A Fresh Look at the "Book of the Covenant"
The importance of the 10 Commandments
The Ten Commandments is arguably the most famous text in the Old Testament. It is recognized as a shining example of ethics. Most people would be able to recite half of the verses off the top of their heads (maybe not nowadays). Yet, it remains largely misunderstood in its implications. Being a familiar text, it is often glossed over and generalized, escaping the scrutiny that an obscure or opaque passage would undoubtedly get. We cannot be guilty of just passing over these sacred verses without inspecting their glory.
The Ten Commandments, AKA the Decalogue, can be thought of as a part of the whole in that it is sort of a representative of the whole Bible or a least the Torah, the Law of the Old Testament. In this light, the Decalogue is a message from God. This seems obvious. The whole Bible is the Word of God. But the Ten Commandments are the supreme example of this. The Nation of Israel, as we see it here in its infancy, has been shown much of God's glory. First, they have learned of God's name through Moses; this intimacy is special. But the most important thing is that Jehovah God did not choose to be known through a statue or a place, but through a word. This fact separates the Lord God from all the gods of the nations at that time. The True God goes further than just revealing His name: He showed His power in human affairs and history. This new nation of Israel has seen God preserve and build them in Egypt, afflict Egypt, and deliver Israel through the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea. This is all recorded in His Word, preserved for us to be instructed for all time of His greatness. And that's not the end of it. God goes on to tell the Hebrews what He expects of them by giving them the Law. The Law not only tells them their ethical and liturgical standards; it reveals the Nature of God. God wants to be remembered through words, or His Word. Words cannot be destroyed or altered (recall the difference between a text and a manuscript), images and temples can. Solomon's Temple is long gone and the Ark of the Covenant is currently lost, but I don't worry about these things. God's Name and Word are the ultimate monuments to His Glory and Person. The Ten Commandments as a passage is better than any corruptible temple or statue.
The Decalogue clearly demonstrates how the Lord wants to be known and worshipped through His Word and Name. Some critics of Fundamentalists have alleged that we make the Bible into an idol. Here, I think it is good for us to learn the distinction between the text and the manuscript. A manuscript is the actual paper and ink of a book or a letter, which is written by hand. Since, the invention of the printing press and more recently, the Internet and computers, Bibles have been put onto more mediums, but for the sake of argument, I will call them manuscripts also. A text is the words, the ideas, written upon manuscripts. The text is the Inspired, Inerrant, and Holy Word of God. A manuscript, otherwise, is not holy or magical or inspired. The followers of Islam have been known to show high reverence to their holy book, the Koran. They will not put another book on top of it in a pile. Rather, they place it on the highest shelf in the house when they are not reading it. While we should respect and cherish the Bibles we have, we shouldn't be superstitious about our "manuscripts." One pet peeve is when a President or anyone else swears upon a Holy Bible to do their duty. This display of religion is nothing better than swearing with your hand on a statue of the Buddha. Another related pet peeve is the giant family Bibles that Roman Catholics are known to keep. When speaking to former Catholics, they often share the experience of having a Bible in the house while growing up, but nobody dared to touch it because it was so holy, beautiful, and mom said not to. Our Bibles are meant for reading, cherishing and wearing out. God wants us to become familiar with Him through the text, not to set up a beautiful Bible as another icon, distracting us from fully worshipping the Lord God.
Let us look at the Ten Commandments:
To begin to understand this verse, we must remember that everything belongs to God. The Sabbath has been a sticking point for the Church since its infancy. Do we just annul the fourth commandment? Though the practice of this verse has changed for the New Testament Believer, the principle still stands. The Sabbath was a sacrifice as much as cutting the throats of sheep and cattle, and as in any sacrifice, the part stands for the whole. The Ancient Hebrews gave to God the first fruits of the growing season, but they didn't offer all their food. They offered sheep and cattle upon the altars, but God only required that some would be sacrificed. Our sacrifices often involve our money, but do we give God all of our money? Though he deserves all of our time, He does not demand it all. God owns us. He also owns all our time. We should sacrifice a good chunk of every week to the praise and service of our God and King. This just scratches the subject of the Sabbath, but we must move on.
The Hebrew word for "Honor" is the same word used for the "glory" of kings and God. This indicates that we should highly value our parents. This is lost on our culture, and we will be judged for it. Parents should be honored and cherished no matter how old we are or they are. Parents are the first authorities in our lives; if cannot accept their honor and value, we will never properly honor and value any authority, including God Himself. Therefore, an attack on the honor of parents is an attack on the Person and Nature of God.
Does this prohibit executions? What about wars? The Bible condemns killing when done by an individual, not by the covenant community. Killing another human should not be the decision of any lone man; killing should never be a personal "choice," even when someone is taking their own life. Though vigilantes and terrorists think that do well, they go outside Godís provisions for a lawful community. Only the lawful judgment of an ordered society can justly decide the death penalty. Part of this is that every human is part of a community. The death of any person will have an effect on others. Since the community has to live with the consequences of death, the community should decide if someone should die for their actions. No only is a murderer taking the rightful role of a community, he takes the place of God. Death should be a just act of God, not a hateful act of a mortal. If this sounds like a conservative spin, read the Book of Leviticus. God tells us not to kill and then goes ahead to prescribe capital punishment and to sanction war.
Adultery is an attack against God's endorsed institution of the family. God has worked through the family since the beginning of humanity and is determined to protect it. Adultery breaks down the sacred and intimate relationship between a man and his wife, imperiling the family. The importance of this commandment is demonstrated by the fact that adulterers were stoned to death under the Law. Technically, sex between unmarried people is not covered in this commandment. We need to look at 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 for further instruction on fornication.
God sanctions the concept of private property. Ownership is a foundational part of our society and God protects it with His Law. We should never despise someone for owning many things because God has allowed them to come into that. We should never desire to divide the spoils of the rich. When wealthy people are plundered, they often replace it quickly. Many are rich because of hard work and talent. Again, God owns everything. Yet, he is often robbed of worship, sacrifice, and time. He identifies with those who own much and those who are robbed.
Why is telling the truth important? Some argue that democracy is not possible if we cannot expect the truth from our fellow citizen's lips. It comes down to trust. Constant fear of fellow citizens invites totalitarianism by the fact that safety is more primary than freedom in the minds of many. Plus, lies are hard to defend yourself against. A lie that is told by one citizen against another damages the whole community, primarily through the division caused by the taking of sides.
This commandment is different than the last four. Why? This commandment moves the Law beyond the Letter and to the Spirit Ė the inner life. This is the emphasis of Jesus on the Sermon of the Mount. We often hear people say, "Iím not a murderer or an adulterer Ė Iím pretty good." But we have all coveted within our hearts. Why is envy so wrong? What does it do to us? How do our desires shape us? The Madame Chiang Kai-Shek once said, "We become what we do." The Bible goes a little further and says, for as a man "thinketh in his heart, so is he."
The final point in all this is that this message was delivered in Godís own voice. From reading Exodus 20:19-22, we get a hint of this. The real clincher for me on the subject is Deuteronomy 5:2-4,22:
"The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fireÖ These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me."
I think that clears up the controversy very well. God actually spoke to the people.
In all this we need to note the special significance of the Hebrew Language in its recording of the spoken word. Many scholars now think that the Hebrews were the first culture to write the sounds of words, rather than using pictograms to represent words. This would fit with the Lord Godís focus on the revelation of His Spoken Word and Name. The legacy of this emphasis has shaped the Western mind to this day.
The Ten Commandments are a covenant between God and His people. To us, a covenant is an agreement between two equals, like a marriage. The Law of God is a covenant after a different mode, called a Suzerainty. The emperor of the Hittites was known as a "Suzerain." At the beginning of His reign, He would right a unilateral agreement with the people. The covenant was one way in decree but not in duties. The Suzerain would tell his subjects what he was proposing to do for them and what he expected in return. The Suzerain reserved the right to decree because he was the head honcho. The Lord God had done everything for the Children of Israel. He had fought their battles, provided their needs, and brought them out of Egypt. They were in the place to recognize Godís right to place this covenant upon them. No negotiations, no compromise, no dealsÖ God declared His Law, or Torah. As we come to the Law of God, we can either accept it or refuse it. If we can recognize His power and right to decree our proper behavior, then we will love the Law and the Lawgiver. If we despise these verses as petty rules, then we despise God. "But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the LORD charged you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Joshua 22:5). "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15).