The Decalogue, David L. Baker. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.
Summary: After an exploration of the shape, form, origin, and purpose of these ten “words”, the author takes each in turn, exploring the command in its cultural context, it’s biblical and theological meaning, and contemporary relevance.
The Ten Commandments. The Decalogue. The Ten Words. In recent times, they have been a point of controversy, with public displays of the commandments being contested–some arguing that they are foundational to western law, others that their public display is an unconstitutional government promotion of religion. At the same time, increasingly few people can accurately recite them, even those brought up in Christian settings. And for some, they represent “the law” –human effort to save oneself that has been superceded by the grace which alone saves us through faith in Christ.
David L. Baker cuts through both controversy and ignorance in this new work on the Decalogue. He begins with four chapters on introductory matters around the Ten Commandments:
- Their shape: different ways of numbering them, the two “tables” of the law, and the commandments as part of the covenant of God with his people.
- Their form: the two canonical versions, other versions, their arrangement on two tables, and cultural parallels.
- Their origin: Baker explores the scholarly discussion and skepticism about Mosaic authorship, that he counters with the more startling assertion, that perhaps here more than most places in scripture, we are confronted with words spoken by God directly, not only to Moses, but to the Israelites, gathered at Sinai.
- Their purpose: while some have proposed these as Hebrew catechism, the core of criminal law, or essential ethical teaching, Baker contends that these are Israel’s constitution, given not to attain salvation but rather as the framework of how those chosen to be the people of God might live under his gracious rule.
After dealing with these matters concerning the Decalogue as a whole, Baker turns to the individual commands. First of all he considers the ancient Near Eastern cultural context and parallels to the biblical commands. Strikingly, none exists for the sabbath command which is unique, while for the others, parallel instances may be found. Then, for each command, he discusses the biblical theological meaning of the command in its original context. Finally, he concludes with reflections on the contemporary relevance of these commands, and here, he draws on expansions found in the Hebrew scriptures as well as the New Testament, and he considers contemporary situations that may be covered by these commands. Here, for example, is some of what he says about the command to “not testify against your neighbor as a false witness”:
“The Old Testament affirms the importance of truth in public life, with particular condemnation of religious leaders who use their positions to propagate lies (Jer 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 23:21-32; Ezek 13) and pander to their audiences with smooth talk (cf. Is 30:9-11). Mendacity brings iniquity (Is 5:18) and causes confusion by pretending to be virtue (Is 5:20).
Another kind of untruth that is pervasive today is the use of moral euphemisms designed to make what is wrong appear right or at least unobjectionable. Instead of committing adultery, people have an affair. Instead of having an abortion, they terminate a pregnancy. Instead of killing innocent citizens, there is collateral damage. Instead of unemployment, there is downsizing. Instead of lying, there are ‘terminological inexactitudes’ (Winston Churchill, 1906).
What about us? Are we habitually truthful. When we speak and write, it is often easier to say what we think people want to hear–or what we want them to hear–than what is actually true. Sometimes it is tempting to keep quiet and not say anything at all rather than speaking up when we ought to. The Bible encourages us to go beyond the rejection of false testimony, to become people who speak the truth from our hearts” (p. 141).
Baker concludes by asserting that these Ten Words are still a type of constitution for the people of God. He observes that the writers of the New Testament and Jesus himself extend our understanding of them from mere external observance to an obedience that captures our minds and hearts and works itself out in grace-filled love of God and neighbor. We don’t strive after observing the Ten Commandments to be saved but draw upon them for how we might live as the saved people of God.
David L. Baker presents all of us to us in a work that reflects his scholarly Old Testament work and yet with clarity for any adult audience. For those who want to go further, the book includes a forty page bibliography, both on general matters pertaining to the Decalogue, and works pertaining to each of the commands. This makes a great resource for anyone planning to teach or preach on this material, and for all of us as we seek to allow these “words” to search and guide our lives.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.