Wednesday, 22 August 2018

10 Commandments - or not

There is a considerable difference between a command and some advice. In our system of road signs we have both categories. There are circular signs which establish specific rules that must be obeyed, and there are triangular signs which give warnings or advice. If you pass a circular sign saying “30”, it is informing you of a mandatory speed limit. If you exceed that speed limit you are liable to prosecution. A triangular sign saying “30” is advising you that you are coming up to a hazard that needs to be taken slowly. If you exceed the suggested speed, you are not liable to prosecution, but you are in danger of ending up in a ditch.
The '10 Commandments’ are one of the most recognised features of Jewish/Christian faith. Almost everyone knows that God gave ten fundamental commands to his people. Most people would agree that they are a good selection, and are worthy of respect. So you may be surprised to learn that the Bible text doesn’t actually refer to the “ten commandments” at any point. The idea that God gave 10 mandatory ‘commands' came into our religious tradition much later, some time after the Old Testament was completed (which happened 1000 years after Moses’ famous trip to Mount Sinai). According to the language of the Old Testament, God spoke ten “words”, not “commandments". There is a world of difference between a “word” and a “commandment”.
Despite it not being a Biblical term, the idea of there being 10 fundamental commandments has weighed heavily on both Jews and Christians for many centuries. This tragic mistranslation has led us to imagine God as a divine traffic cop, lurking round every corner of our lives armed with a speed radar in order to catch and punish anyone who doesn’t keep his law. That is not an image that God ever intended to burden us with.
God’s “Ten Words”, are intended as triangular signs, not round ones. God is not looking to catch us out and punish us; he is looking to give us essential advice to help us avoid spinning off life’s road and hurting someone.
I have just returned from a holiday in rural Wales where there are a lot of tight bends on single track roads. In that setting, advisory road signs are a great help. The gloomy reality of council expenditure leads me to assume that those corners which are adorned with a sign are the ones where serious accidents most often happen. A similar understanding can be applied to God’s “Ten Words”. They were not given to identify traps that God is expecting to catch us in, they are there to highlight the damaging errors that we are most likely to make.
It is worth looking afresh at God’s chosen “words" (Exodus 20). God is not setting himself as your judge, but as your friend.

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