Sometimes, I think I might be a heretic—or at least that others would think so if they knew some of the thoughts I have. But at other times I wonder what I worry about, because I know that I am thinking deeply about what I read and study, wondering what it means, wondering if we've missed some things, wondering if there is more to learn than what I've always heard, wondering if I have a right to question traditional teachings.
One of the teachings most people would never question is that of the Ten Commandments. Ask any Christian if they ought to be followed, and the answer will most likely be yes. But ask any Christian if any other Old Testament commandments should be followed and they will likely say no, or they will be puzzled and ask what other commandments there are. If they are told that there are other commandments like holding festivals three times a year (Exodus 23:14) or not boiling a kid in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19), the response would probably be that those are not moral laws or that they were for a different time. Yet these same laws fall in a long list that comes right after the version of the 10 Commandments that we find in Exodus 20.
So why do we ignore most of the other laws we see, but follow the 10 Commandments? People might say, “well, they are in the Bible”. That's really the extent of understanding we often have of them. We may even try to be able to remember them all, but sometimes that is just like trying to name the seven dwarfs—we're apt to always forget at least one.
What do the 10 Commandments mean to us and should Christians even follow them? What were the circumstances surrounding their inception? The background to their coming into use is that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. We are told that they groan under the heavy tyranny that they faced from Pharaoh. God hears their groaning (Exodus 2:4) and calls Moses to be the one to take charge of the monumental task of leading them out of Egypt.
We're told that when they come out of slavery, they will worship God on the very mountain that He spoke to Moses on when He called to Moses out of the burning bush (Exodus 3:12). During the plagues on Egypt, we see the demand repeated that the people are to be let go in order to worship God (Exodus 8:1; 9:1). After the plagues, when Pharaoh finally lets them go and they have crossed the Red Sea into freedom, the first order of business is singing and dancing in praise of God. After this, times do get tough. The water is bitter and there isn't enough to eat. It takes months to get to the place where they are supposed to worship God, but eventually, they get there. God tells them that if they obey his voice and keep his covenant, they will be his treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). They agree. God says that he will come to them in a dense cloud and the people will hear what He has to say. In order to prepare for this meeting with God, they will be consecrated. They will wash their clothes and will only get just close enough to the mountain until the trumpet blows, and then they will be able to go up. When everything is all set, on the morning of the third day, there is thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud. The trumpet blast is “so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). Moses and Aaron are then permitted to ascend the mountain, but the others must keep their distance. And then, we are told, “God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). What are these words that God spoke?
The words that God spoke begin with Him identifying Himself with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). It's probably slightly comforting to know that yes, all the stuff happening now is consistent because it's the same God. It's not one of Egypt's pantheon of gods, but the one who is identified with their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then lists these rules for them to follow:
You shall have no other gods before me
You shall not make for yourself an idol
You shall not bow down to them
or worship them
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God
Remember the sabbath day
and keep it holy
Honor your father and your mother
You shall not murder
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not steal
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
You shall not covet your neighbor's house, wife, slave, ox, donkey, or anything else
Wait...there are more than ten there. And if one were to look at the very first one according to Jewish sources, one would discover that in Judaism, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” as the beginning “command”. What's going on? What we have here, are actually a number of commandments, that are contained in “all these words” (Exodus 20:1) that God spoke. The Bible does not tell us how they should be enumerated, and that is why when we seem them listed, we will see differing versions between Jews, Catholics, and Protestants1
After the people witnessed these surrounding events, they became scared and decided that Moses should be the only one to get close enough to listen to the rest of what God had to say. God then gives Moses all kinds of ordinances—or commandments—that the people are to follow. In the twelfth century, the great Jewish scholar Rambam2 went through the Torah and codified a list of 613 different commandments that were contained there. These laws were not new; they had been followed for many years. They were just now listed in one location rather than having to search through the Torah.
But for many years, that is what people had to do, and the amount of laws were not unfamiliar to them. These laws are what taught them how to live their lives as God's people. But today, many of the laws get a bad rap. There are many Christians who believe Jesus did away with the laws and so we do not have to follow them. Is this really the case? They are partially right. He did not do away with them, as we shall soon see, but we also do not necessarily have to follow them.
In what has become well-known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus says
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
It is clear that Jesus says the laws are to be followed. But by whom? Jesus is primarily speaking to a Jewish audience. Later, we see that he commands his disciples to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles3, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6) and then in Matthew 15:24 says that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Though in this scene he shows compassion on this woman and heals her daughter and there are other instances of his interactions with Gentiles, his primary audience was his own people, the very same people whose ancestors were given those commandments so many years before.
What then, is a Gentile to do? This is a question that arose in the Book of Acts. The events of this book begin after Jesus' resurrection. More and more Jewish people are becoming believers in Jesus based on the testimony of others and on their own new experiences. And then Peter, the disciple who first recognized Jesus as the Messiah, has another new experience. He is praying at noon and has a vision of various unclean animals and hears God telling him to kill and eat. While I have a hunter friend who likes to joke that this is definite Biblical evidence for God's approval of hunting, Peter understands the vision differently. He is told to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter tells him that it had been “unlawful for Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown [him] that [he] should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28)4 For Peter, this vision does not seem to be as much about food as it is about with whom it is ok to associate. His world has suddenly expanded. No longer is this new religious movement only about his people, but it's about everyone, and he tells people that he now understands that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). And then, to the astonishment of the Jewish believers with Peter, the Gentiles are given the same gift of speaking in other languages that they had recently received.
It's not an easy transition for other people, though, because Peter is criticized by his fellow Jews for eating with Gentiles. He explains to them all that had happened and after he was done they “praised God, saying, 'Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18). The family tree has expanded in an odd way that was very unexpected. What are they supposed to do now? According to some of the Jewish believers, the new Gentile believers must now be circumcised. Circumcision was the mark of being a Jew, of being a part of the covenant that God made with Abraham.5 These Jewish believers felt that the Gentile believers must now “convert” and basically become Jewish, following all Jewish laws. There is a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the issue, and it is decided that the Gentiles will not have to take on all of the laws that the Jews follow. The laws that the Gentiles must follow are to “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:19). There are only four laws here. Four.
Most Christians today are not Jewish. The argument about whether or not Gentiles should become Jewish is one that we would never have today and one that many Christians would likely be surprised to discover is in the Bible.
The question over what to do and how to do it continued to be asked and pondered, and in the late first century, a document was compiled that we know as the Didache, or teaching. This document was a compilation of what Christians ought to do in certain situations. Among others, there are instructions for baptism, fasting, prayer, Christian visitors, and remembering the commandments.
In the section on remembering the commandments, Christians are told the following:
You shall not murder
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not corrupt a young person
You shall not commit fornication
You shall not steal
You shall not use magic
You shall not kill a child by abortion nor slay it when born
You shall not covet y our neighbor's possessions
You shall not commit perjury, nor bear false witness
You shall not speak evil
You shall not bear malice
You shall not be double-minded or double-tongued
Your speech shall not be false or empty, but concerned with action
You shall not be one who covets or extorts, hypocritical, malicious, or proud
You shall not plan evil against your neighbor
Do not hate anyone
Prayer for others
Love still others more than your own soul
So here we have even more commandments than we originally thought there were. Some are very similar to the Ten Commandments with which we are familiar, and only one of them seems to match up to the laws we discover in Acts (the law about fornication). And, these commandments only come in one section of the Didache. There are many more contained within the other chapters as well. We see that the early church was concerned about what living a Christian life meant. They obviously did not subscribe to the idea that people could individually decide for themselves what was acceptable and moral behavior and thought that people needed to know what behavior they should follow. The Bible as we know it had not been compiled yet and while manuscripts existed, it is difficult to say who had access to which manuscripts.
What can we learn from all these different ideas about what commands to follow? We can see that the simple ideas we have today such as “obey the Ten Commandments” were not always so simple, and that there was a time when people struggled and deeply thought about what the right thing to do was. Is this something that we should give up on thinking and discussing today? I don't believe so. If we are able to continue to ask questions about why we do what we do or believe what we believe, we have opportunities to grow in our faith in ways we may never have imagined. Does it mean we just throw out what is in the Bible? No. It is important, however, that we try to understand that there is a cultural and historical and religious context to what is there that is quite different from the context of our lives today. Despite the differences, we can gain a deep appreciation for the struggles that our Christian ancestors faced, because the question of how to apply the Bible and God's laws to our lives is one that we face every day.
1Although Protestantism began with Martin Luther, he continued to use the Catholic version of the commandments
2An acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides.
3A Gentile is a non-Jewish person
4Though the idea of not associating with Gentiles is not found in scripture, it could come from the extra biblical literature called Jubilees.
5See Genesis 17