More Than Rules

Don’t worship other gods.

Don’t worship earthly things.

Treat God’s name reverently.

Work six days; keep the seventh holy.

Be humble toward your parents.

Don’t murder.

Don’t commit adultery.

Don’t steal.

Don’t slander.

Don’t resent others for what they have.

Those are the Ten Commandments as typically understood—a list of rules. The paraphrase above is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far.

The actual text of the Ten Commandments appears in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Read either passage. The difference between the paraphrase above and the richness of the biblical text is the additional meaning that the fuller text contains. The context of this text provides more meaning still. The book I wrote explores the simple proposition that the Ten Commandments, the words God singled out for inscription in stone, have even more to say to us than the list of rules we usually see.

If you search the Web for content on the Ten Commandments, you find plenty of impugning directed at this text. The critique that the Ten Commandments are out of step with the times is as old as the Bible itself. Yet, as I describe in my book’s first chapter (available here), one of the commandments—the fourth—is actually more poignant and relevant today than it would have seemed to its original hearers. Criticism of the Ten Commandments practically always addresses the rules list above, giving little attention (let alone wonder) to the fuller biblical text. Those who oppose the text often don’t take the risk of reading it thoughtfully.

On this blog, I am about to start a new project—a month of appreciating the letter of James. One of this letter’s phrases is the “law of liberty.” That liberty applies directly to the Ten Commandments, because those who have this liberty need not have their spirits burdened by rules. This is equally true whether the burden takes the form of obeying the rules or bristling against them. Instead, there is another way, a more innocent way, a way of faith and freedom—the way of a child, said Jesus in Matthew 19. A rich, joyful understanding can grow up out of the liberty to see the Ten Commandments—to see this ancient text—not as a set of shackles, but as a teacher.