The Ten Commandments, recorded in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, are the centerpiece of the Mosaic legislation, and have long been a major focus of Christian catechesis (alongside the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer). And, while folks might struggle to recall their entire contents, there is a general awareness in American culture that the Ten Commandments do, indeed, exist. As a matter of fact, while one might quibble with a provision here or there, and while there have been disputes about their public display, in my experience, most agree that these are generally pretty good guidelines for life. When I teach my undergraduates about the Mosaic covenant, the Decalogue seems more or less intuitive to them; it’s not a hard sell, compared with some of the other material we cover in class.
This doesn’t mean that people are especially good at keeping the things, of course, but even when someone violates a commandment, it’s usually with a proviso (internal or external) that their situation is unique and therefore an exception to what remains in all other cases the right way to live. The commandments have some real staying power, it seems.
There is indeed, a certain timeless character to the Ten Commandments, and the Christian church has sought various ways of expressing it (distinguishing between the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws of Israel; understanding them as a reflection of the “natural law,” universally imprinted on the conscience; characterizing them as permanently valid expressions of the unchanging will of the eternal God). Some of these are better than others, none are precisely the point, for my purposes, nor, I would suggest, wholly adequate.
The timelessness of the Ten Commandments is less a function of an eternal or universal validity, than it is a function of their origin in God. Even in their original form, the Ten commandments are not presented as universal or eternal, but marked by particularity and Contingency. They are delivered at Mount Sinai to the newly liberated people of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up from the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” They are given to a certain people, after and because of certain events, none of which had to be, but which God, freely and graciously, had brought about (both the people: result of a freely made election and covenant; and the event: a gratuitous act of redemption).
To lose sight of this particularity and contingency in our appeal to and reflection on the Ten Commandments is to obscure the election of Israel, forgetting that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). As St. Paul makes clear, Gentile Christians are inheritors, but not supplanters, of the covenant made with Abraham (Rom. 11; Gal. 3). Invited by Christ Jesus to a new covenant with God, we can indeed claim the Ten Commandments as our own, but not in such a way as to wrest them away from their original setting and purpose.
The Ten Commandments are timeless, because in them God speaks, and because the God who speaks utters one Word: the Word who was in the beginning with God, and is himself God, the Word who has been made flesh, dwelt among us, and returned to his Father, with the promise that where he has gone, a place will be prepared for us. God speaks to invite us into relationship with him. He speaks to enact the relationship: he has spoken in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The same God who has spoken definitively in Christ, has spoken in the Decalogue, and we do well to attend to his voice and hear his words, which have been gathered into that one Word.
The Ten Commandments are timeless because we are continually invited to grapple with them anew, within our own particular circumstances, outlooks, and horizons, with our own particular experiences and questions, as we try to discern their meaning for us here and now.
A series of Covenant articles over the next few weeks, surveying the Ten Commandments in their various ways, reflect this conviction. They represent a variety of voices and approaches: from the overtly theological or ethical, to the pastoral, the political, or the deeply personal. Some authors speak from within their areas of academic expertise, others from their engagement with popular culture, or their reflection upon their own family history. In all cases, though, what remains consistent across them is an attempt to hear here and now what the Spirit of God is saying to the churches, though the commandments.
And so, what follows makes no claim to being the definitive word on the ten commandments. Such a claim would be hubris. It is God alone who can and has given that definitive Word. All we can do is listen, and speak, tentatively, provisionally, and in light of that Word once spoken, now reverberating throughout the remainder of history, beyond which we shall never advance, and in whom all things will reach their completion.
Our series continues tomorrow with a consideration of the first commandment.
Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D. is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and editor of Covenant.