1. I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep my commandments.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
4. Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall not do any work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
5. Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, and you shall not desire your neighbour’s house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.
– Moses, recapping the 10 Commandments to Israel in his final sermon in Deuteronomy 6: 6 – 21.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
– Moses, summarizing the 10 commandments in Deuteronomy 6: 4
In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – one of the most foundational texts in my personal formation (both as a Christian and as a writer and critic) Reverend Hale, the man investigating the witchcraft accusations in Salem, Massachusetts, asks John Proctor, the only “good man” in Salem, to list the ten commandments. Proctor has not been going to church because he considers his priest corrupt, but feels he has been keeping the faith, even though he has been having an affair with Abigail, the ringleader of the girls accusing everyone of witchcraft. He’s going pretty good with his list, until he gets to the tenth one, which he can’t, somehow, remember. It’s a heartbreaking moment when his wife, Elizabeth, quietly reminds him what it is – the seventh commandment, against adultery.
I’ve used this device recently in a couple conversations, and it is very telling what comes at the top and the bottom of the list. It’s pretty fascinating, but for one person in particular, the first that he listed was a sin someone was sinning against him, and the last commandment he listed was the one he was breaking himself. I’m no psychologist, but there’s definitely some relation between the things we forget about God’s nature and the sins we end up mired in. What disturbed me, though, is that in almost no case (including when I make the list myself) do I get a list in the order set by God Himself, as related to Moses. The most common pattern is that the last five commandments make their appearance first – the simple “Do Not’s” – murder, adultery, theft, covetousness, lying. But surely there is a reason why these are the last five and not the first – and surely there is something sinister in the fact that we often think of the first five last. God is an orderly God – He doesn’t simply give us a random order of laws – in the priority there is meaning.
The one which most often comes last in my recent conversations with people while on the road has been the Sabbath. And it is #4! Also note the huge chunk of elaboration God devotes to elaborating the first five, as opposed to the one-liners in the second half. But even before he gives us the first commandment, God’s first sentence is not about law, but about love:
“I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”.
This statement of profound love, this establishment of the relationship between a people and their God – rather than an impersonal law, is what begins the ten commandments, and it is this statement which we leave out completely when we list out the ten commandments! For God loved Israel first, and therefore calls his people to account to return that love which he generously gave to an enslaved people. Moses’ summary is more telling – and there is no excuse, for those who would say we only got the greatest commandment in the New Testament, because here it is, right here in the Old:
“Hear O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.”
It is thoroughly worrying that, from forgetting this beautiful relationship, we have slowly but surely devolved into a society that blithely dismisses the first five commandments as unimportant – we regularly swear in God’s name even if we don’t believe in Him, and worse, toss it around as a curse. We happily take up jobs that require us to work on Sundays, or worse, carry around blackberries and iPhones that ensure we are on the job 24/7. We imagine we can get along without our parents’ guidance, as we empty into the great metropolises as 20-somethings to work crazy hours, with no family support, no social network, no time to even go to church regularly, and then wonder why we have no friends or people we care enough about to spend time with. And from there we move to break the most insidious and important commandment of all – the first and greatest commandment: placing just about everything on the pedestal – prestige, financial security, material goods, romantic relationships, sex, drugs, partying, alcohol, travel, exclusive club memberships, networks, careers, art, marriage, children and our expectations for our children – except the Mighty God who gives us every breath of life, and who yearns to release us from our blindness and our bondage.
And then we complain that the God of the Old Testament is a kill-joy, only interested in banning us from doing fun things, like lie and cheat and covet and lust and hate and foul up our bodies – that he’s as controlling as some stern parent who doesn’t love us but expects us to conform to some completely unattainable perfect image. And then, exhausted and drained from not keeping the Sabbath, we wonder why we wander in the desert of despair, of depression, of egomania, of slavery to companies and industries and countries that will not care for us when we’ve lost our youth and health and beauty. And we wonder why our “friends with benefits” won’t commit to marriage, why our marriages fail after “living together” seemed to work out fine, why our serial hook-ups or on-the-side adulteries are less than fulfilling. We wonder why we are bad-tempered, insecure, anxious, drugged, running around like headless chickens and having quarter-life crises when we’re laid off when Wall Street crashes. We wonder why the degrees we have worked so hard – so desperately hard to get – do not assure us a lifetime of plenty and ease, do not cobble us into a perpetual motion machine of man’s making, when just across the Jordan lies a land flowing with milk and honey that we refuse to cross over to see, that we refuse even to consider. And we whine that God has forsaken us, when He simply stands across that river, arms wide open and filled with anticipatory joy, willing to part the waters for us to cross the moment we take our first baby step.
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”
– Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 22: 37 – 40