Ten Commandments – rules to live by

The Ten Commandments is literally at the heart of the book of Exodus, coming in at chapter 20 of the books 40 chapters.  It is obviously an important chapter of the book but whether it is the most important is a matter for debate.  It’s quite possible that we place too much importance on the Ten Commandments while overlooking the general guiding principles that they should give us for life.

To begin with, these commandments are not just an important set of laws.  This is a covenant between God and Israel.  They are placed inside of the Ark of the Covenant, not the ark of the law or ark of the commandments.  In Exodus 24 we see that the covenant is agreed to by the people.

We know that this covenant was recorded on two stone tablets but every depiction I’ve seen of the Ten Commandments is actually wrong.  You always see the stone tablets with commandments 1-5 on one tablet and 6-10 on the other tablet.  In fact there are two tablets because there are two copies of the covenant.  Any time a covenant was made between two parties, there were two copies made, just as any modern contract today would do.  The two stone tablets include a copy for the Israelites and a copy for God.  As we might put an important document or contract in a safe deposit box today, this covenant is placed into the greatest safe deposit box in the universe – inside the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, what about the actual commandments?  Obviously a lot can be said about each one and I won’t pretend to give an in depth treatment of each command.  Instead I’ll start with a summary of them.  This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  If you grasp the overall goal of the commandments the individual commands are essentially unnecessary.

Jesus was challenged about the law and asked what the greatest commandment was.  It was a trap by the Jewish leaders but of course Jesus outwitted them in Matthew 22:34-40:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The Ten Commandments can be broken down into two components – love God and love others.  If we were capable of doing that unfailingly we wouldn’t need ten commandments because those things wouldn’t even cross our minds.  But of course we can’t do that.  The Ten Commandments serve as examples of what we need to avoid if we are to love God and love others.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the commandments by looking at the first four.  The first four commandments concern our love for God.  The first commandment tells us that we are to have no other gods before the Lord.  This is relatively straight forward in the idea that God is to be number one in our life.  It’s easy to think of this strictly in an idol worshipping kind of way but it obviously has just as much importance today.  We make gods out of our job, out of television, and out of our other relationships.  Any time that we put something ahead of God in importance, we make it into a god.

The second command tells us that we are to build no idols.  This means that not only are we not to have any other gods ahead of the Lord, we aren’t to worship any other gods at all.  When idolatry was prevalent as it was in this era, there were multiple gods.  Despite the presence of multiple gods, one of them had to be the most important.  God is more important than all of the other gods as He has just proven through the devastation He laid on Egypt with the ten plagues.

But it isn’t enough to just acknowledge God as more important and more powerful; there is nothing even comparable to Him.  There is nothing else to even call a god compared to Him so there is nothing else that is to be worshipped.  Because we don’t bow down to physical idols today it’s easy to miss the modern point on this command as well.  It means that not only is God to be the most important in our lives, there’s nothing else that we should replace Him with.  A person who states that they’re still putting God first in their lives by attending church 3 Sundays out of 4 while golfing the 4th Sunday would be violating this second command by still having idols.

The third command involves taking the Lord’s name in vain.  We’ve reduced this command to not saying a certain two word phrase that gets bleeped out on television.  And the saddest irony is that the word God is the part that is bleeped out, not the word that is offensive to many.  But that completely misses the point of this command I believe.

Misusing God’s name is anything that makes a mockery of God.  People may swear an oath using God’s name saying “so help me God” or something like that but if they have no intention of keeping that oath they take God’s name in vain.  Perhaps the clearest case of taking God’s name in vain is one that most Christians never think about.

Christian has the name Christ right in it.  It literally means “little Christ” or that we are considering ourselves to be Christ like when we call ourselves a Christian.  Any Christian who calls themselves such and then does something completely un-Christ-like is making a mockery of Christ.  This is a commandment that Christians violate far more often than they realize.

The fourth commandment is to keep the Sabbath holy.  This is probably the most controversial of the commandments today because some claim that Jesus did away with this commandment.  That is a debate that is outside of the scope of our explanation here.

For Moses and the Israelites, the fourth commandment was clear that they were to rest on the Sabbath day.  If there was any confusion to this rule, the manna which God provided six days a week did not appear on the seventh day.  By Jesus’ day the Jewish leaders had taken this rule and made it legalistic, losing the spirit of it.  Today we have adopted the day of rest as a day of worship.  Most Christian denominations no longer worship on the seventh day but on the first day of the week in recognition of Jesus’ resurrection.  Although it doesn’t say it in the commandments, worship and rest have been closely linked for a long time.

These first four commands focus on our love for God which Jesus identified as the greatest commandment.  The last six concern our love for others which is the second greatest commandment.

The fifth commandment tells us to honor our parents.  This is the single most important relationship that we have with others.  The family is something that God created in the very beginning.  It isn’t a man made institution unlike other relationships that we may have.

The idea of honoring our parents is pretty straightforward.  It doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our parents or do what they want us to do.  As we become adults we must make our own decisions that may not please our parents.  At the same time we must remain respectful of them even if we disagree.

There is one time when we may not honor our parents however.  Luke 14:26 states, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. “

Jesus does not mean hate in the way that we think of hate.  What He means is that sometimes we must make a decision between honoring family and honoring God.  When that time comes, we must honor God above family.  If you’re a Muslim who chooses to follow the Lord, this verse is very pertinent because you can’t honor your father and mother and follow Jesus.  Just like in the order of the Ten Commandments, God comes first.

The sixth commandment is against murdering.  Once again, this is pretty straight forward on its surface and it’s an idea that is accepted pretty much universally.  Jesus, however, made it clear that murder is not just about our actions.  We also murder people with our words whenever we attempt to cut them down.  We can murder people with our attitudes when we dehumanize them and make them into anything less than someone who was created in the image of God.

Commandment number seven is against adultery.  We know what adultery is but Jesus made it clear that even lustful thoughts towards one who isn’t our spouse is adultery.  Guys obviously have a bad but well earned reputation for lust.  Part of this is because we are visual creatures who are stimulated by our senses.  But the truth is that lust is not strictly a burning desire that causes us to think of sex.  Lust is longing for anything that is to be fulfilled within a marriage and wishing it to be fulfilled outside of marriage.

We think of lust and adultery in terms of sex because these are the most concrete ways of thinking.  But we also have emotional needs that are fulfilled within a marriage relationship.  Going to another to have those emotional needs fulfilled or longing to have those needs fulfilled is adultery as well, it just isn’t the physical form.

There have been numerous studies that have shown people who cheat on their spouses usually don’t do so starting out by looking for someone younger or better looking.  Instead the relationship begins on the emotional side as they are seeking someone to talk to or get sympathy that they may not get at home.  Even though we concretely think of adultery as sex, the issue is much more than that.

Number eight is that we shouldn’t steal.  We know that stealing is taking something that doesn’t belong to us.  Most people would never walk into a store and put something in their pocket and then walk out.  But we justify not paying for things that we’ve received in other ways.  The grocery store may not have charged us for an item and we don’t bring it to someone’s attention.  We justify it by the fact that it wasn’t our fault and the store is still making plenty of money.

We may steal from our employer by our attitude towards work.  We’re paid for eight hours of work but an hour each day may be spent chatting with coworkers about television and sending non-work related emails.  Anytime we receive something that we didn’t pay for or earn – and the intention wasn’t to give it to us for free – we steal.

Commandment nine tells us not to lie.  I’m not going to spend much time on this one because I probably don’t have much to add to what you’ve likely heard before.  We all know the difference between the truth and a lie.  Lies also come about when the whole truth is not given, when it is misrepresented, or when it was omitted.  A lie is anything that we say that is an attempt at deception or a prevention of the whole truth coming out.

What I won’t get into are little white lies and things of that nature.  We all know that the age old question “Does this dress make me look fat?” is a trap.  It is not a question that wants an honest answer and certainly no man has been dumb enough to say, “No dear, the dress is fine, it’s your butt that makes you look fat.”

The tenth and final command is do not covet.  I believe that this command is last because it is the beginning of a lot of sins.  Why do people steal?  Because they want something that someone else has.  Why does adultery occur?  Because someone has coveted another person who is not their spouse.  You can break any of the other Ten Commandments because you first coveted something that wasn’t yours.

This is obviously a very brief breakdown of the Ten Commandments.  I believe that our goal should not be to legalistically try to follow these commands because we can’t.  That’s actually the point that the Jewish leaders never grasped and it is why they were in conflict with Jesus so much.  This covenant is one that couldn’t be kept.  A new covenant was needed and Jesus came to put it into effect.

The Passover Lamb

The Passover is an important celebration in ancient Israel that is largely overlooked by Christians today as ancient history.  Nevertheless there is much that we can learn from the first Passover that applies to Christians still today.

The first Passover came as a part of the tenth and final plague upon Egypt that would deliver freedom to God’s people who were held in captivity.  Exodus 13 addresses the Israelites and gives them instructions on what is going to happen.  Although this day would be the worst in the history of Egypt, it would be a day of celebration that the Jews celebrate to this very day, thousands of years later.

1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

There are three times each year that the Israelites were called together to celebrate – the Passover, the feast of weeks (which is when Pentecost took place), and the feast of tabernacles which follows the Day of Atonement.  While sacrifices are a part of all three celebrations in the Passover and the Day of Atonement blood sacrifice is central to what takes place.

On the Day of Atonement a sacrifice was made on behalf of all the people of Israel.  But it hasn’t been instituted yet in Exodus.  As opposed to the Day of Atonement, the Passover is a very personal matter.  Each family must sacrifice a lamb.  This is not something that is bought at a market and is ready to eat.  This is a lamb that the family has raised for the last year.  The father would personally have to slaughter the lamb.  The blood from the slaughter – on this first Passover – was used to cover the doorpost of the household.  In the following years the lamb was slaughtered in remembrance of what the Lord did when the Israelites left Egypt but as they place the blood on their doorposts, during this first celebration, they are literally covered by the blood of the Lamb as we like to say in Christian circles.

The Passover is an important celebration that wasn’t to be taken lightly.  In the book of Malachi the Israelites are reprimanded because they were bringing worthless sacrifices.  They sacrificed crippled and diseased animals that had no value to them.  In Jesus’ day the priests had made a mockery of the system because they had to approve of each lamb that was sacrificed.  Often they would reject the lamb that a family had brought from afar and force them to purchase a lamb from the temple at exorbitant prices.

The unblemished lamb is a picture of the sinlessness of Jesus.  Sacrificing anything else is the equivalent of saying that Jesus didn’t have to be perfect or that God accepts sin.  Aside from the general taking advantage of people, the priests of Jesus’ day turned the sacrifice into an issue of money and made salvation available for purchase, but worst of all, only through them.

The Passover points to a personal need for Jesus.  Just being an Israelite didn’t save anyone on the night of the Passover.  Only those who were covered by the blood of the lamb on their doorposts were spared on the night of Passover.  Were there some Israelites who didn’t take part in this or who didn’t believe it?  The answer is most likely yes.  The angel of death passed through all of Egypt and it didn’t discriminate based on nationality, it struck down the first born male of every household that didn’t have the blood on the doorposts.

There is some archaeological evidence that suggests that there were hurriedly dug graves in the region of Goshen – where the Israelites were – that date back to around the time of the Exodus.  It’s likely that not all of the Israelites listened and they had to hurriedly bury their family members before they left Egypt.

Exodus 13:14-28 gives instructions for not only the night of the Passover but also the week surrounding it.  The entire time was a festival known as the feast of unleavened bread.  Unleavened bread is bread made without yeast in it.  It is an important reminder of the Passover.

There are two significant reasons for using unleavened bread in this festival – one practical, the other theological.  For practical reasons, yeast takes time to rise before you bake it.  This is a remembrance that the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for yeast to rise.  When God acts, He does so according to His timetable which may be years or at a moment’s notice.

The theological issue with yeast is that it is a picture of sin.  The modern equivalent to this is an apple.  You’re probably familiar with the phrase “one bad apple.”  The entire phrase is that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.  If a rotting apple is next to apples that are fine, then the rot will spread to the apples that are fine more quickly than if the apples are left on their own.  Yeast works similarly.  It spreads quickly.  If there is even a small bit of yeast, it will quickly grow and spread over everything.  This is the way that sin works as well.  If we clean up our life but leave just a bit of sin left, that sin is going to grow and spread and soon we’ll be consumed by sin again.  As the Israelites left Egypt to go and worship the Lord they were to rid of their lives of sin.

As Christians we know that Jesus was crucified on Passover.  But He also celebrated Passover the night before with His disciples in what we know as the Lord’s Supper.  This isn’t a mistake by the biblical writers.  By Jesus’ day there were so many Jews who came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover that it was impossible to sacrifice all of the lambs on one day.  As it was blood flowed like a stream from the temple mount where the sacrifices were performed.  As it became impossible to do all of the sacrifices in one day the northern Jews from Galilee celebrated the Passover feast on one day and the southern Jews celebrated the Passover the following day.  So Jesus was able to celebrate the Passover with His disciples and hang on the cross the following day as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered as well.

The Lord’s Supper that we as Christians commemorate was the celebration of the Passover that was initiated in Egypt.  It too was the result of blood sacrifice.  Of course Jesus was the Passover lamb.  Like the previous lamb, He too was spotless and perfect.  We celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to remember Jesus’ sacrifice, His body broken and His blood shed.  The Passover was a commemoration of the day that the Lord rescued the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh but it also looked forward to Jesus.  In Exodus, the people were saved from physical death thanks to the sacrifice of the lamb.  In Jesus we are also covered by the blood of the lamb as we are saved from spiritual death.

God destroys the Egyptian gods through ten plagues

When it came time for the Israelites to leave Egypt it wasn’t an easy task.  Pharaoh wasn’t about to let the Israelites go but it wasn’t up to Pharaoh.  God had foretold of the Israelites time in Egypt way back in Genesis 15:13-16:

13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

Finally the time is up and the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land.  What stands between them and that goal is Pharaoh who will not release them.  So God institutes a series of ten plagues in order to get him to change his mind.

It may appear that the ten plagues that fall upon Egypt are simply disasters that bring the country to a screeching halt and make the people cry out for mercy.  Nothing God does is random however and the ten plagues is no exception.  The ten plagues are a direct attack on the gods of Egypt.  God is showing Himself to be all powerful while the gods of the Egyptians are worthless and unable to help those who are crying out to them.

The first plague strikes the Nile River and all of the water in Egypt.  The Nile River was by far the most important geographical feature in Egypt.  Even today the vast majority of the population of Egypt is along the Nile River.  Every year the Nile floods its banks and provides water for crops and otherwise makes the soil fertile in a land that is mostly desert.

The god Hapi was associated with the Nile River and the annual flooding is sometimes even considered the arrival of Hapi.  One of his titles was Lord of the Fish and Birds.  When the first plague strikes, all of the water of the Nile is turned to blood.  This causes the fish to die and is overall disgusting from the stench throughout Egypt.

One might have tried to explain away the corruption of the Nile as a disaster of some sort that flowed downstream.  But not only is the Nile turned to blood, so is all of the water in Egypt, including even what was just sitting in buckets according to Exodus 7:19.

The next plague is a plague of frogs.  Frogs cover the entire land.  Personally, I wouldn’t be too bothered by frogs.  I wouldn’t like them everywhere but I can think of worse things to have all over the place.  The irony of this plague is that frogs were a sacred animal in Egypt.  The goddess Hekt was depicted with a head of a frog and often with the body of a frog as well.  The Egyptians worshipped a frog so God gives them so many frogs that they become sick of them.

Because the frogs are considered a sacred animal, the Egyptians couldn’t do anything about them.  They couldn’t kill them or otherwise get rid of them.  Even though the magicians could make more frogs come up onto the land, they couldn’t do anything about the frogs all around them.  Pharaoh has no option but to plead with Moses.

The third plague to strike the nation is gnats.  Gnats don’t sound too bad until you remember that these would number in the millions.  Also, these are not gnats like we probably think of.  These are called sand flies or fleas.  They burrow under the skin and cause irritation.

These gnats attack the Egyptian religion in several ways.  Even though the pests are in the air, this is actually an attack against the earth god Geb because the gnats are formed from the dust of Egypt.  Egypt was wealthy because it had fertile soil.  All of the fertile soil is gone in an instant and instead it has become an irritant for the Egyptians.

The other thing that happens with this plague is the disruption of religious activities in Egypt.  The gnats would cause the priests to be ceremonially unclean, either through their actual presence or by the scratches left by the people seeking relief from the itching.

Unlike the previous signs that Pharaoh has witnessed, the magicians are unable to reproduce what has taken place.  They recognize that this is a power greater than their own.

When the magicians declare that “This is the finger of God” it could mean one of two things.  They may be declaring that the infestation of gnats could only be done with the power of their god of insects Seb.  If they believe that this is something that Seb has caused they would have reason to hate this god for what was occurring.

If the magicians recognize that this is the power of God, big G, then they are informing Pharaoh that this power is beyond them.  Pharaoh would be wise not to cross a power that is above them and their gods.  Once again however, Pharaoh’s heart is hard and he does not listen to Moses, nor his own magicians.

The gnats are not gone before the land of Egypt is covered in flies as well.  God does something different with this additional plague however.  God spares the land of Goshen where the Israelites live.  They will not be harmed by this plague.  It will be the same in the book of Revelation where tribulation believers are spared of some of the perils that fall on humanity.

Once again, this is a direct attack on an Egyptian goddess, Hatkok.  He was worshipped as lord of the flies and he is shown to be powerless to help the Egyptians from what had befallen them.  If they considered him to still be in power, then he would be the cause of the troubles and would be hated.  He is either not the cause of the flies and powerless or he has brought calamity on the Egyptians and thus worthy of hatred.

Exodus 9 features the 5th, 6th, and 7th plagues.  Plague number 5 is upon the livestock of Egypt.  Bulls were among the most sacred animals in Egypt.  One of the most popular cults worship Apis the bull god.  Several temples kept live bulls there to be worshipped and at one point in Egypt’s history bulls were even given sacred burials and placed in vaults.

The pervasiveness of bull worship is seen as the Israelites construct a golden calf while waiting for Moses to return from Mt Sinai.  Several other gods were depicted as cattle – Ptah, Hathor, Bakus, and Mentu.  When Israel constructed their golden calf, it wasn’t to honor just one false god but many.  This is why they said in Exodus 32:4

“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

God shows power over all livestock and the gods of Egypt are shown to be powerless to stop the deaths of one of the most sacred animals in Egypt.  As with the plague of flies, God makes a distinction between Egypt and the Israelites.  Not a single animal belonging to the Israelites died.

The next plague is the plague of boils.  It was common for the ashes of a sacrifice to an idol to be cast into the air.  Those whom the ashes landed on were considered to be blessed.  This time the opposite occurs.  Moses throws soot from a chimney in the air.  As the ash descends, festering boils break out on the people and the animals all over the land.  Obviously this is unpleasant for all who have to endure the painful boils but once again it strikes at the heart of the Egyptian religious culture.

Egypt was noted in the ancient world for its skill in medicine.  This was attributed to their gods who were known to be gods of healing.  Once again, this shows their impotence as they are unable to heal the boils that broke out over the people of Egypt.  In particular, this is an attack of the god Typhon who was believed to control such diseases

The seventh plague is a plague of hail.  Most of us have probably seen hail at some point in our life.  Even small hail can cause a great deal of destruction but this is no ordinary hail storm.  Verse 24 states that this is the worst storm that struck Egypt in its history.  What is particularly interesting is that ordinarily it doesn’t storm in Egypt.  They rarely even get rain and there are entire years where they may get no rain.  So any kind of storm would be rare and this storm obviously is unprecedented.

Yet again, this is an attack of the Egyptian gods.  Shu was the god of the atmosphere while Nut was the sky goddess.  Both are powerless to stop the storm or protect anyone from it.

Plague number 8 is a plague of locusts.  These locusts devour whatever wasn’t destroyed by the hail previously.  There are over 90 varieties of locusts and any of them could cause devastation like the Bible tells when in groups so large.  There have been swarms of locusts that are so big that they have blocked out the sun before.  This swarm is even more massive than those large, naturally occurring swarms.

After the devastation is seen, once again it is evident that the gods of the Egyptians have failed them.  Nepri, the grain god, Anubis, the guardian of the fields, and Min, deity of harvest and crops have not saved the Egyptians.

Plague number 9 really starts to hit the heart of Egyptian worship.  Ra was known as the sun god and he was the most important of the gods whom the Egyptians worshipped.  Ordinarily light defeats darkness.  When you turn on a light, the darkness goes away.  You can’t bring more darkness into a room to smother out the light that’s already there.  God is in control of the laws of nature however and He can snuff out light with darkness and show the sun god to be powerless as well.

As for the actual plague, God may have used a natural phenomenon to bring about this supernatural plague.  There is a yearly phenomenon known as khamsin where for 50 days in the spring the wind blows off of the Sahara Desert.  For two or three days the wind really picks up, picking up sand and dust with it.

Now, consider the state of Egypt at this time.  After all of the plagues, the land is devastated.  All of the vegetation has been destroyed and there is nothing to hold the sand in place at all.  What might have been a normal, yearly sandstorm came out of nowhere and darkened the sky for three days.  This would have been an oppressive darkness.  Today, when it is dark, we turn on a light and the darkness goes away.  Even with lamps, they would have had little success.  The wind would have made it impossible to keep the lamps lit.  And even if they could keep them lit, the light would have reached a foot and reflected off of all the sand in the air.

The tenth plague is the killing of the firstborn males.  It introduces the Passover to the Israelites but that is another important discussion for another time.  Ra, the sun god may have been considered the most important god in Egyptian worship but Pharaoh himself was considered to be a god as well.

While living, Pharaoh was thought to be the embodiment of the god Horus.  Upon his death, Pharaoh became the god Osiris or god of the underworld.  The firstborn son of Pharaoh would be the next to become Pharaoh and thus a god as well.

The final plague on the firstborn will strike the house of Pharaoh and kill his son.  God will show himself to be more powerful once again.  Not only is God more powerful than all the other gods, only He is capable of striking one of these supposed gods dead.

The final score of the plagues is God 10, Egyptian gods 0.  God has shown all of the gods to be worthless and powerless.  They have done nothing to protect their worshippers because God holds all of the power.