Ten or Two?

Oct 08 2017


The scene we heard earlier about the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai is pretty familiar, isn’t it? Whenever we think of God giving Moses those commandments it’s the scene we picture in our minds. Evidently we aren’t the only ones. Anyone who has ever seen Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, “The Ten Commandments” remembers the scene on the mountain complete with smoke, a fiery finger writing on the tablets of stone, and a deep bass voice used for God. Pretty impressive, just God and Moses up on that mountain creating law for all time. Impressive, but it isn’t the only version. This version happens to be called the Yahwist version. And in this version the writer believed that the king and the priest were God’s anointed, so challenging any one of them was like challenging God.

The story goes like this. Around 920 BCE, the Hebrew nation was split into two nations: in the north, called Israel. In the south, called Judah. Sometime around 850 BCE, another writer began telling the history of Israel and presented his own version of the history. This approach was anti-king and anti-dynasty. This writer called God “Elohim” and suggested that God did not make a covenant with Moses, the leaders, the priests or the royal family, but that God made a covenant directly with the people, and instructed Moses to sprinkle blood on the people to seal the covenant. This section of the Hebrew Scriptures is called the “Elohist” version. No Ten Commandments.

Then along came another writer to give us a third version - the Priestly version. In this version, the Ten Commandments appear again, this time in Deuteronomy 5. “The Lord God made a covenant with us at Horeb.” In this version, God, obviously, is speaking directly to the people.

This can all be very confusing. And the reason for the confusion lies in the fact that no one ever finished harmonizing the three versions. But the truth is that the “Ten Commandments,” and our understanding of them, is based on three writers, not one. And the two versions that are printed are similar, but differ in the reason for having a Sabbath Day and differ in the explanation regarding to whom they were given and with whom God made a covenant. For those writers the issue was what they considered their focus, and for them that’s all it was - a matter of focus.

We find, on the other hand, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that there are two commandments: “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, body and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves.” (Luke 10:27) In essence, these two commandments are the first three commandments which talk about our relationship with God: love God, don’t make idols, don’t make wrongful use of God’s name. The last seven talk about our relationships with others: honor your father and mother, don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, covet anything belonging to another.

Where should our focus be? Do we have a covenant with God? Do these writings actually mirror any modern-day situations? Can they have any significance for us in a world culture that we see emerging?

The reasons for covenant, for laws, for relationships with God have changed over the years. For progressive Christians, it really doesn’t make any difference what the focus of those early writers was because we learn lessons from them, but do not take the stories literally, and they did not write them to be taken literally. The question for us is what is our focus? Do we really even care what the relationship was between Moses and God, or God and the people, or the priest and God, or the priests and the people? I would say, “No.” It really makes no difference what the relationship was because we understand that we cannot take it literally, but we do care what we can learn from those relationships and from what the Ten Commandments were trying to say. The stories about the giving of the Ten Commandments are really stories about differing viewpoints regarding our relationship with God.

That now begs the question – what should the focus of our relationship with God be, and how does that focus determine what we do in our lives? 

Time and again we hear atheists challenging the placement of the Ten Commandments on government buildings. If the challengers could figure out that the Ten Commandments refer to our relationship with God and one another and can mean something very different to people today just as the giving of them meant to the early Hebrews, the argument is weakened. If we view the Ten Commandments as one of the foundations of our legal system because they speak of the relationships we should have with people, the multiplicity of their use and their meaning becomes clearer.

Are they useless? I don’t think the Ten Commandments are ever useless. They point to major relationships that people have with other people and point to how those relationships should be crafted. And while we Christians like to point to the Two Commandments we find in the New Testament, the fact is that they originated with the Ten Commandments, and are a consolidation of the Ten Commandments.

Do you really think that all Christians think the same? That all Christians believe the same things? That all Christians ARE the same? We know that those statements are all untrue. But we ARE in covenant with Christians across this planet. And as the world gets smaller and smaller, we will be forced to view our similarities more and our differences less before we choose to accept or reject others.

After the horrendous events that happened this past week in Las Vegas and the woefully inadequate response of our legislators to the devastation in Puerto Rico, it can strike us as being extremely difficult to love certain people after their actions. But being a Christian demands love and forgiveness. It means loving God and loving our neighbors regardless of their understanding of Christian Scriptures, or any other scriptures for that matter. In the final analysis, it is OUR focus that will make the difference for us and will determine what our covenant with God looks like – regardless of how anyone else’s covenant looks. Our task is simply to be in covenant with God, and to respect the covenants that others have established in their own understanding of God. Perhaps some day it will no longer be threatening or viewed as heresy to discuss the sameness of our spirituality instead of the differences raised by our religiosity. Amen.