Rembrandt van Rijn. Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law. 1659. Oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.
The Ten Commandments are so familiar to most of us Christians that we are hardly surprised by them. That’s at least partially because they come pre-packaged, neatly arranged and numbered for consumer use. There’s even a Catholic and Lutheran numbering system that obscures that pesky command not to make idols, lest someone ask embarrassing questions about crucifixes and other religious images. But read the Decalogue in context and it’s anything but routine. There’s some controversial stuff in there.
Exodus 20:3-17 contains the Ten Commandments proper, but the other verses in the chapter are just as important, if not more so. My reaction when reading the passage as a whole is not ho-hum, but astonishment. Immediately after the last command we read, “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off” (18). This scary God is so different from the loving Heavenly Father Jesus taught us about that some, like Marcion in the second century, have even suggested they are two different gods, one angry, the other loving. If they are not two gods, How do we explain the Janus-like character of the Holy One? Does God have multiple personalities? Did he mellow out over the centuries between Sinai and the Cross?
I’m not sure I have a good answer to these questions, but I think at least part of the answer comes in the opening of the chapter. Introducing this highly memorable summary of the law, God says, “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2). Just as the Ten Commandments are a summary of the Mosaic Law, this verse is a summary of Hebrew theology—who God is and what He’s done for his people. It recalls the passage where Moses asked what name he should tell the Israelites when asked who sent him, and God replied, “I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14). It’s a maddeningly elusive title for the Divine Being. His name Yahweh, translated LORD with all capital letters, means “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Trying to pin down this God is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.
Although this Hebrew God’s identity is somewhat mysterious, his deeds are crystal clear. He’s the one who brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. What follows is not a law code. There are no punishments listed. It’s a set of ethical principles suited to people who are now free. Freedom is not the same as libertinism. Free people have to act a certain way to maintain their liberty, and God’s people must behave as God commands or risk removing themselves from his covenant people. God made his covenant with all Israelites, but he puts ethical demands on every Israelite. The thees and thous of the King James Bible, though archaic, are more precise than the yous and yours of modern translations. The pronouns thee and thou are singular. “Thou” is used to address the individual, not the group. Each believer stands before God and is accountable to keep God’s ethical demands. What are those demands?
Using the Jewish and (non-Lutheran) Protestant numbering, the Decalogue can be divided roughly in half: the first four laws govern our relationship with God, the last six our relationship with others. Which are the hardest to keep? For moderns, probably one of the latter ones such as no coveting, lying, or adultery. For ancient Hebrews the first two were the hardest: no other gods and no idols. Even while Moses was receiving the tablets with the law written by the finger of God, the people were making and worshiping an idol, the golden calf.
Polytheism was the dominant religion in the ancient world. Monotheism, the belief in only one God, was a hard sell. The Hebrews had been living in Egypt, surrounded by polytheism for centuries. Following this singular God into the wilderness was an experiment, and some were already growing weary of it. They longed for gods they could see. They hungered for familiar surroundings and home cooking. Some even wondered aloud whether this scary God who drowned Pharaoh’s army had brought them out to the desert just to kill them.
Yahweh was not like the Egyptain gods. He was jealous and demanded sole worship, much like god of Akhenaten’s failed experiment in Egyptian monotheism. He would forgive many things, but like a jealous spouse, God would not forgive infidelity. The first two commandments address this problem. Worshiping other gods was Israel’s original sin. For centuries they struggled to remain faithful to this demanding God, who wanted an exclusive relationship. Only after the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century BCE did the Israelites no longer commit spiritual adultery. When the law was first given, the Hebrew people were religiously conflicted even while their spiritual leaders were laying the foundations of a monotheistic tradition which has grown to the point where it now claims the allegiance of the majority of people in the world today.
So why was the Hebrew God so fearful and harsh? Maybe that’s what the Hebrews needed at the time to set the on the right (monotheistic) path early in their religious development. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). It’s the beginning, the starting point, not the end. Fear can be instructive as with young children, who sometimes need swift and stern (but non-abusive) discipline to learn important lessons. When toddlers reach up to touch a hot stove, we don’t reason with them. We slap the child’s hand and say in a stern voice, “No! Dangerous!” The child cries, but it learns not to reach for a hot stove. When a teenager does something similar, as when my kids play with a lit candle at the dinner table, what do we do? We probably don’t slap their hands. We explain why it’s not smart: they may get a nasty burn or knock the candle over and start a fire. We appear kind and reasonable to them now, whereas we seemed harsh and angry when they were little. I’m not sure whether this explanation helps you, but it’s one way to understand the difference between the God of Old Testament and the God of the New.
Because we experience God as a loving, self-sacrificing parent, that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want, live however we want. Christians live under a new covenant in which the ethical demands are even stricter than under the old covenant. Jesus said as much in his Sermon on the Mount: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:21-22). God has not become a permissive parent, who lets us get away with whatever we want. Because we are in a covenantal relationship with God, we are expected to live better lives now than what was expected of the Israelites.
In fact, the new standard is perfection, and like the Ten Commandments it is rooted in the nature of God: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). “That’s impossible!” you say. “No one can live up to that standard!” I imagine that’s just how the Hebrews felt when they first heard the words of the Ten Commandments.