3.14 The 10 Commandments
Ex 20 is the definition of the covenant man, and the standard of conduct for the holy nation. The first 4 commandments are "religious" in nature -- reverence for God is the cornerstone of the nation. The last 6 are "social" -- specifying basic obligations to one's fellow man.
These are the principles upon which the 613 laws are based. (Yes, the Israelites counted them and categorized them: 248 positive commands, 365 prohibitions). Large portions of Exodus through Deuteronomy are given over to instruction and commands concerning rules of worship and life in the new Israel. We shall "pass over" most of these commands, except those which pertain to relations with foreigners.
Let us be clear about what is occurring in these books. All of these passages have to do with the theme of Identity. The structure of a culture is in its laws -- this is its skeleton, its bone structure. God is laying down the absolutes of Israelite society and character. These will set them apart from all other nations. Israel is to be a theocratic state, its foundational laws involve obligations to God, family and neighbor. Social order depends on the integrity of each of these building blocks.
Modern man considers theocracy to be the worst fate of civilization. And so it is, under the rule of a demonic deity. But that was not God's intent -- the dwelling place of God with man was meant to be a model community set in the midst of a corrupt and chaotic world. In giving Israel the Law and the ritual, God was attempting to transfer His character to a historic community. To have fellowship with Him, the Israelites had to be like Him. The Law of Moses can be viewed as a first attempt at Incarnation: God was giving Himself to mankind, coming to dwell among them. The laws and rules reveal aspects of His nature, as well as the conditions for communion with Him.
What was at stake here is not just the specific behaviors:
If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed. A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft (Ex 22:2-3).
This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day: two lambs a year old. Offer one in the morning and the other at twilight (Ex 29:38-39).
The import of all these laws and rituals was to ensure that the relations of each member to one another and to God were fundamentally legal and sacramental. This was not a society that permitted innovation or tolerance. The boundaries between people were well-defined and fixed. Crossing them could invoke the severest of penalties. An individual who transgressed them could be "cut off" from the community of Israel (Ex 12:15, Ex 15:19; Ex 30:33, Ex 30:38; Ex 31:14).
The consequence was that many people tended to focus on externals, behavior, ceremonies, and not on motives, understanding, spirit. This emphasis is appropriate for the formative stage of a community, the "toddler" stage of development. "Don't touch that! Don't eat that! Don't go there!" Though necessary and to some degree healthy, living this way can quickly become a burden and a servitude in its own right. It will be either the basis for a stability that promotes reflection, awareness, internalization and maturity, or it can engender further legalization and elaboration of ritual. Both alternatives occurred in the later history of Israel.