A quick question. Without going back to check, how do the Ten Commandments start?
The Ten Commandments are probably one of the best known bits of the Bible – at least, lots of people know that they’re there. And lots of people know that they all start ‘Thou Shalt Not’, while they may be a bit hazy about exactly what we Shalt Not. (A few years back, a national newspaper phoned vicars at random and asked them to recite the Ten Commandments on the spot. Apparently only 60% could do it…) And by keeping it in Jacobean language we manage to make it all feel a bit quaint anyway…
In fact, the Commandments don’t start ‘Thou Shalt Not’ – or even ‘You shall not…’ at all. And I don’t just mean the fourth and fifth ones, which are ‘you shall’ rather than ‘you shall not’ commands.
The Ten Commandments start ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ Only then do we get to the first ‘you shall…’ (have no other gods before me). In other words, the ten commandments don’t start with things for us to do. They start with who God is and with what God has done for us. That’s always the order of things with God. He acts, we react. He speaks, we answer. The commands are meant to be the foundation of a community and nation which is living in gratitude to the God who has given them freedom. When we take away the ‘I am’ from the ‘you shall’ then the commandments are distorted, and they begin to become a way for us to make us feel that we have kept things right with God, because we haven’t broken them. (Although if we understood them properly, I suspect that we might not be quite so confident…
Foundations for society
It struck me reading these chapters that we go quickly from the broad-brush picture of the commandments to the detail of how they work out in practice. It’s the sort of thing which in my mental map of the Bible we get in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, not Exodus. God gives commands for the building of an altar, the treatment of slaves, and the right response to various types of violence.
From our point of view, these regulations seem harsh, unjust and exploitative in many ways. But we don’t live in a desert society thousands of years ago. While slavery is fundamentally wrong, it was part of the assumed background of ancient society, and the laws given through Moses at least bring some humanity and hope into slavery. We might have preferred God to abolish it straight away and ban it forever – but that came much, much later as we learned what it meant to love one another as we have been loved.
One of the key things is to recognise that the commandments don’t give us a list of detailed rules to enforce, but point us to vital principles that we must never neglect. How we interpret and apply them can change as society changes, but the values, principles and core commands of God for how we order society remain – literally carved in stone, but not as part of an election PR stunt.
The commandments can still serve us well – and one way is to use them as a spiritual MOT – how am I doing in each of these ten huge areas of life? But if we’re going to do that, I suggest that we spend as much time on the first sentence as on the rest of them together. Who is the God who commands, and what has he done for me? Only when I have an answer to that question in mind will I be ready to begin on the ‘you shall…’ commandments.