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5.0 Ethics of the Decalogue Part 1: The 10 Commandments

The Ten Commandments are the “fence of freedom.” They are, one might say, the constitution of the covenant between God and his people. They are so called “apodictic” laws, without “unconditional demands without ‘ifs ands or buts’” (Noth.z.St.). They are best translated as “you shall not…” They are not a complete set of laws and are easy to keep. They are remarkably un-cultish. They stand guard, on a very elementary level, over the humanity of mankind (von Rad 1,209). Even today they are widely regarded a minimum-consensus for the citizens of most nations. (z.b. Senate Rheinland Palatinate) 

The metaphor “fence of freedom” shows the wide latitude that God gives mankind. (The total of 613 Old Testament laws give an entirely different impression). A good example is the fences at the bluffs on the Atlantic Coast of Cornwall. Stepping over them can endanger your life. 

In Germany (the original home of THS), the Ten Commandments are most often recited in the form that they are handed down in Luther’s catechism. In our first pass through them, we will inquire after their original meaning and then draw on Jewish outliers. Very few people know the original meaning of the Ten Commandments. 

Luther simply removed the second commandment (You shall not make an image…). His reason: In Jesus, we recognize God and may therefore also make an image of him. Following this, he had to divide the tenth commandment up into two commandments. This has not brought him credit. The Heidelberg Catechism is more faithful to the Biblical Text in this regard. Nevertheless, many German Protestants recite Luther’s catechism due to its familiarity and wide distribution. 

On the Construction of the Decalogue:

According to the Christian understanding, the first tablet (Commandments 1-3) deals with God and the second tablet (Commandments 4-10) are about humans.

According to the Jewish understanding, the first tablet (Commandments 1-5) is about God and the second tablet (Commandments 6-10) are about humans. 

The reasoning behind the Jewish reading: parents, in bringing a child into the world, assist God in his work of creation. The intergenerational contract is so highly valued in their culture, as it concerns the very existence of the God’s holy people. 

In both, however what is dealt with is 

  1. God in his holiness
  2. The life of human beings
  3. And very last about possessions.

From this order it follows necessarily that the 7th commandment does not deal with a property offense.