Orthodox America


The Ten Commandments


Archpriest Victor Potapov

Introduction
The Mosaic Law

When we speak of the Mosaic law, we are referring to those commandments and precepts given to the chosen Hebrew people through the prophet Moses and other Old Testament prophets, which were later reiterated and elucidated by other God-inspired teachers of the Old Testament Church. This law defined moral life, setting forth ordinances and prohibitions concerning all aspects of human behavior.

The Law of Moses is comprehensive; its various ordinances and commandments were frequently explained by examples of those who had either fulfilled or transgressed the will of God. The images of some Old Testament righteous figures are so excellent that they appear as prefigurations of Christ Himself. For example, the innocently suffering and meek Abel, Isaac, Joseph, Job, or Moses himself, a leader and teacher of his people, who wholeheartedly dedicated himself to serving Israel. (Here we have a prefiguration of Christ's redemptive service which benefited all mankind.) The Old Testament also contains examples of apostasy, of falling away from God, images of evil people and evil deeds. The story of Cain and Abel, for example, in which murder, the killing of one man by another, receives divine condemnation (something which, incidentally, isn't found in any ancient religion).

A study of the Mosaic moral law in its fullness requires all the Old Testament books of Holy Scripture, but its principal contents are found in the Decalogue, i.e., in the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.

The Law of Moses possessed a morally-binding power for all Old Testament people, although, like any law of God, it was not forcibly imposed. In the first Psalm we read: Blessed is the man whose will is in the law of the Lord and who meditates in His law day and night. Apostle Paul writes this about the law of Moses: the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good (Rom 7:12).

In Old Testament times the Law of God revealed the true way of life, in a way accessible to the people of that time. Concerning this Apostle Paul writes: I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet (Rom. 7:7). From the Old Testament law people learned that much of what before was not considered sinful, was in fact sin. The law opened man's eyes even wider to his wretched moral state; it roused him to repentance, to an awareness of his weakness in accomplishing good deeds by his own strength. As a result, people recognized the imperative need for a Saviour.

The God-revealed teaching of the Old Testament concerning man's spiritual life, manifest with particular clarity in the Ten Commandments of Moses, the Decalogue, retains its significance even for Christians, New Testament Israelites. It is beneficial for us to recall the essence of these Commandments and their meaning for our spiritual life.

The receiving from God of the Ten Commandments is the most significant event of the Old Testament. The very development of the Hebrews as a people is connected with it. In fact, until they received the

Commandments, the Semitic tribes lived in Egypt as slaves, cruelly treated and without rights. After the Commandments were given, there emerges a people called to believe in and serve God, and out of whom later came great prophets, apostles and saints of the first centuries of Christianity. From this people the Very Saviour of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ was born in the flesh.

The circumstances in which the Decalogue was received are related in chapters 19, 20, and 24 of the book of Exodus. More than fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, after great miracles wrought by Moses in Egypt, Pharoah was compelled to let the Hebrews go. Miraculously crossing the Red Sea, Moses proceeded south along the Sinai desert peninsula, making his way towards the Promised Land. On the fiftieth day after their exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews came to the foot of Mt. Sinai and set up camp. Prophet Moses ascended the mountain, and there the Lord spoke to him: Say unto the Israelites: If ye will indeed hear my voice, and keep my covenant, ye shall be to me a peculiar people above all nations (Ex. 19:5). When Moses conveyed God's will to the Hebrews, they replied: All the words that the Lord has spoken, we will do and be obedient (Ex. 19:8). Then the Lord ordered Moses to prepare the people in three days to receive the Law, and with prayer and fasting the Hebrews began to prepare themselves. On the third day a thick cloud covered the summit of Mount Sinai. Lightning flashed, it thundered and the voice of a loud trumpet was heard. Smoke rolled from the mountain and it began to shudder. The people stood afar off and trembled for fear. On the mount the Lord delivered His law to Moses in the form of ten commandments, which the Prophet then conveyed to the people.

Receiving the laws, the Hebrews promised to keep them, and then a covenant was made between God and the Hebrews: the Lord promised the Hebrews His mercy and protection, and the Hebrews promised to live righteously. Again Moses ascended the mountain and remained there in prayer and fasting for forty days. At this time the Lord gave Moses other laws, both ecclesiastical and civil; He ordained that a tabernacle be constructed, a type of moveable tent, and He gave rules concerning the ministry of the priests and the offering of sacrifices. At the end of these forty days God inscribed His Ten Commandments, which He had earlier delivered orally, on two stone tablets and commanded that they be kept in the "Ark of the Covenant" (a box overlaid with gold, with images of cherubim on the lid) as a reminder of the covenant made between Him and the Israelites. These commandments state:

I. I am the Lord thy God, Thou shalt have no other gods besides me.

II. Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, nor likeness of anything, whatever things are in the heaven above, and whatever are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.

III. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

IV. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labor, and shalt perform all thy work. But on the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God.

V. Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest live long on the good land...

VI. Thou shalt not commit adultery

VII. Thou shalt not steal.

VIII. Thou shalt not kill.

IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house; nor his field, nor his servant, nor his maid...nor whatever belongs to thy neighbor. (Ex. 20:1-17)

Over the course of the next forty years of wandering through the wilderness, Moses gradually wrote down much else that the Lord had revealed to him on Mount Sinai and in subsequent visions. From these writings were formed the biblical books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

The purpose of the laws which the prophet Moses delivered to the Hebrews was to regulate not only religious life but also their civil life. In New Testament times the majority of Old Testament rituals and civil laws lost their signficance and were abrogated by the Apostles. However, the Ten Commandments and other commandments defining man's moral behavior, comprise together with New Testament teaching a single moral law. The Ten Commandments contain the very basis of morality; they lay down those fundamental principles without which no human society can exist. For this reason they may be regarded as a kind of "constitution" of mankind. It is probably because of their supreme importance and inviolability that the Ten Commandments, unlike all the other commandments, were written down not on paper or other corruptible material but on stone.

The Ten Commandments have a particular order. The first four speak about man's duties in relation to God, the next five define relationships between people, the last calls for purity of thoughts and desires.

No doubt, there are some common characteristics between the Ten Commandments and the laws of the ancient peoples who settled the northwestern part of Mesopotamia These common elements and coincidences may be explained by the oneness of the moral law which God placed in men's hearts. If human nature had not been spoiled by sin, then, very likely, the voice of conscience would have been sufficient to regulate man's behavior.

(Translated from Prikhodskaya Zhizn, the parish bulletin of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Washington DC, May 1991)

All of the articles in this series can be found at the web site of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist
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