The e-book edition of my new book has been published. It should be available from all the usual online retailers so you can get your copy before Christmas. A paperback edition will be available shortly. (Paperback now available here.)
You can get a head start reading the first chapter here:
In this book I review the Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, the two commands Jesus said summed them up, and the additional “new commandment” that he delivered to his disciples at the Last Supper.
At first they seem simple enough. Then I looked again. That is when I began to have questions about these old, familiar rules.
We tend to try to analyze things in terms of what our mind can grasp or approve. We tend to reject what we can’t understand, even if it’s true. So when I began to study them, I noticed something right away about the original Ten Commandments. They seemed to divide into two plain categories.
The first five on that list were hard for me to understand.
The last five were too easy to understand.
That got me thinking about the whole concept of rules and commandments. I had two perceptions about such lists of rules.
First, they represented hard boundaries. They restricted my freedom. But, at least, (and secondly) they were easy to understand. When I ignored them, I knew exactly why my choice was better! Is it smart or necessary that I should be waiting for the red light to change at two o’clock in the morning with no other traffic in sight? Really?
This thinking is why, for years, I have assured people that things will be different once I take over as World Dictator. I know how I want things to be and how they should be. And I have no trouble handing out orders!
True, I noticed something odd about this.
Although I know how to give directions to others, others do not seem inclined to follow my orders. Indeed, I have found I do not do well at obeying their orders. And I receive many more than I really need. Way too many. Way.
I justify ignoring those orders because, most of the time, they aren’t very clear to begin with. I have found that when I do what people say they want me to do, they often seem to think I have deliberately acted in a thick-headed and uncooperative manner. It goes without saying, any expression of appreciation from them is negligible.
I sympathize with the computer programmer who got a call from his wife. She said, “Please stop at the grocery store on your way home and get a loaf of bread, and if they have eggs, get twelve.”
So he came home with twelve loaves of bread. Tell me he didn’t do exactly what she asked him to do, for all the thanks he’ll get.
Now, it’s true, the most famous list of Commandments seems to be very clear about the boundaries and limits being stated. One after another, they begin with the words Thou shalt not. These were drilled into me as a child and it was not until I had achieved my full measure of adult wisdom that I realized I couldn’t see why God was being so severe. This bothered Mark Twain, too. He worried that if one were to indulge in a helpful murder or two, it might lead to Sabbath breaking. Did both those rules really belong on the same list?
It’s such a short list. It should be easy to follow them. But even when there was only a single commandment, it seemed to be quite a silly and expendable one to Adam and Eve.
God put one tree and its fruit off limits to them. They responded by saying, “It looks good to us! We don’t see a problem! So why not…?” Of course, they didn’t wait for an answer to that question.
I’ve come to suspect that God is not required to answer that question for me. But sometimes a little reflection on the matter may help if I want to make a serious effort to obey Him. You know, doing it as an experiment to see if I could learn anything.
Not that I think the experiment is likely to be successful. For I have also come to recognize that, although I may have a question to ask, it is likely to be the wrong question. I am looking at matters in the wrong way. I am looking at them from the perspective of what I want. What I should be doing instead is asking myself if what someone else wants might be a better question. It’s possible. I don’t want to rule that out.
When I finally did reach that thought, I wondered if maybe the Commandments should be considered not as boundaries but as orientation. Perhaps they are not really about immediate limitations. They are about the direction that will take me toward the greatest fulfillment of all. Jesus said he came so we could have joy to the fullest. I’m hungry for that. But it does seem puzzling that, as I reach for what seems to promise me joy, so often Jesus seems to be saying, “Stop!”
That is a problem for me. I guess we all tend to reject what we don’t understand. And this was when I began to think surely there must be a possibility that even those things which I don’t understand could still be true. I needed a deeper way to think about these things. I needed a more contemplative, less instinctive, way to grasp reality.
In the chapters ahead I’ll take up each of the classic Ten Commandments delivered to Moses on the fiery mountain. Then I’ll look at three more from the New Testament. Two of these Jesus actually described as summaries of all the law and prophets. But then he added a new and final commandment, one that raised the bar on everything that had gone before.
Honestly, I don’t want to keep struggling with these commandments. I want to get better at doing what God asked, simply because He asked. Maybe that is possible? God seems to think so.
And perhaps it would help to recall the history that preceded the giving of this first list of commandments. What had already happened in the world God created? Maybe that would help us recognize what God was warning us about and trying to correct with these ten rules?
Let me sketch a quick recap of that story from the Bible.
At Eden, Adam and Eve turned from God’s design and order, deciding their own eyes offered a clear view and their own minds a reliable critique of what was safe and good to do. What followed was a mixed bag (Number One son kills Number Two son) but there is undeniable progress on display in the early history of man recorded in the Bible.
Even before the Flood, the Bible mentions that mankind went forward with building cities, working in bronze and iron, tending livestock and making music. It would seem human civilization was well underway. From this list of accomplishments it is hard to tell what the problem is with Adam and Eve’s decision to rely on themselves for their life choices.
But God considered those results corrupted.
Genesis 6:5 Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was continually only evil. 6 Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart.
7 Yahweh said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the surface of the ground—man, along with animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky—for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Notice that God’s anger at mankind results in the destruction of animals and birds — the innocent suffering for the sins of the guilty. This is a larger scale replay of what first happened in Eden. There, innocent animals died so God could make clothing for Adam and Eve to wear after they were tossed out of the garden.
Noah is the first reboot of God’s creation plan. Abraham is the second. This second time God proceeds without destroying most of mankind. (But Abraham gets a taste of the idea of the innocent being sacrificed when God tells him to put Isaac on the altar.)
It is now that we see the rise of human empires at Babel and Egypt. We catch a further glimpse of individual and corporate life and identity apart from the Creator God. Instead, mankind is following what Paul later called the Stomach God (Philippians 3:19ff) as their guide to all moral decisions.
I suggest that Job, considered by many scholars to be the oldest book in the Bible, can be seen as a first argumentative response to the rebellion at Eden. You think you can discuss the basic principles guiding My Decisions?, God asks Job. You don’t even understand all you can see! Indeed, God brags on Job initially precisely because Job is such a trusting servant. In the end, this is the position Job chooses to retain. It is the opposite position to the one bequeathed us by Adam and Eve.
Finally, when Moses has led the children of Israel out of their Egyptian slavery, God is ready to spell out that guidance. The very first statement deals with the question of Who we are to listen to and obey.
In my own meditation on the commandments there are some questions I have asked of each one. You might also find it useful to take a moment asking these questions each time we take up a new commandment on the list.
To begin with, there is the obvious question what is the point? Why does this one make the list when so many others did not? There are a lot of things we don’t find on the list that we are told are very important, like baptism or tithing. What makes these more critical? What is the harm in ignoring them at least now and then? Maybe we want to keep that prohibition about murder but is keeping the Sabbath at the same level of importance?
As I have reflected on these Commandments, another question I’ve asked is, which one is the easiest to break — or the hardest to obey? I find way too many of them easy to disregard and hold lightly. Submitting to them, while not utterly impossible, is not the default decision I find myself making at first. If they’re meant to direct me to the best results possible in my life, why are they so difficult to follow? Paul’s conclusion was,
Romans 7:15 I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. 16 But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good.
So, to begin with that first problem, let’s take a closer look at the thirteen basic commandments God gave us.