Why These Ten Commandments?
An Introduction to God's Law
by Jesse Ancona
After having spent almost a year studying the ten commandments themselves, and meditating on them, I turned to a book about them, and was surprised to find myself not enlightened, but confused. I wondered why this was so, since I still believe the book in question is a very good reference in many ways.
The main reason was, I think, the authors’ understandable desire to expand on the principles of each of the ten. But in doing so, they tended to go so far that they often encroached on the principles of other commandments.
This overextension of each commandment is understandable, and, in many ways, commendable. I do believe the Ten Commandments are "the tip of the iceberg," and are the basic principles on which all the other commandments rest, and they can, by extension, each go very far and wide and deeply into many areas of our lives that we would not, at first, think about.
I do not believe that the Ten Commandments stand alone – we are to obey every word from the mouth of God,1 which includes the many commands in the Pentateuch, traditionally numbered at 613 by modern Judaism.2 Again, while many of these commands may not be able to be kept today, because of different circumstances (no temple, for instance), I do not believe that any of them are obsolete in principle.
In expanding the Ten Commandments this far, though, I found the clarity and distinction of the ten from each other was obscured, and became so generalized that, while reading, I often lost track of which commandment was being discussed.
The Ten Commandments are short and clear: any look at them should keep each one distinct, and in sharp focus. Because all the commandments deal with loving God and one’s neighbour, the more deeply one studies them, the more one finds there is much overlap, with each one reflecting on all the others.3 Nevertheless, I think it is best to keep each command standing out in sharp relief to the others, to avoid reducing them to one amorphous mass. When we let this happen, we develop a blunted, generalized idea of goodness that loses the sharp point of the commandments, which stabs our conscience, and cuts through our thoughts and actions, dividing them into good and evil.4
Because I do believe that other commandments in the Pentateuch are also guides to our behaviour today, and these include such basic commands as loving God and loving one’s neighbour (part of the 613 commandments, but not among the Ten), I have to ask: why these ten? Why, of all the various commands of God, are these ten highlighted, and spoken by God Himself?5
When we answer this question, we are closer to appreciating the special nature of these commands over the others, and can keep them in clearer focus.
First of all, the Bible teaches us that man was made in God’s image,6 and that God created a conscience within us that has a sense of right and wrong.7 We are also created with various desires, urges, and instincts that often lead us in the right direction – we naturally love our children, are disgusted by violence, and feel bad when we lie, steal or cheat. Even people whose consciences have been dulled by modern teachings that "anything goes" find themselves upset when they are the victim of other people’s sins against them.8
While our conscience is not perfect, I do believe that it has been less affected by sin than our impulses and behaviour: most people know better than they act.9 Our conscience needs to be trained, educated, and informed, so that it becomes sensitive to transgressing the boundaries God has set for our benefit, but it never ceases to be the means through which we act morally and ethically.
God knows people so well that He is aware of which commandments we would be most likely to neglect, and which principles we would have the most trouble with. These are the commandments that speak most to our sinful, fallen state, and spur us on to strive to be more like our Father in Heaven. And these are the commandments that show our inability to do this in our own strength, and turn us to God in repentance and prayer for His forgiveness and help in becoming better people.
The other commandments are often ones that we instinctively shrink from breaking. Incest and child sacrifice inspire immediate revulsion. We are not even so far away from the dietary laws: while most of the Western world does eat some meats that are biblically unclean, like pork and shellfish, we are usually disgusted by the thought of eating such things as horse, dog, snake, mouse, worm, or monkey. We understand the need for law courts, and the dangers of perjury, and in recent years, have become more aware of the evils of destroying nature, and the need for taking steps to prevent injury in our homes at at work.
We instinctively know the Ten Commandments are right and noble – and yet, these are the ones we are most likely to break. We often serve things other than God; we make Him in our own image, or use physical or mental pictures of Him that distort His nature; we disrespect His name, and by our behaviour, cause others to do so; we break the Sabbath weekly, overworking ourselves and others, neglecting God and our family; we dishonour, neglect, and slander our parents; we are easily violent and abusive with others, physically or verbally; we often fall into sexual sin; we too often steal others’ property, time, and ideas, and tell ourselves we are not thieves; we are less than truthful in court, slander others, gossip, and lie; and we often spend our lives wanting what belongs to others.
God knows our weakness, and in the Ten Commandments, builds a picture of His very holiness by shining a light on our greatest failings. Unbelievers fight against the idea of the Ten Commandments being displayed in public places, like law courts (though modern laws are based on them), because "two of the four are commonly broken" by those who would display them – and they are right. This, of course, refers to the second and fourth commandments, against images and sabbathbreaking – commandments Christians are often oblivious to, moreso than religious Jews; while secular Jewish people may think little of working on the Sabbath, I think most would have an instinctive aversion to images of God. Still, what an indictment, that even religious Christians habitually break 20% of the commandments!
The family is dealt with in the commands to honour our parents and avoid adultery, because we are most likely to commit these familial sins. We tend to love our children; it is less natural to honour our parents. We may love our spouse, yet still fall prey to sexual temptation.
The world of work and property is dealt with in three separate commandments: we are to work six days, and earn our living, and rest on the Sabbath; we are not to take what does not belong to us; and we are not even to let ourselves desire what others have. We are to earn what we get, not envy others, and not let work itself take us away from our relationship with God and family. How many of us have a balanced view of work, rest, property, and others’ good fortune? That 30% of the commandments deal with work and its fruits tells us this is a problem area. This is reflected in the rest of the Bible, where money and property is spoken of more than almost any other topic.
Respecting the life, property, and reputation of others is also covered in the Ten Commandments, as are the declarations as to how God wants us to worship Him: by making Him first, not using images, and honouring His name and His Sabbath.
Too often, the more religious we become, the more rules we add to our list of "do’s and don’ts", and lose sight of the basics – sometimes, we even trample on God’s law with our own rules. It is healthy to measure our behaviour and our teachings by God’s law, and ask ourselves whether our practices tend to reinforce respect for God’s law and its principles, or tend to lead us away from Him, which may make us arrogant, thoughtless, and unjust – or just exhausted, depressed, and alienated from any sense of connection with God.
If we are not careful, we will find that "the natural man" retains more of the basic morality of the conscience given by God than we do, as religious people, focussing more and more on minor matters (some of which are good in their place), and forgetting the larger, harder issues. God has always reserved His harshest criticism for those religious people who should know better, but who use religion for their own selfish ends; God tends to be gentler with those who are in ignorance.
If we choose to follow God (and if we believe He exists, we have no other honest choice), we need to beware: there are many pitfalls on the path, and new temptations that did not even occur to us before we became religious. Religion without humility, respect for God, and concern for others is too often an exercise in self-exaltation and cruelty.
While broader expositions of the Ten Commandments are also instructive, in these articles, even when I am discussing overlaps and principles, I want to keep the distinctions between each commandment very clear, to bring us back to the basics, and back into the right balance in our duties towards God, our fellows, and ourselves.
©2002, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at email@example.com. 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 Christ said to Satan, who was tempting him to turn stones into bread to relieve the hunger of his forty day fast, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." Matthew 4:4
2 This is the traditional number of the total of negative and positive commands, as compiled by the great rabbi, Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah. This is the most generally accepted list, but it is not the only one, and some commentators break the 613 up differently. For further discussion on this, see the website Judaism 101: List of the 613 Mitzvot (commandments, good deeds) [page accessed September 25, 2002]. Tracy R. Rich, the author of this page, states in his article on Halakha (Jewish law, or "the path that one walks"), Judaism 101: Halakhah [accessed October 26, 2002]:
"Many of these 613 mitzvot cannot be observed at this time for various reasons. For example, a large portion of the laws relate to sacrifices and offerings, which can only be made in the Temple, and the Temple does not exist today. Some of the laws relate to the theocratic state of Israel, its king, its supreme court, and its system of justice, and cannot be observed because the theocratic state of Israel does not exist today. In addition, some laws do not apply to all people or places. Agricultural laws only apply within the state of Israel, and certain laws only apply to kohanim or Levites. The modern scholar Rabbi Israel Meir of Radin, commonly known as the Chafetz Chayim, has identified 77 positive mitzvot and 194 negative mitzvot which can be observed outside of Israel today. "
3 To see a further explication of how each commandment is contained within the others, see my article, Ten by Ten: Each Commandment Reflected Within Every Other.
4 The law is often referred to as a blade, a sword or knife. As a sword, it is used to attack Satan (Eph. 6:17), and evil in general. As a knife, it "divides the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). One of the clearest uses of this metaphor is in Hebrews:
"For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."
5 "And God spoke all these words, saying: "I am the Lord your God, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. ... and all the people ... said unto Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die."
Exodus 20: 1, 18a, 19b.
6 "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion..." Genesis 1:26a
7 "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another" Romans 2:14, 15
This is commonly called "a double standard," where someone wants others to obey rules that they themselves have no intention of following. Dr. Laura Schlessinger sums it up best:
"The morality of that world [of unbelievers] is subjective and therefore dangerous. If each of us designs our own morality, it would be to suit ourselves (the animal part of us). Actually, the most perfect world for each of us who desires independence from the authority of the commandments is a world where everybody else is God-fearing or God-obeying, we're safe from the animal in them, and we're then free to be the animal in us."
The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel, 1998, Cliff Steet Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York [bracketed note mine; emphasis the authors'].
This also reminds me of the terrible indictment at the end of the Book of Judges, filled with the most horrible stories of outrageous crimes and acts, many beyond even the worst one hears about now: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes" Judges 21:25, and also of the common saying during the French Revolution's bloody "Reign of Terror," when more than 40,000 people were beheaded: "Who is king? Who is not king?"
This was, at one time, actually a matter of some controversy, and even now, there are various views as to how The Fall has affected mankind. Some, such as Calvin, have taught that conscience and character were equally corrupted: most now teach that character has suffered more than conscience. The Jewish concept is of "the good impulse" and "the evil impulse" both existing within people, though I am not sure what their view is on conscience. They do believe that God's covenant with Israel is special, but that all other nations are under what they call the Noachide Covenant, wherein all people must follow basic rules of morality to be acceptable to God: the establishment of law courts, not blaspheming, not committing idolatry, not committing sexual immorality, not murdering, not stealing, and not being cruel to animals.
The superiority of conscience over character seems more fair, as God has allowed us to retain a better understanding than we are able to perform, giving us the impetus to improve ourselves, and allowing us to feel a natural sense of guilt, and shame over our shortcomings (guilt for wrong actions or omitted good deeds; shame for being the kind of people who do such things). If we were totally ignorant of such things, God would be more indulgent, as he was with the people of Nineveh, who, though they had sinned so badly God would destroy them, they were warned to repent (which they did), and He spared them: they were a people so ignorant that God said of them that they "...cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand..." Jonah 4:11