From the February 2009 E-Block.
One of my core articles here discusses the role of the Old Testament law in the life of the Christian today. Recently an e-mailer brought to me an interesting (to say the least) argument that was apparently intended to argue that the Ten Commandments -- particularly, the one to observe the Sabbath -- was still in force today. I will quote two lines that speak for the case:
I meant the 4th commandment Yahweh wrote with His finger
I believe that if Yahweh wrote a commandment in stone, it is pretty safe to *assume* he meant it to be permanent for humans, not temporary.
Thus the argument boils down to this:
- Yahweh wrote the 4th Commadment in stone, with His own finger.
- Any commandment so written was intended to apply to all humans for all time.
- Therefore, we ought to obey the 4th Commandment and observe the Sabbath.
It is not hard to see that a rather significant assumed premise lies behind Step 2 of this argument. On what basis may it be argued that commands written a) in stone b) with Yahweh's own finger extend beyond the bounds of any covenant within which that rule is offered? As I note in the linked article, other commandments in the list may be argued to be in force on other moral grounds (e.g., "do not kill"), but it is a little difficult to arrive at such an argument for the Sabbath command. But what of our e-mailer's arguments?
Writing in stone. As I pointed out to the e-mailer, stone was a common medium for all kinds of documents in the ancient world. There was no sense in any of these documents -- whether they were business contracts or civil laws -- that their being in stone extended their provisions beyond the bounds of those with whom the covenant or agreement was made.
When told this, my e-mailer replied somewhat petulantly:
Yahweh could have chosen a scroll. He didn't. It is the only thing He has ever written Himself. This has no significance in your mind. Got it.
Of course, all those who wrote their business contracts in stone could have chosen a scroll as well. But why were things even written in stone at all? The likeliest answer is that they were meant to be preserved for periods longer than paper products could allow. Business contracts might well extend over a lifetime. The Ten Commandments evidently were meant to be passed on (along with Aaron's rod and the jar of manna) as evidence for future generations of Yahweh's covenant. Heaps of stones were used to memorialize events for future generations. None of this indicates an extension of the provisions or observances to other peoples outside the covenant.
The finger of God. What then of the second point, that Yahweh wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger? Once again, the use of God's finger indicates something else: It is used to indicate something done by the Spirit of God, as these parallel passages show:
Matt. 12:28 But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.
Luke 11:20 But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.
If Yahweh's writing of commands with His finger makes them applicable to all men at all times, then what is applicable to all men at all times when Yahweh uses His finger to cast out devils? There is simply no reason to see a component of universal application in actions involving God's finger.
In the end, it is no surprise that my e-mailer resorted to this retort:
I don't look at Yahweh as a man, and therefore, the actual reasons he wrote on stone only He knows. I have my guesses. You have yours.
Indeed. But some "guesses" tend to be far better informed and more reasonable than others.