by ProfDave, ©2022

Moses with the Tables of the Law,” Guido Reni (Wikimedia Commons, public domain in painter’s nation of origin)

(Jan. 4, 2022) — We have been exploring the Christian answer to the third of the great questions that define a robust worldview: the morality question. How should we live? If we answer the origin question with a Creator and the meaning question with a purposeful Designer, we should find ourselves in Eden, but we do not. ‘Should?’ The story of Eden gives us a history and a paradigm of moral choice. There can be no morality without a choice. That is the difference between ethics and morality. Ethics is the law of right and wrong. Planets have no morality. Immutable laws of physics govern the motion of the planets, but they have no choice but to obey. We do. Our ancestors all the way back to the beginning exercised the choice not to obey and so do we.

In a Christian worldview, three major paradigms illustrate the principles of moral choice: Eden, Sinai, and Jesus.  Adam and Eve had but one law.  We have several.  Moses gave us a first-hand account of God’s revelation of ten basic laws for mankind, received on Mt Sinai.  It has much in common with natural law and all the codes of humanity – so much so that we can say it is written on our hearts.  It differs from the Code of Hammurabi mostly in that it is egalitarian – there is one law for the king and for the slave.  These laws reveal the basic nature of God and are, by virtue of His image, built into mankind.  They are the laws of the moral universe.  Because His image in us was compromised by the fall our default setting is to disobey, but obedience is still our health.  The Sinai paradigm is the right way to live, the path of successful living, the way back to Eden.

Note: without God there is no given “right” way to live. It is God who gives purpose, meaning and moral law. In the physical world we observe that there is one proper orbit for the earth and one angle at which we can stand on two legs — any other orbit we fry or freeze, any other angle we fall. Likewise, in human life there is a narrow way that leads to meaning, fulfillment and happiness and there are multiple ways to crash and burn.

With God at the center of your worldview, you have a guide through the wilderness of choices.  Without God, you have to figure it out for yourself without a compass, north star or horizon.  Your culture, your elders, your peers, and your preferences give contradictory advice, but what will be the end?  The experience of Moses on Mt. Sinai gives us guidance, written on two tablets of stone, allegedly by God himself.  Is this the right way to live?  Shall we stand at 90° or some other angle?  Perhaps we can lean on a cane?  Crawl?  Your choice: God’s way or your way.

The Ten Commandments give us a paradigm of what is right and wrong, of the right way to live. Theologically they reflect the nature of the Hebrew God. Anthropologically they represent principles implicit in every society — the best of the human psyche. They reflect natural law and common sense. There is something built in us that recognizes them, efforts to ignore and erase them notwithstanding.

The first commandment calls us to acknowledge God, the real God.  There is and can be only one infinite Creator of all things.  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me!”  Anything else shatters the unity of your worldview and of reality itself.  Don’t cheat on the Almighty One.  In the time of Moses this meant ethical monotheism instead of gods of fertility, war and/or horror.  They were not variations on the “god” theme, but His opposites.  Today, the “other gods” are self, money, power, food, sex, intoxication and the like.  Deal with reality.  “The divided man is unstable in all his ways.”  Keep your eye on the ball – on what is of ultimate concern – and the details will fall into place.  With His identity front and center, your identity comes into focus.

The second commandment narrows the focus. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below.” It calls out our tendency to visualize God according to our own imagination, to confuse the Creator with the creature or worse, to make up a fraudulent finite god — god as you understand him. That was not the intent of AA, I am sure. God is an infinite spiritual, not a finite material being. Nowhere in revelation has He sat for a portrait. Anything we can depict is not Him but a rival and a fraud.

God is so much more than we can imagine, much less visualize.  I have a painting of Aslan, the great lion of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, as my screensaver.  That character reminds me of the character of the biblical “Lion of the tribe of Judah,” Jesus Christ, but I am careful not to confuse the two.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and so God took upon himself a physical form, as He did occasionally in the Tanakh.  Fortunately, we do not have a genuine portrait of Jesus for us to worship, but even if we did his portrait would not be the Holy Trinity.  No one can see the face of God and live, so we should be careful to distinguish between our imaginations and the real Almighty.

The third commandment mandates respect for the Almighty. What is the good of saying you believe in God if you do not respect Him? “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord Your God in vain.” Whoever your God is, you shouldn’t misappropriate His brand for unworthy purposes. We do that a lot in our society: perjury and broken vows, hating people in the name of Jesus, raping and killing in the name of Allah and manipulating people in the name of any God whatever. Christians, Jews and Muslims all observe this commandment in the breach. Even Hindus believe the gods should be respected. Maybe we should respect his children, too. In any case, just because Christians regard the Eternal as a shepherd, a father, a lover of our souls doesn’t mean we can’t forget that He is the Almighty One who made heaven and earth and could wipe it all away in the blink of an eye. Remember who He is.

Respecting God means we do not misrepresent Him, use His name to accomplish our own twisted purposes, try to use Him to get our own way or take credit for what He has done in us, or behave in ways that discredit Him.

The fourth principle from Mt. Sinai is to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The idea of a six-, then a five-day workweek has been an obvious benefit to labor since the Industrial Revolution. The idea, in the Torah, is his oldest creation. Work is holy and so is rest and a reasonable balance needs to be maintained between the two because it is commanded by God and built into our nature. But this law goes further. One day in seven we are to stop and make the day holy — step out of the rat race and look up. We are more than physical beings and it takes a time-out to renew our relationship with God. If God is, we need to pay attention. This is a practical and healthy consequence of a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) worldview.

The first table of the Decalogue is the clear ordering of a God-centered worldview.  If God is God, then He has to be central.  Anything else would be treason against spiritual reality.  We acknowledge God, we don’t recreate Him in images, physical or mental, we don’t misuse Him, and we give Him time and attention.  How obvious is that?

Once our worldview is securely anchored in our God-orientation, He orders our relationships with others. The fifth principle is, “Honor your father and your mother.” Our first relationship is to God, from whence we come; our second is to our parents, through whom we come into the world. Admittedly, there are some parents who are not honor-able. How do you honor an abusive, absent or dead-beat dad? How do you honor a mother who neglected, abandoned or aborted you? Yes, we all agree that parenthood comes with moral responsibilities. But on the average, all other factors equal, there is obvious survival value in paying heed to one’s parents in early life, at least, “that you may live long upon the earth,” and to having children who take care of you to some degree in later life.

The same principle applies to all our relationships with proper authorities.  While we recognize that all human authorities are fallible and often wicked, we learn more when we respect our teachers, gain spiritually when we respect our pastors, and stay out of trouble when we respect the police.  Law is better than anarchy most days.  The ultimate authority in a Christian worldview, of course, is God – we must never forget – but all other authority is delegated by Him.  So long as delegated authority does not violate the ultimate authority, respect and cooperation is the default of the Christian.  We are not surprised to find this principle embedded in natural conscience, though often observed in the breach.

The sixth principle given to Moses is the shortest: “Thou shalt not kill.”  The creator of mankind has made it abundantly clear that human life is sacred to Him.  What God says goes.  Every human being, male and female, sick and well, black and white, rich and poor, unborn and aged is a bearer of the image of God.  Human life is intrinsically and inviolably sacred.  Only God has the right to take it and the state acts on His behalf only to uphold its sacredness.  Jesus goes still further: to hate is to murder in the heart, to break the commandment in the eyes of the Holy One. 

If you are to have a real creator God at the center of your worldview, loving what He loves becomes incumbent upon you.  Elsewhere He tells Moses (and Jesus repeats it) to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Respecting all “God’s children” and holding their lives sacred is the principle behind the principle.  Even the lost sheep and the Creator’s prodigal children are to be sought and not despised.  If we are to consistently follow Jesus, hatred and prejudice will have no place in our hearts.  Easier said than done, perhaps, but if you repent and believe, the Creator himself will help you.

The seventh principle of Sinai reads, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” This is rejected by half of our contemporary society, yet we instinctively know that betrayal — even in a good friendship — is wrong. Again, any worldview that accepts the existence of an intelligent Creator must accept His plan for human flourishing as wise and good and the breach of that plan is unwise and dangerous. This is not a matter of preference or divine whim, but of design and survival.

The relationship between the sexes is a delicate and important matter.  On it rests the continuation of the species, respect for the image of God (and of God himself) in both varieties, safety and security in human relationships, and the establishment of human society and civilization.  And more.  Most of the societal malignancy we experience today arises from family breakdown.  To have communities worth living in, we must get this one right.

The devil is in the definitions.  Adultery is a breach of the exclusive sexual bond of marriage.  Define ‘breach.’  Any sexual activity outside marriage – before, during and after with no exceptions for business trips or what happens in Vegas?  Define ‘marriage.’  Can you marry just anybody?  Is it“so long as you both shall love?”  Contemporary western society is in rebellion against the Judeo-Christian definitions.  And Jesus made it even worse by making adultery an act of the mind “looking at a woman to lust after her!”  There goes a multi-billion-dollar industry!

The eighth principle is, “Thou shalt not steal.” If there is a supreme being who made everything and values individual persons, assigning human beings to rule it all, then it follows that rule and possession of things matter. God owns it all, make no mistake, but things are delegated to the possession of individuals. Misappropriating what belongs to God or what belongs to someone else is decreed to be wrong.

Economic systems differ in various cultures.  Nomadic peoples leave the ownership of land to God.  The law of Moses made it an entailed inheritance that could not be sold or confiscated.  That a nomadic shepherd like Moses would come up with such an idea is a hint that another Mind altogether was involved.  In capitalism almost anything can be bought or sold, but arbitrary seizure by church or state is strictly forbidden.  In socialism, the “people” – the state really – owns everything.  In all societies and judging all systems is the principle, don’t take anything that pertains to someone else.

The ninth principle of Sinai is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” We are to tell it like it is. Truth is the middle name of God and falsehood is the middle name of Satan. The essence of sanity is living life according to the truth. A worldview founded on an external Creator demands recognition of the existence of truth, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not. It demands recognition of what is real in Him and in ourselves. After all, He knows it all. Hiding anything from Him is absurd and delusional. We must embrace integrity. We must tell the truth to ourselves and about ourselves (to someone we trust, at least).

We all know in our hearts that telling lies is wrong – although we do it.  A lot!  It is tax season or in an election year.  We are bombarded with advertising, spam and telemarketers.  We can’t even trust the news anymore.  Post-modern tribalism excuses us from telling the truth to outsiders: we can spin our stories and redefine our words to accomplish our “we” purpose against “them.”  So, what we say means precisely what we want it to mean to you in order to advance the cause.  Pass the bill in order to find out what is in it?  Bearing false witness is our “truth” for you!  What does that do to trust, to integrity, to relationships?

The final principle of Sinai is “thou shalt not covet” anything that is not yours – that God has not given to you.  It is OK to desire what is for sale, but not to deprive someone else in order to gain that particular thing.  At first blush, the principle would seem to undermine both capitalism and socialism.  Our capitalist economy is accelerated by desire for more than we have, not necessarily what belongs to others.  Every good thing comes from God.  So, is that new pair of sneakers coming from Him or are the funds misappropriated from some other good cause for which He intended them?  It happens.  On the other hand, do we who pursue socialism covet the accumulated proceeds of others’ successes?  It happens. 

With God at the center of your worldview, all the cookies come from his oven.  You know you are not to steal the cookie intended for your sister, but do you know that lusting after it is to steal it in your heart?  To do so is an offense against Him, not just her.  Coveting is a heart condition that lies behind both stealing and adultery.  Obeying this principle arises from faith in God and results in contentment.

The tenth principle is really the culmination of the Sinai Paradigm.  When we covet, we place a person, a thing or an experience in the place of the Creator – violating principle one.  We make an idol of it – principle two.  We disrespect his provision, his name and his time – principles three and four.  You get the idea.

The Sinai Paradigm gives us a framework for right and wrong built on reality and the character of the Creator as revealed to Moses.  The Eden Paradigm reveals to us the reality of the human predicament and why we are at odds with our Creator and with the created order – the gap between should and is.  The two are incompatible.  Because of Eden we cannot live up to Sinai.  It remained for Jesus to give us the solution: the Christ Paradigm.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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