“Then God spoke all these words.” Exodus Chapter 20 Verse 1
How many people think of the Commandments as something to celebrate?
Attitudes towards law generally are often far from positive. Perhaps it is because people might feel that laws depend on how rich they are. People are often deeply cynical, even feeling that the law has become a matter of injustice. Even the words used about people who adhere strictly to laws have negative overtones, if it is said that someone is “legalistic” in their attitude or in their behaviour, it is not a compliment. People observant of every rule and regulation tend to be regarded as odd, if not actively disliked.
In the light of people’s attitudes, how are the Commandments presented as something positive? When law is thought of as being about negative things, about the things people “shalt not”do, how is it presented as being good and positive?
The first five books of the Bible, the books of the Law of Moses, Law that have the Ten Commandments at their heart. Torah, the Jewish name for the first five books, means, literally,”teaching”. In Exodus Chapters 19-23, this teaching comes from God himself and is written down by Moses.
In Scripture there is a delight in the teaching they have received, in the Law that has been passed down to them through the generations. Psalm 19 describes the Law as more precious than anything else a person may possess and as the sweetest tasting food one may eat:
“The decrees of the Lord . . . are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb”.
Why would the Jewish people have celebrated having the Law?
The book of Nehemiah gives an insight into what the Law meant to the Jewish people, an insight into why being told they should keep the Commandments was a source of joy.
In Nehemiah Chapter 8, Nehemiah, talks about Ezra reading the Book of the Law of Moses to the people and in Verses 2-3 it says that he read from daybreak until noon in the presence of all the adults and younger people who were able to understand. They stood and listened, for six hours they stood and listened.
Why was the Law so important to these people? What was all this about? This was the people of Israel being reminded of who they were and how they were to live. They had received the Books of the Law from God. These books told them their story and they told them about the faith which held them together, but they had been through terrible times, including losing their land, and the Books of the Law had been lost.
They stood and listened for six hours because these books told them what their life was about and how they should live as a community. Life as a member of this covenant community is at the heart of the life of God’s people. This reading of the Law wasn’t just about rebuilding their relationship with God, it was also about rebuilding their relationships with each other.
The Law that made the people what they were—their identity as a people came from the fact that they were people of the Law. The Law, with the Commandments at it heart, was essential to what it meant to be one of God’s people.
Sometimes Christians tend to sit easily to the Law, but Jesus himself emphasises how important the Law is in God’s relationship with his people. In Saint Matthew Chapter 5, Verse 17, he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them”.
If the Law is part of the identity of God’s people in the days of Nehemiah, then it is part of the identity of God’s people today.
Do people ever feel like celebrating that they have the Commandments? When they read through God’s words to Moses, have they ever been filled with a sense of joy?
The Law is absolute; it is God’s revelation to Moses; it is not a matter of negotiation or debate. The Law is the complete opposite of the world in which people now live where they are told that everything is relative, where they are told that everyone’s opinion is of equal value.
Jesus would dismiss the attitudes of the present times, the “whatever” attitude which says that anything goes and that nothing really matters. He fulfils the Law because he is God’s absolute revelation. As was the case with the Commandments, so Jesus is not open to negotiation; the Commandments are there to be obeyed or to be disobeyed, Jesus is there to be accepted or to be rejected.
The Law is made possible because God has a personal relationship with Moses; the Law is made known to God’s people through someone who was far from perfect, but who was open to the voice of God.
In the giving of the Law, God has a personal relationship with one person, Moses; in Jesus, God offers a personal relationship with anyone who wants a relationship with him. Keeping the Commandments, is not something down out of a sense of legal duty, but out of a sense that this is part of the relationship, that this is a joyful response to the God who loves his people.