Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 12:46-50; Acts 18:18-28; Psalm 34; Exodus 19-20
Exodus 19 begins a new narrative unit. A break from the usual pattern of starting units with ‘Then’ or ‘One day’ (the same Hebrew word translated in various ways) signals that a significant incident is coming. The Hebrew verb tense is also different, identifying this as a unique event. What follows is pivotal to the books of Moses, the Bible and human history. This chapter sets the scene with a splurge of words that engage all human senses. Loud noise, flashing lights, fiery heat, heavy smoke, trembling and shaking announce an epic encounter. Yet it begins with a metaphor of grace and protection (Exodus 19:4). Like a soaring eagle, God came down and swept Israel out of danger. Like a majestic and powerful eagle, God took care of them, placing the helpless fledglings on his back and bringing them to safety. Only after an undeserved display of love and grace does God introduce his covenant and describe what it means to live as his people (Exodus 19:5).
Grace comes before law, even when the Ten Commandments are revealed (Exodus 20:2). What God commands is for those who have experienced his grace and agreed to be his people. Neither of the terms ‘ten’ or ‘commandment’ is used here, and debate occurs over precisely how the injunctions are organised. Ten succinct statements are given, short enough to fit on stone tablets. They are described in Hebrew as ‘words’ or ‘utterance’ or ‘inspired speech.’ God reveals his nature through action and words so that his people can become more like him. We are to reflect on what his commandments tell us about him and live accordingly so that we display his image more accurately through our lives.
The commandments begin with how we ought to relate to God and then address how we should relate to others. Biblical ethics is fundamentally about our relationship with God and the implications of that for our relationships with others. The first thing is to remember that God is the only true God. Only he is worthy of worship. The peoples around ancient Israel worshipped many gods; we are tempted to make gods of money, career, pleasure, and other things. If God is God, then only he should be worshipped. In our age of accepting all beliefs, God declaring that he is a jealous God is troubling. But when we remember that God views his relationship with his people like a marriage bond, his unwillingness to share us with another is laudable. The far-reaching consequences of loving or hating God can seem troubling today (Exodus 20:5). This also appears to contradict passages saying sons will not be punished for their fathers’ sins (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:4). These other passages are clearly about individuals not being held responsible for other individuals, while Exodus is more generally about corporate responsibility. Exodus may be referring to how children tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps, and therefore the long-lasting effects of moral choices. The contrast may thus be merciful: for God’s enemies, the impact lasts a few generations; for God’s friends, kindness lasts forever.
The last six commandments apply more to relationships with others than to God. We are forbidden to murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony or lust after what others have. Much is left unsaid, leaving us to wonder how and when they apply. The brevity makes their application challenging. Examples and cases follow in the chapters, but these are far from exhaustive. Some things are clearly right or wrong, but much is not so clear-cut. Our ethical details must be worked out within ongoing dependence on God’s guidance. Importantly, the last commandment takes ethics beyond the realm of actions and consequences. Coveting includes an inappropriate desire for something and goes much deeper. Jesus elaborates that murder, adultery, stealing, etc. often begin in the heart (Matthew 5). God is concerned as much about our hearts as he is about our actions. The Ten Commandments give us glimpses into God’s character that require us to reflect, discuss and pray about ethics so that we grow and live in dependence on God’s grace, love and guidance.