Be Right With God—Or Wrong With Everyone Else
The life and legacy of Moses
Dr. Jim Denison
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was the most popular show on television a few years back, with as many as 33.6 million viewers. It looks like a simple game, but I discovered personally that if you don’t play by the rules, you cannot win. At the game’s peak of popularity, its producers advertised a phone number which viewers could call if they wanted to qualify as a contestant.
Out of curiosity, I called the number one night. I knew the answer to the question which the recording asked. But I got flustered and didn’t push the buttons on the phone in the right order. I broke the rules. And so, sadly, I couldn’t play.
When did you last play a game? Chess, cards, golf, basketball at youth camp (a big mistake I made this week)—they’re all the same in one respect: every game requires rules. The rules do not exist to frustrate the players, but to enable the game. Those who make and enforce the rules are not trying to hurt the participants but help them.
In the same way, the Ten Commandments are “rules of the game.” These ten principles tell us how life works, and how to live if we want to live well. They are guideposts along the road, designed to keep us out of the ditch. They are road signs pointing the way home. They speak to life’s most crucial subjects—God, ambitions, religion, stress, parents, enemies, sex, possessions, lies, and lust.
These two weeks, we’ll consider the first four commandments as we learn to relate to God; then we’ll explore the last six commandments as we learn to relate to ourselves and each other. We’ll be vertical these weeks, horizontal the next.
Join Moses on the mountain
The precise location of the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments remains open to question. A mountain known as Gebel Musa is the place preferred by most historians. It rises to an elevation of 7,363 feet, and forms part of a sandy plateau roughly two miles long and half a mile wide. There is more than enough room for two million people to camp there. The plain is itself some 4,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, with the mountain towering another 2,200 feet overhead. It is a huge granite peak, altar-shaped and awesome.
On this mountain or one like it, God inscribed two tablets. He wrote on both sides of each. If these tablets were 27 inches long by 18 inches wide, the 172 Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments could easily have been inscribed on them.
Moses shattered these tablets in rage when he descended from the mountain and confronted the idolatry of the people. God then made them again. Moses eventually laid them in the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred box carried before the people for centuries and eventually placed in Solomon’s Temple.
When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 598 B.C., they likely took the Ark and the Commandments it held. Most historians speculate that it is buried somewhere in modern-day Iraq, while some believe that Jeremiah took it to Egypt to prevent theft by the Babylonians and still others believe it is buried somewhere on the Temple Mount. The latter is my guess, believing that the Jews would not have risked traveling with the Ark, or losing it to the Babylonians.
While the Ark is lost to us, the words it contained are not. Imagine it: an obscure tribe of Egyptian slaves plunges into the desert to hide from pursuit, and emerges with a code of ten laws which are still authoritative today, 34 centuries later. A depiction of Moses and these Ten Commandments adorns the courtroom where the Justices of the Supreme Court meet, deliberate, and lead our nation’s legal system. These ten principles are still the foundation stones of moral and legal systems the world over.
We don’t need to find Mount Sinai to live by the words God recorded there. As you study this week’s text and prepare to teach its truth, you join Moses on the mountain of God. And you continue his crucial work of giving the word of God to his people.
Who comes first?
Our text begins, “And God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). What follows is not based on human rules or principles, laws to be changed by the voters or the legislators they elect. The Author of these commandments is “the Lord your God” (v. 2). He is “the Lord,” the Hebrew word YHWH—the holiest name of God, meaning the One who is, who was, and who ever shall be.
And he is “God,” the Hebrew word “Elohim—the typical name for the Creator God of the universe. Note that he is “the Lord your God”—this Deity is personal. No Buddhist would say, “Your Buddha,” or a Muslim “your Allah.” But we can know this God personally, as we might know “your wife” or “your husband” or “your children.” He is the holy Creator of the universe and all time, who is yet our personal God.
What does he want of us? Here is his first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (v. 3). It is categorically impossible to overstate the significance of this statement of monotheism and worship.
Remember that the Hebrews have just come from Egypt, where the people worshiped Ra, Phthah, Osiris, Isis, Horus, the animals, and the pharoahs. And they were going into polytheistic Canaan, the land of Baal, Ashtoreth, Asherah, Molech, and Dagon.
Their own ancestors had made the Tower of Babel, to make themselves God. Joshua had warned them, “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:3). This would be their tendency as well. In fact, they would make and worship the golden calf even as YHWH was giving this command to Moses on the mountain above.