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Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · pp. 177–83 

The Ten Commandments: Maintaining Authentic Humanity

Lori Kantymir

The question of how God relates to humanity captivates the hearts and minds of many. If God exists, how are humans to know what God is like? How are humans to relate to God? Walther Eichrodt writes that the “basic phenomenon peculiar to [humankind] is the consciousness of responsibility.” 1 This notion is pregnant with meaning and deserves further exploration. To whom are humans responsible, and for what are we responsible?

The Ten Words come as a needed guide and companion on our journey with God, challenging and encouraging humans to look at freedom from God’s perspective.

The creation story of Genesis relates that humankind is made in the image of God. This implies that to some extent humans are responsible to God; that is, they are able to respond to God. The Ten Commandments hint at something further—that humanity has freedom to act and make decisions apart from God; otherwise, no commandments would be needed.

In light of this, what is the relationship between God’s sovereign ability to give commands or words and the human ability to choose? The Commandments can be helpful in exploring this relationship further, along with the consciousness of responsibility to which Eichrodt refers.


Within the ample resources available for studying the Ten {178} Commandments, there are a few basic trends that emerge. The first trend in interpretation is to understand the Ten Commandments as negative prohibitions. They are seen as supporting the wider purpose of the law of God, to show “[humanity’s] awful sinfulness in [its] distance from God, and [humanity’s] need for a mediator if [it] ever was to approach God.” 2 In other words, the focus is on humanity’s sinful disabilities rather than its ability to respond. However, in defense of the negative tone of the Ten Commandments, Walter Kaiser makes the important point that “it is easier to state in few words what a believer cannot do. One’s freedom to obey God opens up more possibilities than the reverse; hence the law can be stated negatively more succinctly.” 3 This said, are the Ten Commandments to be seen only as prohibitions?

The second trend which emerges is to view the Ten Commandments as words instead of laws, somewhat different from the other laws of the Old Testament. Moshe Weinfeld points out that these are called debarim (words) and not huqqim (laws), and that this focus on “words” implies a divine prophetic revelation. 4 Leonard Felder elaborates on the significance of “words” as a translation, and writes that although these were later seen as mitzvot (commandments), “a better translation of mitzvot would be ‘ways of connecting with God.’ ” 5 Therefore, there are some subtle but important nuances to be explored when studying the Ten “Words.”

Eichrodt’s earlier statement about responsibility is a third recurring theme in scholarship about the Ten Words. In a review of Paul Lehmann’s The Decalogue and a Human Future, James M. Gustafson suggests that for Lehmann, “the Ten Commandments are not so much rules for living as accounts of the way the world operates.” 6 Instead of being viewed as prescriptive, the words are thus seen as descriptive of what happens behaviorally in a world that God has made as an arena for being human. In this context, the Ten Words are primarily about responsibility, about the appropriate human response to the knowledge of God. Gustafson emphasizes that “reciprocal responsibility is the basic pattern of human life; freedom is to be practiced in reciprocal responsibility in accord with the structures of social interaction with the world.” 7

Following the notion of responsibility, the question may be asked, “Who is responsible?” In other words, who is the audience of the Ten Words? This is the fourth theme appearing in studies of the Ten Commandments, a focus on individual responsibility. Weinfeld reminds the reader that the Ten Words are formed in the second person singular, “as if they were directed personally to each and every member of the community.” 8 Thus, there is no room for anyone to hide within the protective {179} covering of the collective people of Israel. Eichrodt comments further that Old Testament law is to be seen as a breaking down of the collective way of thinking which had dominated primitive peoples up to that point in time. “The appeal to the heart and conscience of his hearers shows that the lawgiver looked on the awakening of a completely personal sense of responsibility as the presupposition of a healthy Law.” 9 In light of this insight, the Ten Words stand out as unique and revolutionary in their personal nature.

Finally, an important theme within literature on the Ten Commandments which should not be overlooked is the idea of freedom. Indeed, Jan Milic Lochman’s Signposts to Freedom carries this emphasis even within the title of his book. Lochman recognizes the context of liberation out of which the Ten Words are birthed, and thus sees these words as “signposts to freedom,” a kind of charter which guides humans in maintaining and discovering anew the freedom God gives. 10 In other words, God gives freedom (deliverance) before law, so that law is seen not as a way to be good enough to be delivered by God, but as guidelines for maintaining the freedom a person already has.

Walter Harrelson echoes this when he writes that “the loss of knowledge of the Ten Commandments means a loss in understanding what human liberty is, what freedom of the spirit means, and how freedom is to be maintained in the world.” 11 The Ten Words may be seen, then, as guidelines which are necessary in human life to protect the freedom which God not only gave to the Israelites in Egyptian bondage, but which is available to any human willing to follow and respond in faith to these Words.


The following is a contemporary interpretation of the Ten Commandments by Walter Harrelson. 12

  1. Do not have more than a single ultimate allegiance.
  2. Do not give ultimate loyalty to any earthly reality.
  3. Do not use the power of religion to harm others.
  4. Do not treat with contempt the times set aside for rest.
  5. Do not treat with contempt members of the family.
  6. Do not do violence against fellow human beings.
  7. Do not violate the commitment of sexual love.
  8. Do not claim the life or goods of others. {180}
  9. Do not damage others through misuse of human speech.
  10. Do not lust after the life or goods of others.

This reading of the Ten Words provides generic language which may make them more accessible to a modern reader. There is no mention of Yahweh in this interpretation; the first Word now points the worshiper to “a single ultimate allegiance.” Is this adequate? Are there some guidelines to which we may turn in evaluating various interpretations of the Ten Words and their purpose?


Reflecting on the first theme that appears, it is important to recognize the prohibitionary aspect of the Ten Words. Felder comments on the challenge of titling a book devoted to the Ten Words, whether to go with the subtle nuance of “Ten Principles” or to be more bold and call them the “Ten Challenges.” 13 Since all the Ten Words are given as commands, the latter option seems more appropriate than the former. While God grants humanity freedom to choose whether or not to obey, it is clear that these Words are not really the “Ten Suggestions”; there is a stronger tone than merely encouraging one of many possible ways to live—this rather is the only way to live as the people of God.

If the Israelites are to maintain their newfound freedom, they will need to view these Words as more than a mere suggestion; otherwise, the life of oppression and discord in which they have been socialized will most likely remain as their modus operandi. As their Creator, God is the one who decides what is appropriate human behavior and will hold them accountable for the choices they make. Therefore, it seems the prohibitionary tone of the Ten Words needs to be included in any serious assessment of their content.

The second theme—distinguishing between words and laws—is helpful for understanding the purpose behind these Words. Weinfeld writes that the Words are “above time and independent of circumstances. No punishment is prescribed; no details or definitions are given.” 14 Instead of concrete legislation, these Words demonstrate to the Israelites how to maintain membership in the community of God. As they live in the way of the Words, they are creating a community characterized by God’s shalom.

Again, their former lives of slavery and oppression in Egypt are all they have known, and this radical new freedom will be maintained only with much effort. In a sense, they have traded slavery to their Egyptian oppressors for “slavery” to God; yet this time, their master seeks to promote their well-being and sets boundaries which bring life. Therefore, the Words go beyond merely setting out rules and offer rather an ethos, a way of being and living as the people of God. This point is important if one is to comprehend the kind of people God is seeking to create. {181}


The third and fourth themes of responsibility, both corporate and individual, stand out as perhaps most significant. Eichrodt highlights once more how revolutionary this theme was when he writes that “in no other people of the ancient Near East is the sense of responsibility of each member of the people so living, and the personal attitude so dominant.” 15 One of the reasons this may be so is that the primary aim of the Ten Words is to promote the reciprocal responsibility to which Gustafson refers. Why is this sense of responsibility so integral to the Ten Words? Unless each member has this consciousness of responsibility, the community of shalom will be very difficult to build. Thus, the Ten Words appeal to the basic phenomenon peculiar to humanity of which Eichrodt speaks.

Another reason that the responsibility implied by the Ten Words is important is because it demonstrates the power of choice which God grants to human beings. If God did not want to share power with humans, it seems doubtful that God would give guidelines to live by. Furthermore, the existence of the Ten Words suggests that God’s will is not always done by humanity—there are significant, life-changing choices to be made each day: the choice to promote life, or to promote death. It is God’s will that humankind chooses to honor God and each other, but this is not always done.

In a sense, God took a great risk in making beings which could choose their path in life. The Ten Words stand as a witness to the weight of choice facing humans each day, refusing to mince words when it comes to the essential matters of life. Thus, the Ten Words hold in tension God’s sovereignty with humanity’s ability to choose: God is the most powerful one, able to deliver people when they cry out to God, and yet God chooses to allow humans a significant role and responsibility in shaping their life.

Finally, the theme of freedom fits into the central question of this paper as well. How are humans to be understood as “free agents” if God gives us rules or guidelines to live by? Gustafson writes that the Ten Words are meant to help humans maintain their freedom, not to remove their freedom. The Ten Words are “indicators of the structure of human reality and of the ways that humans should act to make and keep life human.” 16 It appears that without these basic words to live by, humankind tends to degenerate into bondage and oppression. The freedom which God gives is difficult and likely impossible to maintain without God’s guidance. This indicates that human freedom is not really something that humans can maintain in a healthy way without the wisdom, grace, and guidance of God. {182}


In conclusion, the Ten Words offer both a glimpse of what God’s community of shalom may look like, as well as of the burden of responsibility that comes with being human. In choosing to share power with humans, God has given us incredible ability to shape and influence our own lives and the lives of those around us. This is not to be taken lightly, and so the Ten Words come as a needed guide and companion on this journey with God, challenging and encouraging humans to look at freedom from God’s perspective.

Therefore, while the Ten Words are primarily negative in tone, there is a strong underlying theme of grace and wisdom for maintaining authentically free human lives. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand, and the Ten Words call humans to partner with God in promoting the shalom of all living beings.


  1. Walther Eichrodt, Man in the Old Testament, trans. K. and R. Gregor Smith (London: SCM, 1956), 9, emphasis mine.
  2. Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ed., vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 420.
  3. Kaiser, 421.
  4. Moshe Weinfeld, “What Makes the Ten Commandments Different,” Bible Review 7 (April 1991): 38.
  5. Leonard Felder, “The Ten Words: Taking a Modern Look at Ancient Wisdom,” Word and World 18 (winter 1998): 63.
  6. James M. Gustafson, “Commandments for Staying Human,” Christian Century, 20-27 Dec. 1995, 1247.
  7. Gustafson, 1247.
  8. Weinfeld, 38.
  9. Eichrodt, 12.
  10. Jan Milic Lochman, Signposts to Freedom, trans. David Lewis (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1982), 19.
  11. Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1980), 3.
  12. Harrelson, 192.
  13. Felder, 63. {183}
  14. Weinfeld, 38.
  15. Eichrodt, 13.
  16. Gustafson, 1247.
The original version of this essay was written for Elmer Martens’ course, Old Testament Theology, at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary.
Lori Kantymir recently graduated from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, with a Masters of Divinity degree, majoring in Theology. She enjoys studying theology and philosophy as well as languages. She is from Williams Lake, British Columbia, and will begin teaching this fall at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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