While much has been made of the “Ten Commandments” in recent history, men for centuries have accepted these commandments as deeply rooted in the order of the universe and of creation—as an overt expression of the Natural Law. They are one of the ways God has continued to maintain His love for His people.
With his father-in-law’s flock under his care, the shepherd Moses heard the voice of the Lord through an angelic messenger. The angel appeared as a bush on fire, but was not consumed. When Moses expressed his surprise at the sight, God spoke to him, “Come no nearer; take off your sandals; the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” After promising to deliver Moses and the Hebrews from the oppression of the Egyptians, God offered His name: “I AM; that is who I am.” Shocked, Moses took some convincing that he could do the Lord’s will and that he would be accepted as a legitimate prophet. With God’s grace, Moses confronted not only his people, but the Egyptians with God’s words. Plagues descended upon the willful Egyptians, and Moses led the Hebrews on an Exodus out of Egypt. Through the grace and will of God, Moses even parted the Red Sea, its collapsing waves swallowing the Egyptian army.
To keep the Hebrews on the straight and narrow path, God gave to Moses a series of commandments to pass to the people. God appeared as smoke and fire upon the top of Mount Sinai. Moses spoke, but God answered with thunder. All, God told Moses, even the priests, must hallow themselves. Through Moses, God told the Hebrews who He was. Then, he commanded them:
Make no false gods; worship no false gods; and make no images of the true God. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” (Some, such as historian Paul Rahe, have questioned this passage, asking if the Jews were polytheists prior to God’s visit to Mount Sinai).
Never misuse the name of the Lord or employ His name in vain. Words matter.
Keep the seventh day of the week—the Sabbath—holy. “You have six days to labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you should not do any work.”
Honor your mother and your father.
Do not murder.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Do not covet the wife of your neighbor.
Do not covet that which your neighbor owns.
With these decrees, thunder and lightning exploded, a trumpet sounded, and the mountain smoked.
While much has been made of the “Ten Commandments” in recent history, men for centuries have accepted these commandments as deeply rooted in the order of the universe and of creation—as an overt expression of the Natural Law. And, to be certain, they are logical as well as honest. They promote good order in the society, in the family, and in the community.
Throughout the following two books of the Bible, Leviticus and Numbers, God and His people clarify the various dietary and societal laws through a myriad of nuances, but the 10 Commandments represent a fundamental threshold and marker of goodness, order, and justice.
Then, in the third book after Exodus, Deuteronomy, God sums up these rules, noting that a people who follows them will be blessed, while those that do not will be cursed. His imagery is more than worth repeating at length.
1 “If you indeed obey the Lord your God and are careful to observe all his commandments I am giving you today, the Lord your God will elevate you above all the nations of the earth. 2 All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the Lord your God: 3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field. 4 Your children will be blessed, as well as the produce of your soil, the offspring of your livestock, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks. 5 Your basket and your mixing bowl will be blessed. 6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
If, however, one ignores the laws and the will of God, only trouble and horrors will follow.
15 But if you ignore the Lord your God and are not careful to keep all his commandments and statutes I am giving you today, then all these curses will come upon you in full force: 16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the field. 17 Your basket and your mixing bowl will be cursed. 18 Your children will be cursed, as well as the produce of your soil, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks. 19 You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
Whether God will bless or curse directly, or whether blessings or curses are merely consequences of the human ability (or not) to follow the righteous laws has been a matter of great debate among scholars and theologians. Some Jews and Christians have argued that God blesses and curses directly, while others note—in a much more Stoic manner—that the Natural Law demands the goodness and order presented in the rules and needs no enforcement at a supernatural level. History has certainly proven that ordered societies, ordered polities, and ordered families thrive, while disordered societies, disordered polities, and disordered families tend toward a quick and harsh abyss. Even as the pagan philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, understood, order in the soul is reflected in the order of the polis.
What is certain, however, is that God has continued to maintain His love for His people through forgiveness and redemption, the covenant—whether through circumcision or through Moses and Aaron—holding all things together, divine and mundane.
This is the fourth essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Western Odyssey” series.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Moses Descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments” (1662) by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.