A Constitution for the People of God: a ★★★★★ book review

What do you think of The Ten Commandments? Nope, I am not talking about Charlton Heston in Technicolor, but the words God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Decalogue has been revered for the way it has provided a basis for law in Western culture, but more recently it has been a point of controversy. People have wondered if  the Ten Commandments—a religious words— on a courthouse wall are a violation of the separation of church and state. Sadly, many of us don’t think of the Ten Commandments much at all, or when we do we feel good about the two or three commandments we’ve managed not to break. In The Decalogue: Living as the People of GodDavid L Baker helps see the way these ten commandments are God’s “Ten Word” guide for how now we ought to live.

5169Baker is a lecturer in biblical studies at All Nations Christian College and former senior lecturer in Old Testament at Trinity Theological College in Perth, and the deputy warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge. He has also taught in Indonesia and is theauthor of several books and articles. His research interests include the Decalogue, Deuteronomy and wealth and poverty in the Old Testament.

The Decalogue itself provides the basic outline for this book. However an introductory section discusses the Shape, Form, Origin and Purpose of the Ten Commandments. This is followed by sections on the two tables. First a section on Loving God (commandments 1-5, all the Godward commands and the commandment about Honoring Parents), then a section on Loving Neighbor (commandments 6-10). A final section entitled The Decalogue Today serves as the conclusion and discusses the ongoing relevance of the ten commandments.

Baker’s introduction and concluding essays are developed from articles he has previously published. In his introduction he discusses the arrangement and numbering of the commandments in Judeo-Christian history, and the organization of the command into two tables. He describes the canonical forms (Exodus 20 and Deut. 5) and cultural parallels. He discusses the origins of the commandments as Divine speech—ten words direct from God, unlike the book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code or the Deutrenomic Law (29).  Finally Baker delineates the purpose of these commands as setting ground rules of how the covenant people ought now to live (having been liberated from slavery in Egypt).

Baker begins his discussion of each  of the commandments with a look at similar commands throughout the Ancient Near East, noting continuity and discontinuity with the surrounding cultures (i.e. He references the Hammurabi and other ancient legal codes, documents and literature from Canaanite, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian and other Mesopotamian cultures). For the most part there are ancient parallels, but there is no parallel in the ancient world for the concept of Sabbath rest. This is unique to the covenant community of Israel (though, Baker does note a special significance of seven in Ugartic and Canaanite literature)(72-73). Next, he examines each command with the frame of the ten commandments and the cannon, and draws out reflections as to their meaning for us. Baker’s focus on the historical  and canonical context enriches our understanding of the significance of these commands for the covenant community of Israel.

The concluding essay describes the ongoing significance of the Ten Commandments for providing an ethical frame and basis of life for the people of God—for the Jews first but also for Christians:

The Decalogue is the constitution of the People of God, written in stone by the supreme Lawgiver. In Old and New Testament times it provided the basis for life in the covenant community and has continued to do so for many Jews ever since. Christians too, grafted into the people of God by faith (Romans 11:11-24). recognize the Decalogue as God’s gift to them. Indeed for all who have ears to here, whatever their creed, this unique and fascinating set of laws still has a great deal to say about relationships with God and other people. It contains essential principles for living as the people of God that are as relevant in the twenty-first century as when they were first given (158-159).

Baker’s approach is  commendable, it is both historically and canonically sensitive.  My reading of the Decalogue was enriched by the way Baker presented them alongside other Ancient Near East literature, showcasing the idiom by which God spoke to and connected to Israel in its historical context. I could tell you this is the best book I’ve read on the ten commandments, but that doesn’t tell you much (I’ve only read a couple). More significantly, I will use this book if I am ever called upon to teach or preach the Decalogue. This book is a model of good biblical exegesis, sensitive to the thought world of the original audience and connected to life today.

I give this book an enthusiastic five stars and recommend it for preacher, bible teachers, students, and conscientious Bible readers who want to understand the Old Testament better (and its significance for us).

– ★★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I was provided a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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