Exodus 20:1-21 – Grace, the Law, and Covetousness

From a sermon delivered by Andrew Reid on 7 August 2016:

Starting in the right place – Grace, then the Law.

[1] And God spoke all these words, saying, [2] “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. [3] “You shall have no other gods before(1) me.

Footnotes (1) 20:3 Or *besides* (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

Grace comes first.

God first brought these people, whom He called His own, out of the land of Egypt. Thereafter, He communicated His commandments for His people. The gracious salvation of His people preceded His gift of the Law.

Understanding a Hebrew word

“His gift of the Law…?” It might seem strange to some but yes, a gift.

Before we delve into it, it is necessary to understand a Hebrew word: Torah. Though it has been widely translated into English as “Law”, there are important distinctions between the two. In brief, Torah is akin to a direction that’s pointed out to us (in this case, by God), in an instructional manner, to teach, to guide. In detail:

The purpose of a parent’s Torah is to teach and bring the children to maturity. If the Torah is violated out of disrespect or defiant disobedience, the child is punished. If the child desires to follow the instructions out of a loving obedience but falls short of the expectations, the child is commended for the effort and counseled on how to perform the instructions better the next time.

Unlike Torah, law is a set of rules from a government and binding on a community. Violation of the rules require punishment. With this type of law, there is no room for teaching, either the law was broken with the penalty of punishment or it was not broken. God, as our heavenly Father, gives his children his Torah in the same manner as parents give their Torah to their children, not in the manner as a government does to its citizens.

The Ten Commandments in brief

  1. One could summarise the Ten Commandments by saying, “The first four commandments are focused on God, the next six on people.”
    1. No other gods
    2. No idolatry, not even making images of God
    3. No misusing of the name of God
    4. Remember the Sabbath
    5. Honour your parents
    6. Do not murder (Note: Hebrew word also covers causing human death through carelessness or negligence)
    7. Do not commit adultery
    8. Do not steal
    9. Do not give false testimony
    10. Do not covet what belongs to your neighbour
  2. One could summarise the Ten Commandments, also, by saying, “Don’t take things away from God, don’t take things away from your ‘neighbour’.”
    1. From God: Attention to, obedience to, adoration for, desire for Him
    2. From your neighbour, or simply other people: Honour, respect, life, spouse, properties, reputation, or (I’m extrapolating here) even eternal life

Why does it matter?

The Torah and our response to it matter, as the Torah reflects the character of God, the giver of these commandments. God is holy and He wants us to be holy. God wants us to enjoy Him, and to find joy through godly living, hence “His gift of the Law” (above).

How’s this different from law again?

One might argue that laws do what the Torah does as well. It points in a particular direction; it teaches. Yet, the pedagogies employed, if I may, are different.

Laws teach through the threat and exercise of punishment, and the social scrutiny or stigma that follows. Loosely, laws are akin to summative assessments; they declare if you’ve “passed” or “failed” and go on to punish those who have “failed”. Notice that God’s commandments do not come with punishments. The Torah isn’t “law” as we understand it. Again, loosely speaking, I am tempted to think of the Torah as formative assessment, as checks on our growth, to guide us and encourage us to head in the direction that God has pointed out to us. [The parallels with summative and formative assessments are mine alone, and I alone bear responsibility for this connection. Andrew Reid did not mention them. I’m happy to discuss this further!]

One last thing to note – Do not covet

Laws, as we know them, do not single someone out for having particular thoughts. Yet, the 10th Commandment goes where no law goes (again, because it isn’t what we conventionally understand as law) and speaks to us about our hearts’ self-centred desires.

To covet is to desire for ourselves a specific something that belongs to someone else, not to us. To covet is to put “me” in the centre while putting God aside. Breaking the 10th Commandment is akin to breaking the 1st Commandment. To covet is to put “me” in the centre at the expense of other people. It is not difficult to see that the 10th Commandment is broken on the way to breaking the rest. Should the Ten Commandments be about not taking what belongs to God and other people, and loving them instead, then to covet is to destroy the foundations of loving God and loving people.

Jesus saves

“Isn’t this a Sisyphean task?” 

Indeed, it sounds Sisyphean, except* Sisyphus gets to push the rock up to where it’s supposed to be before watching it slide back down. Personally, I don’t even think I can complete the task – to walk in the direction that God has pointed me – on my own merit. And, that is why the New Testament brings absolute good news, for Jesus led a perfectly God-centred life and gave his life so that we might put God in the centre of our lives and find joy in Him again.

I’m learning to better articulate this (for myself and others) as I go along. These links serve as great reminders.


*Also, saying it’s a Sisyphean task actually alludes to God being unjust (causing the rock to roll down, assuming He set the task), which is in direct contradiction to what the Bible says about God.


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