It may seem as though I just talked about this subject, and in a sense I did. Back in January I did a series about some of the subjects Jesus threw new light on, and one of those was the law. But today the lectionary brings us to the subject of the Ten Commandments. We are in the midst of a series about the covenant between God and people, and no such series could skip over the Ten Commandments.
We looked first of all at the covenant God made with Noah, and indeed with all creation, after the flood, which was a promise never to destroy all life in that way again. Next we looked at the covenant with Abraham, a promise of a place to live and descendants to fill it up. It was a covenant based on God’s promises and Abraham’s faith. Today we come to the Mosaic covenant, an important part of which was the Ten Commandments. They have played a constant, important role in Jewish and Christian understandings of the covenant relationship between God and people all the way to the current day.
To bring you up to date from last week, when we looked at the Abrahamic Covenant: Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac; Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob; Jacob had twelve sons, and the twelve tribes of Israel came to be named after them. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but he overcame that humble beginning to eventually become second in command to the Pharaoh, in charge of making preparations for a famine that he foretold would come. During that famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food, and eventually Joseph resettled his father and his whole family to Egypt to be near him where he could provide for them.
That was good for a while, but after a few Pharaohs had come and gone, the memory of Joseph had been lost and that large crowd of Hebrew people were seen as a threat and a nuisance. So they were enslaved and worked making bricks for all of the building projects of Egypt. Life was hard and they cried out to God. God responded by sending Moses to lead them out of slavery and back to the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. When they had crossed the Red Sea and the army of the Pharaoh had been demolished, God led the Hebrew people to Mount Sinai in order to re-establish the covenant relationship. It is a new beginning, a creation out of nothing. The first covenant was established with Noah and the creation; the second was established with Abraham; the third is to be established with a very large company of people, the foundations of a nation. God says to the people through Moses, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” It is kind of amazing that, given our previous track record, God could continue to have such a hopeful attitude about the prospects for human beings. He envisioned a whole kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
God’s side of the covenant was bringing the people out of slavery, leading them to the land of promise, and promising to always be their God. The covenant response of the people was to be obedience to the Ten Commandments.
God did some really smart things. First, he put in writing what his expectations of the people were. They couldn’t come back later and say, “We don’t remember you ever telling us we couldn’t kill anyone,” because it was written right there on the stone. Second, he kept it simple. They were all very short and very unambiguous, even though people later created books of laws deriving from each of them. Third, he kept it short. Ten commandments, and we have ten fingers. Coincidence? I think not. It is so when memorizing them we can count them off on our fingers and when we are out of fingers we have said them all.
The purpose in giving the commandments was positive, not punitive. Israel at its best always understood this, that the law was a wonderful gift from God. The Psalmist wrote in today’s Psalm, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. More to be desired are they than gold. By them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”
The Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt, and before that visitors in Egypt. They spent 430 years in Egypt, so they had lived under someone else’s authority and rules for a very long time. As slaves, they were not used to having freedom to make choices about how they would live. They lived under strict rules with harsh consequences if they did not obey. The ten commandments would not at all have seemed burdensome after what they had been living under. And every society needs structure, needs boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior, and God’s law was intended to provide that structure and order for Israel.
The commandments address areas of the community’s life in which it is vulnerable. They are rather general in their statement, and judicial consequences for disobedience are not usually spelled out. The motivation for obedience is not fear of punishment so much as covenant partnership and respect for God. Indeed, not just respect, but thankfulness. These commands only truly have significance and power for people of faith who have a story with God.
Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim writes of the ten commandments, “They serve to keep order in the world, restraining the forces of disorder so that creation does not revert to chaos…. The commands are not the imposition of a set of rules; to obey them is to be what one was created to be.” (Interpretation, Exodus, pp. 222-3)
So God gave the law for a good purpose, to serve the positive role of ordering life for this new society. These are positive commands, in the same way that our rules are given to our children for a good reason, for their safety and well being. Don’t run out in the street. Don’t stick your finger in the light socket. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t steal from other people. Don’t make up stories about other people. Don’t hurt other people. Don’t play with matches. These are not arbitrary rules told just to test our children or set them up for punishment. They are for their well-being, and this is the reason for God’s commandments.
Of course, the law of unintended consequences applies to laws and rules that are intended for positive purposes, and human nature is the reason for that. As soon as you tell a child not to do something, an insatiable curiosity is created to do that very thing. Paul indicates that the same is true of all of us, that the law actually entices us to do the very things that we know we ought not to do.
Another thing that law does is to identify two types of people. One group of people tend to see the law as an obstacle or a challenge and are interested in bending or breaking them. See, for example, the Prodigal Son. The other group of people are not only happy to have the law, but they want to expand it and amplify it and spell out all the implications and ramifications of it. See, for example, the Elder Brother. This is how you end up with book after book of commentary about what it means to keep the Sabbath day holy, with definitions of how many steps you can walk without it being work, prohibitions against healing someone on the Sabbath, and so forth.
So the Ten Commandments were and are a good thing, and Israel knew this and rejoiced in them. There are four which guide our relationship with God: you shall not worship other gods, practice idolatry, or use God’s name in the wrong way, and as God rested on the Sabbath day, so should you. There are six which guide our relationships with other people: honor your father and mother, you shall not kill or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness or covet what belongs to others. I’m not saying they are easy to follow, but they are easy to understand and it is clear why a society is better off when people live by them. Jesus affirmed these commandments in several ways, most notably by summing the two groups up in the great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That was the point and the goal of the Ten Commandments, to lead people into that kind of life.
But there was something in the basic nature of these people God had created that undermined the goodness of creation and the goodness of the law. There were these tendencies to rebel and to create layer upon layer of derivative laws that made obedience to the law feeling like being in prison already. The presence of these two extremes contributed even more to the commandments being broken. Finally, after giving them chance after chance to get it right, God realized that people were not ever going to be able to follow law sufficiently to be reliable covenant partners. So he moved on to a new covenant, which we will begin talking about next week.
That does not mean the Ten Commandments are invalid for Christians. We should not ignore them, nor should we make an idol out of them as some do. I’d like to close with two favorite quotes about the Ten Commandments, one old and one new.
The first is from John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian form of denominationalism back in the Reformation. He said that the Ten Commandments continue to serve three purposes for Christians. First, in showing us how we are supposed to live before God and with our neighbors, they expose our sinfulness and need of God’s grace. Second, they remind the community that sin is never just individual but also corporate, social, and institutional. And thirdly, they play the positive role of lighting the path and show us how to live as people who have been saved by God through Jesus Christ. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, pp. 77-78)
And current writer Craig Kocher says, “The commandments come as gift from God to the people of Israel to structure their common life, and to shape individual lives that are worthy of the God who has rescued them and with whom they are in covenant. They should not be read as divine finger-wagging or moral hand slapping… Like boundary lines on a football field or basketball court, the commandments outline the basic expectations of human behavior and protect the human community from running out of bounds and falling into patterns of living that will destroy it and lead the people into self-inflicted chaos. At the same time, the commandments provide encouragement for a healthy and proper love of God and neighbor.” (p. 76)
For 1200 years the people of Israel lived under the Mosaic Covenant, at the heart of which lay the Ten Commandments. The Jewish people have lived under the Mosaic Covenant for another 2000 years after that. Christians believe that God established a new covenant with people 2000 years ago, a covenant no longer written on stone but written on hearts, a covenant brought in by Jesus Christ. Next week we will begin looking at this shift in the covenant relationship as Old Testament prophets looked forward to a new day in hope.
David J. Bailey
March 8, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church