The educational and ethical journey of the exodus reaches its climax with the story of the giving of the Law, the Ten Commandments. We have looked at the birth of Moses, the revelation of God as “I am Who I am” to Moses in the Burning Bush, the ‘star wars contest’ between Pharaoh as a ‘god’ and God with Moses as his agent culminating in the Passover story, the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the provisions of manna to the people of Israel in the wilderness. That wilderness journey is about liberation from slavery understood literally and ethically. Something good is learned in the wilderness. The greater manna, we might say, is not simply God’s provisions for us physically but the manna of God’s Word and Will for us.
The Ten Commandments are not precisely numbered in the Exodus account and there are different traditions about their numbering. They are neither a list from which we might pick and choose nor are they simply a set of suggestions. There can be no additions to nor subtractions from them. In other words, they form a complete series of interrelated ethical principles that comprise the moral code for our humanity. They are universal and while presented authoritatively, they are actually the precepts that belong to natural reason. They are for thought and are about thought itself; God’s thinking for our thinking and acting. They are really the authority of thought or reason itself.
It might seem that they are negative given their proscriptive force: “thou shalt not.” But this is to miss the essential content and positive meaning of what is set before us and which shape an understanding of law and order externally and internally. They reveal for thought what is known by reason about ethical thinking and practice. They are the unfolding of the principle of God for us in terms of an understanding of the real truth and dignity of our humanity. It is an axiom of thought that a principle cannot be demonstrated by anything prior to it but only by the dependency of everything else upon it. The Ten Commandments are the unpacking of God as the principle of the being and knowing of all things. They begin with God as principle; “I Am Who I Am.” “I Am the Lord thy God” marks the beginning of the Commandments.
Because God is God there can be no other gods. Because God is God, God is not to be confused with anything in the created order; in short, God cannot be imaged for that would deny the reality of God as that upon which everything else depends. An image is not the reality. This is true and necessary for our thinking about God but also for us. You are not your ‘selfie’. Your Instagram images are not you. You are more than your image. Thus our self-knowledge depends upon the knowledge of God and God’s self-knowledge. Because God is God, God’s name is not to be taken in vain which means that God is not to be used for our ends and purposes, as if God were subject to us.
Because God is God, we are bidden to “remember the Sabbath”; in other words, we are recalled to creation and to God’s will for what is made. The Sabbath rest is about our taking delight in God’s delight in the goodness of creation. This is the antidote to our frenetic and frantic busyness. It is about the necessity of contemplation, about the priority of the life of the soul. It is to learn to be still and to think.
The Ten Commandments are given objectively as seen in the image of the two tablets of stone. The Commandments show our relation to God on one tablet, and our relation to one another on the other. The point is their radical interdependency. Because God is God, we are bidden, again in a powerfully positive way, to honour our natural origins, our parents, “thy father and thy mother.” Regardless of how we might feel about our parents and our siblings they are undeniably our parents and siblings. The freest thing we can do is to honour the truth of that reality.
Because God is God, “thou shalt not kill.” We are not the authors of our own lives and therefore cannot presume to have power over the lives of others or ourselves. To take the life of another is to contradict our self and to betray the one in whose image we are made, the one who is the source and principle of all life. Because God is God, “thou shalt not commit adultery.” Marriage belongs to the good order of creation as “instituted of God” and so to be respected and honoured. This, too, is a universal precept even given the different forms of marriage in the different cultures of the world. Marriage is not simply an emotional and personal relationship but a rational and public relationship that belongs to the principle of the family. Because God is God, “thou shalt not steal.” Property, the rational distinction between mine and thine, is an extension of personality. To steal is to violate another. Because God is God, “thou shalt not bear false witness”; in short, to lie and to misrepresent others to others. You have a tongue which is given to speak the truth. Lies both betray the truth and depend entirely upon the truth. A lie has no power apart from the idea of truth. To lie is another form of self-contradiction.
Because God is God, “thou shalt not covet.” To covet is to desire for oneself what belongs to another. But our desires are inward and internal. They are about what is in our hearts and minds. Every morning in Chapel we say confession, confessing our “thoughts, words, and deeds.” Words and deeds are external; thoughts are not. Thus we see how the Ten Commandments embrace the whole range of our humanity. They are about the rational ordering of our lives in the embrace of God’s good will.
The Anglican, Calvinist and Orthodox understanding of the Ten Commandments is as I have rehearsed. The Lutheran and Roman Catholic understanding follows Augustine in ordering them a little differently. The 1st and 2nd Commandments are collapsed into one and the 10th Commandment about coveting is divided into two, coveting persons and coveting possessions. But the weight and meaning overall is the same with respect to the Commandments as the universal ethical code for our humanity, known for thought whether through natural reason or revelation. They are the principles which ultimately underlie and shape law and order. They are profoundly about our freedom from the things that enslave us and hold us in bondage. Thus they signal the ethical good for our humanity.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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