Exodus 20:12 reads
Honor your father and your mother that your days may be prolonged on the land  which the LORD your God is giving to you.
How are we to understand this verse? It’s unique in a number of ways: First, it is radically different from other moral systems extant during biblical times. Against a cultural backdrop that elevated and trumpeted patrimony, this commandment requires us to pay equal homage to both male and female parents. Moreover, this commandment is unconditional: God does not say, “Honor your parents if they are deserving”. He says, “Honor them regardless.”
Second, in today’s Western culture, we often take for granted that our parents should be honored, But this was hardly the way of the ancient world and especially the world surrounding the ancient Hebrews. The surrounding cultures reserved their highest honors for the rich and famous, for rulers and leaders. By comparison, the biblical view of parents is yet another radical innovation, a rebuke not only to the ways of other cultures but also to the natural human (and especially male) inclination to elevate heroism and fame above the mundane virtue of being a good parent.
Not so here. In place of honoring the high and the mighty, the LORD calls for each child to honor his (or her) parents. As a measure of the seriousness with which the LORD views this command, the Israelites are told, subsequently, that two of the four capital offenses in the Torah are striking and cursing either parent – placing this violation on a par with premeditated murder and kidnapping for slave-trading.
But if the LORD can be specific about how NOT to honor one’s parents, why does He leave unspecified how we are to honor them? Perhaps the answer is this: by not reducing the obligation to specific deeds, the commandment compels each child to be always attentive to what honoring might require. What God wants, it seems, is an attitude from which honor can spring — not ritualized ceremonies which, over time can become rote. Ritual celebration is simply not in view here. However, there is another arguably more important, explanation behind the requirement that children honor their parents. One that completes and makes possible what the ancient Hebrews understood as the most important of God’s commandments.
So, what is the most important command in the Torah? When asked this question, Jesus answered without equivocation by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, the second verse of the set of verses known as the Shəma;
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart (levav), and with all your soul, and with all your might.
The word love, in both Hebrew and English, is a verb that establishes what one values. To love chocolate over vanilla is to choose chocolate when presented with a choice between the two. In other words, Jesus’ interlocutors might well have asked, what does God want us to value above all else? Jesus’ answer would have been the same. He would have quoted Deuteronomy 6:5. Verse 6:5 teaches that we are to value God with all our heart, soul, and might.
The Hebrew word translated as heart, levav, was understood by the ancient Hebrews as the seat of wisdom and reason, not the seat of emotion. In biblical Hebrew, to love someone with all one’s heart is to never forget how much that someone is to be valued. In the context of the famous Country-Western song, “You were always on my mind“, remembering, both in biblical times and the present, is an expression of love. Jesus reminds his interlocutors that we must strive with everything we have in order to remember God — both who He is, what He does, and what He wills.
But this verse does not stand alone because love can not be commanded. It must be taught. The memories must first be conveyed (often by narratives and songs) and then their proper expression exemplified. For love to become an emotional and well as an intellectual commitment, it must be expressed repeatedly. To this end, verse 6:5 is followed by two key verses:
“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart (levav). You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk in the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
When God’s deeds and words are not remembered, they will not be passed on to subsequent generations. When this happens, as it did with the ancient Hebrews so many times, we fall away from God. Jesus (and His contemporary sages) judged this to be the most important command precisely because it speaks to the survival their culture as the people of God.
But, this is not the first time the Israelites were told to establish a tradition of passing the knowledge of God and His values from generation to generation. Looking back to Deuteronomy 4:9, we recall that Moses foreshadows verse 6:6-7 by making explicit that it is the actions of God that are to be remembered and propagated from generation to generation.
“Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen. Now, lest they depart from your heart (levav), you shall make them known to your sons and the sons of your sons all the days of your life.”
The claim, here, is that the memories of what the Israelites experienced and saw with their own eyes, are not to be forgotten. These experiences are to be passed on continually. With with this context in mind then, let’s paraphrase Deuteronomy 6:5-7:
You shall love the LORD your God by keeping Him in your memory at all times and in all ways. Therefore, these words … shall be always on your mind. You shall teach them to your children; and you shall speak of them when you are sitting in your house and when you are walking on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
Viewed this way, the Shəma becomes the instructions by which God expects the people of the Judeo-Christian traditions to keep their faith alive. Worship of, and reverence for God is surely necessary, but insufficient. If we are to ensure our survival as God’s people, our descendants must taught and then adopt God’s values – values that are propagated by remembering God’s words and deeds in all that we do, that they may never be forgotten no matter how many generations pass.
We are now in a position to understand more fully the promise of a reward when we honor our parents. The reward requires something of both parents and children. Deuteronomy speaks to Parents about the seriousness they are to take their role as conduits of God’s values. Likewise, the command to honor one’s parents by adopting their teachings, whether by word or example, ensures that the traditions will be passed on. Thus, when parents teach their children AND when children adopt the values of that teaching, the survival God’s people will be prolonged in the land.
Finally, here’s a question for your reflection: What would God think of Christian parents who feel that their children ought to be allowed to come to faith on their own? Explain.
Now, go and study
- All translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own↩
- Often translated as land, the Hebrew word used here, adamah, is better understood as ground, earth, dirt, or clay. Originally this word referred to any cultivated, arable ground and not land or country as in the political sense. The use of adamah in this verse is probably a Hebrew word play meant to recall the biblical creation story in which God created adam from the adamah to farm the adamah.↩
- By way of background, among the Hebrews, where honor was at stake, children sought to be a credit to their parents and to bring honor to their families by the way they conducted and ordered their lives. This makes sense since the Hebrews were largely nomadic and tribal. Theirs was not a society centralized around a ruling king. To this end, children honored their parents by adopting the values of, and taught by, their parents.↩
- Harris, et al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Moody Publishing, October 2003, using BibleWorks 8, ref 1071a↩
- Made famous by number or artists including Elvis Presley and most recently Willie Nelson (1982).↩