Nothing might appear simpler and more understandable than the Decalogue, commonly known as The Ten Commandments. But appearances can be deceiving.
For one thing, there are two separate listings: one in Exodus 20:1-17, and the other in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, our passage this week. Side by side, the differences are quite minor. There are also differences in the numbering in various renditions. So, what some call the First and Second Commandments, others combine as the First; and what some regard as the Tenth Commandment, others divide as two.
Although they appear to be simply and clearly stated, there is also disagreement regarding what they were supposed to mean to the ancient Israelites and what they should mean to us. For example, the Sixth Commandment says plainly, “You shall not kill,”
but some hold that this did not mean that all killing is sin. It was legal to kill your slave, seek revenge for the murder of kin, or kill in warfare. Other interpreters say that, if God had wanted to exempt certain types of killing, he would have had Moses say so.
The Fourth Commandment says, “Observe the Sabbath
day, to keep it holy.”
But this Sabbath day began at sundown Friday night and extended to sundown on Saturday. So, do Christians violate this commandment by observing Sunday instead? Some hold that the Ninth Commandment means lying in general, while others would limit it to the defamation of God, or another person’s character.
I have sited the above conflicts only to indicate that different people interpret the commandments differently. Applying them, then, is not as simple as we might assume. But, we should not get hung up on these differences and miss certain salient facts.
For one thing, these commandments are obviously linked with the covenant between God and the Israelites. God begins with a covenant, not commandments: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in
Horeb…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out
of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”
(5:3,6). Because of what God did for them as his people, the Decalogue is what he expects from them. We may divide them into two categories: duties to God and duties towards one’s neighbor. Any relationship between us and God must have ramifications for our relationship with others.
WHAT’S THE PURPOSE?
When children – and even adults – are given rules they sometimes wonder, aloud or to themselves, “Why must I do that?” They think of rules as something imposed upon them by someone else. But the commandments are not as much about compulsion by God, as they are principles of living that make life good for us and our community. There is nothing that God requires of us that is simply arbitrary, If we keep the Sabbath holy we profit from the rest of mind, body and spirit (5:12-15).. And if we honor our parents, the promise is that “your days may be prolonged, and that
it may be well with you…”
(5:16). Further, if our neighbor also keeps the commandments, we will be all the better for it.
This is true also with the teachings of Jesus. Hard as they may seem, the benefits are worth the cost. Do you want to be first? Then accept last place, says Jesus. Do you want to save your life? Then be willing to give it. Forgive others and you will be forgiven.
The teachings of Jesus are built on The Ten Commandments, but also take us considerably beyond them. Why didn’t God give all the law and the Gospel to the Israelites at Sinai? I believe the answer is that the laws given 3000 years ago were all that humans could handle at that time. Two thousand years ago, God revealed in Jesus the nature and foundations of his relationship with his people. Many of us haven’t yet mastered living by the Ten Commandments, let alone the Gospel of Jesus Christ.