This is the 8th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments. This and all remaining essays will deal with what we call The Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under My Links: "Essays on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments."
To make it easier to understand this essay and to reference the relevant Biblical passages I am including here at the beginning those passages that most closely relate to this essay.
From Exodus 20
1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
One of the first things you notice is that modern Bibles break the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, into 17 verses. The breakout is not entirely arbitrary, but it is not well thought out either. And it came about centuries ago, when it was decided that the Bible would be easier to read if it were broken into books, chapters and verses. Sometimes it is easier. But other times it is just more confusing. And here, at the Decalogue, it is confusing.
Since we often see the Ten Commandments on statements, brochures, signs and elsewhere there is an assumption that we know what each commandment is, what its number is, and which verse contains it in the Bible. But that is not quite so.
The vast majority of the signs we see of the Decalogue are shorthand phrases of longer phrases in the Bible. It can get pretty confusing trying to walk through that maze. So I am going to walk us through a bit of that fog today. So just hang on, and we will make it to the other side unscathed.
Here is the first important thing to know in order to help you understand how the Decalogue is arranged. The first FOUR commandments are about our relationship with God, with the 4th commandment acting as a bridge to the remainder of the commandments. The SIX remaining commandments deal with how we relate to one another. Thus, ALL of the commandments deal with relationships: God with us and we with one another.
Now for a bit of maze walking. What is the first commandment?
It clearly is not verse 1: "Then God spoke all these words:"
But is it verse 2? "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;"
Or is it verse 3? "You shall have no other gods before me."
Well, Jewish tradition says verse 2 is the first commandment. But Christians say verse 3 is the first commandment, with verse two being just a preamble.
However, verse two is far more than a preamble. It is the basis of the "Shema," the holiest of Jewish prayers. Many of you know it, if not by that name. The Shema says, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."
Christians may remember that Jesus assumed that everyone knew the first sentence of the Shema and recited only the second, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." And then he said that the "second" commandment was "like it," saying, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." He then said that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. In other words everything else in the Bible rests on keeping these two "commandments."
Now, clearly, neither of these two great religious statements, which Jesus called "commandments" is one of what we think of as the Ten Commandments. But both the Shema and the first and greatest commandment which Jesus recites derive from the proclamation of Yahweh the he and he alone is "the Lord your God." So Jewish tradition should make sense to both Jews and Christians. I will come back to that in a bit.
But, first, I want to show a bit more of the complication here before we move on. If you are a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran chances are that you have been taught that the first commandment is ALL of verses 3 through 6, which have to do with "having no other gods." In other words, verse four which says not to make idols, and verse 5, which says not to worship such idols, are seen as elaborations, details explaining verse 3.
So, in order to come up with TEN commandments you have to split verse 17, which deals with not coveting, into commandments which deal with different aspects of "coveting."
Most Protestant Christians say that verse 3 is the First Commandment, that verses 4 through 6 is the 2nd Commandment, and verse 7 is the 3rd Commandment. That way you can come up with a total of ten commandments without splitting verse 17.
I have actually seen it proposed that one could logically keep verse 2 as the first commandment as Jewish tradition does, split verse 5 into 2 parts, split verse 17 into 7 parts and so forth and come up with from 11 to 19 Commandments, depending on how you separate phrases.
And, that would be just as logical as saying there are ten commandments. In fact, ten is not a particularly "holy" number and numerologists would no doubt rather have the Twelve Commandments, given the twelve tribes of Israel and the holiness thought by some to be attached to that number.
My guess is that about now God is shaking his head and laughing at the absurdity of worrying about this, let alone fighting to have the Ten Commandments put up in public places, where they have no business being, but that discussion comes later in the series so I will not belabor it here.
My own feeling is that God is a whole lot less concerned with how we count than God is with what we do about obeying or living by the spirit of those commandments. If we must have 10 rather than 19 that is fine with me. But we are clearly not going to agree on how to split up the text to arrive at ten.
Keep in mind that this is no more problematic than trying to figure out the exact names of the original disciples of Jesus or trying to figure out who exactly were the twelve disciples, and coming to the conclusion that there were no more than twelve tribes of Israel. We can not be certain about those figures either.
Because I am a liberal Protestant theologian and am comfortable with what I was taught early on, I will go by the majority of Protestant positions on the Decalogue. This is not because it is better or "more right" than the other ways the Decalogue can be split up, but it is the way I can talk about it comfortably.
Accordingly, and no drum roll please, the FIRST commandment is Verse 3: "You shall have no other gods before me."
The SECOND commandment is Verses 4 through 6 with Verses 5 and 6 elaborations on verse 4. "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." The shorthand version of commandment #2 is simply, "You shall not make for yourself an idol."
The THIRD commandment in this counting scheme is Verse 7. "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name." Again, the shorthand version of the third commandment is the first phrase of the commandment, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God."
Now, having settled that to no ones satisfaction except a few uptight Protestants who really care about these things for reasons that elude me, I want to come back, as I said I would, to Verse 2 and explain why the Jews are in the most fundamental theological sense right.
Their tradition says that the 1st commandment should be the statement of who Yahweh is, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." This bothers those who are literalistic in their understanding of English since it is a statement of "fact," and not strictly a command to do something when viewed literally in English.
But, if it is a "fact" it is a fact that almost no one else knew at the time the Decalogue was spoken, and one that you know, simply from reading this series, the Israelites themselves challenged more than once.
But here, in stark clarity, Yahweh tells the people the He and He alone is the only God that they need, and they must remember that he is bound to this people by holy covenant. Keep in mind that in those days most people believed in many gods. Many of the Israelites believed that there were more than one god and to be safe several should be prayed to and appeased. Here Yahweh does not try to disabuse them of that belief. Remember that Yahweh has just proven that he could defeat the "gods of the Egyptians." Rather, here Yahweh makes the simple point that this Yahweh is the God who saves THEM.
It will only be much later in the development of the theology of Israel when Israel will come to believe that there are no other gods, period. That is, they will come to believe that no other gods even EXIST.
For now it is only necessary that the Israelites believe that Yahweh is the one with the proven track record: This Yahweh is the God who saves, delivers and redeems them from the dreaded 400 year captivity within Egypt. It is this special and specific God who has chosen this special and specific people to be the ones he loves, holds close and protects. And it is this God that the people must learn to worship and obey in gratitude for that love and protection.
If what comes next sounds familiar it is because I have walked you by this point before. But it cannot be overstated if you are to understand the place of the Decalogue within the context of salvation history. The conditions of the covenant, the details of the Torah, and all the minor and detailed laws that spring from interpretations of it, are the result first of God's deliverance of the people, saving them from bondage in Egypt.
He can make the demands he makes of the people in following the commandments of the Decalogue precisely because of the GRACE that he has ALREADY given to them. This Torah, this instruction for living, is not to be seen as another form of bondage, but as the GIFT of a redeeming God, the GIFT of the instruction as to how to live a full and holy life under this one God, Yahweh.
If we cannot see the so-called "Law" of the Ten Commandments in this light then we miss the entire ebb and flow of our relationship with God. For God always provides the pure grace of deliverance, redemption and salvation before any guidelines for living are promulgated. And by so doing we can respond to the Instruction for Living, the Torah, in gratitude. If we miss this point we might conceive of Torah as another form of servitude, something not even remotely true theologically.
Think of it this way. The "Law" is not given to them so that, IF they obey it they will be God's people. The Israelites are already God's people. Thus the Law or Torah can never been seen as a means of salvation. God saves, delivers, heals and redeems because he loves us, not because we follow some set of instructions, as important as those instructions may be.
Thoughtful Jews never consider Torah as a unique vessel for salvation. They know that they were saved from bondage in Egypt before the Torah came alone. Rather they see the Torah, what Christians too often call narrowly as "Law," as teaching or instruction regarding how to live a redeemed life day to day under the guidance of the LORD.
Here in the beginning of the Decalogue God is affirming WHO HE IS and he does that on moral grounds. This God of Israel, our God, is defined not in vague philosophical or theological propositions, but is defined by the very nature of the moral imperatives He will place upon the people. He is a HOLY GOD and he will insist that HIS PEOPLE BE HOLY.
It is no accident that Jewish tradition sees verse two as the First Commandment. Verse 2 defines "who they are" by telling them WHO THEIR GOD IS. Logically, it would be of little help to tell them that they should "have no other gods before me," if the people had little or no idea who the God that they were to honor in that way was and is. They could have no respect for such a God because that God would have shown no love, care and protection to them. Yahweh did and still does show that today.
Speaking of now, how much respect do we have for God? Do we really know who God is? Does each of us, individually, have a concrete idea, a firm belief, that in some way relevant to our individual lives the God we worship is the one who redeems, delivers, heals and saves us?
Perhaps that sounds too easy. But it is not. It is precisely at times when we forget that the grace of God precedes anything we must do in thanksgiving for that grace that we chafe at God's rules, and often break them.
But, my friends, a strong argument can be made that if we really believed that God is God and that God has our well being first in his heart, we would not chafe at the rules for living and would instead obey and trust God in thanksgiving for his grace.
The Torah, both written and spoken, is at the heart of Jewish morality. And I know some Christians who would like to see it as not applying to us. But that is totally anathema to orthodox Christian teaching.
Besides that, if we Christians truly believe that God is God and we are grateful for our personal salvation as Christians the promulgation of rules for living is standard Christian instruction. You can pick up just about any book in the New Testament, say, the letters of Peter, Paul or John and you will be told over and over and over that believing Christians ARE saved, ARE holy, and ARE sanctified. In fact that we ARE God's own saints.
And yet, even while knowing that, every one of the great apostles shook his head not only at our inability to avoid sinning, but at their own. Even the greatest of the apostles could not meet the tests that they clearly say that we have ALREADY MET because of faith in Christ.
So, for Christians, the big question is how can we possibly be holy, sanctified, and saved if we sin all the time? And it is a good question.
The truth is that we cannot save ourselves. Writers like Peter, Paul, John and the writer of Hebrews stress heavily that we cannot save ourselves, that only Jesus can do that. Paul says it best. I will paraphrase. We are saved not by our merits, not by our good works, not even by our holiness, but because when we believe in Jesus, the Christ. Once we believe in God's Son, God considers us ("reckons us") to be righteous for the sake of his Son, through the sacrifice he made for us on the Cross.
So, just as the Israelites were already saved from bondage in Egypt by the grace of Yahweh BEFORE they received the Torah, and were already God's chosen people bound by covenant to Yahweh even before he spoke the Ten Commandments, so too, Christians like me believe that they are saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ.
I believe that it is important to try to live up to the Torah and the instructions for living that apply to Christians and Jews. But if we cannot we have a remedy at hand within both faiths which is to admit our sin and be cleansed once more to be vicars of God. That is good news for Jews and Christians alike. In fact it is Amazing Grace!
Next: Snares and pitfalls in applying the Decalogue. And just who do these commandments apply to anyway?