But when it comes to the matter of the number 42, which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy claims as the amusing answer to the great question about life, the universe, and everything, I must beg to differ. The meaning of life is not to be found in the number 42, but in the number 206. Yes, 206. Let me explain.
The Bible begins with a special and unique collection of five books that have traditionally been called the Torah, or the Pentateuch, or the Books of the Law. They are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together they constitute the fundamental teaching of the Hebrew religion, the inexhaustible source from which the rest of scripture and beyond that the whole of Jewish and Christian tradition has sprung. They tell of the relationship between the human world and the divine sphere, of God’s intense yearning to be with us and among us, to woo us and liberate us, to set before us possibilities and prospects that we could never dream of if left entirely to our own devices. And as part of that encouragement for us to be more than simply self-centred individuals pursuing our own little petty and unsatisfying agendas, these books of the Pentateuch present for our consideration a number of commandments or precepts, advice on how we might conduct ourselves in this tricky business we call life.
Now how many commandments do you suppose there are? Most people would probably say that there are Ten Commandments, and that is what Christian tradition has generally said, drawing upon a twofold setting-out of ten particular precepts in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. As it happens, not everyone agrees on precisely which ten precepts are to be included — Catholic and Lutheran catechisms have two commandments prohibiting coveting but no commandment prohibiting the manufacture and worshipping of idols, while certain other churches include an injunction against such idol practices and make do with just one anti-coveting clause — but there is a general agreement that 10 is a good figure for commandments. It certainly seems an intuitive figure for ten-fingered creatures like ourselves, but in fact the total number of commandments in the biblical Books of the Law is 613.
613 commandments are an awful lot to have to come to terms with, wouldn’t you think? And actually, if truth be told, some of them are probably not particularly edifying, or at least not so relevant any longer in the modern world, such as the 46th commandment, “You shall bring from your settlements in the land two loaves of bread as an elevation-offering” [Leviticus 23:17], or the 291st commandment, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” [19:27]. I’m using, by the way, the traditional rabbinic numbering of the commandments. And I want to say that many of the 613 commandments to be found in the first five books of the Bible are in fact abidingly relevant and essential, such as the 211th commandment (better known to many of us as either the 4th or the 5th commandment in the more familiar reckoning of the Top Ten), “You shall honour your father and your mother” [19:3], or the 177th commandment (which doesn’t make it into the Top Ten but is still rather important), “You shall not render an unjust judgment” [19:15].
All of the commandments I’ve just quoted are to be found in the book of Leviticus. That particular book isn’t among many people’s favourite reading, and perhaps you groaned a little when you noticed that this morning’s first reading was from Leviticus. But within that reading was the 206th commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, to be found in Leviticus 19:18. The compilers of the lectionary want us to notice that particular commandment, since they’ve taken out of the reading some other rather good commandments that come in between verses 2 and 15 — such as an injunction against manufacturing and worshipping idols (just what is it about that commandment that makes us want to cut it out all the time?) — and they also stop the reading from going on to distract us with other matters — such as the prohibition in the very next verse against wearing a garment made of two materials (who among us can honestly say that we’ve never worn a garment made of two materials?).
Commandment Number 206 is at first glance almost hidden within this overload of 613 commandments. But stop. Coming in at Leviticus 19:18, it’s situated close to the very centre of the book of Leviticus, the book which itself lies at the centre of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). In other words, at the heart of every Torah scroll is this 206th commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. The whole law focuses in on this one precept; commandment after commandment coming before or after it can be summarized in this one. Everything else flows out from this point, and all the complicated injunctions are attempts at fleshing out this principle. Such at least was the teaching of the great Rabbi Akiva, who taught that the fundamental principle of the entire Law of God was to be found in this one brief saying. And it was the teaching too of the apostle Paul, who wrote in his letter to the Romans that “the commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet’, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’” [Romans 13:9]. Or again in the letter to the Galatians, it’s said that “the whole law is summed up in [that] single commandment” [Galatians 5:14]. Everything, then, boils down to Commandment Number 206.
Perhaps you’re wondering, since I mentioned earlier that a popular number associated with the meaning of life is the number 42, what the 42nd commandment might be. Well, it happens to be this: “You shall offer, at the beginning of each month, a burnt-offering to the Lord, consisting of two young bulls, one ram, and seven male lambs a year old without blemish, with three-tenths of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil as a grain-offering for each bull, and two-tenths of choice flour mixed with oil as a grain offering for the ram, and one-tenth of choice flour mixed with oil as a grain-offering for every lamb” [Numbers 28.11-13]. It’s simply not in the same category as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, is it? If you don’t love your neighbour, if you don’t care about the people beside you or the ones with whom you share this life and this world, then any fastidiousness you may have about offering burnt offerings at the beginning of every month — or whatever other pious patterns you follow to the letter — will be meaningless. And so I say again that it’s not the number 42, but the number 206, that expresses the meaning of life. We’re all fellow-pilgrims with others on this journey of life, and meaning is to be found in living for others rather than simply for ourselves. That’s the profound truth at the heart of the Old Testament laws.
But my little equation wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the number 3, for the third commandment in the traditional listing of all 613 commandments (not to be confused with the third commandment in the traditional lists of Ten Commandments) is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” [Deuteronomy 6:5]. That’s an essential part of the equation, for without it we might be very good humanitarians in our concern for our fellow human beings, but we would still not have grasped the full meaning of it all, that we are in fact creatures under God, and that we’re incomplete without a relationship with our creator and redeemer and sustainer. So it is that we heard in the Gospel reading today [Matthew 22:34-46] that Jesus coupled that saying from Leviticus about loving your neighbour with the saying from Deuteronomy about loving the Lord your God. Love towards one’s neighbour is an expression of love for God as surely and inextricably as love for God demands love for the neighbour. “We love because he first loved us”, says the first letter of John. “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who don’t love a brother or sister whom they’ve seen, cannot love God whom they haven’t seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” [1 John 4:19-21].
How many commandments are there? 613? 10? Essentially, there are two, and essentially those two are one: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”; and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” [Matthew 22:40]. Amen.