They Are Not Commandments

Sometimes we lose sight of the big picture because we get tripped up in the details. So it is with the story of Moses, and, in particular, Moses on the mountaintop receiving the ten commandments. This is the first deception, the word “commandment.” Because nowhere in the Bible, in any translation, are they actually called “commandments”—never have been. They are called the ten words (Hebrew: dabar). Anyone who has spent any time reading Scripture can tell you this. So why is the phrase “The Ten Commandments” not corrected—not in the church, not in the culture—but rather reinforced, teaching the world that a life of faith is a life of following rules? Nothing could be further from the truth. 170px-DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcover

Perhaps, the image of Moses—or more specifically, the image of Charlton Heston playing Moses in the movie The Ten Commandments—has helped to reinforce the error. Although the movie was made in 1956, it is stilled viewed by millions every year on T.V., with new and improved DVD boxed sets released continuously since the late 1990s. And what is on the cover of each of these releases? A “pumped up” image of Moses, the warrior/savior/intercessor/hero holding up the tablets as lightning strikes them; an image well-aligned to the American love of the divinely-appointed superhero. His late-in-life association with the NRA and the “culture wars” seems to hum beneath the surface of this image of Moses, who to many—if not most—would be considered the key Old Testament figure of the Christian faith.

He is not.

In the grand narrative of the promises of God, the promises that set in motion God’s plan to make of one man “a great nation,”—the promises what will ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus—that man is not Moses, but Abram (later called Abraham). Abram, the seventy-five year old shepherd with the barren wife through whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars. It was just a day like any other when, “the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision…” and Abram,”believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:1,6).

This is where the story of the life of faith begins.

We are not the first generation to get confused, or to want to lean into the “ten-point-checklist-to-heaven” mentality of faith. Within decades of Christ’s resurrection, Paul was needing to re-teach the Galatians, “If the inheritance came through the law, it would no longer be by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Galatians 1: 18). Paul was needing to re-teach the people of Ephesus, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—” (Ephesians 2:8). Paul was needing to shine a light on the meaning of faith in the new covenant, which echoes deeply the first covenant in Abraham, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The Ten Commandments are not commandments, and the Law is not Grace. It seems that there will be no end to this Word needing to be taught: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12). Let us begin by erasing Charlton Heston from our minds and consider instead this image of the “oak of Moreh” (“oracle giver”). It was here that God appeared to Abram as he journeyed faithfully to the land of Canaan, and here, under the tree and the night sky filled with stars too numerous to count, that he built an altar.

 "Abraham's Oak"   by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1905

“Abraham’s Oak”
by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1905

A life of faith is not a life of following rules, but rather, of following Jesus. This will always be a radical, counter-cultural move, and one whose seminal spark is not old history or some future promise, but rather the Living God speaking a word to you right now, wherever you are. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:7).

Today, as we consider what it might be like to actually be free, may we lean into the invitation of Jesus: “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). May He open our minds that we may” understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). And may we come to see the ultimate purpose of the “ten words” God once gave to Moses:

“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

2 Comments on “They Are Not Commandments

  1. That’s why I use the word “Decalog” (the 10 words) instead of commandments.

    BTW – the Great Commission is the same way there – where some translations screw it up and render it “Obey my commandments” the Greek there would be better translated as ” treasure (tereo – to guard/keep – as in a castle keep) what I’ve commissioned ( entellomai – – to give a charge to , to enjoin – think of an artist being given a commission ) This way it tails in very nicely when Ephesians 210.

    • My challenge with TGC is how we mess up the “go” Mike Middendorf at CUI was instrumental in helping to clear this up. He said that the movement of “going to make disciples” was better understood as this: “When you have arrived at the place where you have been sent, teach and learn, learn and teach.” That’s something that really gets lost in translation.

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