Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
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Rumination #17: Exactly what are the "Ten Words" (or what some people call the "Ten Commandments")?
Everyone seems to know about a portion of Scripture they call the "Ten Commandments." They were written on tablets of stone; and they supposedly represent the baseline of morality for two religions: Judaism and Christianity. But what exactly are they?
First, they are never called the "Ten Commandments" in Scripture. It is quite odd that they ever earned this name. They are listed in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. They are called the "the Ten Words" in Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; and Deuteronomy 10:4. It is from these three passages that they earned their title. In Hebrew, they are called "aseret ha-devarim" [the ten words]. In the Greek Septuagint they are "deca logos" [ten words]. In the Latin Vulgate, they are "verba decem" [ten words]. So how did they earn the English name, "the Ten Commandments"?
The Wycliffe Bible, one of the earliest English Bibles (1395 CE) translated "aseret ha-devarim" as "ten words." The Coverdale Bible (1535 CE) translates the phrase as "ten verses." Virtually every English Bible from that time on has translated the phrase as "Ten Commandments." So what happened between the Wycliffe translation and the Bishop's Bible in 1568? The Protestant Reformation. The Geneva and Bishop's well-established the phrase "the Ten Commandments"; but the Authorized Version [King James Bible] of 1611, theologically sealed the matter. They were to be called "the Ten Commandments" from then on.
So, does it really matter? Certainly, the ten words of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are imperatives, aren't they? Traditional Judaism lists them as part of the "613 mitzvot" [commandments]. So, what difference does it make if they are incorrectly translated into English?
Beloved, there is a reason they went from being "words" to "commandments" and it isn't out of reverence for mitzvot - it is the opposite. The word "devarim" [words] carries with it the promise of liberty and life - after all, we are to live by "every word that proceeds from the mouth of HaShem." (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4) To some, the word "commandments" bears the appropriate negativeconnotation. There is a theological reason "words" became "commandments."
To be fair, some of the men of the Protestant Reformation considered these words as valid and operable in the lives of believers. Sadly, those same men were those that promoted a heretical theology called "Supercessionism" or "Replacement Theology." The real force behind the denigrating of the Ten Words is to be found in Dispensationalism. It is there that the Ten Words became a relic of a past "dispensation" - the "dispensation of law" which in the dispensationalist's mind is the antithesis to the "dispensation of grace."
It was not the name "Ten Commandments" that reduced these words of life to "the Law carved on stone" in Christianity - it was the theology, whether Supercessionist as with Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism; or Dispensationalism as with Baptist, Pentecostalism, or Evangelicalism (and sadly, some forms of Messianic Judaism). The theology aims to do the same thing in this regard: relegate the Ten Words to cold hard tablets of stone.
That is not what they are. They were delivered by the mouth of the Almighty King of the universe to the ears of an entire nation at once. They came with sounds and sights that have never been experienced since. They were spoken audibly by the mouth of the Master of all worlds. We could see those words, as if sparks. HaShem Himself carved them onto tablets (twice). Our tradition tells us that those tablets were miraculously carved in a way to be visible on both sides, with the words suspended as if on air.
Beloved, they are words of life. They are Ten Words. They are the summary of HaShem's self-revelation. Think about that for a moment. Everything that He said, is found within these Ten Words. And the first of them is...
I am the HaShem your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
This is His formal introduction to His bride. Never forget that.
When Fences Become Walls
And HASHEM said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to HASHEM to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to HASHEM consecrate themselves, lest HASHEM break out against them.” And Moses said to HASHEM, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.”
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for G-d has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the L-rd is able to make him stand.
“Children want boundaries.” You have heard that, or perhaps you have said it yourself. It is true of course. Human beings seem to almost crave limits to our behavior. No doubt this part of our G-d-given conscience – our sense of “right and wrong.”
Let’s be honest though, our conscience is not the same thing as right and wrong – it simply is our sense of what we think is right and wrong. Sadly, some people seem to have no conscience at all, and it is equally sad when some think everything is wrong.
When Conscience Becomes a Choice
In order for our conscience to be a positive tool in our relationship with HaShem, we need to be careful what choices we make in establishing new (or new to us) “fences” (boundaries put up to protect particular commandments) and how we maintain a distinction between those fences and the written commandments of HaShem. Once a standard is a part of our conscience, it is difficult to undo that without damaging our conscience.
It is common in newly observant communities for individuals to grab hold of standards that are new to them. This can be very good. The danger is when individuals make these fences matters of conscience. This is a matter of choice if the fences are not clearly distinguished from the actual commandments of HaShem. “So, if the standard is upheld, and the individual conscience is not offended, what is the downside?” you might ask. The dangers are:
An ever-increasing more-observant-than-thou attitude
Adding to your personal “I will be offended if…” list
Your children as they grow older may have difficulty distinguishing between HaShem’s commandments and your newly established fence
By choice, becoming the “weaker brother”
Safely Embracing Fences
In the case of neighbors with literal fences along a property line, it is easy to understand that one neighbor cannot move the fence without affecting the other. This is also the case of “fences around the Torah.” To best understand how to safely embrace fences, we must remind ourselves what fences are and how they might affect others. A fence is a standard that is beyond of the literal words of HaShem. Notice, that man did not initiate the fence around Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 to keep the people safe. HaShem commanded that it be built. So the Exodus 19 model does not apply to “fences around the Torah” – that is, unless you are also willing to disregard the very sober words in Deuteronomy 4:2:
You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of HaShem your G-d that I command you.
Yeshua alludes to this in His admonition:
And why do you break the commandment of G-d for the sake of your tradition?
I am very encouraging to people who want to embrace Jewish tradition, making the lifestyle of Judaism, their own. I offer this personal caution however: as you adopt traditional halacha and make it your own, do not make the traditional halacha a matter of conscience. That is truly your choice. Distinguish between the literal commandment, and the traditional “how to” in walking out that commandment. Here are my personal recommendations:
Context. Do your best to mirror the community in which you find yourself. If your community does not adhere to your newfound fence, be careful to not promote it as a community standard. Do not broadcast your fence. It is personal, or for your family only. On the other hand, be careful to reflect the community in which you are currently a part. Do not offend your brothers and sisters by what you permit or by what you forbid.
If you have children, as they get older, make it clear that your “family rules” are not “more right” than any other families' rules.
Be gracious. Recognize that everyone errs in some way. Make sure you do not begin to look down on those who do not share the same fences that you do.
Remember Romans 14:4:
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the L-rd is able to make him (and you) stand.
Don’t let your fences become walls. Walls that keep out the blessing of a healthy relationship with HaShem, or walls that make your circle of brothers and sisters ever more small.
The Mideast Update News Site
In 2007, my eldest son moved to Jerusalem working as a journalist and writer. Since then he has done interviews with government officials, academics, and "the man on the street." Joshua maintains a news web site that draws from his contacts in the middle east: the Israeli government, middle eastern universities, and public relations outlets. His reporting, analysis, and insights are unique in reporting on Israel and the middle east.
My friend Brock Wright has written an iPhone/iPad app called "Daily Aliyah" that displays the Torah and haftarah portion for the current week, as well as the daily aliyah for the day of the week. Get it for free in the iTunes App Store.