The Ten Recommendations

The Ten Recommendations March 5, 2013

When I saw yesterday’s Non Sequitur cartoon, it reminded me of something that I run up against regularly in class:

For today’s students, the Ten Commandments have always been ten “recommendations” or “suggestions.” No matter how strongly they were ingrained in them from an early age, they have not had the status of law – apart from those universals on which human legal codes consistently overlap, prohibiting murder and theft, for instance.

But it is typically a challenge for students, and indeed any modern readers who have not looked into the subject in detail, to think about the Ten Commandments as ten key laws by which the nation of the Israelites was to live, and by which they were to be governed.

The different context in which Americans live today, one in which religious freedom is sacrosanct, means that the Ten Commandments in their entirety could not become law. The first one or two (depending how you number them) are unconstitutional, requiring one religion and prohibiting others. That is the opposite of not making a law with respect to establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

And so even when most Americans today talk about the Ten Commandments, they may be talking about the same words as are found in the Bible. But because of the changed context, the meaning and significance of those words is very different. Few, if any, are advocating that the Ten Commandments should not merely be important to people, but have the significance as law that they apparently had for ancient Israelites.

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  • Tim’s post yesterday on the distinction between apodictic and casuistic law is important here. These 10 are all apodictic and therefore in the nature of promise as to how those who are God’s will behave. They are not legal requirements on others, nor are they case law. (another podcast pending)

  • Craig Wright

    It is frustrating when I still meet fellow Christians in church who think that they are following the Ten Commandments, not understanding that they are the beginning of the covenant made with Israel (which was declared obsolete in Hebrews 8: 13). When I point out that they are not following the commandment to keep the Sabbath, they usually say that they follow the principle of resting on a certain day. Then I point out that the penalty for not keeping theSabbath is death. This whole confusion becomes broader with the picking and choosing from OT texts (especially regarding homosexuality).