- There are only Ten Commandments. That is hardly enough to govern a people. There should be more, don’t you think? People need to be reigned in, and fenced up, and tamed, and forbidden, and protected. Do you know how many kinds of law there are: constitutional and administrative law, criminal law, contract law, tort law, property law, labor law, human rights Law! And what about zoning?—do you know someone could block your view of the bay if you’re not careful, or turn your side street into a strip mall, or put an incinerator in your back yard? Thank goodness for the Ten Commandments—but only ten!? Then again, maybe it’s a good thing—you know, with all the negative press commandments are given these days. Nobody wants restrictions. We are internally wired to shout out the battle cry of Patrick Henry (and the license plate motto of the State of New Hampshire) “Give me liberty or give me death!” Freedom is the highly vaunted human-right du jour; including freedom from oppressive deities with all their divine laws! No wonder the monument of the Ten Commandments was removed from Judge Roy Moore’s courtroom in Alabama as if it were a heavy millstone tied around our necks from a bygone era (as an aside, did you know it weighed a burdensome 5,280 lbs?!). Thomas Long (homelitics prof. @ Emory) comments, “In the popular consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens…most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-waving ‘Thou shalt not.” So yes, ten seems too few, and at the same time too many, and so perhaps it is just enough. The point is, there is such a thing as too few commandments—a reckless autonomy can be just as destructive as an iron-fisted totalitarianism—and there is such a thing as too many commandments. But what we have in the ‘Ten’ Commandments is a rooted, sturdy, tree trunk as broad as a barn, and then a glut of imaginative space above to be filled with branches forming a safe and happy canopy. Their brevity ensures that the details of life in a God-fearing community be worked out in freedom by the careful discernment of community members in conversation with God’s ‘ten-words’ (the Decalogue). This is the wisdom of God. Who gives us not too many, not too few, but just enough.
- God spoke the Ten Commandments. They first came to us by God’s thunderous voice. “Then God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). They were so authoritative, that the people hearing them trembled, and stood at a distance. Then they begged Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses comforted the people. He told them, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” The people continued, however, to stand at a distance, and only Moses dared draw near to the ‘thick darkness’ where God was. And thereafter, only Moses spoke the remainder of God’s laws to the people—the so-called Book of the Covenant (found in Exodus 20:22-23:33). The Ten Commandments stand out then, from the other laws that followed. They were the only laws given that day without a mediator. They were the most sacred—the most set apart. They were the laws that brought the people to their knees, so serious was their intonation. We learn them now in cute songs, and we have trivia contests to see who can quote them all first. But our Sunday School faith should be reminded that in their first hearing there was no happiness, or merriment. God’s covenant of obedience with Israel was serious business.
- The Ten Commandments begin with a preamble that reminds us that the Israelite’s primary experience of God was of one who “brought [them] out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of slavery.” The invitation to join with God in a covenant of obedience (the invitation put forward by the Ten Commandments) is an invitation to be liberated from the empire. Perhaps this is why the Ten Commandments say nothing at all about how the people are to structure their human government–there is no sanction of a monarchy, there is no demanded obedience to human leaders. Instead, at the heart of the commandments, is the Shabbat (the ceasing) of all labor and forced work, which is a law so important (linked here to God’s great act of creation) that it applies across the board to all and every man, woman, and child, every slave, every alien, and even includes the animals of the fields (and in Deuteronomy 5 the fields themselves!), and no ruling body (even a master) can offer veto. The Ten Commandments remind us that there are no brick quotas in God’s community—that freedom is not found in productivity and work, the attainment of wealth and glory, and the chaotic scramble to achieve beyond that of another.
- The God of the Ten Commandments is jealous. God self discloses this in Exodus 20:5, “You shall not bow down to [idols] or worship them; for I am a jealous God.” God is so jealous he punishes infidelity to the third and fo urth generation—meaning, if the Israelite’s great grandparents mess up, the Israelites great grandchildren still pay the price. We find this offensive, and perhaps well we should. I don’t know what to make of God’s jealousy—it seems beneath an ideal I feel should exist. Perhaps it is the condescension of God at work—giving us an explanation that we can understand, although imperfect in meaning. We know that all our words, all our metaphors, all our analogies will fail to describe God the way God is to God’s self. So be it—we are finite, God is infinite, and so we read that God is ‘jealous.’ When we wrestle with God’s jealousy, and its punishing ways, we should also remember the converse—that God is so jealous—says Exodus 20:6—that to the descendent of faithful he shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation. The commandments tell us, that God’s jealousy is more advantageous to the faithful, than it is harmful to the unfaithful.
- The Lord’s name can be used wrongly. We are familiar with the Bible version that said, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” As a child, this meant that I refrained from uttering the popular “Oh my God…”, or the emphatic, “Jesus Christ.” My parents even frowned on such phrases as “Thank God it’s Friday” or “God bless you” after a sneeze. Those phrases were too trite, too pedestrian, and God was too holy to be flung around on our tongue so flippantly. It was one of the ways I was taught to be set apart and different. To this day, those words do not cross my lips—old taboos hold a certain power over you. I have come understand the misuse of God’s name in quite a different way, however. I have come to think of it as misplaced attribution. It is calling the things that aren’t God, God. It is calling things that are God, not God. This is more serious than a slip of the tongue. It is instead an issue of the heart, and a problem with our theology. Each one of us has an idea of what makes up God. In a way God lives in our heads and hearts, as a mental construct. Now the God outside our heads and hearts is very real, and is refining our construct with providential care. Yet at times, we are far more comfortable with an old construct, then we are with a new understanding. And in our rigidity, we hold up our idol of certainty, and we say “OMG! My LORD, and my God.” So be careful what you call God, and have humility in your current understandings, and keep from being vain.