Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 6: The Ten Commandments

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6 – Ten Commandments

As our series on Old Testament law and New Testament ethics continues, I thought it best to point our attention to the Ten Commandments in this post. (We’ll pick up the material on sinful impurity soon.) The previous posts are as follows.

1 – Prefatory Playfulness
2 – Love and Leviticus 
3 – Practice and Priorities
4 – Abominations
5 – Ritual Impurity

Unlike the previous posts, in this one I will provide a short essay that derives from a sermon I preached at St. Leonard’s Church in Eynsham, England, on 21 March 2010. At the end of the post you will find the sermon itself, which you can stream or download.

Ten Commandments 

It is commonplace to imitate the Ten Commandments, not necessarily offering an alternative set of moral rules but a set of rules for particular kinds of tasks. Thus we find “the ten commandments of” various professions and practices, of both the remarkable and the routine: of marriage and medicine, and even of the Mafia; of picnicking and painting, and even of politicking. Imitation may indeed be a form of flattery, but it also may trivialize the original, downgrading it from divine command to an inconvenience.

Then there are the impostors, such as “The Ten Commandments of Atheism.” From the contemptuous diatribes of Christopher Hitchens to the mocking monologues of Stephen Frye, there is profit in professional infidelities. Yet even they feel compelled to offer alternative lists of ethical imperatives (or, at least, compelling suggestions).

Despite the imitations and the impostors, in Exodus 20 we are invited to contemplate, appreciate, and even appropriate the original Ten Commandments. They are among the most well-known verses in the Bible — often memorized, more often forgotten, perhaps most often broken. For millennia they have provided concise moral standards, informing the traditions of law and of liberty.

A Trinity of Inhumanities 

The Ten Commandments were revealed in a historical and cultural context. The opening chapters of Exodus describe the Hebrews as enslaved in Egypt. They had grown numerous and Pharaoh had grown nervous (Exodus 1:8-10). He oppressed the Hebrews with hard labor (Exodus 1:11-15; 2:23). He also sought to limit their numbers through selective infanticide (Exodus 1:16-22).

The Hebrews faced persistent threats of pronounced and profound injustice. In the Ancient Near East, idolatry was commonplace. Not only were there many deities, there were imaginative modes of worship (see Deuteronomy 4:15-19). Typically found in conjunction with idolatry was immorality of some variety (see Leviticus 20:1ff; Numbers 25:1-3).

Thus we find what might be termed a trinity of inhumanities: idolatry, immorality, and injustice. These were commonplace features and practices throughout the Ancient Near East, an not particularly uncommon in our own day.

The Hebrews were tempted to adopt and imitate such practices: idolatry (see Exodus 32; Deuteronomy 4), immorality (see 1 Kings 14:21-24; Hosea 4:13-14), and injustice (see Exodus 23:1-9; Deuteronomy 19:15ff). (Unfortunately, at times, in the history of Israel, the Hebrews rather excelled at such practices, as their own prophets attest.)

In the exodus, God delivers the Hebrews and reconstitutes them as his people, as a holy people, as a just society. God graciously and powerfully rescues them from their sorrowful subjugation, from the inhabited idolatry, from encultured immorality, from institutionalized injustice. They are redeemed to enjoy liberty, authenticity, holiness, and to be socially upright. So, the Ten Commandments answer to cultures and customs of oppression and exploitation, of falsehood and infidelity.

You Are Invited 

“And God spoke all these words…” (Exodus 20:1).

The ancient Hebrews faced a choice, just as we do today. Will we read these commandments as mere products of human rumination or as pronouncements of divine revelation? If we choose the former, then we find ourselves replacing divinity, the determiners of right and wrong, structuring our personal and social standards to suit our whims. Rather than imitating God as humans created in God’s image, we become inauthentic imitations, cultivating cultural habits of idolatry, immorality, and injustice.

Free to Serve 

“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:1).

The saving actions of God in the exodus provide the theological context of the Ten Commandments. Salvation precedes obedience, though the call to truthfulness, to faithfulness never is absent from our relationship with God, or our relationships with other humans. God saves us from slavery to sin, not for license but for liberty, granting freedom to serve him in holiness (see Exodus 9:1). Obedience is responsive, a mutual faithfulness to the one who delivers.

First, God 

In the first two commands we are confronted with the exclusivity of God (Exodus 20:3-6). All other claimants to divinity are invalid since there is only one true God (see Deuteronomy 4:35, 39). Idols are distortions, imitations, dishonoring technologies that subvert reality.

To construct idols of the true God, thus to worship the true God falsely, is tantamount to worshiping false gods. We are called to avoid worshiping the wrong gods and also to avoid wrongly worshiping the true God. As idolatry is a false imaging of God, so our words about God must not be false (Exodus 20:7) — neither attributing to God that which is untrue, nor denying of him that which is true.

Now, the Rest 

The fourth command, the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), provides a transition from our obligations toward God to our obligations toward fellow human beings (who themselves bear the image of God).

This command orients us with respect to our Creator and with regard to those under our care. It wards off the oppression of selfish ambition, of covetous greed, of a domineering marketplace, and of personal, familial and national powers that siphon off our God-granted purpose, dignity, and liberty.

Honoring Others 

The fifth command guards parental honor and presents the promise of longevity (Exodus 20:12). The sixth prohibits the unjust destruction of human lives — the bearers of God’s image (Exodus 20:13; see Genesis 9:6). The seventh commandment safeguards the holiness of the home (Exodus 20:14). The eighth commandment secures the rights of ownership and property (Exodus 20:15). The ninth commandment demands truth-telling, particularly in legal matters (Exodus 20:16).

The Heart of the Matter 

Christians naturally and normally read the Ten Commandments in light of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Sometimes we suppose that when Jesus spoke of lustful eyes and hearts (Matthew 5:27-30) that he somehow deepened the law, moving it from our hands to our hearts.

This overlooks the tenth commandment, the one that prohibits coveting your neighbor’s spouse and property (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). God has ever been concerned with the desires of our hearts (see Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:4), with what and how we desire and love.

What is envy? Envy is disordered desire, inordinate impulse, excessive appetite. Such desires may or may not manifest in unjust or immoral actions, but they will color our characters, wash over our wills, and provide ample motives toward malicious mischief.

Testimony of the Testaments 

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus — as a Jewish teacher, as a prophet, even as the royal Messiah — speaks of many matters in ways that resonate with ancient and contemporary concerns. He counters and corrects weakened and distorted teachings regarding God’s laws (see Mark 7:20-23; 10:19). He calls us to repent and toward lives of love and fashions of faithfulness. Indeed, if we love Jesus, then we will be inclined to obey his commands (John 14:15; 15:10), for love fulfills the law and law gives shape to love.

One final note, lest we overlook a very important observation. As one might expect, the New Testament presents us with clear regular warnings against the trinity of inhumanities as well. Thus we find warnings against, even prohibitions of, idolatry (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-22), immorality (see Galatians 5:19-21), and injustice (see Ephesians 4:28, 21). The references could be multiplied.

Time for some reading in the Scriptures, I should think. 

Until next time.

The Sermon 

Here is the sermon I mentioned above. You may listen below or download the mp3 file from here: Ten Commandments (just right click and save as). Unfortunately, the recording suffers from some imperfections. Sorry about that. But I hope you enjoy it, are encouraged by it, and find it informative.

 

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