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Exodus 20:1-20

September 29, 2014

The Ten Commandments are the most famous law code in the Bible–probably the most famous law code in the world.  But what makes the Ten Commandments so famous?  The fact is, the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are filled with all kinds of laws and regulations and instructions.  It is not just the Ten Commandments that get chiseled onto stone tablets and placed in the Ark of the Covenant; all the laws are placed there.  One could make a case that our obsession with these ten particular commandments is an artificial distinction.  There are other laws about freeing the oppressed and protecting the poor and canceling debts which we should give equal attention to.

And yet, the Ten Commandments do have a special place in the Bible.  For one thing they are repeated in Deuteronomy 5.  They are in a distinctive form:  “You shall …”  They also are preceded by an important prologue (verse 2).  Finally, they are alluded to in other parts of the Old Testament and by Jesus.  Clearly, these particular commandments were seen as fundamental to Israel’s covenant with God.

When I was a young boy in Sunday school I remember my teacher having a lesson on the Ten Commandments and then asking us, “Are there any commandments that you think should be added?”  We couldn’t think of any.  The teacher thus pointed out how perfect and complete the Ten Commandments are.

But since then I’ve come up with some additional commandments that I think ought to have been added:  How about, “Thou shalt not punch.”  Wouldn’t society be much better off, and a lot of needless fights be avoided, if we simply followed such a command?  How about, “Thou shalt not beat thy child.”  Think of all the little children whose lives might have been saved if the Ten Commandments had thought to protect children from child abuse.  How about, “Thou shalt not have sex with a minor.”  A lot of sexual abuse could’ve been avoided.  Not only are these commands missing from the Big Ten, they are missing entirely from the Old Testament.

I also think the Ten Commandments could have been a little more clear about what they are commanding.  Does not making an idol mean not making any visually representative art?  What exactly does it mean to make wrongful use of the name of God?  What constitutes work on the Sabbath–and are Christians allowed to move the Sabbath to Sunday?  Does honoring parents mean obeying them?  Does not killing mean not killing without authorization or not killing under any conditions?  Should adultery be defined as it is in the Old Testament, or as it’s defined by American law, or as it’s defined by Jesus?

I also wonder whether some of the Ten Commandments might not need some updating due to our very different cultural context.  Do we really need to worry about not “making” idols, or are idols now of a very different kind?  Do we really need to set aside the same day each week in which no one works, or in our world of hospitals and restaurants and stores do we need another way of keeping Sabbath?  And shouldn’t we revise the tenth commandment to make it gender inclusive and remove references to having slaves?

Finally, I wonder why some Christians are so insistent that the Ten Commandments be posted in classrooms and on courthouse lawns.  Setting aside the thorny issue of whether this violates the separation of church and state, and also setting aside the question of whether the Ten Commandments are meant for pluralistic society in general or only for those in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel, it seems to me that as Christians our preference ought to be for posting the commands that Jesus thought were the most important:  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (love God with all your being) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor as yourself).  Why aren’t Christians advocating for the public display of what Jesus called the two greatest commandments?  Or, another candidate I would suggest is Micah 6:8.  What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?  It seems to me our society would benefit more from that guidance than even from the Ten Commandments.

One last observation about the Ten Commandments:  we must always keep them connected to the prologue in verse 2.  When we ignore the prologue, then the Ten Commandments simply become a list of laws God demands that we follow, or else!  But the prologue makes it clear that these laws are in the context of a relationship of grace.  God is already on our side.  God has already rescued us.  God has already made us God’s own.  To complete the relationship, God now invites us into a response of moral and worshipful obedience.  Grace comes first, then law.  Law is the joyous, grateful response to grace.  If we do not get that sequence right, law hurts our relationship with God rather than helps us.

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