The story of the 10 Commandments describes a very Charleston Heston moment where Moses climbs the fiery, trembling, shaking and baking mountain until he reaches the very top and sees the Shekanih—very glory of God. It was a supernatural event that scared every man, woman and child who saw it. To use today’s language, it was filled with shock and awe! Moses spends time on the mountain and is given the 10 commandments––the very groundwork that would be used to create God’s special people.
The 10 Commandments are exquisite—but I am not going to write about the meaning of each of them. The Torah, countless books, seminaries and thousands of years of Judeo-Christian tradition have discussed them extensively. Who am I to add to all of this? Instead, let’s think instead about the reason they were created and given to us in the first place. Let’s look at the lawgiver instead of the law.
What makes the Commandments unique?
I am sure that one could compose a powerful argument that in Moses’s time, the ten Commandments represent an unusual good—especially when one considers how cheap and expendable people’s property and lives were. That in itself would make it worthy of study. But I would argue, and with good scholarship on my side, that the specific ideas represented by each of the ten Commandments were not that unusual or unique–even for that day. For instance, the Babylonian code of Hammurabi contains many of the Commandments found in the law of Moses. In fact, some scholars believe that Moses copied significant portions of this code.
So, if it’s not the thou shalts or thou shalt nots that make this code so exceptional, what does? I believe it is this: It’s the idea expressed in the very first commandment, the one which says You shall have no other gods before me. And here’s my thesis:
The laws given to Moses were meant to create a special people of God that would one day inhabit the land that would become the nation of Israel. When we hear people talking about the ten Commandments today it is not creating the people of God. They are talking about something else entirely. In fact–these very jewels of Judeo-Christianity have come to represent, to so many in our culture, some of the most repressive ideas about God and God’s people. What happened?
From a People of God to Cultural Orthodoxy
How did we get from creating a people of God to the cultural perception that we are forcing people into an orthodoxy of God, religion, country, politics, insurance plans and economic systems? Some may think it inappropriate to ask such questions. After all, aren’t we here today to celebrate Scripture? Aren’t we here today to celebrate our traditions even if they’re not all that well understood by those about us?
The answer is a qualified yes. But we are also told to be as lights in the world, but how can we be those things if instead we are perceived stumbling blocks?
Tablets of Stone
Let’s begin by noticing that the 10 Commandments were given on tablets of stone. Tradition tells us that they were engraved by God’s very own hand. Even as Moses came down from the mountain problems arose.
He saw the people worshiping Idols and participating in indecent rituals. In anger, Moses smashes the stone tablets upon the ground breaking them into pieces. The Commandments would have to be written once again, but this time it could not be written in stone. Jewish tradition has it that the stone Commandments brought down from the mountain represent something that is hard and inflexible—a great ideal that doesn’t square with human experience. The commandments would be rewritten a second time upon something other than stone.
Laws are Irresistible
There is something irresistible about having rules plainly written in stone. As a teacher I understand this. My students want to know exactly what will be on the test. And further, in today’s world of academia, it is considered a sign of great learning to create a grading rubric that clearly explains how I will grade an assignment—complete with numerical notations. So many times I’ve heard my fellow professors bemoan that students are less interested in learning and more interested in memorizing whatever will be on a test. Stone tablets tell us what will be on the test—but they don’t necessarily mean that we love God.
We think we want to know exactly what God expects of us. We want those Commandments written in stone. We want God’s rules and expectations to be made plain. At least we say we do. There are many people who are willing to tell you very plainly what they mean–many churches exist for that very purpose!
But notice what we do. We take those Commandments and began to dissect each one of them.
We ask, What does it mean, thou shalt not kill? Is killing the same as murder? Is it okay to kill in war-time? Is it okay to kill an intruder robbing our homes? Is God really saying there are no circumstances in which killing another human is permitted? And what about adultery? Didn’t God allow men to have multiple wives? That wasn’t adultery was it? And didn’t the Kings have concubines? And weren’t men in battle allowed to bring home young women from their conquered lands?
Yes, that’s what we do with every single command of God. We analyze and parse them to death. And our interpretations of these commands become a law unto themselves. Differing groups of people spring up who interpret one way and another group springs up who sees it very differently. And then we are left with a vexing problem, What shall we do with all those people who did not interpret the law the same way that we do? We draw sharp boundaries and declare that our group is right and their group is wrong. In Jesus day there were the laws of the scribes and Pharisees—and of course those outcasts Samaritans. There were laws to tell people how to understand the laws. Laws on top of laws. Then at some point, the people who created the laws that interpret the laws became a power unto themselves–and even able to decide matters of life and death.
From Stone Tables to Stoning Others
In Jesus day the temple had become a marketplace for buying and selling animals for sacrifice. Under the guise of Jewish law the temple became a pawn of the Roman state as well as an economic and tax base. And that’s the big temptation of laws. We become more impressed in our abilities to interpret them instead of worshiping the God who created them—and then at some point we pervert the law altogether for our human advantage—usually for political and economic ones.
It’s not much different in our day. Here in the great state of Oklahoma there are churches on every corner. We have a lot of religious people living here. We have strong ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. And there can be a huge intolerance of anyone who does not construct the world according to our secular religious and political views. We also have those in the highest branches of our state government who wish to place the ten Commandments as monuments in places owned by the state. And we are not the only ones. There are any number of states who have passed laws requiring the Commandments be placed in public places such as schools, courthouses, and state capitols.
With so many lawsuits in state and federal courts, it would seem that the ten Commandments have become a significant battleground issue. Even the church of Satan wishes to have a say in the matter. As you know, they have brought suit against the state for the right to place their monuments in state-owned spaces alongside of the Christians.
Ads are running on television with elected officials and hopeful ones proclaiming their faith in God along with patriotism, a desire for strong free-market economy and anti-care policies. Pay attention, and see if I’m not telling you the truth. And where is God in all of this?
The Monument I Want to See
The beautiful Commandments, given to us by God, to make us his people have become a law unto themselves. These laws are not used to form a people of God, but to impose interpretations and political will of one group upon another. It’s not the decalogue that’s to blame, it’s what people have done to them. If the scriptures all point to Jesus, and Jesus claims that he came to fulfill the law are true, we should listen to what he says in this matter. He says the law can be summed up in this statement, love the Lord with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength–and your neighbor as yourself. Now that’s a monument I could support.