3 Keys to Help Doubters Make Sense of the Ten Commandments
The greatest cultural icon of the West isn’t American (Declaration of Independence). It isn’t British (Magna Carta) or French (The Social Contract). Instead it’s Judeo-Christian.
I’m speaking of the Ten Commandments.
Though some have tried to transcend it, offering alternative lists in its place, there is no denying—or escaping—its enduring attraction and influence. John Dickson hopes to recapture both in his new book A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments. In it he explores how these ten verses have changed our world and how they show us what the Good Life looks like.
The social impact of this ancient moral charter is so great that most people living in the West…are living by the Ten Commandments, pretty much. These rules seem to represent, consciously or not, what Westerners think of as the “Good” (as Socrates called it)—the happy union of the goal of human society and the virtues needed to get there. (17)
Dickson offers doubters three keys to making sense of these important commands in order to understand the Good Life they embody.
#1) Jesus Transposed Moses
From the outset, Dickson asserts the Ten Commandments have influenced the world through Jesus and his followers. This isn’t a criticisms of Judaism, merely a historical observation: “It wasn’t Judaism that spread throughout the nations converting people to biblical ethics…it was Christianity, with its extraordinary missionary activity.” (35) Which makes sense, because the Old Testament itself points forward to a New Moses—Jesus.
Dickson wants to “emphasize as clearly as I can that Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. He wasn’t cancelling one religion and starting another. He said he was bringing the dreams of Moses and the prophets of Israel to realization.” (36) He draws our attention to Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18:18 to show Moses himself envisioned such fulfillment.
“Moses gave us a beautiful tune,” Dickson says, “which Jesus transposed into a melody that still resounds in many conversations about the Good Life today.” (38) His point being, it was the Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments that shaped Western ethics. Thus, “moving from Moses to Jesus, from old covenant to new covenant, is a key to fully appreciating the remarkable impact of these ancient words.” (39)
#2) The Law in Two Tables
That the Ten Commandments was given as two tablets is also key to making sense of them. Though this could symbolically signify separate copies for the signatories—i.e. God and Israel—“people have often noted that the tablets helpfully remind us of the twofold structure of the Ten Commandments, what people sometimes call the ‘two tables of the law.’” (39)
The first four commands, enshrined on the first tablet, concern reverence toward God. The next six on the second concern our respect for others. “Honor the Almighty and care for your neighbor: that is the structure of the Ten Commandments. That is the twofold pattern of life that has shaped Western history in an irrevocable way.” (40)
Of course, this brings us back to the previous point, that Jesus amplifies these important commands: When he was asked to identify which of the laws were the greatest he said, “Love God with all your heart…” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37–39)
Jesus’ own summary perfectly mirrors what we find in the two tables of the Ten Commandments, which has been influencing the world ever since.
#3) The Way of Freedom
Finally, we need to understand the Ten Commandments are not about duty, but freedom. Part of the problem stems from how we understand the term “law” in our modern context versus the biblical one:
Our Jewish friends are right, then, to complain that the English translation “law” does not quite capture the essence of the original Hebrew term used throughout the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, torah. Torah really means “instruction” and conveys the sense of being led along the way by an expert guide.
This expert guide's goal is to lead us into freedom. Though “today freedom is often understood as the power to choose any course of action” (44), that’s not what the Old Testament envisioned. Instead, “‘Freedom’ is surely better defined as the power to become what I am made for.” (44)
The Ten Commandments, then, are "the path out of ‘slavery to the transitory,’ into the life the Creator intended for his creatures.” (45) Dickson continues: “Living God’s way puts us in harmony with his world and with his purpose for our lives.” (46)
We find our purpose in obeying these commands, as well as freedom and blessing.
“God’s ways, embodied in the Ten Commandments and transposed in the teaching of Jesus, are what human beings are made for. The Good Life is ‘good’ because it corresponds to our nature and purpose as creatures intended by the Creator.” (46)
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