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Rules and Revelation

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When we think of the revelation of God in the Old Testament, we tend to think of verses like Exodus 3:14, where God said to Moses “I am who I am.” Or Exodus 34:6, 7, where God describes Himself as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

Although we might not think of the Ten Commandments as an example of this kind of divine self-revelation, far more about God appears in that section of Scripture (Exodus 20:1-17) than immediately meets the eye. This point was made by Andrew Wilson in a Christianity Today article (“The Ten Commitments Behind the Ten Commandments,” September 20, 2021). Wilson points out, in passing, that the Ten Commandments do not actually begin with a commandment, but with the identity and nature Of God:

[A] feature of the Ten Commandments that . . . frequently goes unnoticed, is the fact that there are ten theological affirmations — ten attributes of God, if you like — woven through them. If the text tells us who we should be, it also tells us who God is.

King of the covenant

Put another way, beneath the rules there is revelation. The Ten Commandments introduce God to us as much as they outline His law. The commandments do indeed begin, not with the rules but with the revelation “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). It is only after this self-revelatory opening that we are told “You shall have no other gods before me” (v. 3).

In the same way, the second commandment (not to make or worship images of God, v. 4) is followed by a rationale that is longer than the commandment itself: “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vv. 5, 6).

Here there is clearly as much stress on the nature of God as on the command itself. In the same way, the comment added to the third commandment (to honor God’s name) stresses the justice of God’s nature, and the fourth commandment highlights both God’s creative nature and His concern for the well-being of those He has created.

Although the final commandments may not mention God directly, this is to be expected when we remember that the first half of the Decalogue centers on our relationship with God and the second half on our relationship with others. But the final commandments also show a great deal about God, even if indirectly. Commandments five through ten all tell us what God desires to see in our relationship with Him and with His created children.

Interestingly, our understanding of the Ten Commandments as providing revelation of God’s nature, as well as of His laws, is strengthened by other facts not mentioned by Wilson. Perhaps the most important is the historical context in which the commandments are set. While they are unique, their form as a social contract is not. The format in which the commandments were given is the same as that of many treaties and covenants in the ancient biblical world.

Loving Lawgiver

In the time of ancient Israel, relationships between kings and their people or other nations were often sealed by covenants that were formalized in a particular way. The dominant party — usually the king making the treaty or covenant — first identified himself, then often stressed what he had done to show his good intentions toward those with whom the agreement was being made. This was followed by a list of stipulations specifying what was expected on the part of the recipients of the covenant, often reflecting the identity and concerns of the covenant maker. The king might also add a list of blessings directed toward the other party for keeping the covenant and curses for failing to keep it. The Ten Commandments clearly match this kind of covenant:

Identification of the one making the covenant: “I am the Lord your God” (v. 2).

Benefits provided by the covenant maker: “Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (v. 2).

Stipulations and responsibilities of those with whom the covenant is made: “You shall have no other gods before me” (vv. 3-17).

Blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it: see Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28, etc.

So, God gave the Ten Commandments to ancient Israel using the accepted legal “boilerplate” of the time. When we understand this background to the commandments given at Sinai, we realize that rather than being simply a list of dos and don’ts, they were intended as guidelines for a relationship with the God whose identity and nature is revealed in the commandments themselves. Each commandment speaks to some aspect of God’s majesty, goodness, and the rightness of His ways. In short, the commandments not only show us what God desires but also what God himself is like. Each one shows us something of God’s heart and desire for those to whom He gives His laws.

But, of course, we need not limit this understanding to our reading of the Ten Commandments. The truth is, the more we look at any of God’s commands, the more we see of God himself. But it requires a different way of thinking about God’s laws. As believers, we already see them not as the world does, as restrictive rules, but as loving principles of guidance. Yet we can go further in our understanding of the Ten Commandments — and all of God’s laws — when we see them as laws given for our good and as expressions of the nature of the loving Lawgiver Himself.

R. Herbert
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R. Herbert holds a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern languages, biblical studies, and archaeology. He served as an ordained minister and church pastor for a number of years. He writes for several Christian venues and for his websites at http://www.LivingWithFaith.org and http://www.TacticalChristianity.org, where you can also find his free e-books. R. Herbert is a pen name.