Thursday, October 26, 2006

Exodus 20

Exodus 20: The 10 Commandments

Synopsis

In this chapter, God presents the 10 Commandments to the Israelites. (I don’t know if I have to keep capitalizing “the 10 Commandments” like that, but I will.)

In the last chapter, God had the Israelites prepare to meet Him. Moses consecrated them, they washed their clothes and abstained from sexual relations, and prepared for the third day, when God would speak to them. When God does speak, He first reminds them about who He is: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (verse 2). He then gives them a set of rules by which to live:
  1. He is to be their only God—they are not to have or worship any other gods
  2. They are not to create any idols (to God or any other god). In fact, He even gives His reasoning, for this commandment: “…for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments” (verses 5b–6).
  3. They are not to “misuse” the name of the LORD.
  4. They are not to do any work on the Sabbath. Actually, the wording that God uses is “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.” (verse 8–10). Again, God gives a reason for this commandment: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (verse 11).
  5. They were to honour their fathers and mothers
  6. They were not to commit murder
  7. They were not to commit adultery
  8. They were not to steal
  9. They were not to lie—to “give false testimony against [their] neighbor” (verse 16).
  10. They were not to covet. (If you’re not familiar with it—although I’m sure it’s very common—the word “covet” means to long for, or crave, something that doesn’t belong to you. According to wordnet.princeton.edu, “especially the property of another person”.)
After the LORD has handed down the 10 Commandments, the people just can’t take it anymore:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

(verses 18–21)


This should have been enough for the Israelites to be sufficiently awed about the God who had spoken to them, but God gives one last reminder to Moses: “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold’” (verse 22–23).

Finally, God instructs Moses to build an altar of earth, where they are to sacrifice burnt offerings. He also gives Moses instructions, for the future, for altars made of stone: they are only to use “undressed” stones, because if they use a tool on it, they will defile it.

Thoughts

The thing that worries me, when I write about the 10 Commandments, is that a lot of people think that this is what Christianity is all about. “How do you go to heaven? Well, you follow the 10 Commandments!” But that’s not what Christianity is about at all; you get to go to heaven when you have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and accept the gift of grace; then Christ will take the punishment you deserve, for all of the times that you didn’t follow the 10 Commandments. And, actually, the part about going to heaven isn’t the good part, the part about having a relationship with God is the good part; going to heaven is just a side issue (which helps with the relationship, because you’ll be there with Him).

That doesn’t mean that the 10 Commandments are irrelevant, of course. Reading God’s law—including these commandments—is one of the best ways to get to know His character. If I, as a Christian, am to strive to be like Him, then I need to know what He is like. The first four commandments teach me about who God is—not just that He is Holy, but also the fact that there is no other god—and the rest of the commandments show me some of the things He values. As I’ve mentioned, probably over and over, and will continue to mention, we don’t get to God by obeying His commands; His Son did all of the work for us, to get us into our relationship with Him. But if any person is truly saved, then that person will want to obey God, and try to be like Him. (We will never actually be like him, even when we die and go to heaven as sinlessly perfect creatures, but that’s what we strive for.) If you don’t want to be like Him, it means that you’re not saved.

When the 3rd commandment talks about “misusing the name of the LORD”, we tend to think of using His name in vain—like if someone hits their hand with a hammer, and shouts out His name. But this verse covers more than just that; if someone does something sinful, or teaches something false, and claims to be doing it in the name of the LORD, that is also misusing His name, and is a very serious offense, because it misrepresents who He is, and what He stands for. In a figurative sense, you could argue that any time a Christian doesn’t live up to the faith, s/he is misusing His name, because they’re calling themselves “Christians”, but not living in a way that properly represents Christ.

The 4th commandment is about more than just taking a day off, and resting. God calls it a “Sabbath to the LORD” (emphasis added) in verse 10. This wasn’t about God forcing them to take a well-deserved day off, that they otherwise wouldn’t have taken, it was about taking a day out of every week and devoting it to the LORD. As I understand it, the rest isn’t the important part; it’s just that you need to stop your work in order to properly devote your attentions to Him.

You may also notice that the 10 Commandments can be broken down into two categories: first, rules that concern the Israelites’ behaviour toward God, and then rules that concern their behaviour toward each other. I always relate this to the time that one of the Jewish teachers of the law asked Jesus about the most important commandment:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

(Mark 12:28–34)


Incidentally, while we’re on the topic, you’ll also notice that neither of the commandments that Jesus quoted were from the 10 Commandments listed in this chapter! The first is Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”), and the second is from Leviticus 19:18 (“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”)

Finally, although I have some theories, I’m not really sure why the Israelites were not to use tools on altars they built out of stone. Later on, when they build the temple, God will give instructions on how to build the altar—we’ll see the first example of this in Exodus 27:1–8, when God gives instructions on creating the altar for the tabernacle, and I believe He has more instructions later on, when they build the temple.
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