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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.,
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
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
The Fourth Commandment: "Honor your father and your
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
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
The Tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your
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
(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 and moderator of the Insight Scoop blog.
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 writes a weekly Scripture column, "Opening the Word", for Our Sunday Visitor, is a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and
and has written for numerous Catholic periodicals. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.
Carl 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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