One day when Jay Leno was hosting the Tonight Show, he walked with his camera man onto the streets of the city outside his studio asking random people if they could name the Ten Commandments. The answers were tragically funny as most struggled to name four. Don’t lie, don’t murder, and don’t steal were the ones most people remembered. After that, the answers were often hilarious.
The most common errant guess was, “God helps those who help themselves.” I’ve even heard Christians use this line as advice at times. (Just so you have your facts straight, this line does not come from the Bible, but from an Aesop fairy tale and is not Scripturally sound at all.) Scripture actually teaches that God helps those who turn to him. He is immensely interested in helping those who desperately depend on and need his help.
Hollywood has made many movies about the commandments. In perhaps the most famous, Charlton Heston played the iconic role of Moses, receiving the commandments from God. Most everyone has heard of the Ten Commandments, but few people (including church going folks) can actually name them all from memory. Take a moment to see how many you can come up with. That’s right…count them on your fingers. How did you fare?
Now you may be asking yourself, “Who cares? Why do I need to know them?” The short answer is that you don’t NEED to know them. But they have offered practical, productive advice for thousands of years. These commands are sound, basic, and moral guides that can help keep us out of trouble…with ourselves, our family, friends, neighbors, and even other nations. Most cultures and societies have incorporated many, if not all of these, into their government and system of law. So what are they? Here's the short version:
· Worship no other gods but Yahweh (the Hebrew name for the Jewish/Christian God)
· Don’t make any graven images of God.
· Don’t take the name of God in vain.
· Observe the Sabbath.
· Honor your parents.
· Don’t kill.
· Don’t commit adultery.
· Don’t steal.
· Don’t lie or perjure yourself.
· Don’t covet other people’s possessions.
How many were you able to name? The history of how they came to be is fascinating, and there are many misconceptions about the Ten Commandments. Contrary to what many believe, they have NOT been around since the beginning of time. Mankind had been on the earth for thousands of years before these commandments were given. From Adam and Eve to Noah and the flood to Abraham who, according to the Bible, was called by God (Yahweh) to form a nation that would be “set apart” from the other nations who worshipped many gods. This nation of Israelites was formed through the descendants of Abraham, and God promised them a land of their own.
For centuries they grew in number and thrived. They are mentioned as a nation in Egyptian historical documents as early as 1219 B.C. (before Christ was born). Egypt played a significant role in their history. Many of the Israelites had migrated to Egypt during a prolonged time of famine in their own country. They found favor with Pharaoh for a long period of time. It was in Egypt that their numbers and wealth grew exponentially. When a new Pharaoh ascended the throne, he feared this nation of Israelites had become too powerful. So, he enslaved them, and they remained slaves in Egypt for over 400 years.
It wasn’t until Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt that the Ten Commandments were given. Anyone who lived before the time of Moses had never heard of them. In fact, the first couple of commands would have seemed especially odd to them. They were a people who had been immersed in Egyptian culture and customs for hundreds of years, a culture that worshipped so many gods it was difficult to track them all. There were certainly Israelites who worshipped and believed in Yahweh, but Yahweh had become one of many gods that were worshipped.
To appreciate the reasons for the Ten Commandments, one would have to understand that, at this time, the idea of a single, all-powerful God was a completely foreign concept. The Israelites needed to be convinced that Yahweh was the one true God, and his power was fully displayed in the ten increasingly severe plagues he set on Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. By the end of the tenth plague, the Egyptians were begging the Israelites to leave.
There is much more to the story that can be read in the book of Exodus if you’re interested, but it is critical to realize that, understandably, the first 3 commands God gave were shockingly different: worship no other gods but me, don’t make any images or statues to worship, and don’t use my name in vain.
A respect was being established. The remaining commands would serve as a plumb line for living, instructions given to supervise a particular people at a time when the lines of right and wrong had been dramatically blurred by hundreds of years of abuse. God was calling this particular nation to new and healthier life-giving standards of living. After prolonged slavery they desperately needed guidance on how to act, how to treat others, and how to prioritize.
God knew they couldn’t keep these laws perfectly. After all, murder, adultery, lying, cheating,
stealing, and coveting had been around since Adam. But these commands gave a clarity to a people who had lost all concept of moral law, and God promised to bless them if they tried to be obedient to these precepts. Lest we think ourselves better than the Israelites and without need of such guidance, I can only say that I, for one, have broken all ten of these commandments in my lifespan. (A big shout out to God for forgiveness and grace through Christ!)
Perhaps our lives and our world would be far better if we strived to follow these moral guidelines more closely. People, cultures, and nations tend to deteriorate when they stray from these precepts. A prolific example is Hitler’s Germany. Hitler became his own god, worshipped and feared by the people. Swastikas and the Third Reich became powerful symbols of authority. Hitler’s jaded morality brokered a crazed society where it became commonplace to kill, lie, steal, and covet the possessions of others. Respect for life, property, and human rights evaporated. Moral decay can happen so gradually sometimes that we look back and ask ourselves, ‘How did we let that happen?” I wonder at times if the current situation between Russia and Ukraine is playing itself out in much the same manner.
One of my favorite posters of all time is “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” written by Robert Fulghum. (If you’ve never read it, you are missing a treat!) Using that as a premise, consider how much better our world might become if we had a poster like the one below to remind us daily.
What a better world we might have if we all respected God’s authority and, in turn, acted with respect towards others. If you can’t remember all the Ten Commandments, you’re not alone. That’s why it is so brilliant the way Jesus pared these 10 commands into 2 that cover everything. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself, treating others the way you want to be treated. That’s the beginning of tapping into the wisdom needed to live a truly rich life.
If you'd like to receive a PDF copy of the poster above, use the blog sign up form below and a copy will be sent to you. For those of you who have already signed up and would like a copy sent, just drop me a note in the contact section and I will forward it to you.
You can also use the sign up form below to receive blogs directly to your email. Or, you can always access this information at:
Anne Hope is the award winning author of Bent Pages...a sharp, funny, and deeply inspirational narrative. Please feel free to forward this post to all your friends and family as well as share on social media. Thanks for the support!
Kindle version of the award winning, "Bent Pages" is now on sale at Amazon for Mother's Day! https://www.amazon.com/Bent-Pages-Anne-Hope-ebook/dp/B092MP1N3R/