in the case of older versions of English, in which “you” meant the second person plural, and “thou” meant the second person singular. (Sometimes, “ye” substituted for “you” in the plural.)

This means that when the word “you” is used, English translations of the Bible frequently cannot make it clear whether it is addressing a single person or a group. This often matters a great deal, but especially in Sunday’s first reading, Ex 20: 1-17. We hear the core of the law of Moses: the Ten Commandments. When I memorized them as a child, they began with the words, “Thou shalt.” But now, the modern translation renders the phrase, “You shall.”

Other parts of the Book of Exodus, and the books of Leviticus and Numbers, list many other, less important commandments. The number of commandments in the Old Testament totals 613, according to rabbinical tradition.

At the same time, they differ from the Ten Commandments in a significant way. They ordinarily either use the plural of “you” to address a group of people, or use the third person singular for an individual case, such as “he who strikes his father or mother is doomed to die” (Ex 21:16).

On the other hand, the Ten Commandments use the second person singular. They address us as individuals. Each person must carry the responsibility of obeying the commandment. We cannot dilute that responsibility by our membership to the group. We cannot say to ourselves, “I am only a drop in the bucket. What I do doesn’t count.”

In other words, by their emphasis on individual responsibility, the Ten Commandments place an emphasis on individual worth as well. What we do does matter. Each of us.

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