I am on vacation with my family in Sapphire, North Carolina. It is beautiful up here, though it rains all the time. This area is a national rain forest (who knew?). Still, we’re having a soggy-great time.
At this time of year, as the High Holidays approach and we near the beginning of another cycle of reading Torah, we are in Deuteronomy. I learned a long time ago, from a professor whose classes I sought out, that Deuteronomy organizes the Torah into a pattern . . .
Often the modern words we use to describe things are quite different from the ancient words. We say Deuteronomy, for example, Latin for “Second Law” or the retelling of the Law by Moses on the edge of Canaan to a new generation. But the ancient name is more ambiguous, d’varim, words. So the book begins eleh ha’d’varim, these are the words.
In the same way, we moderns are used to referring to the core commandments of the Torah as the Ten Commandments. The Torah calls them something else, as in Deuteronomy 4:13, the Ten Words or the Ten Sayings, aseret ha’d’varim.
The meaning and purpose of the Ten Commandments is largely lost to Christian interpreters. Many regard them as God’s eternal moral standard. In this regard, though, they are incomplete and also they don’t exactly fit the bill. This is why churches have struggled with the fourth commandment (Sabbath) and have sought to either re-direct it to a Sunday commandment or spiritualize it. It is beyond common now to hear sermons in contemporary churches or see books by misinformed Christian authors to the effect that God’s intent in the fourth commandment is to demand rest from his servants. It doesn’t matter which day, such speakers and writers assure us, but that we follow God’s example in resting.
While I do not for a second doubt the value of resting as a way to recharge for service, I have no doubt these well-meaning people have missed the significance of the fourth commandment entirely. There is a better explanation in Exodus 31:13.
What are the Ten Commandments really? If they are not a set of eternal moral standards, what do they really mean?
The answer is simple and profound and thoroughly demonstrated by the very structure of Deuteronomy. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the entire body of the Torah (the ten are a summary of the 613, we might say). As a summary of the whole Torah, the Ten are a convenient way to symbolize the entire Torah into something that will fit onto two stone tablets and fit inside God’s footstool (the Ark). They represent to Israel the entire Torah.
That is why, when Moses retells the Torah for the second generation about to enter the land, he organizes the Torah around the framework of the Ten. The Ten Commandments, like all the Torah, are the covenant stipulations God gives to Israel. The Ten Commandments are for Israel. They are not a moral subset of the Law separated from rest of the Law to become the Law of the Church. The truth is more complex. All of the Torah is for Israel, though much of it has universal application. The Ten Commandments are the sign of Israel’s commitment to God’s covenant. They are covenant signs and anchors on which the entire Law may be fixed.
The outline below is based on notes and lectures from Dr. John Walton (Wheaton University) and the essential outline has been in various commentaries and articles by other interpreters as well:
No other Gods.
Deut 6-11. Laws about the one and only God and how to relate to him.
Deut 12. Laws about getting rid of hilltop shrines and having only one temple. Laws against following practices of Canaanites.
Using God’s name as holy.
Deut 13:1 – 14:21. Laws about false prophets and false teachers who promote idolatry. Dietary laws about holiness.
Honor the Sabbath.
Deut 14:22 – 16:17. Laws about tithing, Sabbath years, and festivals.
Honor father and mother.
Deut 16:18 – 18:22. Laws about judges, officers, kings, justice, and temple authorities.
Do not murder.
Deut 19-21. Laws about cities of refuge, land disputes, and warfare.
Do not commit adultery.
Deut 22:1 – 23:14. Laws about mixing things, faithfulness to your neighbor, sexual sins and crimes, and purity regarding sexual and bodily functions.
Do not steal.
Deut 23:15 – 24:7. Laws about helping escaped slaves, prohibiting interest, paying vows, and a woman’s rights in divorce.
Do not give false testimony.
Deut 24:8-16. Caution in determining skin disease. Laws against keeping a neighbor’s pledge for a loan. Laws against punishing the innocent.
You shall not covet.
Deut 24:17 – 26:15. Laws protecting widows and orphans, leaving gleanings for the poor, just weights, and first fruits.