The Ten Commandments, a book about the biblical text by Peter Zelinski


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The first chapter of
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: What Do Two Tablets Reveal About the Life of the Spirit and the Way Toward God?
A book by Peter Zelinski.
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The Ten Commandments, a book about the biblical text by Peter Zelinski

  1. 1. THE FIRST CHAPTER OF: Buy the book at Learn more at
  2. 2. Copyright © 2012 by Peter ZelinskiCover Design by Cary Rohrer, Raygun Designwww.TakeMeToRaygun.comISBN 978-0-9847477-4-0Distributed by Atlas Bookswww.AtlasBooks.comVisit the author’s website at Subscribe to his blog bysending an email to
  3. 3. PrefaceA reading of the table of contents might suggest that this is acrazy book about the Ten Commandments. As you are about tosee, the commandments are not covered in numerical order. Notevery commandment gets a dedicated chapter. One chapter isdedicated to a commandment (the “zeroth”?) that isn’t even oneof the Ten. Examining the commandments individually and in order fromone to ten is a logical and fruitful way to explore them—but it’snot the approach that this book takes. Indeed, the very premise ofthis book, as Chapter 1 explains, is that the Ten Commandmentscan be thought of as a map. That map covers a lot of terrain, andthere are fresh discoveries to be made by approaching the familiarlandmarks from different directions.
  4. 4. Contents Preface 11 A Moral Map of the Universe 5 The Ten Commandments point to a deeper pattern.2 The Commandments and the Rules 15 Extract the “rules” from the Ten Commandments to see that the actual text is richer than just rules.3 The Zeroth Commandment 18 The Ten Commandments have levels. The highest of these levels is God.4 What is the Difference Between a False God and an Idol? 27 A false god is a person. An idol is a thing.5 The First Commandment (How Do You Know Your god is God?) 33 The Living God is transformational. We should expect this transformation.6 The Second Commandment (Idle Worship) 46 An otherwise good and healthy thing has become an idol when we revere it fearful- ly, or pursue it in lieu of seeking God.7 The Sixth Commandment (The Killing Field of the Mind) 53 To set the heart free from rage, turn away from rival gods.8 The Seventh Commandment (Beguiled at Heart) 65 To get free of an adulterous heart, ask, What is the idol I worship? To get free of the sins of the second tablet, give your heart to the commands of the first tablet.9 The Fifth Commandment (The Parent Trap) 75 Honoring your parents means ceasing to worship them, as well as ceasing to reject them. A proper regard for one’s parents is the way by which blessings flow.10 The Fourth Commandment (Time Enough for God) 84 For one day every week, let go.11 The Third Commandment (God is There) 94 God is paying attention. Know that this is true.12 Regurgitate the Fruit 101 What the commandments do not tell us.13 How Shall We Regard the Commandments? 109 There is still something we haven’t seen.
  5. 5. Chapter 1 A Moral Map of the Universe The Ten Commandments point to a deeper pattern.What did God really give to Moses when he gave him the TenCommandments? We can see in the Bible that God had much more to commu-nicate to Moses than just these ten points. The book of Exodusincludes a long dissertation to Moses from God. The books of Le-viticus and Numbers add more. In all of what God spoke here,there are lots of commands—hundreds of them. Yet this opening part, this first volley of commands, comes ina set of ten. That number alone seems to convey something aboutthe nature of this set. “Ten” is a number we see as foundational tothe way God made our bodies. We find the number in our fingersand toes, and we in turn have made the number foundational tothe way our counting system works. The quantity ten suggeststhat there is something similarly foundational in this first set ofcommands. God went on to make their separateness even moreapparent by choosing these special ten for inscription onto thewell-known tablets of stone. Further, these commands do come first, near the beginning ofthe Law that was dictated by God. This fact seems significant, too.God seems to be beginning with the basics. In the very first words
  6. 6. 6 The Ten Commandmentsof the Law, God presents the most basic point of all—a statementof just who he is. “I am the Lord your God,” he says in Exodus 20:2, “whobrought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bon-dage.” In other words, here is the God who acts decisively withinhuman lives, human geography, and human history. Here is a realand specific God, who has something real and specific to say. The Ten Commandments are the next words the Creatorspeaks. They feature a directness, conciseness, and breadth ofscope that separate them even from the rest of what God had tosay across the many biblical chapters that follow.He was already losing part of his audience. The people of Israelhad been listening in, but at this point they retreated, leavingMoses alone to hear all of the rest of the Law. After hearing theTen Commandments, the chosen people felt that they could listento no more. We can understand their reaction. We still hear a rumble ofthe power that they heard then, even when we merely read anEnglish translation of those commandments silently to ourselvesoff of a plaque or billboard, or off of the printed page. There issomething in those words. There is a mantle of knowledge thateven the believer is reluctant to shoulder. There is a revelation sobright in its purity that our minds blink against peering into itdirectly. Imagine how much God wanted to give his children. Imaginewhat he would have wanted those Israelites to know—what un-derstanding he would have wanted them to carry in theirthoughts and keep in their hearts, so that they could walk withhim in fellowship and confidence as his stewards over creation.Now, imagine what gift of knowledge and insight that same un-changing God wants his children today to have. The Ten Commandments were, and still are, the core of this
  7. 7. A Moral Map of the Universe 7gift of instruction. More than just speaking to what is basic, theTen Commandments convey something structural. They provideus with a glimpse, and perhaps only a glimpse, at the deep girdersthat give form and support to the nature of the created world weknow. I have a simple idea I want to share. I will introduce it in thischapter and develop it over the course of the chapters to follow.That idea, the premise of this book, the germ I hope to infect youwith, is this: The Ten Commandments are far more than just a list of rules. They have far more to teach us than simply what we shouldand should not do.To begin a deeper exploration of the Ten Commandments, a logi-cal starting point is one of the most iconic facts about them—something almost everyone knows. That is, the Ten Commandments were inscribed on two tab-lets. Not one tablet, but two. The choice can only be significant. God could have fit all ofthe commandments onto one piece of stone, if this is how hewished to present them. The Creator of the universe presumablycould have controlled the font size.Jesus came. He changed the destiny of mankind. His death and resurrec-tion were the turning point of history, the turning point ofcreation. They were the turning point of my life, too. Jesus also taught. This was not necessary to his mission of re-deeming sacrifice. He could have died and risen without saying agreat deal at all. Yet he devoted the last few years of his life onearth to teaching human beings how to live. His teachings arerecorded in the gospels. They include various commands—many
  8. 8. 8 The Ten Commandmentsof which seem like new commands, because they do not appear inthe Law that was given to Moses. Yet Jesus affirmed the Law thatwas given to Moses, saying in Matthew 5:17 that he did not cometo change anything about it. What are we to make of this appar-ent discrepancy? In one scene that was also recorded in Matthew’s gospel, Jesuswas asked to identify which command was the most important.He answered that two commands are the most important. Firstcomes “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with allyour soul, and with all your mind,” then, he said, the second is“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-39). Neither of these two commands appears in the Ten Com-mandments. However, they do appear beneath them.Look again at the two tablets. We hazard the guess that they di-vide the commandments symmetrically, into two sets of five. Thisis an assumption. The Bible omits this detail, never stating howmany commandments are on either stone. However, the five-by-five framework will prove rewarding, yielding up riches through-out this book. Part of the reason why the even split seems valid isthe way it aligns with the words of Christ quoted above. To see this, consider the first set of five. It includes, “You shallhave no other gods,” “You shall not make an idol,” “You shall nottake God’s name in vain,” and so on. Now consider the second set. It includes, “You shall not mur-der,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” and soon. Notice the difference: While the first set of five focuses onGod, the second set of five focuses on other people. This followsthe same pattern as Jesus’ words. Asked to state the Law, Jesusgave it in its most distilled form. He said to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. When
  9. 9. A Moral Map of the Universe 9he said this, he was summarizing the first set of five, or the firsttablet. He said to love your neighbor as yourself. When he said this,he was summarizing the second set of five, or the second tablet. But Jesus also showed us more. He ranked his own two com-mands, placing one ahead of the other. The second of these twocommands from Jesus is clearly vital—so vital that he answered aquestion about which one command is most important by citingtwo commands together. Yet by including the ranking, Jesus re-vealed something new. He revealed that the first tablet of the TenCommandments is superior to the second.To be fair, even given the five-by-five split, we don’t know howthe two tablets made this division. One clear detail the Bible doesprovide highlights the inaccuracy in most of our popular imagin-ings of the tablets. Namely: On the real tablets, the text coveredboth sides. See Exodus 32:15. What are we to make of this fact? There are two possible implications of this detail. One is thatthe full text of the Ten Commandments was spread across all fourfaces of stone, rather than the two front faces we typically im-agine. Throughout this book, we will tend to assume this four-facepicture of the tablets. Because the first set of five commandmentsappears to contain a subset that is smaller still (see Chapter 3), itseems logical to imagine each of the sets of five being further di-vided between two faces of stone. We will use the phrases “firsttablet” and “second tablet” as synonyms for “first set of five com-mandments” and “second set of five commandments.” However,there is an alternate picture of the tablets that we will mentionhere, and explore further in Chapter 12. Specifically, instead of the compete set of Ten Command-ments stretching across four faces, what if each single tabletcontained the compete set? That is, what if each individual tablet
  10. 10. 10 The Ten Commandmentshad the first through fifth commandments on one side, and sixththrough tenth commandments on the other? The two tabletswould therefore be identical copies. Most of us have had the experience of signing a legal contract.Typically, there is a copy for each party to the agreement. Godgave the Law as part of a covenant. While scripture does not men-tion anything about redundancy between the tablets, scripturedoesn’t preclude the possibility either. Perhaps the existence ofthe two tablets was meant to show that there was one copy forhumanity, another copy for God.Part of the difficulty people have with acknowledging the worthand power of the Ten Commandments is the view that the com-mandments’ relevance has passed. Also, in the simple, direct, andunqualified way in which they are stated, the commandmentsseem impossibly rigid. People who are indifferent to Jesus see thecontents of the two tablets this way, but plenty of people who loveJesus see the commandments this way as well. Thinking of theTen Commandments as nothing more than rules just reinforcesthese perceptions. If we are to have rules to live by, goes the think-ing, then certainly we need rules that cover more ground and havemore flex in them than these ones. The Ten Commandments have appeared out-of-step in thisway for quite a long time. Indeed, the account in the book of Ex-odus suggests that human beings have seen the core of God’s Lawas being too stodgy and too old-fashioned from the very begin-ning. When Moses carried the two tablets down from themountain to rejoin the Israelites, he discovered that the latestmodern and fresh practice the people had found was to gather inworship before a golden idol. Moses’ brother Aaron was leading this practice. “Oh, come on, Moses,” Aaron might have said. “You were upon that mountain a long time. The people were getting antsy.
  11. 11. A Moral Map of the Universe 11They needed something tangible to worship for a while, just forsomething to do, just to tide them over.” Moses smashed the tablets in frustration (Exodus 32:19). Itseemed impossible to him that a people so determined to write itsown law could ever conform to something as absolute as the TenCommandments. Looking in defeat upon the shards of stone and feeling just asbroken as the tablets, Moses might well have asked, “God ... howis this ever going to work?”In case you don’t know the Ten Commandments like you knowyour own hand, the text appears in full in the next chapter. Youmight mark that chapter for reference while you are reading thisbook. Again, there are two sets of five. The first set is about God. Thesecond set is about people. However, the fifth commandment is different from the firstfour. The first four relate to worshiping or revering God. Com-mandment five doesn’t seem to deal with God directly. It says,“Honor your father and mother.” Does this break the pattern? Not quite. Consider this commandment. In our lives, our parents are thefirst powerful authorities—the first authorities that each of us iscalled to trust. We cannot choose our parents. Instead, our paren-tage is the beginning of the particular individual circumstancesthat God has chosen for us. Honoring our parents is an extensionof honoring God—the God who made each of us a particular per-son with a particular life to live. Consider also the tenth commandment. This one, too, is dif-ferent from the four that precede it. Commandments six throughnine all relate to actions we take, things we “do” to other people—including murder, adultery, theft, and slander. Commandmentten is not about something we do, but something we feel. “You
  12. 12. 12 The Ten Commandmentsshall not covet,” it says. Does this break the pattern? Also no. This one, too, conforms to the pattern of the two tab-lets. Recall that the second tablet is about loving other people.The beginning of not loving other people is when we presumethat we “unfairly” lack the possessions, station, or circumstanceswe want, and that this justifies harming other people in order toobtain what we deserve. Rather than being inconsistent with thecommand about loving other people, this commandment gets tothe throbbing heart of that basic command. So: The Ten Commandments consist of two sets of five, withone member of each set standing distinct from the other four. Also, as we have established, one of the sets of five is superiorto the other. Where else have you seen two sets that fit this description? Answer: On your own body. Within your own hands. A person’s two hands have two sets of five fingers. In each set,one of those fingers (the thumb) is clearly distinct from the otherfour. And one of the hands is also dominant, in that almost every-one is either right- or left-handed. In short, there is a recurringpattern here, and a detailed one at that. Your own hands conformto the same pattern as God’s Law. Imagine what this suggests about how much the Law and hu-manity belong to one another, and how closely they both conformto something deeper. There is something more to these com-mands than just ten rules, even handy rules at that. We perceive adivine shape that lies close to God’s heart. The form of our bodies,the form of the Law—the same form. While we cannot under-stand this spiritual geometry directly, we infer the presence of asubstructure within the common profiles of these things that Godholds dear.Do the Ten Commandments seem old-fashioned? The Ten Com-
  13. 13. A Moral Map of the Universe 13mandments are also modern. Commandment four says that on one day out of every seven,we are to let go. Commandment four says to rest. What could the desert people who first received this com-mand have thought? They had little to do but wander, and little tooccupy their attention. They could just as well have given everythird or every second day to God. (Their food at this time was themanna they picked up from the ground.) Yet now comes our harried, networked, on-the-go, overfilled,“information” age. Many people rarely give themselves one wakinghour of peace, let alone one whole day. We know that “downtime”or “unplugging” is what we desperately need. Any self-help bookcould be expected to make this obvious point. We know this, butstill we don’t give ourselves this rest, in part because we have scat-tered our attention and obedience across such a wide pantheon ofbusy little authorities that we feel too fragmented to be able tostop. Meanwhile, out of the mouth of God, across three millenniaof intervening history, comes this command that speaks specifi-cally and directly into the state of our spiritual suffering today.I have watched the Ten Commandments become more relevantand fresh. They were silly to me at one point in my life. Now theyare profound. Arguably, it was not the Ten Commandments that changedduring this time. It was not the Law that moved.For a sense of how to imagine the Law of God, think of the laws ofphysics. Think of the law of gravity. The Law of God exerts thesame kind of pull. Just like physical laws, God’s law is fundamen-tal to the fabric by which the world is made, by which we aremade. We cannot break the law of gravity or the Law of God theway we can break a human rule. Like Icarus in Greek mythology—
  14. 14. 14 The Ten Commandmentsthe one who built his own wings—we can apply our ingenuity anddevices and likely manage to stay aloft against the pull of the Lawfor quite a long time. But Icarus fell, and we too will come backdown. The Law is absolute, and as we will see in this book, it evenresembles physical laws in that it has cause-and-effect relation-ships that are definable and predictable. We cannot break theLaw. We can only break ourselves against it. What, then, are the Ten Commandments, if they are notmerely a set of rules to follow? What did God give to Moses? Answer: The Ten Commandments are a map. Our understanding of the laws of physics is a map in just thesame way, charting the most basic principles that define the phys-ical universe. The Ten Commandments chart a different set ofprinciples, absolutes that are similarly assumed beneath the mostbasic blueprint of the world. The Ten Commandments are a spiritual map. They are a mor-al map. They are a map of the shape of the moral universe, telling us agreat deal about who we are, where we are, and the route bywhich our spirits can be transformed. The Ten Commandments are a map that was given to a lostand wandering people. The Ten Commandments describe the spi-ritual terrain to be crossed as we make our way, each one of us,back to God. End of Chapter 1
  15. 15. ABOUT THE AUTHORPeter Zelinski is a husband, dad, and magazine professional livingin Ohio. When he was in his mid-thirties, he began to believesomething he never took seriously before—that God had lived onearth as a human being. The Ten Commandments, Zelinski’s firstbook, was published about five years after that awakening. Toread more of the author’s writing on the Ten Commandmentsand other topics, find his blog at To re-ceive new blog posts for free via email, send an email message