The Nature of the Ten Commandments

John C. Rankin (2005)

Here are two questions. First, offhand, what did Yahweh say to Moses before he gave the Ten Commandments? And second, offhand, can you list them?

“And God spoke all these words: ‘I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ (Exodus 20:1-2).”

The “commandments” are literally “words” of freedom. How often do we grasp that reality? For the Israelites, they were gaining freedom from 400 years of slavery. And the ten “words” were instructions that followed and designed to protect their freedom.

  1. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Pagan gods are slave masters, and Yahweh Elohim is the author of freedom.
  1. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven or on the earth or in the waters below …” If you worship an object of your own creation, is that an act of freedom or mere stupidity? Isaiah and Jeremiah had some precise words here.
  1. “You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God …” If you abuse the Name of the One who gives freedom, what other choice do you have but slavery to pagan idols and their doctrines of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice?
  1. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” The Sabbath is far larger than one 24-hour day, as the theological structure of Genesis 1 shows, and as Jesus, Paul and the author of Hebrews delineate. The wisdom of the Sabbath is to have a healthy pace of work and rest in life, where worship of God and love of family and neighbors is the goal. Are you free in your work week, or enslaved to work as a god?
  1. “Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land Yahweh your God is giving you.” There are two choices. First, there is a social order where fathers and mothers are faithful to each other in marriage, and their children learn likewise. This is the Law of Moses rooted in the order of creation. And second, there is a social order where the marriage covenant is broken, and hence trust is broken, and children learn likewise. Which leads to freedom for sound choices in life, and which leads to pain?
  1. “You shall not murder.” Was Cain a free man?
  1. “You shall not commit adultery.” Are adulterers free in their consciences and subsequent life choices?
  1. “You shall not steal.” Ditto.
  1. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” How free is a liar who is always looking over his shoulder?
  1. “You shall not covet …” Is not the coveting of something that belongs to another the very definition of being enslaved, of being controlled by your own inner and insatiable illicit appetite?

The Ten Commandments lead to freedom for creativity, healthy relationships and long life. This was true in theocratic Israel (a community of choice), and is true today in a pluralistic society such as the United States. To willfully break them is to lie to the self, and begin a process of enslavement.