In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
After being delivered from Egypt, the Israelites have traveled through the wilderness and arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai. God has reminded them of his covenant intentions towards them – to make them into a nation, to bless them and to bless all nations through them. As we discussed last week, this covenant pronouncement includes expectations of the Israelites, who are called to be a nation/people set apart. The terms of this are outlined in what’s known as the Law.
Now let me say that Old Testament Law is distinctly not my area of expertise. We’re not going to spend a lot of time in the Law, not for this reason, but because it’s possible to get swallowed up in the Law – to lose the forest for the trees, so to speak. However, we’re also not going to ignore it because it holds a formative place (indeed, the formative place) in Israelite understanding and identity.
We’ll talk more about the Law later on but in the next couple of weeks, I want to take a look specifically at the Ten Commandments, our passage today.
The Ten Commandments hold a uniquely important place in the understanding and living of Christians and Jews alike. An awful lot has been written, and even more said, so I’ll try not to repeat too much. What I do want to do is to try to place the Ten Commandments in the context of the Law overall, and to try to understand the place of the Law in our Christian walk – especially in the light of Jesus. Therefore, here are several things to keep in mind, that may help us as we’re trying to navigate the Law texts.
Firstly, the term “the Law” is used in a variety of ways. In a broad way, Law is used as a stand-in term for the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, overall. This is simply a short hand way of understanding the major segments of the Hebrew bible – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (Tanakh: Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim).
- The Law is the first five books of the bible (the Pentateuch);
- The Prophets include (what we consider) the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel), the major history books (Samuel, Kings, and the minor prophets (Hosean, Amos, Joel, Obadiah, etc.);
- The writings are comprised of Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Job, Ruth, Esther, etc.
In short, sometimes when the term “Torah” or “the Law” is used, we simply mean the Pentateuch. When the Law is used specifically as the commandments, we typically mean those commandments given by God and accounted for in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. However, even here, “commandments” may be a misleading term. This is because there seem to be degrees to which it is expected that various “commandments” are to be kept or adhered to. In short, scholars note, and it is generally accepted that the Law includes both what might be considered absolute or universal (apodictic) laws and conditional or circumstantial (casuistic) laws. The Ten Commandments would be considered the former (apodictic) sort.
As well, the laws are not of only one sort. Some of the laws have to do with the specific practice of the Jewish faith (cultic laws), some laws have to do with resolving disputes (criminal or civil laws), some laws have to do with behaviour (moral or ethical laws). Moreover, though the Law is extremely broad-reaching, covering a wide variety of situations and circumstances, it is by no means comprehensive (and this includes the Ten Commandments). My point here is simply that we cannot take a simple, specific principle and apply it evenly across all instances of the law.
Furthermore, once again we struggle with the challenge of understanding the Old Testament sitting on the other side of the work and revelation of Jesus Christ. Typically one of the problems that we (as in 20th/21st century Christians) have with the Law is that the New Testament is confusing (to us) with respect to its stance on the Law.
Paul frequently seems opposed to the Law. In Romans, Paul says:
7:4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5 For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
It’s a vast over-simplification – we typically do understand that Paul was speaking of those who rely solely on the Law as opposed to the grace of Christ – but oftentimes it sounds like Paul is saying that we no longer need the Law. It often sounds like he’s saying the Law is obsolete or even harmful to the Christian life of grace.
On the other hand, we also have Jesus speaking of the Law and saying, (Matthew 5:17, 18)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
So, in short, we often find ourselves confused, feeling like we’re between two opposites in relation to the law.
Now, acknowledging that we still haven’t gotten to the Ten Commandments proper, I want to suggest a few principles that may help us (NT church as opposed to OT Israel) understand what to do with, how to handle, the Law.
The first is that we are, in fact, part of the New Testament Church as opposed to the Old Testament Israel. This means a variety of things but one of the things to keep in mind are that the Laws were given in and to a particular historical context. We see the significance of this, for example, particularly in laws that have to do with land and property, regulations around worship, and etc. We won’t say any more about this, but it bears mentioning that many of the Laws don’t make sense outside of their historical context (keeping in mind that there are both apodictic and casuistic laws).
The second thing I want to say is that the distinctive feature of Israelite Law (the Torah), and the major point that is being communicated in the Exodus account, is that it is given and instituted by God. This is directly related to what we’re saying about historical context.
Much historical work has been done to locate the Israelite Law codes in their historical context. Simply put, there is a general academic agreement that the Israelite Law resembles (that is, it has many of the same features and structure) of law codes in neighbouring nations. However, what is distinct about Israelite Law is that it is initiated and instituted by God – that is to say, unlike other nations, it is not a human construction. We’ll talk a little bit more about this but what’s notable about this is that the breaking of the Law, or failure to follow the Law is not just about breaking covenant with people, but breaking covenant with God. Offences are not just against one another, but against God. Failure to observe the Law is also sin.
This is not to say that breaking any Law is equated with sin, per se. This view is probably more in keeping with a legalistic view of Law. However, it is to underscore the fact that all sin is ultimately against God (not against people, not against society, not against merely a moral code).
The final thing I want to say today about how we understand the Law is that it is formative rather than soteriological. This needs to be understood in the context of previous things that we have mentioned.
The Law is given by God (not humans) –it’s initiated and instituted by God. Along with what we’ve already mentioned, this has to do with the fact that the Law is given in the context of Covenant. It has to do with Israel being chosen as well as being made into the people of God.
We’ve mentioned it before, but we have to keep in mind that, in the narrative, the people are saved first and then formed. God rescues them from Egypt, delivers them out of slavery, and then tells them how to be His people. Their salvation does not depend upon, nor is it initiated by, how well they follow instructions. Now we understand this, I think, but we don’t live this way and we often don’t communicate this way. We are more apt to say “If you want to be a Christian, you have to stop doing bad things; you have to stop being a bad person.” But Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance – to a new way of life.
So, the law is not a test – but it’s a test. There’s a couple of ways that we can understand a test. One, a test is to determine whether or not I’m good enough. But two, it can also be understood as part of my process of growth. For example, if I never test myself, if I always only ever do what I know I can do, I will never grow. In short, again, the law is about formation – not about salvation.
So that is an awful lot of talk and we haven’t yet even touched the Ten Commandments. Very briefly, I want to touch on how the Ten Commandments are, in some ways, indicative of the entire Law (though to say that all of the individual laws can be fit into the Ten Commandments is a vast over-simplification). Of note here is Jesus’ famous saying:
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This has frequently been cited as a framework by which we can understand the Law, but specifically for how we understand the Ten Commandments. This can be useful for us and we’re going to frame it in the following way. Inasmuch as we want to understand how the Law, and the Ten Commandments in particular, are about formation as the people of God, we want to frame this concept as: God speaks and God speaks.
Typically, the Ten Commandments are divided into two more or less distinct halves:
- Commandments 1-3 (or 4)
- 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
- 4 “You shall not make for yourself an image…
- 7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God…
- 8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. (sometimes this is seen as a transitional (?) commandment.
- Commandments 5-10
- 12 “Honor your father and your mother…
- 13 “You shall not murder.
- 14 “You shall not commit adultery.
- 15 “You shall not steal.
- 16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- 17 “You shall not covet…
Now, using Jesus’ framework, we can clearly see that the first commandments have to do with loving God, and the last six have to do with loving our neighbours. This seems true to the form and to the purpose of the Ten Commandments. I want us to think about this (The Ten Commandments) in the context of what it means that God introduces the Law as an implementation of the Covenant, and in the context of spiritual formation.
So What Now…?
In my opinion, one of the truly remarkable things (I don’t mean unique) about the Bible is that God speaks to His people. The Law is about this. Throughout the biblical story that we’ve encountered so far, God created a good creation for His glory. And human beings, because of our sinfulness which results in our brokenness, find ourselves in a precarious situation where our ultimate destiny is separation from God. In the midst of that situation, God intercedes; God intervenes.
God doesn’t just leave us to our (rightly deserved) condemnation. He didn’t just wipe us all out and start over again. Neither does He leave us in a situation where we’re expected to figure it out on our own. We’re not supposed to rely on our own wisdom, ingenuity, and strength. Rather, God speaks. He speaks into our darkness the promise of light and salvation. He speaks into our lost-ness, the possibility of another way. He speaks into our world-views that life is not about how much you can get or what you have to do. God speaks life.
The Israelites had been lost, homeless, for generations. They had only just been rescued from that homelessness; they had only just been delivered from that lost-ness. Now they are finding they can have an identity. But the identity isn’t created; it’s not a construct of a human desire for status or power. The identity is given. Their identity is grounded in and founded in the fact that God speaks. God continues to speak to us to tell us who we are and how we are to be, as His people. As always, let us be the people that God calls us to be.