The Overlooked Grace in the Ten Commandments
People often think the New Testament is about the grace and forgiveness of God, while the Old Testament is all about law and judgment, hellfire and brimstone. Exhibit A: The Ten Commandments, given to Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Horeb. Here is one rendition of God carving the tablets for Moses, courtesy of Cecille B. DeMille, circa 1956.
OK, that’s a pretty powerful image of an inaccessible and distant God, who writes commands in stone with a fiery finger. Plus, we learn that God’s voice is very low and kind of spooky.
Did you like that one guy in the movie who was smokin’ something? Whatever he was smokin,’ he sure puts it down in a hurry! “One thing’s for sure,” most people think, “if I am going to find any favor with God, make it through the pearly gates, I better obey the Ten Commandments. And since I haven’t always done that, well, hopefully, God grades on a curve. I may not be very good, but I might be better than my next door neighbor!”
When we think of the Ten Commandments – and this gets reinforced by Hollywood – we usually think of God the angry judge; God coming down on us.
And yet, the Old Testament teaches us clearly that God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites as a gift – not a burden placed on them by an oppressive taskmaster. It is a gift given to promote life – life with God and life with one another. It’s our part of the covenant. “Covenant,” you say?
Before the commandments are given, in verse 2, Moses says, “God made a covenant with us at Mt. Horeb.” Now, a covenant doesn’t mean, “If you obey the commandments, then God will like you and give you eternal life.” That’s not a covenant, that’s a conditional deal, a transaction. A covenant involves two parties in an agreement, a mutual relationship.
Here’s God’s part of the covenant: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” So, you see, the Israelites have already been chosen, and set free. There is already a relationship here by which God has bound himself unconditionally to these imperfect people. Hence, God will bring them to the promised land and will not forsake them.
As it often is stated in Scripture, God’s relationship with Israel can best be summarized this way: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” This is the real gift, that God would bind himself to these unpredictable people. It is out of that relationship that the commandments are given, as parameters necessary for a healthy and thriving human community. Like parents giving appropriate rules to their children. And because of this loving relationship, the commandments themselves are a gift. Jews have always regarded God’s Law as gift. So have Christians. They are a gift to help Israel – and us – know how to relate to God and each other.
Not an exam, but a calling
This means, contrary to popular understanding, the Ten Commandments were not an entrance exam for the Israelites, because they were already God’s people. The Ten Commandments were – and are – a calling. God set the Israelites free from bondage for a purpose: to love God and neighbor. To learn to live in loving gratitude toward God and advocacy for one’s neighbor. That’s our part of the covenant.
Put another way, God told Abraham and Jacob multiple times that they would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families on earth. The Ten Commandments are part of the covenant because it means God has blessed them and will continue to, and they are to pass on the blessing through their lives and the way they treat people!
Freedom for love
Now, some will disparage the whole idea of rules as putting a damper on things. Did you notice in the film clip when Dathan – the Edward G Robinson character – says, “We don’t need the commandments, Moses. We’re free!” Ever noticed how often people think of commands as limiting freedom and that real freedom is doing whatever you want to? But what happens if people live with no boundaries or constraints? Is it really freedom if everyone covets blindly, steals from each other, sleeps with whoever they’re attracted to and lies willfully to manipulate others? I think we see enough of that in our world to know how that works out. A world with no boundaries creates an untrustworthy and chaotic world where lives are diminished and people are not free, but rather live in prisons built by themselves and those around them!
Do you remember what Moses says to Dathan when Dathan says, “We don’t need commandments, we’re free!”? Moses says, “True freedom comes through the commandments.” He means the commands to love God and neighbor, when followed, free you and your neighbor to live life. Why? Because they prescribe a trustworthy world that you can count on.
It might be a bit like trying to play a game – any game – with absolutely no rules. What would that be like? You can’t play a game without rules! Neither can you play the game of life without rules.
But there is an even deeper idea behind freedom, namely, that true freedom is found in relationships. Have you ever noticed how free you feel when you’re with someone who really loves you and allows you to be yourself and honors who you are? There is an understanding that you will be there for each other! Like a covenant. Freedom is found in giving and sharing love with those around you. God gives us the ultimate freedom, and it began in a big way when the Israelites were freed from the hand of Pharaoh, when God said “You will never have to serve a human lord again. I alone will be your God. I have freed you.” Commandments are to protect freedom, not impose bondage, and they are grounded in relationship.
And this brings us to another point. Sometimes the Ten Commandments are grossly misunderstood as prohibitions. “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” The commandments don’t only prohibit you from hurting your neighbor, they are also God’s calling and invitation to proactively help your neighbor thrive. In other words, it’s not just what you don’t do, it’s what you can do! Luther, in his Small Catechism, beautifully picked up on this. The Fifth Commandment is Thou shalt not kill. What does this mean? Luther explains:
We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body (there’s the prohibition), but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body]. And there is proactive love!
Not only do we not kill or harm our neighbor. We are called to help and befriend our neighbor.
Why, exactly?? Because we are surrounded by grace and we are called to extend it, that’s why. It’s that whole covenant thing. We’ve been blessed us, and in the covenant relationship, we are called to bless those around us, help them thrive, give them hope. And this is a part of God’s grace – namely, that God would partner with the likes of us to do meaningful work!
Finding ourselves in the story
In closing, the real force of Bible stories like these is that we are addressed by these words! We who hear these words today are standing at the foot of Mt Sinai, are called upon now to enter into and recommit to that relationship with the God of Israel.
This is what Scripture is all about. Scripture seeks not merely to inform, but to transform, to invite us to enter into the story of God and Israel, and the story of Christ and the church, and therein to find our own story. So, Scripture is not only about Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Moses and the rest – it’s about us. And as we find ourselves in the story, we learn that it’s not about information, it’s about transformation. The Ten Commandments are given to us to help us create glimpses of God’s Kingdom.
I close with a quote from “The Truth about God” by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon:
The commandments are not guidelines for humanity in general. They are a countercultural way of life for those who know who they are and whose they are. Their function is not to keep American culture running smoothly, but rather to produce a people who are, in our daily lives, a sign, a signal, a witness that God has not left the world to its own devices. Amen.