Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
As we have looked at two previous covenants God made with his people, through Noah and then through Abraham, we come this week to a new and very different arrangement. We noted that the covenant with Noah required nothing from the human side: it was pure grace from God. Abraham had to do a bit more: walk blamelessly and get circumcised. But as we come to what might be described as a covenant through Moses, a whole lot more is required, as set out in what we commonly (but mistakenly) call ‘The Ten Commandments’.
It is true to say that this passage has formed the background to right behaviour in many societies: even if we’re not that good at keeping these ‘Laws’ we know that we ought to. Full of liars, thieves, adulterers etc as our society might be, we still know instinctively what is right and wrong, as even a most perfunctory watching of Gogglebox demonstrates. So what are we to make of this passage? If it isn’t about ‘Commandments’, what is it?
The Hebrew refers simply to ten ‘Words’, which is significant in a language which isn’t short of terms for Laws or Commandments: read Psalm 119 if that’s in any doubt. I think it’s most helpful to think of these ‘words’ as ‘teachings’. In other words, if we want our society to go well, and if we want to live in ways which mean that we are walking blamelessly before God, then these are really good ways to behave. You can’t for example ‘command’ anyone to love anyone else, but to teach that love for God is a good thing makes perfect sense.
The fact that there are two tablets of stone is significant: it probably isn’t the case that they wouldn’t all fit on just one. It’s more likely to be the equivalent of copies in duplicate for each party in an agreement. But it is also true that the ‘words’ fall neatly into the first four which are about our relationship with God, and the rest which are about how we treat what Jesus was later to call ‘our neighbour’. Our society is, of course, much happier with the second category than the first, although Christians would want to acknowledge that without the first we struggle to stay motivated enough to manage the second.
So what are Christians to make of these words, particularly since we live not under law but under grace? Firstly, few would deny that a society based on the principles of respect for life, property and family would be a healthy one, our determination to destroy the latter notwithstanding. Paul noted in Galatians 5 that against good behaviour there is no law: live Christ-like lives and you will not come into conflict with the Jewish Law, even though you are no longer bound slavishly to it. Jesus, of course, upheld the Law, but made even more stringent demands on his disciples. It is interesting to note the seeds of Jesus’ teaching in the Ten Commandments themselves: the final one about coveting seems slightly unusual, not just because it is the one that every single one of us breaks regularly, but because in itself it doesn’t really appear to do much harm. So when Jesus tells us that anger can merely be the first step towards violence, lust towards adultery, and so on, we can see that covetousness is something which can lead us in directions it would be better if we did not start out down. Commandments they may not be, but these ‘Words’ are wise for us to heed, individually and as a society. And especially the first four.