“Those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.” – Martin Luther
Imagine a parallel universe in which sentient beings have six fingers on each arm-like appendage and do math using a base 12 notation system. In such a universe, would God have revealed a system of ethics based on Twelve Commandments? In our world, we humans come equipped with ten fingers, which we use to help us count and multiply until we successfully memorize the various mathematical tables in base 10 notation. Having ten fingers has undoubtedly caused us to gravitate toward sets of ten, including the final countdown before a launch, boxers being given a ten-count to get back up after a knockdown, and calling a beautiful person a perfect ten.
When it came time to reveal the foundational commandments for his covenant community on Mount Sinai, why did God choose ten? Here are a few speculations. Ten holds a healthy tension between simplicity and complexity. Ten is a small enough number of commandments that we are able to learn and remember them. Ten is also a large enough number of commandments that they can cover the breadth of human life. At the end of the day, my guess is that God accommodated himself to the number that was as close to each of us as the ends of our two hands. This turned out to be such a great idea that there are now “ten commandments” for everything from playing golf to starting a new business to getting out of debt. David Letterman riffed on this famous idea with his “Top Ten Lists,” spawning countless imitators.
But the original Top Ten list was bequeathed to humankind by God on Mount Sinai. This is no fleeting list, worthy of a short glance and then quickly forgotten. These ten commandments have evidenced tremendous staying power, having influenced the development of the legal codes of the Western World. The ten commandments are remembered and practiced by Jews and Christians around the world. In the Pentateuch, the ten commandments are elaborated more deeply in the 613 laws of Judaism. In the Gospels, Jesus summarizes the ten with two capstone commandments: “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I look forward to exploring and wrestling with these foundational commands for our faith in this fall’s sermon series, “Ten Words for Life.” I invite you to take the time to (re)memorize the Ten Commandments so that you have them on your heart and in your mind; I’ll give you extra credit if you can recite them in order. Most of all, I urge you to put these Ten Commandments into practice in your life, starting with the foundational understanding we worship and serve no other God but the Lord God almighty.