Prefacing the Ten: “Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil”

  1. The Ten Commandments: God’s Guide to Relationships
  2. Prefacing the Ten: “Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil”

The curious thing about the Ten Commandments is that they don’t begin with a commandment.

They begin with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Some denominations try to roll that sentence into the first and second commandments (as seen in the Catholic catechism), but that doesn’t make much sense. You can’t command anyone, “I am the Lord your God” any more than you can command someone that grass is green or that two plus two is four. It’s not a commandment; it’s a statement of fact—and more than that, it’s a statement that acts as the terms and conditions for the entire Ten Commandments.

Rembrandt's "Moses with the Tablets of the Law,"
Rembrandt’s “Moses with the Tablets of the Law,” 1659

You know that big mess of legal text you’re supposed to read through every time you download new software even though everyone just clicks “accept” and moves on? That’s what this statement is—only instead of an incomprehensible jumble of words like “heretofore” and “pursuant,” it’s just one simple fact:

“I am the Lord your God.”

It’s God’s way of saying, “Look, before we go any further, we need to be on the same page. I have to be your God if these are going to work. They can’t be the Ten Suggestions of the Ten Good Ideas; what I’m giving you are the Ten Commandments, and you need to understand that they are coming from the Creator and Sustainer of the universe without any ifs, ands, or buts.”

It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once wrote about Christ’s status as the Son of God:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

The Ten Commandments operate on the same principle. If we get to the line that says, “I am the Lord your God” and disagree, then don’t bother reading any further—the words that follow will mean nothing to us if we take away the foundation of God being…well, God. Either these commandments were thundered from atop Mt. Sinai by the voice of God, or they were the fanciful imaginings of frauds and liars. Treating these as the Ten Good Ideas is impossible, because God “has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

In the first installment of this series, we saw how Christ’s explanation of the two greatest commandments in Matthew 22:37-40 actually revealed the guidelines that define the Ten Commandments: loving God and loving our neighbors. What we didn’t look at was the parallel account in Mark’s gospel, which highlights some interesting details. Like before, the account begins with the scribe asking Christ to name the greatest (or “first”) commandment of all. But this time, Mark reveals a little more of Christ’s answer:

The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.

(Mark 12:29-31)

You might have noticed that Christ prefaced the first commandment with a phrase that is known in Judaism as the Shema. It’s a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:4, which in Hebrew reads, “Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Yahweh Eloheinu Yahweh echad.” One of the acceptable ways to translate this into English is, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord alone!” The emphasis here is on God’s singular position as God—that there are no others; that the Lord our God is the Lord alone.

Why is this detail important? Think about it. If Christ’s answer summarizes the Ten Commandments, how fitting that even His summary begins with a similar introduction! Whether we’re looking at the Ten Commandments themselves or at the two greatest commandments which encapsulate them, both are prefaced with the same sentiment: the God must be our God if any of this is going to work.

The God that brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt is the same God that brings His people out of bondage to sin today. The voice that thundered from the mountaintop is the same voice that thunders into our hearts and minds when we study God’s word and seek Him in prayer and fasting. God left us a trove of wisdom to uncover within the Ten Commandments, but it’s completely inaccessible until we come to terms with the very first line.

This is our God. And these are His commandments for us. Are we all on the same page?

Good. Then let’s start digging.

Until next time,

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