Which Commandment is the Pivot
Between Love towards God and Love towards Man?
by Jesse Ancona
- The Two Tablets of the Law
- Candidates for the Pivot – the Fifth, the Fourth, or…?
- What About the Two Great Commands?
- The Pivot Bites the Dust
- So, What About the Two Tablets?
- The Fruits of a Divided Law
- Christ Fought Divided Law More Than Any Other Error
- A Law without Division
The Two Tablets of the Law
We know that there were two tablets of the Law brought down from Mount Sinai1, but the Bible does not tell us what was on each tablet.
There is a Jewish tradition that one tablet contained the commandments towards God, and the other, the commandments towards men.2, 3 This seems to be the common belief among most Christians, as well.
Granted, for the moment, that we assume this, the question comes up, "which commandment divided the two tablets?" For some reason, people feel the dividing commandment is pivotal, and should be given extra emphasis, as being the bridge between love towards God and love towards one’s fellow man. Again, this is an assumption nowhere written in the Bible, but is a common idea.
Candidates for the Pivot – the Fifth, the Fourth, or…?
If we divide the commandments evenly into two, the first five would be towards God, the second five, towards man. This makes for some difficulty, as the fifth commandment is "Honour your father and your mother," obviously a command towards man.
This problem is resolved by seeing the fifth commandment as the "pivot" command, since, by honouring our parents, we honour our Heavenly Father. In this way, we show respect towards God by honouring our parents.
So far, so good. But if we back up one, we find the same thing with the Sabbath command. Not only are we showing respect for God by keeping the Sabbath holy, but we are showing kindness to others by not making them work on the Sabbath (Deut. 5:14-15). Even not looking at the fact those working for us are to be given the day off, we ourselves benefit from the Sabbath by resting: as Christ said, "The Sabbath was made for man," (Mk. 2:27) so this command also shows love towards man – even if only towards ourselves, though we know it extends to our whole household, including animals – so the Sabbath could also be seen as "the pivot."
Many Sabbatarians are happy to see the Sabbath this way, though, of course, the idea that the tablets are broken up into 4+6 instead of 5+5 is a bit problematical. We could, however, take into account the fact that the Sabbath command is very wordy, or just assume that symmetry in the tablets was not important to God.
Much as I hate to rain on Sabbatarians’ parade, we can just as easily go back one more commandment, and call the Third Commandment the pivot, since "not taking the name of the Lord in vain" is considered, by many sources, to refer not only to blasphemy, but to falsely swearing by God’s name – usually in a legal setting, or when making vows. And certainly, Paul tells us that bad behaviour makes unbelievers curse God because of us, so is blasphemy, and breaks this command (Ro 2: 23-24).
If we were to swear, in a court of Law, to a falsehood, this is not only breaking the Third Commandment, but is definitely something that can hurt another person, who could be affected by the outcome of one’s false swearing. So, we see that even the Third Commandment deals not only with God, but also with men.
How about the Second Commandment? Surely, this one is purely religious, and deals only with God? Tell it to the silversmiths who made their living producing statues of Diana in Ephesus, and were in danger of being put out of business by Paul! (Ac 19:24-27). Actually, images are very public things: they are often in public places, or semi-public places, like churches, or given public circulation in books and magazines. If someone breaks the Second Commandment, the image is there, confronting innocent bystanders, and affecting their reactions to the image, or their ideas of God. One could argue, in fact, that men are more affected by someone making an idol than God is: He may be offended and angered, but He is not misled or corrupted.
If we back up again, we get to the First Commandment, where we are forbidden to have any gods other than the true God. This, surely, is a purely religious commandment, towards God and not man! If so, then would we have one commandment on one tablet, and nine on the other? It seems somewhat absurd, at this point. Not to mention the fact that whether or not one worships the true God does affect others: it can affect the blessing of a family (1 Co 7:14), or even a nation. And, of course, there is the perhaps too-obvious fact that those who do not worship the true God may not see the need to keep various other commandments – which directly affects other people, and not God only!
What About the Two Great Commands?
But what about the two great commandments Christ referred to, loving God, and loving your neighbour as yourself? (Mt 22:36-39) These are definitely two great principles, not only of the Ten Commandments, but "on these hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Mt 22:40), or as modern Jewish people would put it, "the Torah and the Nevi’im," that is, great sections of the Bible, including the Pentateuch (Torah) and the Major and Minor Prophets (Nevi’im).
Nowhere does the Bible say that the Ten Commandments themselves can be neatly sliced in half, with half going towards God, and half towards man.
No, the two great commands are great principles that operate in tandem. We know that we cannot claim to love God whom we have not seen, if we don’t love our brother, whom we have seen (1 Jo 4:20), and we know that Christ sees our charitable acts towards others as being done to Him (Mt 25:40), so showing love towards man is a way of showing love towards God. And, as I’ve shown in the previous section, even the "religious commandments" have an effect on our fellow man.
The Pivot Bites the Dust
Does it make any sense to break the commandments into two, and assign one side to God, and the other to one’s fellow man? Obviously, it does, on the surface, or so many people would not make this assumption (not to mention that it is a very tidy, analytical way to organize a Religious Studies syllabus). The hardest ideas to eradicate are those that seem so obvious that they are never examined.
And, certainly, this idea of a division is not utterly unreasonable. Commandments six (murder) through ten (coveting) seem to relate to man, and one (worship of the true God) through three (respecting God’s name) seem aimed at God. The fourth and fifth commandments do have an obvious duality about them that make it arbitrary which "side" these would be on, though the fourth leans more God-ward, and the fifth slightly more man-ward. This also depends on how these are kept: those who keep "one day in seven" or "all days" make the fourth commandment more of a man-ward thing, as God’s command, His chosen day, is ignored, and only the social good is preserved.
But once one goes beyond a cursory look, even this division breaks down, as we are told that "covetousness is idolatry," (Col 3:5) so the tenth commandment is also towards God as well as man.
And even the commandments that seem so obviously towards men are also towards God: murdering a man is to kill the image of God; committing adultery is breaking a promise made in the sight of God, and is comparable to idolatry; theft from a man is defrauding God, who has allowed the man to have the property; false witness often involves invoking the name of God in court, making Him a party to the lie, and normal lying and slandering diminishes the respect due to one made in God’s image; and coveting what our neighbour has, we are plainly told, is idolatry (Col 3:5).
I think a better metaphor than a "pivot" would be a "bridge": a commandment that spans one’s duties to both God and man. As we shine the spiritual light of God’s Word on the Ten Commandments, we find, as each commandment is illuminated, in turn, that every commandment is found to be a bridge between one’s love towards God and man. What appears to be a pivot is not actually a break, but a flexible bend that can shift up or down the list, each attracting the light of scrutiny in turn. Each commandment spells out different duties, and each duty has its aspects towards both God and man.
So, What About the Two Tablets?
If the Ten Commandments cannot be easily broken into two halves, then why would there be two tablets? Doesn’t this belie this idea that they cannot be divided? While some people may think so, there is another answer that makes more sense, not only theologically, but historically.
Around the time of the Ten Commandments, it was common for suzerainty treaties between a king and his people to follow a certain format. Usually, there was a Preamble, then there was an Historical section giving the connection between the king and his people, followed by what the king required. Such contracts were always made on two tablets: one was kept by the king, and one was kept by the people.4 Scholars are divided on whether the Decalogue was the template for the secular treaties, or whether God followed a form already familiar to the people.
If the Ten Commandments followed an existing contract of this kind, which the people of Israel would be familiar with, they would know they were agreeing to have God be their King, and they His loyal subjects. This would give them no excuse when Israel wanted a king – God was so angry, because He was their King, and they were rejecting Him (1 Sa 8:7).
At any rate, if the Tablets of the Law were in this form, each tablet would have all Ten Commandments on it. Both were kept in the Ark of the Covenant, as it would not make sense for God to keep one of the tablets, since He was not a physical, human king.
But even if the commandments were divided up between the two tablets, the fact that this division is nowhere mentioned in the Bible indicates that we are to see these commandments as a unity, not a set of two groups of commandments.
The Fruits of a Divided Law
The temptation to believe in a Law divided into two naturally leads to the idea that the commands towards God ("religious commands") are more important than those towards man ("social commands"). This seemed to be at the heart of the Pharisees’ practice. They allowed one to set aside money that should have gone to help one’s elderly parents for the altar, and Christ blasted them for this, telling them they were breaking God’s commands for their own traditions (M’r 7:9-13).
This idea of some commandments being towards God and some being towards men gives people the Pharisaical idea that one can be religious without being good towards one’s fellow man, an idea roundly denied by scripture: "He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic 6:8).
Christ also makes it clear that those who do "religious acts" but haven’t taken care of others will not be accepted (Mt 7:22-23). And he warns his listeners that unless they are more righteous than the Pharisees (an unthinkable thing at the time) they would not enter the Kingdom (Mt 5:20).
This idea of "Commandments towards God" and "Commandments towards man" also creates a kind of snobbery. After all, God is all-powerful, and is able to bless you, heal you, and give you wealth and power, if He so chooses. Focussing strictly on what we see as our duties towards God is like fussing over a rich man in the congregation (Jas 2:2-4) and ignoring the poor man: in this case, the poor man is your neighbour, who cannot do anything for you. Why bother with him, when we can curry God’s favour? We can see that this idea of distinct duties to God and man leads to this idea that they can be separated, and leads to trying to "be religious" and ignoring one’s duties towards one’s neighbour.
But we cannot "curry favour" with God at the expense of our fellow man, as the Pharisees, and many modern religionists, have tried to do; nor can we simply do well towards others and ignore God.
Unfortunately, this idea is rampant in the Christian world, and it is one of the main reasons the world looks askance at Christians. When Christians are working at charitable works, no one says anything against them, since they are showing the fruits of the Spirit, and "against such there is no law." (Ga 6:22-23), not even the basic, built-in, moral law of conscience the world possesses. But when Christians build expensive buildings and ignore the poor, lord it over others in pride, interact with the world only to preach at them, and not to help them, that is when they are most contemptible in the eyes of man – and, I believe, in the eyes of God.
Emphasizing some commandments over others leads to a kind of spiritual, emotional, and mental imbalance: it is not healthy. And, in extreme cases, among people who are most obsessed with the first few commandments they think are the "biggies," there are some who become mentally unstable, thinking the "minor commandments" are not only less important, but not even applicable to them. I think of the minor television evangelist who made sexual advances towards a respectable massage therapist – she knew it would be his word against hers, so she videotaped their next session before commencing legal action. This man said he was so important to the Kingdom of God that it didn’t matter what he did in this area.5 And, of course, embezzlement is another fruit of this kind of thinking, as we saw with Jim Bakker.
This mental attitude may be unusual, but it is not as rare as you might imagine. I have even heard there is a particular kind of mental illness, referred to as "religious mania,"6 which has this as a feature: generally, these men become involved in severe sexual abuses, child abuse and incest being the most common. I even met a filmmaker who did a documentary solely on the victims of people like this.7
Then, one can look farther, and see how a man like David Koresh, who was the leader of an offshoot of Seventh-Day Adventism (or perhaps an offshoot of an offshoot), not only involved himself with sexual sin, but decided to make war against the government, leading to the death of the people who followed him. That the government overreacted, showed no patience for negotiating, and did not allow those who wanted to leave the opportunity to escape – including women and children – only shows that there were "cowboys" on both sides who wanted a good fight and conflagration, and didn’t care who got hurt. But the fact was, it began with a religious leader who thought that the first few commandments were enough. Adultery and murder were "not important," compared with separating from the world to await God’s Kingdom.
Such people often use prophecy as a scare tactic to persuade their followers.
So, too, Jim Jones. Many also are not aware that Charles Manson had his own cult of a future Kingdom, though his was not biblical, he also used his own personal prophecy of coming race wars, and resulting chaos, or "helter skelter"8 to justify killing "the pigs" which were those not of his cult. It is interesting that, once one has a name for those outside one’s group, one is already walking along this pathway – however far along you might be, it is not a safe place. It is like Jehovah’s Witnesses’ use of the word "goats" for non-JW’s 9, though many insular groups have other words. I even flinch when I hear people divide the world into "believers" and "unbelievers," since the Islamic suicide bombers of September 11, 2001 think in the same way10.
Keeping "religious commands" and ignoring "social commands", if you accept that division, leads to every sort of evil, from arrogant self-righteousness of the Pharisee looking down on the publican (Lk 18:10-14) to worse: heinous acts of sexual abuse, suicide, mass murder, and terrorism of the worst kind.
No, the fruits of trying to please God alone, not tempered with the rest of the commandments that we might imagine are meant towards "mere man," are to remove us from all fellowship with God, and to make us abominable in the eyes of the world, which is to break one of the "top commandments," the Third, because "the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." (Ro 2:24).
Christ Fought Divided Law More Than Any Other Error
If you look at the sins Christ preached against, and those he spoke against, notice how it was not the sins of the common people, the thefts, adulteries, and prostitution, that he spoke of. No, it was religious cruelty and hypocrisy. The Pharisees came under most severe criticism, though the Sadducees were not just criticized, but out and out dismissed, "You err, not knowing the scriptures or the power of God" (Mt 22:19); though both were involved in plotting the death of Christ, and the initial push came from the High Priest, a Sadducee (Jo 11:47-50,57).
Why did Christ single out the Pharisees? Because they sat in Moses’ seat, and he advised his followers to obey their teachings, but not to follow their example (Mt 23:2-3). They were more culpable, because they knew better: they were not ignorant, and representing God, as they did, brought dishonour to God’s name.
The Pharisees’ problem was that they couldn’t be bothered to help the people, because, where was the reward in that? Not that they ignored men altogether: they prayed in public, and gave alms in public, and made a great show of all their religious deeds, wanting the reputation of being very religious – something Christ forbad his followers to do (Mt 6:1-6). And there was obviously, in the Jewish culture of the day, a strong tendency to curry the favour of the rich, who could give big donations, and had political power that would prove useful: this was a problem that found its way into the church, and was condemned by James (Jas 2:1-4).
They were all looking to please God, Who probably seemed to them to be a kind of Hyper-Rich Man. To make His point to the covetous Pharisees, Christ told the parable of the Beggar (Lazarus) and the Rich Man (Lk 16:19-23), and when he said how hard it would be for a rich man to enter the Kingdom (Mt 19:23), even his own disciples said, "Then who can be saved?" (v. 25). The idea of wealth being synonymous with righteousness is an old one, and was very entrenched. So, again, it could well be that the Pharisees’ service to God was like men serving a wealthy patron, expecting a good inheritance.
Conversely, the poor could do nothing for the Pharisees, so they were little concerned with them, and thought nothing of even encouraging their families to take money that should go to them and giving it to the temple, a tradition fiercely condemned by Christ (M’r 7:9-13).
This false division of the commandments is no small thing: it leads to all kinds of error in thinking and living, and creates a bad witness to the world. At the very least, it makes religious snobs of us. Why else would Christ use the parable of the Good Samaritan?
In modern terms, we might use the idea of "a good biker," or some other person considered an outcast and beneath contempt, being the one to help the wounded man in the ditch, while the religious men walked by, unwilling to defile themselves with someone who they probably thought had gotten into a drunken brawl, or something else blameworthy – at any rate, they refused to get involved, or take an interest.
Christ makes this clear in his two renditions of the Last Judgment. In one, to protests of people with many "religious accomplishments" – ones many of us could never say we’d done, like healing the sick and casting out demons – he says tells them to depart, because he never knew them! (Mt 7:22-23); and another time, he bases the separation according to the charitable acts we have done – again, many of which we have not done, like visiting those in prision, or clothing the naked – and he says, "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me." (Mt 25:40); and in another place, says that if anyone gives a child a glass of water, even in the name of a disciple, he will not lose his reward (Mt 10:42).
And yet, we are not to be "manpleasers," but to do all things towards God (Eph 6:6, Col 3:22). We cannot go over into the other ditch of following "social commands" only, and ignoring God. The fact is, all the commands are towards God, as well as towards man, and to remove one element from any command is to take away its very heart and spirit.
A Law without Division
As we have seen, if the Ten Commandments were not divided, we should not divide them ourselves. They are separate duties which each relate to one another, and each relate to our love towards God and our love towards our neighbour, and no commandment can be considered "least" – and even if we do consider one so, Christ tells us that to break even the least is to earn a lower status in the Kingdom (Mt 5:19), at best, or at worst, to be in danger of outright rejection by God, banishment to the outer darkness.
An undivided Law is part of the Light that illuminates our paths, and guides our actions (Ps 119:105).
Our search for separation, exalting some commandments above others, taking a "smorgasbord approach" to God’s commands, is another way we can twist the Law of God fulfil our own desires, instead of learning obedience from it. Our desire to exalt one commandment above the others, as being "pivotal" is just an extension of this desire. We know the commandments stand or fall together, and if we break one, we break them all (Jas 2:10). This is because each command is just one facet of the greatest Law of Love (Rom 13:10). The commandments each show us one aspect of the way Love behaves, so that we may learn and grow in knowledge and grace.
This is why, even though the First and Tenth commandments are the only commandments that are explicitly mental and not physical (no one can see us coveting or worshipping another god in our hearts), where the others have specific physical manifestations, all of the Commandments have mental aspects, as Christ elucidated: murder originates in hatred; adultery in lust (Mt 5:21-22, 27-28), and these desires are themselves breaches of the Commandments.
We cannot ultimately break the Commandments into those towards God and those towards man, nor can we break them into physical and spiritual. The Ten Commandments are a unity manifested in different aspects, and the more we attempt to fragment them, the less we will understand the spiritual lessons they are meant to teach us.
For a further look at the inter-relatedness of the Commandments, see my article, Ten by Ten: Each Commandment Reflected Within Every Other.
©2002, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at firstname.lastname@example.org. No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.
1 General references two the two tablets are found in: Exodus 31:18; 32:15; 34:1, 4, 29; Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22; 9:10, 11, 15, 17; 10:1, 3; 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10.
2 Ronald Youngblood, "Counting the Ten Commandments," Biblical Review, 1994-DEC. See: http://www.bib-arch.org/brd94/counting.html, quoted by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, at http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_10c4.htm
3 Also, quoted from "Biblical Studies Foundation, Lesson 13: An Overview of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)" at http://www.bible.org/docs/ot/books/exo/deffin/exo-13.htm (accessed June 8, 2002], is:
Their note no. 213 quotes from W. H. Gispen, Exodus (trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 187-188: "There is no agreement as to whether each of the two tablets contained five commandments (Philo, Josephus, Irenaeus, etc), or one four and the other six (Calvin), or one three and the other seven (Augustine). Today some are of the opinion that each of the two tablets contained all ten commandments …"
4 A general Internet search indicates that while this "suzerainty contract" theory is widely-accepted, there are different opinions on it. Some feel the Biblical Decalogue is modelled after the ancient Hittite suzerainty contracts; others feel the Decalogue was the model for these secular contracts. Most agree there are striking similarities in structure, regardless of origin. Dr. Meredith Kline of Westminister Seminary is the most-quoted theologian, and it seems most are referring to his book, Treaty of the Great King, 1963, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids.
Here are further references to this concept:
- From: http://www.berith.org/essays/esch/esch17.html [accessed June 8, 2002].
"8. Gary North in the "Publisher's Preface" to Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), pp. xi-xix.; 9. Ibid., p. 14-17. Sutton points out that Deuteronomy is not a copy of the suzerainty treaties. The suzerainty treaties copied the Biblical original.; 10. Ibid., p. 15-16. 1. The Preamble; 2. The Historical Prologue; 3. Stipulations; 4. Blessing and Cursing; 5. Successional Arrangements; 6. Depository Arrangements. As Sutton points out, Mendenhall originally listed seven divisions of the covenant. Ibid., p. 15."
- See also: http://www.helpmewithbiblestudy.org/3_examples/2_interpretation/I_divine_covenants_the_lawF.htm [accessed June 8, 2002]
- http://www.bible.org/docs/ot/books/exo/deffin/exo-13.htm [accessed June 8, 2002]
5 Transcript, Garner Ted Armstrong and Geraldo Rivera: Sex, Crimes and Videotape July 11, 1997, The Painful Truth website. Accessed May 7, 2002. In this transcript, one clearly sees the behaviour of a powerful man who sees himself above the laws of man and God.
6 While I first was introduced to the idea about there possibly being an actual (rather than metaphorical) sexual component to "religious mania" from The Painful Truth article, "Incest And Inspiration," at http://www.herbertwarmstrong.com/incest.htm (most recently accessed June 8, 2002), I have found authoritative documentary sources not so easy to find. The anonymous author of this article, "The Watcher," refers to a friend in the field of social work, who said much of what my documentarian acquaintance said about the prevalence of such behaviour among extremely strict, totalitarian religious groups. Easily-available sources concurring with this idea seem to be based on questionable ideas of religious belief, such that it is all sinister and delusional, or, at best, tends to be incompatible with full mental health. I would have to reserve judgment on this particular psychological concept, pending further evidence.
The main point remains, though, that there is no doubt that many sexual abuses committed by religious leaders seem to be rationalized away by the supposed primacy of that person’s religious significance, which makes their personal conduct seem (to them) a more trivial matter.
7 Personal conversation with documentary filmmaker, Independent Film and Video Alliance Conference, Ottawa, 2001.
8 Bugliosi, Vincent, "Helter Skelter".
9 Botting, Heather and Gary, "The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses", 1984, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
10 Bacchiochi’s newsletters on Islam, End Time Issues No 84: The Agenda Of Islam: A War Between Civilizations, Prof. Moshe Sharon, Professor of Islamic History at the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem; Endtime Issues No 85: Violence In The Koran And The Bible, Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Retired Professor of Theology, Andrews University. These articles discuss the discontinuity in Islamic theology between believers and unbelievers, the former living in "the house of Allah," the latter, in "the house of war." These newsletters are archived at Dr. Bacchiochi’s "Biblical Perspectives" site, found at "http://www.biblicalperspectives.com/", (accessed June 8, 2002).