The 10 Commandments & Jesus

Over recent decades we have heard of a number of controversies about the public display of the 10 commandments. Lawsuits were filed and courts have weighed in. Private citizens and public officials applauded the decisions, or have decried them and predicted the ruin of our society unless these are returned to a place of prominence in public buildings, courts, and schools. There is a great deal of emotion and energy behind these discussions. But what is rarely discussed is the 10 Commandments themselves and Jesus’ teaching in regard to them.

The context of the passage in Exodus in which Moses received them is familiar. He leads the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea into the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. In the wilderness they camp at the foot of the mountain. Many religions regard mountain tops as sacred site or thin places. Moses goes to the top of the mountain and after a long time on the mountain brings down tablets on which these laws were written.

Many of us have seen the movie like the Ten Commandments and think of them as large stone tablets several feet high and quite thick. In reality that is a modern visualization. The tablets of that time would have been clay tablets written in tiny cuneiform or early Hebrew letter, tablets that could be easily held in the hand.

No matter the size of the tablets the Ten Commandments provided an ethical and moral base for the development of Judaism. But they did not develop in a vacuum. One of the earliest codes, that of Hammurabi (a king who reigned in Babylonia) is estimated to have originated between 1792 and 1750 B.C.). The Ten Commandments, (also known as The Decalogue), are estimated to have originated around 1446 B.C. The Ten Commandments thus came after the Law Code of Hammurabi.

We should not assume that because the Code of Hammurabi was first, that the10 Commandments borrow from them. We should recall the Code of Hammurabi focused exclusively on criminal and civil laws and meted out what in the present we see as harsh, and sometimes brutal, punishments. The Law of Moses covers more than a legal code; it speaks of sin and of our responsibility to God as well as to society and to others.

Both Hammurabi and Moses recorded laws which were unique to their times. Hammurabi claimed to receive his code from the Babylonian god of justice, Shamash. Moses received the Law atop Mount Sinai from the God of the Israelites.

The difference in the time frame between them allows the evolution of what constituted just punishment for crime. Often cited is what is referred to as the Lex Talionis. In Leviticus it is phrased, “And a man who injures his countryman – as he has done, so it shall be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. To us that may seem like retaliation but in the ethical development of humanity it was a reform – it was a more reasonable punishment than more severe injury or death. Here is the beginning of the reform and reframing of punishments to ones that fit the crime – that produce something better resembling justice if not restoration and redemption.

The commandments themselves are fairly familiar to us:
The first four speak to a proper relationship with God, the rest address relationships within the covenant community of Israel.
The first re-enforces that it was this God of Israel who brought the people out of slavery. And so there shall be “no other God’s before me.”

Notice that in these early stages of the development of Judaism it does not deny the fact that other people worship other Gods… but for Israel there are to be no God’s to which one has a greater or equal allegiance.

The second commandment is “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor worship them…”

This commandment forbids the making of idols or objects that put themselves in God’s place in our lives. We are reminded of the story of the Exodus where the people make an image of a golden calf.

The third commandment forbids taking the name of the Lord in vain… In the ancient near east most cultures used oaths and incantations using the name of the god to “harness” or bend divine power to serve human interests. Thus this is as applicable today as it was in the Sinai several millennia ago.

The Fourth Commandment is about observing the Sabbath. It is about cessation from work for a day. It would seem that for the people of Israel rest was written into the very nature of their living. Rest allowed time to develop a deeper relationship with the creator.

The remaining commandments offer specific prohibitions that regulate relationships. It begins with the family “Honor your father and your mother…”
One thing we may miss is that this commandment in that patriarchal society actually elevates the status of women… as equal partners with men in relationship to children. It also created the probability of a flow of tradition between generations.

The sixth is you shall do no murder. This prohibits homicide, an upsetting of the social order. But doesn’t really address warfare, capital punishment or even revenge killing. These Jesus later addresses in the Gospel.

The seventh is “You shall not commit adultery…”
This is not so much about sexual purity as it is about family integrity and the legitimacy of children and inheritance. We should recall that a number of sexual activities outside of marriage are not forbidden nor addressed in this commandment. This too Jesus addressed and broadened in his teachings in the Gospels.

The 8th is “You shall not steal.”
This commandment guards the stability of the larger society by protecting private property. But it was understood not to preclude such things as the right of the poor to glean food in the corners of the field or pother measures that provided some small measure of we might call a social safety net for the poor.

The 9th reads You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
This is a defense against perjury in legal cases as well as a prohibition against more trivial lying about another. That this was an ongoing problem can be seen in the words and accusations of various Hebrew prophets

The 10th is You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

This helps focus the members of this covenant community beyond outward actions to inner thoughts that leads to rehearsing in thought an action that threatens the stability and integrity of the family or community.

It is important to note that these commandments are promulgated for those who are within the people of Israel – the covenant community. They did not apply to how one related to those not in the covenant community.

The ten commandments are a significant step forward in the moral and ethical development of the Judeo/Christian ethos. But it is a step and not the final destination.

In the Gospels when Jesus was asked about the most important of the commandments he did not respond with any one of these 10 commandments. He answered saying “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, all your mind and all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In this we see Jesus building on the foundation of the Ten Commandments – most of which are prohibitions of what not to do – and creating a framework that guides us in how we should act and relate to another – whether in the covenant community or not.

We honor the 10 Commandments as an important step in the religious, moral and ethical development but see them further developed and expanded in Jesus teaching.

We see the same thing happening in the Gospel this morning as Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem and observed the noise, the competition among the various vendors and the profit motive that drove them and the temple officials. It was a place that had forgotten its core purpose. His response was to overthrow their tables reminding them the temple was a place for encountering the creator not a marketplace for profiteering.

In his relationship with the apostles and disciples Jesus always invited them to grow in their understanding beyond a surface familiarity and to deepen their spiritual roots.

Jesus reinterpreted the Law – even the 10 Commandments – in ways that prove to be less focused on the negative, more open to interpretation and yet more restrictive of the ungodly attitudes and actions that a strict interpretation of the 10 commandments would allow.

If we want to know what it is God wants from us and wishes for us to do we need Jesus’s summary of the law – Love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself” – not the 10 Commandments.
And if we want to provide a place to display what it is that God requires of us, the place is to write Jesus’ teaching in our hearts and memories.

Lent is that time to be reminded of what mattered most to Jesus and to commit ourselves to follow in that way of life and action.


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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