Chapter 3: The Commandments—Some General Observations

The Living Commandments
by John Shelby Spong

Chapter 3: The Commandments—Some General Observations

The best known part of the Book of Exodus is the Ten Commandments. Many a Sunday school pupil has committed them to memory. To many adults they seem to be vastly important as a moral standard even if these same adults are not certain of their specific conteifl. I remember well a moment in my ministry when this fact became obvious. I was serving a suburban congregation of rather socially prominent, conservative Episcopalians in a small southwestern Virginia city. In that parish there was general criticism of our church school program because it was said we did not "teach the Bible" specifically enough. Somehow all of the problems of the teenagers were blamed on the fact that the churches no longer stuck to the basics. At a lively social event one evening a woman whose daughter was not exactly on the straight and narrow came up to me holding a drink that was obviously not her first of the evening. This was the moment she had picked to lecture me on the failure of the Church to give proper instruction and moral guidance to the emerging generation. Her strongest and most self-evident point was that children no longer had to learn the Ten Commandments. Being possessed at such moments by what is obviously a demonic spirit, I replied, "Do you know the Ten Commandments?" "Of course," she responded, somewhat angry that I had dared to ask. "Name them," I challenged. There was a cough, a sputter, an angry look, and finally she remembered adultery and murder! The conversation terminated rather abruptly, and so did her good opinion of me, assuming she had ever had one in the first place. In this volume we will probe the meaning of those Ten Commandments on two levels. First, we will seek to get underneath the words to gaze at the eternal truth they embody. Second, we will explore their application to the complexities of life in the twentieth century.

We begin with a brief look at history. How did these ten precepts come to occupy so central a position in both Hebrew and Christian thought? What was their early cultic meaning? How did the scope of the Commandments expand? What do they mean today? Are these ancient words still relevant for our generation, or for our century? These are the questions this chapter will seek to address.

Let me first clearly state the obvious. The Ten Commandments, like the Bible, did not drop from heaven fully written. This is very difficult for many people to comprehend, for I recall vividly how this biblical episode was treated in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments.

To me the most offensive moment in that extravaganza was the portrayal of the giving of those Commandments. God was pictured as a divine drill or a magic buzz saw. Moses held two tablets of stone up and the fiery finger of God attacked them, writing out the Ten Commandments in perfect Hebrew. That is never the way ethical systems are born or cultural taboos formulated, nor is that the way the Ten Commandments came into being. God did not write the Bible. God did not dictate the Ten Commandments. Only the naiveté of biblical literalism would allow anyone to think that.

The Bible and the Ten Commandments came out of the living, moving, worshiping, insightful life of the Hebrew nation. This nation was the product of a particular worldview. They captured insights that are limited by time and conditioned by history. They failed to understand many of the realities of our day because they could not in their wildest imaginations have envisioned our complex world. Eighth-century B.C. Hebrews, for example, could not have embraced the contemporary medical technology that would enable life to continue after humanity in any recognizable form had ceased to exist. Neither could they envision the intense complications of trying to relate that modern circumstance to the Commandment "You shall not kill." When the Hebrew people talked about adultery, they were living in a culture where marriage followed very shortly after puberty, within one year at the maximum. They could not have imagined a civilization such as ours that has separated puberty from marriage by ten to fifteen years. Hence, the standards in their world, when literalized or universalized, create problems in our world that are real and must be explored.

There is a second difficulty. The earliest written document in the Old Testament is the Yahwist document. As noted before, the Yahwist document achieved written form about the year 950 B.C., but the historic Moses dates from between 1400 to 1250 B.C., which means that at the minimum there is a three-hundred-year gap between historic Moses and the first writing of the code of the Ten Commandments. During this time, the oral tradition of the Hebrew people was the only vehicle for passing on tradition. The Elohist document, which is the second oldest document and which constitutes the bulk of the familiar version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus Twenty, was written around 750 This brings an even deeper complication, for it means that by the time the version of the Ten Commandments with which you and I are familiar was actually written, five hundred years had elapsed from the time that they were purported to have been given. For five hundred years the Sinai tradition and the Ten Commandments circulated in oral form, being changed and conditioned by the living events of the history of the Hebrew people. Only when the Hebrews began to write their code down did they enshroud it in divinity, engrave it in stone, and claim that God himself had spoken or written these laws for them.

Obviously the Ten Commandments had a long history of development. There was no instantaneous creation of these words. There are three distinct and different versions of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament. There is Exodus Twenty, the familiar form which is basically from the Elobist document with some Priestly interpolations. There is a version in Exodus Thirty-four, which is basically from the Yahwist document and which is almost totally cultic and not ethical, having to do with worship forms, not behavior. The third version is in Deuteronomy Five, which is basically the Deuteronomic version and is similar to Exodus Twenty.

These three separate accounts only prove that there was a long period of oral tradition and development. There was not even agreement on the number ten or on which commandments constituted the ten, to say nothing of lack of consensus on the content itself. There was much editorializing. We can see where commandments have been expanded with editorial comment, such as all that explanatory detail about who the Sabbath day observance really affects. There are also places where the commandments actually seem to have been shortened, although that is not quite so easy to document.

The ethical norms by which any people live are, I believe, finally rooted in and ultimately grow out of that people’s economic struggle for survival. For example, in the nineteenth century we of the West began to be aware of other cultures, of other peoples and civilizations around the world, in a way that had not before been part of our consciousness. It suddenly became very popular in intellectual circles to assert that morals were relative and that there were no absolutes. In many ways that is correct. The ethical content of the moral code of a people varies widely from civilization to civilization, from society to society. We have only to look at so basic a pattern of human life as marriage. There are peoples whose sense of morality in marriage has been asserted inside an institutional shape that was polygamous, polyandrous, and monogamous. The content varied widely. The Bible itself said that polygamy was all right or else Solomon was Exhibit A of a biblical sex fiend. Try to imagine a man who had 300 wives and 700 concubines being extolled as the virtue of wisdom!

There are also civilizations where the elderly were honored and revered, even worshiped. In other civilizations the elderly were encouraged to die, even banished from the tribe to certain death. Yet both civilizations regarded their behavior as moral.

In our country, in our own brief two-hundred-year history, the moral code has changed dramatically. The factor forcing change has not been some immoral revolution. Rather it has been the reality of the economic struggle for survival in this country. We were at one time a frontier nation but now we are largely an urban megalopolis. Large families in the day of the frontier were smiled upon as the blessing from God. Infant mortality and the death of women in childbirth was a constant reality. To do the work of taming the frontier required large families for survival and economic well-being, and so the moral code blessed that tradition. Today all of that has changed. Now large families are viewed as an act of irresponsible parenthood in an overcrowded, frontierless world facing a shortage of food that reaches starvation levels. Large families or those unwilling to limit birth or population appear to be the immoral ones or at least the morally irresponsible ones. This is a radical shift in ethical understanding and at rock bottom, it clearly rises out of our economic struggle for survival.

Ethics are the very stuff of life. Ethics are the rules which we create to live together in some kind of harmony. They rise out of common consent from within the people, from within the special and peculiar life circumstances of that people. The ethics that become the rules of our common life have to be generally accepted. They have to be pragmatic and practical. They have to function. Ethics have the purpose of protecting people from each other; when they work they help build in society a dignity, a personal integrity, and even a divinity because there must be some sense of the sacred to keep that population living in a creative way. It is at that point, out of common consent, that the ethical standards and norms are written down as laws. They are codified; they are elevated to be the expression of the absolute will of the divinity; and they are enshrouded with the concept of worship. They are regarded as God’s rules, written to govern human life. Finally, a tradition inevitably develops that tells the story of how these rules were first received, a story which roots them not in the common life of the people, but in the element of the divine. That is the normal process that has taken place in every civilization and is very probably the way the story told in Exodus Twenty came into being.

Exodus Twenty is not the only codification of rules in the Old Testament. It is simply the most popular and the best known. There is also in the Pentateuch a group of codified laws called the Book of the Covenant. In the Book of Leviticus another group of laws is called the Holiness Code. Neither achieved popularity. The Ten Commandments are clearly the most familiar set of rules and, in the life of the Hebrew people, they obviously became the most important. Christianity simply took them over.

Some general comments about the Ten Commandments must be made before moving to the particularity of the first one. To give a certain symmetry, I will offer ten general observations about the Ten Commandments.

1. The Ten Commandments are mostly negative. Depending on how you count the Commandments, either seven or eight are "no" or "you shall not" Commandments, and only two at the minimum and three at the maximum are positive statements.

Negatives tend to set the boundaries on human behavior, and to curb irresponsible action. Negatives cannot make you love your neighbor, but they certainly can curb the hate and the way you express your lack of love for your neighbor. Negatives also assume that human nature is not capable of behaving with nobility. To state the Commandments negatively recognizes that human nature expresses a fallen status, that human beings are creatures who need to have clear boundaries set around their behavior. In terms of the way we normally count the Commandments, only the observance of the Sabbath Day and the injunction to honor your parents come across as positive statements.

2. The Ten Commandments purport to have been given by God and yet after the first two, the text of the narrative shifts from God speaking in the first person to God speaking in the third person. In the first two Commandments God says, "I am," and after that he is simply called the Lord. This is either a tacit agreement that God did not dictate these Commandments or else God’s sense of grammar is a bit confused. Interestingly enough, the addressee of the Commandment is always the second person singular, "you shall not," "you shall," and that second person singular is not often found in a legal series in this period of history.

3. From time to time, motivational clauses seem to have been added. For example, why should you honor your parents? So your days may be long. The Commandment gives you a motivation. Why should you not take the Lord’s name in vain? So that you can avoid being held guilty of that offense. None ot these motivational clauses seems to be original.

4. Exactly how the Commandments are counted has never been consistent. Actually there are only nine injunctions, not ten. The first Commandment is divided in order to make two and arrive at the sacred number ten. "You shall have no other gods" and "You shall make no graven images," are both a part of the same Commandment. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches combined these into one as they originally were. When they reached the end they had only nine, so they split the tenth one and made two injunctions against coveting, which makes it appear that coveting is an especially large problem among Roman Catholics and Lutherans. Actually in Jewish commentaries, where the law is broken into 613 separate injunctions, the Ten Commandments constitute fifteen, not ten, of the 613 injunctions. They are numbers twenty-five through thirty-nine of the Torah, and the first Commandment is not the one about having no other gods at all. It is rather a statement on the "being" of God which will be considered later.

5. The biblical tradition about the two tablets of stone does not appear in the Bible in conjunction with the familiar version of the Ten Commandments that is in Exodus Twenty. The Exodus Twenty account has no version of two tablets of stone whatsoever. The tablet tradition is attached to Exodus Thirty-four and the Deuteronomic version in Deuteronomy Five. There is no biblical suggestion as to how these Commandments should be divided into two groups on the two tablets. It was only a later tradition that tended to see the first tablet as our duty to God and the second tablet as our duty toward our neighbor.

6. Every one of the Ten Commandments can be found elsewhere in the corpus of the Torah in the Old Testament. They are not mentioned solely in this familiar list. If every list of the Ten Commandments were destroyed, we could create the ten out of the rest of the Pentateuch. Indeed the Ten Commandments seem to be the barest distillation of the essence of the Law, both cubic and ethical. This suggests that the whole law was given first and that these ten rose to the surtace and were codified later out of the larger corpus.

7. The Ten Commandments themselves contain no sanctions or specific punishments for violations. However, in other places in the Old Testament the death penalty is prescribed for violating injunctions such as murder and adultery. We run into that in the New Testament when the woman caught in the act of adultery is being taken out to the edge of the city to be executed by stoning before Jesus intervenes. The would-be stoners quote Moses as their justification for condemning her to death.

8. The Ten Commandments are marked by a stark objectivity in the present form. I suspect that their original shape, once they reached a re~ognizab1e form distinct from the larger corpus of the Law, was something like this:

1. I am Yahweh.

2. You shall have no other gods before me.

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.

4. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.

5. Honor your father and your mother.

6. You shall not kill.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness.

10. You shall not covet.

I suspect the reason that ten became the holy number is nothing more sacred than that we have ten fingers on our hands and that made it easy to teach children the essence of the moral code of the Hebrew people.

The Ten Commandments in the biblical narrative are very brief, very succinct, and easily memorized. There is no room for discussion, no room for modern, post-Freudian emphasis upon the motivation that elicits the particular behavior, and no room for considering all the extenuating circumstances. They are blunt, dogmatic, and straightforward in the biblical form.

9. In the final form of the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are given a special place and a very special name. To the Jews they were the Ten Words. They are the touchstone and the foundation of the Covenant. They have a finality. "These words spake Yahweh, and he spoke no more," assert the Jews. The Ten Words, the Ten Commandments, are reflected in the prophets. They are enumerated in the books of Hosea and Jeremiah; they are mentioned in Psalms 50 and 81. It is clear that they came into the liturgical worship of the Hebrew people. In the final text of the Pentateuch the Commandments are placed in the position of being the very first words of God that come out of the theophany. The Ten Commandments are the first words to be heard by the Hebrew people gathered at Sinai. It was out of the smoke, fire, cloud, lightning, thunder, earthquake, mystery, magnetism, wonder and awe that accompanied the experience of Israel before that mountain that these Commandments were heard. By the time the writings of the Old Testament were being put into final form, they had assumed a place of preeminence in the life of the Hebrew nation.

10. Finally, it is assumed that the Ten Commandments reflect the essential character of God himself. As the story is told in Exodus both the manner of delivery and the effect upon the hearers makes that point quite clear. Thus the Decalogue is set apart from the rest of the Law even though all the Law was thought to be from God. The Decalogue was the first among equals because these were God’s first words to his people upon entering the Covenant.

God’s mighty act of deliverance immediately called forth an ethical response from his people. Worship and behavior were never separated for the Hebrew. The negative tone of the Commandments set the outer limits of the Covenant. To violate these rules, these Commandments, to transgress these limits would set one outside the established life of the Covenant’s people. Obviously to transgress these boundaries was not a misdemeanor, it was breaking the very fiber of which the divine-human relationship consisted.

The positive Commandments, which have to do with the being of God, the day of God, and the name of God, set the positive inner content for life in that Covenant. The God of the Covenant laid claim upon his people pointing them to a new life and a new destiny. The crossing of the Red Sea* was an act of grace. They, through no fault of their own, through no merit of their own, were chosen. They, who were no people, even slave people, the dregs of society, were elected and given value by God himself. That is the Red Sea experience; that is grace. Sinai was the act of response. Those who are loved, those who are chosen and given a sense of their dignity and worth, decide now that they will live this choice out in obedience. The elect people stand before Sinai to hear what election demands of them.


*Recent biblical scholarship has cast doubt on whether it was the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds.