Meditation on the Decalogue

The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, was written on the stone tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai as he led the Israelites out of Egypt (Exod. 20:3-17; Deut. 5:6-22). When Quaker or Friend is mentioned, the Decalogue is not the first thing that pops into one’s mind. But I believe these ancient teachings are at the root of our testimonies, and are far more than a bland set of rules. Is it possible that the ancient Hebrews summarized the crux of human problems in ten simple ideas? Can Friends identify any area of human stumbling that would not have been addressed in the Ten Commandments?

I am struck by the symmetry of the first and the last five commandments. The first five deal with the proper human relationship with God, the subsequent five with inter-human relationships.

In the first five commandments, the ancient Hebrews understood that the human-God relationship was a complex one that required some elaboration, no less than half the Decalogue. It wasn’t enough to state merely, as in the first commandment: "You shall have no other Gods to rival me" (quotations from the New Jerusalem Bible).

The second commandment adds that nothing shall be manufactured on earth that can be put before attention to God. Current examples of our failure to comply are adulation of cell phones and other electronic gadgetry and faith in material progress and utopia that are promised by every ideology of the political spectrum. The third commandment sees a future in which humans could misuse the name of God, even to the point of breaking any number of the last five commandments: "You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God, for Yahweh will not leave unpunished anyone who misuses his name." How much violence has been done in God’s name in recent memory?

In the fourth commandment, time is to be made to worship Yahweh, and the normal routine to be completely set aside. Evidently, the ancients saw the lure of one’s occupation and daily preoccupations as undermining the human-God relationship. This is couched in terms of the Creation story in which for every six days of work, one is to be set aside for rest and attention to spiritual matters. This commandment seems to imply that for every six portions of time, we worship once: Every six minutes we take one minute to give thanks, every six hours of business we take one hour for quiet time with God, and so on. The rhythm between work and worship described in this commandment may remind us of the daily office of prayer in the Christian monastic tradition.

The fifth commandment is ambiguous: "Honor your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land that Yahweh your God is giving you." Is this about your temporal father and mother or your spiritual parents (God and God’s Creation, i.e., "the land that Yahweh your God is giving you")? The Rabbi Jesus, well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, declared to his followers that they are to use the word "father" only in reference to God (Matt. 23:9). At one point he asks his disciples: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" And then looking at those he is teaching, he says: "Here are my mother and my brothers"—not his temporal family, who are at that moment outside attempting to interrupt his ministry (Matt. 12:48-49). I prefer to think that this commandment is also one that refers to our relationship with God and God’s Creation. How better to answer that of God in all of our fathers and mothers, i.e. our wise teachers and givers of life, than to assure a future for God’s planet Earth?

The last five commandments are generally shorter, more clipped. They tell us how to treat our fellow humans: "You shall not kill," nor "commit adultery," nor "steal," nor "lie," nor "set your heart" on anything that does not belong to you. The last commandment emphasizes that righteousness requires us to know who we are and who we are not, to be able to set boundaries in psychological terms, to be content with what we have, and give thanks for that. Otherwise we sow the seeds of dissension and we may end up doing what we are instructed not to do in commandments six through nine.

The ancient Hebrew writers were aware that bad things could be done by good people, and that it was necessary to go to the root of the problems to prevent them. The root is envious comparison, as described in the last commandment, "stinking thinking" if you will.

Likewise Jesus said that if you are angry with your neighbor it is as good as murdering him, and even if you only desire another person’s spouse, that is the same as adultery (Matt. 5:21-28). What did he mean? Most interpreters see this as a higher standard being expected of the Christian. A deeper look however, reveals a spiritual life in which one’s thoughts must be examined as well as one’s deeds. Jesus was aware that actions like murder and adultery are relatively rare, but anger, resentment, and lustful wishes are universal. It is easy for a person to say "I have never murdered anyone," etc., and feel righteous, but less easy to work on the nagging daily resentments that come with living together with others. In this Jesus was following the Torah, the tenth commandment, and in it his teaching emphasized what the Quaker George Fox in the 17th century was to express in his Journal (Nickalls ed.) as having lived "in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars." For George Fox, it was not enough not to engage in violence; one’s life had to be lived in such a way to rid the world of the underlying causes and bring God’s blessing to all: "Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you."

When an official put a question to Jesus: What is the greatest commandment? Jesus answered: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets too" (Matt. 22:37-40). Note that Jesus recognized a twofold structure of the "law": one part focusing on God, the other on the treatment of our fellow humans, as we have been discussing here with regard to the Decalogue. Furthermore, though the official asked him to name the greatest commandment, Jesus’ answer includes two commandments, the second "resembling," i.e., the same as or similar to, the first: Loving God includes loving others; living one’s life in such a way as to do no harm to others is the same as loving God.

How does the Decalogue speak to Friends today? In it we find the bases for the Quaker testimonies of Peace, Sobriety, Simplicity, Honesty, and Care of Mother Earth. The rich revelations contained in these simple words continue to teach us when we take the time to consider them.


William H. Mueller, a member of St. Lawrence Valley Meeting in Potsdam, N.Y., retired in 2004 from a career of teaching Biological and Behavioral Sciences at University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. This is his first published article on a religious theme.