The Ten Commandments and the Gospel | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight | October 8, 2010
They are ancient yet very much alive, influential and yet often ignored, much-loved by some, disliked by others, controversial, and, for many Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, essential.
They are the Ten Commandments.
With the exception of Genesis 1-3, the chapters containing the Ten Commandments—Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—have been given more ink and attention than any other Old Testament passages. Their importance to Christianity and Judaism are evident, and their impact on morality and law, especially in the West, is significant. Yet in recent years there have been a number of lawsuits and court cases aimed at restricting or removing representations of the Ten Commandments from public places. And how well, it might be asked, do we know the commandments that Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, described as "a gift meant for man's growth and joy" that "represents an essential and indispensable aspect of the Gospel" (par 52)?
Exodus and Covenant
God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel through the prophet Moses at Mount Sinai. They were given within the context of two essential realities: the Exodus and the covenant. Liberation from slavery of Egypt was both the historical and spiritual background for the covenantal relationship formed by God with the Israelites; it was, the Catechism explains, "the great liberating event at the center of the Old Covenant". All of the commandments set forth "the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin" (CCC 2057). This is seen, for example, in the commandment about observing the Sabbath rest:
"For remember that you too were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, brought you from there with his strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why the Lord, your God, has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." (Dt 5:15).
God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery initiated the Mosaic covenant. That covenant created a new relationship, and the Ten Commandments and the Law regulated and perpetuated that relationship. Exodus 19 describes the arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai and offers a succinct description of the essence of the covenant, uttered by God to Moses:
"Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites" (Ex 19:5-6).
This relationship was not merely legal or judicial, but personal and moral. The commandments provided the Israelites with a moral framework for understanding and maintaining the covenantal relationship. Ten Commandments were meant to lead to the fullness of life and to possession of the promised land. Rather than blind submission to an unknown divine power, the people were to respond with love to the mercy and goodness of the Lord. "The Commandments properly so-called," states the Catechism, "come in the second place: they express the implications of belonging to God through the establishment of the covenant. Moral existence is a response to the Lord's loving initiative. It is the acknowledgement and homage given to God and a worship of thanksgiving. It is cooperation with the plan God pursues in history" (CCC 2062).
Although it is commonplace to hear the Ten Commandments spoken of as being rigid or even based in anger, they are deeply personal and flow from a momentous expression of divine, personal love. God's creation of the cosmos, the world, and everything in the world was due to His love. "Creation is revealed as the first step towards this covenant, the first and universal witness to God's all-powerful love" (CCC 288). The creation of a people for Himself, a chosen people, is another expression of love, meaning, and purpose. In the words of Jewish scholar Maurice Samuel, in his introduction to Solomon Goldman's commentary, The Ten Commandments (University of Chicago, 1963), "Just as Genesis is an explosive denial of the randomness of the physical universe, so the Revelation at Sinai is a repudiation of the meaninglessness of history." That repudiation would culminate in the Incarnation. The God-man, Jesus Christ, would by His life, death, and resurrection establish a new and everlasting covenant that perfectly fulfilled the Ten Commandments and the entire Law (cf., CCC 2052-2055).
The Ten Words
Ironically, the Hebrew word for "commandment" (mitsvah) is not used in Exodus 20; the Hebrew in Exodus 20:1 is better translated as "words." Three other passages in the Pentateuch contain the phrase "ten words" (Ex 34:28; Dt 4:13; 10:4). The Jews of ancient Alexandria in Egypt translated this into Greek as deka logoi, or "Decalogue," as the Ten Commandments are often called. Because the Hebrew term for "word" also means "statement," the contents of Exodus 20 could be described as "ten statements." Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern and Old Testament law codes (cf., Lev 19-20; Dt 28), the "ten words" are unusual because no penalties are mentioned and no curses are attached, Yet the descriptive "commandments" makes sense in light of the nature of the statements and the authority behind them.
Exodus 20 actually contains fifteen to nineteen imperative statements, depending on the reader. The original reasons for dividing the contents of Exodus 20:2-17 into ten commandments are not clear. Considering the important place the "ten words" held in Israelite and Jewish life, the division could have simply been a learning device based on ten fingers and ten brief, easy-to-recall commandments. But, following the traditional Jewish numbering, there is also an internal division of two groups of five. Each commandments of the first group contains the phrase "the Lord your God", as well as an explanatory statement, something not found in any of last five commandments. The first five are obligations to God; the second five are directed toward relationships among humans. This is emphasized by the fact that the Decalogue opens with "the Lord your God" and closes with "your neighbor."
Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and other groups have divided the commandments differently throughout history. Ancient Judaism, most of Protestantism, and the Eastern Orthodox take Exodus 20:3 alone as the first commandment. Most modern Jews have Exodus 20:2, the "preamble," as the first commandment, while Catholics and Lutherans, following the lead of Saint Augustine, combine verses 3-6 into a single, first commandment. Catholics and Lutherans divide verse 17 into two commandments, the ninth and tenth. Although Islam venerates Moses as one of the great prophets, it teaches that the translation of the Torah has been corrupted over time. However, there are verses in the Koran that are very similar to the Ten Commandments.
From the Old Testament to Jesus
The Decalogue had a special place within the Old Testament tradition, as the Pentateuch makes clear by describing it as having been written on stone by the finger of God (Ex 31:18; Dt 4:13; 9:9). The reflection of the commandments in the Prophets (cf., Hos 4:1ff; Jer 7:9ff) and in the Psalms (cf., 50, 81) indicates their influence within Judaism. The Decalogue has always been authoritative for observant Jews, both within the Old Testament period and in subsequent centuries, during which it was recited each morning in the synagogues. But this practice eventually ended; some rabbinic writings say it ceased because of concerns the Decalogue would overshadow other teachings of the Torah, or Law. Today the Ten Commandments are read in the synagogue in the context of the annual cycle of readings.
The two-fold emphasis in the Ten Commandments on obligations to God and to man were both emphasized and transformed by Jesus. When the young man asked, "Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?" Jesus responded, "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matt 119:16ff). Asked which of the commandments he was referring to, Jesus recited five commandments from the Decalogue and adds a commandment from Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus then told the man to sell his possessions and to follow Jesus. "In this way," wrote Pope John Paul II, "a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God's commandments" (Veritatis Splendor, 12).
The Commandments are fully revealed and fulfilled in the person of Jesus who, in the Sermon and the Mount, discloses a new law, the Beatitudes, which transforms the Decalogue. When asked by a scholar of the Law, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?", Jesus stated, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments" (Matt 22:34-40; cf. CCC 2052-2055, 2083). It is in that light that we now consider each of the "ten words" given by God at Mount Sinai.
The First Commandment: "I am the Lord your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me."
The opening, unique commandment contains the whole of the Ten Commandments. Other ancient documents of laws and commandments exist, but haven't had the lasting influence of the Ten Commandments. Why? Because the Decalogue is first and foremost about the revelation of God—Who He is, what He commands, and how He relates to man. By condemning the worship of other gods, the true God announces that He alone is one, holy, and deserving of man's obedience and worship. This duty to God is not separate from man's obligation to others, but enlightens and guides it.
In commenting on the nature of "other gods," the Catechism discusses superstition, idolatry, divination, atheism, and agnosticism (CCC 2110-2128). Every man worships someone or something; everyone practices a religion, even if it is the denunciation of another religion. As Peter Kreeft explains in Catholic Christianity, his commentary on the Catechism, "Treating God as a creature is utterly contrary to reality. So is treating any creature as God." What was true for the ancient Israelites is equally true today: it is difficult but essential to worship God and God alone.
The Second Commandment: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain."
It was ancient Semitic belief that a person's essence was contained in their name. The sanctity of God's name must be treated with the utmost respect, as Moses learned standing before the burning bush. The name of God—YHWH ("Yahweh")—was usually not spoken or written by the Jewish people, who instead use "the LORD." Echoing the ancient belief, the Catechism remarks, "Everyone's name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person" (CCC 2158).
To make a false oath or to utter perjury while invoking the name of God is a grave sin. Likewise, abuse of the name of God, Jesus Christ, Mary, or any other the saints is strictly forbidden (CCC 2146). Unfortunately, we live in a culture where the misuse and abuse of those sacred names is common, even among Catholics. Many people swear without considering what they are saying. Respecting and protecting God's name is a responsibility to be taken seriously by every Catholic.
The Third Commandment: "Remember to keep holy the Lord's day."
The observance of Sabbath (shabbat) was implied in Exodus 16:23-30, but the Decalogue established it as a fixed, weekly institution. It is unique to ancient Israelite beliefs; there is nothing analogous to it in the entire near Eastern world. Other ancient peoples based all major units of time—months, seasons, years—on lunar phases and the solar cycle. But the Sabbath is disassociated from the movement of the celestial bodies. It recalls the seven days of creation and thus emphasizes the unique character of Israel's monotheism: God is outside of time and nature and completely sovereign over both.
Catholics, of course, are called to keep Sunday holy, which is often called "the eighth day", for it follows the Sabbath and "symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ's Resurrection" (CCC 2174). It replaces the Sabbath and is marked by the celebration of the Eucharist and the paschal mystery of Christ. Catholics are bound to participate in Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation; they are also called to refrain to work or activities that might hinder worship of God (CCC 2180-2188).
The Fourth Commandment: "Honor your father and your mother."
Just as man should give honor to God, the giver of all life, he should honor the mother and father who gave him life. This command has both religious and social dimensions and marks a key transition from commandments aimed at the relationship between God and man to relationships among humans. In this way the Decalogue emphasizes the importance of the family in the stability of society and continuation of generations. Honor is much more than obedience; it includes demonstration of respect and esteem. One can hate and still obey; it is impossible to honor someone who is also hated. Yet family ties, while very important, "are not absolute" (CCC 2232). The first vocation of every Christian to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and a member of the household of God, the Church.
The Fifth Commandment: "You shall not kill."
The Hebrew word used here for "kill" refers not to killing in war or to legal execution, but to illegal killing, especially the murder of innocents. The Catechism teaches that killing in the course of legitimate defense "can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others" (CCC 2265). Intentional homicide, infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are all grave sins. Jesus taught that anger and hatred directed toward others is equal to murder (Matt 5:21-22).
The Sixth Commandment: "You shall not commit adultery."
Under the Law, the penalty for adultery was death (Dt 22:23-24; Lev 20:10). Whereas the fifth commandment upholds the sanctity of the family, this commandment upholds the sanctity of marriage. Jesus' teaching went even further: "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt 5:27-28). All Catholics are called to chastity, which involves a proper understanding of the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of sexuality (CCC 2337).
The Seventh Commandment: "You shall not steal."
Most people of ancient Palestine lived at subsistence level, so the theft of basic items—tools, jars, or clothing—could be crippling. A Jewish Targum states, "For because of the guilt of theft, famine comes upon the world." Stealing assaults the dignity of others and strikes at the fabric of an ordered, just society. Owning property is a guarantee of "the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge" (CCC 2402). The commandment to not steal is a cornerstone of a stable political and economic order; it insures that justice and solidarity, rather than corruption and greed, are preeminent in the workings of society, government, and business.
The Eighth Commandment: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
"Everything in the world God created," goes a Jewish proverb, "except the art of lying." This commandment pertains to perjury, false oaths, and slander, but is also a condemnation of any assault on truth and is an exhortation to total truthfulness. This commandment, notes Kreeft, is "one of the most neglected and most disobeyed of all the commandments," for it "is disobeyed whenever any commandment is disobeyed." To sin is to lie to God and to ourselves. The Christian is called to cling to the One who is the Truth, who gives man the ability to live in the Spirit of Truth, who in turn leads us in to all truth (CCC 2466).
The Ninth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife."
The ninth and tenth commandments address the sin of covetousness, distinguishing between carnal concupiscence and the coveting of another's belongings. Although coveting is an interior desire, it can soon lead to outward actions that will damage the lives of others. Man's fallen condition means he lives in tension between his "spirit" and "flesh." This struggle requires a devotion to purity of heart and the practice of temperance (CCC 2517-2527).
The Tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods."
Like some of the other commandments, this is something that can be known by natural human reason: it is wrong to covet the belongings of others. But Jesus offered a deeper insight into greed, avarice, and lust when He stated, "For where your treasuries, there also will your heart be" (Matt 6:21). It is not wrong to obtain good and have possessions. But envy, which is a capital sin, is a rejection of charity, the embrace of pride, and a refusal to embrace the poverty of spirit so essential to Christian discipleship (CCC 2539-2547).
(This article originally appeared in March 2007 in Our Sunday Visitor newspaper in a slightly different form.)
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Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author, with medievalist Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (Ignatius, 2004). Known for his knowledge of Evangelical and Fundamentalist beliefs about the end of the world, he has written over two dozen articles about Bible prophecy, the belief in the "Rapture," and Left Behind books. His recent book, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Todays Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press, April 2003) is the result of years of research on the topic; it was recognized by the Associated Press as one of the best religious titles of 2003.
He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their three children, two cats, and far too many books and CDs. Visit his personal web site (still stuck in the middle of a major overhaul) at www.carl-olson.com.
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