verse I – the first commandment
From the midst of a fiery shaking mountain (Ex. 20:18), the mighty sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) breaks through the air, as the majestic voice of the Lord God spoke what might be understood as an ethical guide to covenant community – in short, a Suzerainty treaty: commandments describing not only our obligation toward the Suzerain Himself, but also our obligation toward the human other – however, and wherever they might appear. Such a powerful and majestic scene to reveal obligations? ethics? commandments? The condescended power and presence of the Living God invaded the ages to reveal His heart in the form of words that should lead to faithful and loving action.
Unlike the ethical philosophies developed by man, the Ten Words, הַדְּבָרִים עֲשֶׂרֶת, were not developed over time by God, or fine-tuned as He grew in knowledge; rather, they are a revelation of His own moral character, colloquially, His heart. If we consider the words of the apostle Paul, they are a type of republication of His character that had been imprinted upon the human heart, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Ro. 1:20). Humanity, however, had “become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Ro. 1:29-32). A realistic picture, albeit not a very inspiring one.
So where do we begin with the Ten Commandments?
When considering the Ten Commandments, if you look to Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, Orthodox and Lutheran accountings, we find that they all begin in the same place, Exodus 20:3, “You have no other gods before my face.” Only Jewish sources reckon the opening statement found in Exodus 20:2 as the first commandment. Christian theologians through the ages have considered Exodus 20:2 as the “prologue” or the “preamble” of the Decalogue.
This understanding comes from what appears to be a lack of a particular or specific imperative, as it only contains the identification of the Lord God and His rescue of the Jewish people. Yet, Judaism finds in Exodus 20:2 a positive precept to believe in the existence of God – Judaism understands that the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God…” emphasizes that the Decalogue stems from the Lord’s own ethical and moral character, and that it marks the source of their authority – the Lord Himself.
So what is the first commandment?
אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
In contrast to how a human authority or agency might begin a legal code – first establishing the authority upon which the code rests (the preamble of the Constitution of the United States as an example, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…”) – this does not happen with the announcement of the Decalogue. By saying, “I am the Lord your God…” the Lord does not attempt to prove His authority or even His own existence, as the existence of God is accepted as fact from the beginning of the Torah narrative (Gen. 1:1). Yet, He does not identify Himself by the works of creation; rather, He identifies Himself by the action of redemption.
So it would be logical to ask why? Creation was not witnessed by humanity, the exodus was. In contrast to creations revelation of an all-powerful God, the exodus revealed a personal, loving God. Further, before Israel could take their place as “a nation of priest” (Ex. 19:6) they had to be released not only from physical bondage, but also mental and emotional bondage. In this regard, the reference to Egypt is not only important to Israel, but to the entire world – as He is announcing Himself as the God of Freedom (Ps. 119:44-45).
The first commandment, then, at its heart, is a positive exhortation to recognize the sovereignty of God.
An important point of consideration:
Contrary to the perspective advanced in popular theology, the Ten Commandments are not a type of legalism; they are not legalistic, or a form of bondage; quite the contrary, they are the result of grace.
The Ten Commandments begin with grace – as they were given after liberation from slavery – an act of grace. He did not give the Law and then free Israel from slavery; rather, He freed Israel, and then explained what freedom would look like. Therefore, it would be incorrect to consider the Ten Commandments, or any commandment of God, to be a type of bondage – what man does with or to them can lead to enslavement. The goal of the Torah, to include the Ten Commandments, was to establish freedom not bondage; as the apostle James writes, “But he that looked into the perfect Torah, that of freedom, and continues in it, not a hearer that forgets, but a doer of work, this one shall be blessed in his doing of the Torah” (James 1:25). Or as Paul explains in Romans 2:13, “For not the hearers of the Torah are righteous in the sight of God, but the doers of the Torah shall be declared right.” Both verses of James and Paul are given within the cradle of faithing action (Gen. 15:6), specifically messianic faith.
It would be easy to look upon our inability to “keep” the Law “perfectly” (actually this construction is a bit of a misnomer) as a sign of its defective nature; rather, we are called to obey the Torah/Instructions of God, even with our lack, as it continually points us to Messiah Yeshua/Jesus (Jn. 15:15; Ro. 10:4; I Jn. 5:3). So the Decalogue is not a type of systematic religion, or bondage, it is, as we will discover in the development of this series, as with the Gospel, a way of life in faith (Ps. 1:2; cf. Ps 119:11, 105).
Let us consider the first commandment more closely:
It begins with “I am…” this is personal, not impersonal; revealing to us that 1) He is, and 2) He is personal and relational. This first command uses both His personal name and impersonal title: יהוה (YHVH) and אלהים (Elohim), and causes us to note both His personal and transcendent nature as the source of objective moral authority.
It continues “your God…” the emphasis here is on “your,” as He is the God of every individual, from generation to generation, not solely the exodus generation.
Continuing, “who brought you…” He is not only seen in creation or history, but He involves Himself in the destinies of humanity – additionally, this creates a moral claim upon those He delivered – the redeemer God, the Suzerain, sets the rules.
Finally, “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” First, why identify Egypt and the house of slavery. Egypt, as we will consider in the second commandment, was a land of falsehood, idolatry and wickedness – all that stands opposed to the holiness of the Living God, and represents the physical, mental and emotional slavery that humanity needs to be delivered from. Slavery, as practiced in Egypt was complete; and represents the height of cruelty from which humanity needs to be delivered – both those who practice such, and those who are subject to it.
In sum, this first commandment is a positive precept to acknowledge the Lord God and His sovereignty – His transcendent nature – His personal nature – and His desire for us to be free before Him. As we will consider in the coming articles, the Ten Commandments begin to define for us, and call us to understand more intimately, our obligation to the Living God, our neighbor, stranger, enemy and human communities. As I have mentioned previously, these concepts that can be reduced to the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:35-40) or the “golden rule” (Matt. 7:12), but we still must understand how the Lord defines right action – as this is the “Law and the Prophets.”
The Ten Commandments are part of what is understood to be the “moral law,” as opposed to the “ceremonial” or “civil” laws – although no such categorizations are found in the Torah. As we will consider in the development of this Song of the Mountains series, Messiah provides for us, in messianic faith, proper fulfillment – proper interpretation – which is why we will be considering the Sermon on the Mount, and examining these two mountains synoptically. The Lord who gave these words desires humanity to be free, all peoples; and He will tell us how that works among covenanted people.
We first learn then, that the Ten Commandments begin with grace and then define freedom for those who have been set free – which should stir in us a desire to see others freed as well.
Shalom. Be well.