The Ten Commandments Cannot Be Imposed

John C. Rankin (June 29, 2005)

The Ten Commandments were never meant to be imposed on anyone, but this is exactly how skeptics of the Bible view the agenda of various Christians today.

For example, is the debate about the substance of the Ten Commandments, or merely about the symbolism of monuments and plaques? How many people know the words that precede the giving of the Commandments? “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 21:2). In other words, the Ten Commandments are given by the One who gives freedom, and for the sake of preserving freedom.

The importance of the Ten Commandments in the history of American jurisprudence and liberty is often overlooked. The necessary influence of the Ten Commandments for a healthy society will be diluted to the extent that any skeptic can rightly or wrongly believe that they are being imposed.

But the Bible opposes imposition, and I say this as an evangelical minister who believes in the Ten Commandments. This opposition to imposition can be profiled with a little biblical literacy.

The Ten Commandments are given in Exodus 20, yet apart from knowing the biblical history that comes before them, their content and purpose are easily misunderstood. In Genesis 1-2, the Bible sets forth the order of creation, defining the nature of goodness. Part of that goodness is the freedom to dissent, for goodness imposed is not good. The God of the Bible is so radical that he places the tree of life and the tree of death next to each other in the Garden of Eden. He puts good and evil side by side for comparison, for the freedom of an informed choice. He defines for the man and woman the consequences of each choice, but does not remove their power to choose death. If no wrong choice can be made, then no right choice can be made, and thus we are reduced to being puppets on a cosmic stage that does not care about us.

When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he does so to a community of Israelites who are making exodus from 400 years of slavery, and they are learning to covenant with God to say no to pagan religion and its ethics of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice. At the end of his life, Moses calls them to “choose life,” and not long after, Joshua invites the Jews to choose other gods if they find anything “evil” (the literal Hebrew term), “unreasonable” or “undesirable” in the nature of the LORD God (Yahweh Elohim).

The Israelite nation was set aside to be the lineage of the coming Messiah, and it was a “theocracy” (rule of God), which by definition is a “community of choice.” The Israelites, and the Egyptian pagans who joined them in the exodus were free to depart Israel and follow the gods of other nations if they so chose. The only other theocracy ordained in the Bible is the kingdom of God to be fulfilled at the end of the age. That too is a community of choice, where no one is forced to become a citizen. The preaching of the Christian Gospel is ethically Jewish and pre-Jewish — an invitation rooted in informed choice, not a compulsion.

Thus, the Ten Commandments come only to a people who already acknowledge the goodness of God and such commandments. Now, the first commandment by God to man in the Bible well pre-dates the Ten Commandments. It is in the first words spoken by God to Adam, when he commanded him to be free. When the exact Hebrew language here is examined, it is the language of invitation to a banquet (akol tokel which means “In feasting you shall feast,” often translated in the English as “You are free to eat.”). In other words, the biblical notion of freedom is rooted in the idea of a smorgasbord, an unlimited menu of good choices, with only one choice warned against — the eating of deadly poison.

Commandment is not an imposition, but it reflects a power to complete what is promised. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “commandment” in Genesis 2 with Adam, and in Exodus 20 with Moses is most simply translated as “word.” The Ten Words, if you will. There is no sense of imposition against the human will in the biblical idea of commandment. If this first commandment to Adam were imposed, then it could not have commanded freedom. The refusal of a commandment to freedom is the embrace of slavery.

The best argument for the Ten Commandments is the freedom they produce when honored, and not a mere dogmatic assertion that they should be obeyed. If we fast-forward to the Declaration of Independence (and thus to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments too), in its appeal to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and to “unalienable rights” given by the “Creator,” this historically refers to the God of the Bible. No pagan religion in history, or secular philosophy, has ever been rooted in the unalienable rights to life, liberty, property and hence, the true power to pursue happiness. Of all the world’s religious origin texts, these gifts are only located in Genesis 1-2. And too, the 56 signers of the Declaration were Protestant Christians, along with one Roman Catholic Christian, with several heterodox among the orthodox, but ethically their reference to the Creator was to the God of the Bible — not a Marduk, Zeus, Jupiter, Isis, Brahma or Thor, nor even to the amorphous, and by definition, uninvolved deistic god of the Enlightenment.

These unalienable rights, and their manifestation in the First Amendment, celebrate religious, political and economic freedom for all people within the rule of law. They celebrate the liberty to dissent that comes originally from the God who gave the Ten Commandments. Thus, pagans and secularists and any other dissenters to the biblical worldview have the same unalienable rights as do Jews and Christians. But are Christians such as myself seen as celebrating such freedom for all people equally, or are we seen as complainers who wish to impose something? If it is the latter, then the very Source for unalienable rights is obscured, and we are all in danger of losing these rights. And the church is most to blame.

Simply put, if for a moment we are seen as imposing anything, we mock the Gospel. If we do not communicate how the Ten Commandments are rooted in true freedom, we have failed.

Thus, if Christians wish to have the substance of the Ten Commandments taken seriously in public policy debate, and I do, then they must be offered, not imposed. Consistent with the radical ethics of informed choice in the language of Genesis 2, Moses and Joshua — a biblically confident Jew or Christian would never fear a side by side comparison with competing gods or philosophies. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, argues that our liberties are rooted in Greco-Roman culture, with no mention of Hebrew culture. I for one, would be delighted to see side by side comparisons between the God of the Bible, and a Zeus or Jupiter, a Caesar or Aphrodite, et al., between the Law of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi. I will argue for the goodness of Yahweh Elohim as the one true Creator, the social folly of idolatry, the danger of the misuse of Yahweh’s name, the wisdom of keeping the Sabbath (tracing it back to its nature in the order of creation), the necessity to honor our parents, and the prohibitions of murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and covetousness.

But I desire to do so especially on a level playing field with all other ideas and gods, which is the unique gift of the Author of the Ten Commandments to begin with. There is no coercion in the Gospel. But are there enough Christians in our nation who know the biblical art of persuasion rooted in love?