Why Are the Ten Commandments So Negative?
by Richard W. Coffen, 11 December 2017
Perhaps you’ve heard the question—or wondered yourself—“Why are most of the Ten Commandments expressed in the negative?” Eight of ten begin, “Thou shalt not . . .” They begin with the Hebrew word lō’ followed by a verb in the imperfect tense. Such a construction signifies not a potential but a factual negation. It denotes, therefore, something strictly forbidden, and can appropriately be translated “You must not ever . . .”
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So the question remains: Why are the Ten Commandments so negative?
Decades ago George E. Mendenhall, renowned Old Testament scholar, explained that a negative prohibition, by its specificity, singles out just one behavior as off-limits. Other options remain open. (It’s true, of course, that in ancient Hebrew society, casuistic laws found elsewhere in the Torah were used to expand the restrictions until there was a total of 613 commands. By the way, 365 of these were negative.)
Thou Shalt Not
I mulled this idea of Mendenhall’s for years. One day I walked into the cafeteria at Southern Adventist College (now Southern Adventist University) and read this sign: “No blue jeans in the cafeteria.”
I’d have have no conflict with the rule if that morning I’d donned jeans constructed from white, black, green, maroon, brown, tan, gray, or olive denim. Only blue jeans were verboten. I would likewise have conformed had I worn navy chinos, cadet blue cords, Pacific blue twills, or light blue gabardine slacks. Only one type of trouser fabric, style, and dye-color was banned. Additionally, elsewhere on campus I’d be allowed to wear denim of any blue shade.
Suppose the sign had commanded: “Wear blue jeans in the cafeteria.” At the moment, I was wearing black gabardine dress slacks, white shirt, striped tie, and gray tweed jacket. Yet I’d have been expelled from the cafeteria for noncompliance with the dress code. I’d have been dressed aptly for attending church, but not garbed appropriately for the dining commons.
Commands worded positively leave no room for options. Accordingly, God left no alternative but to refrain from work (definition of work is another matter) on Sabbath, and to honor (whatever that means) one’s parents. Those behaviors were musts.
Arguably, because eight of the Ten Commandments are worded negatively, God left open the door to all sorts of behavior other than those he singled out as prohibited.
Let’s consider some examples.
Exodus 20:7, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
Let’s look at the Hebrew meaning behind three of the words used here.
1. The Hebrew noun shem was the common word for “name.” In Scripture the connotation was to someone’s person and reputation. So, from the outset, we know that YHWH’s reputation was being addressed. A plain reading of the text shows that we humans can relate in some way to YHWH’s character and honor, which in turn suggests a radical idea: we can have an influence on God!
For ancient Near Eastern males, honor (a foundational concept) was a fundamental “good” that was thought to be in limited supply. Among men there were two basic kinds of honor: ascribed honor, which one inherited from birthplace, birth order, and the honor of one’s father, among other factors, and acquired honor, which accrued from one’s benevolent behavior and upstanding (righteous) character.
2. God was insisting that people (at least the Hebrews; Jews have felt that the Mosaic law has authority only for them) mustn’t “take” his shem. The verb rendered “take” is nasa (no, not the space agency). Its semantic domain included toting or lifting up something. Isaiah 53:4 asserts that the “suffering servant” would carry on himself our infirmities.
According to the commandment, humans can influence YHWH’s honor. How?
Many Israelites and Judahites bore theophoric names, which contained the embedded name YHWH. Jeremiah meant “YHWH Is Exalted” or perhaps “May YHWH Raise Up.” Isaiah meant “YHWH Saves.” God even placed his name in the temple located inside their capital city. Thus, whatever was done by people bearing God’s name, especially in the locus where YHWH placed his name, could impact God himself.
3. This takes us to the third important word: shāv’. This noun included concepts such as desolation, worthlessness, emptiness. The actions of God’s people must not detract from his honorable reputation—make him a laughingstock.
God had chosen, among the nations in the ancient Near East, the Hebrew peoples to honor his name, that is, to glorify him. “For this purpose I have caused you to stand: . . . so that my name may be declared in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16, NET).
Furthermore, God testified that he was putting his name in his Temple located in Jerusalem. King Solomon, God said, “will build a house for my name” (2 Samuel 7:13, NET). “I will . . . bring them to the place I have chosen for my name to reside” (Nehemiah 1:9, NET).
So God, in the third commandment, enjoined his people, who worshiped at the place where he placed his name, not to diminish his righteous selfhood. They were duty-bound to honor his name and never to detract from it. As they broadcasted YHWH’s honor everywhere, they must be careful lest they gut his name—his personal reputation—of its qualitative attributes.
In a sermon years ago, my dad insisted that muttering “my stars!” (only God “owns” the stars), “my goodness!” (only God is good), or “Golly!” (supposed corruption of the English word “God”) violates the third commandment. Dad was wrong. Mouthing neither minced oaths nor common cuss words break the third commandment. The meaning is far deeper than that, and has to do with how we who claim to be God’s people shape God’s reputation.
Exodus 20:13“ Thou shalt not kill.”
The verb translated “kill” was rātsach. Although it had several meanings, the underlying sense seems to refer to either accidental and intentional killing of another person within the community.2 Our legal term “manslaughter” might come close in connotation to rātsach.
From other Pentateuchal passages, we can affirm that in this commandment rātsach did not denote 1. capital punishment of a Hebrew who’d committed a terrible offense because Scripture mandated death of a Sabbath-breaker [Exodus 31:14; 35:5; Numbers 15:32-36], 2. stoning of a child because he’d cursed mom or dad [Leviticus 20:9]), 3. killing of enemies in military engagements, 4. slaughtering animals for sacrifices, or 5. butchering animals for food.
Understood like this, the commandment could create cognitive dissonance for Adventist conscientious objectors who were drafted into the military, some of whom suffered physically, emotionally, and mentally for their refusal to bear arms; for evangelicals who condemn abortion, which occurs naturally in 31 percent of pregnancies; or for the Jains, who follow ahimsa, a life of nonviolence that avoids direct or indirect killing of even insects and bacteria.
Exodus 20:15: “Thou shalt not steal.”
Remember those stories we heard as kids about bad boys who picked and ate—stole—apples from Farmer Brown’s orchard? The Divine retribution of tummy aches often followed. However the storyteller failed to mention that Mosaic law allowed passersby to pick and eat food crops as long as they didn’t carry home a supply (Deuteronomy 23:24,25).
Application of the Apodictic Commands of the Ten Commandments
This negative approach of the Decalogue leads me to appreciate lawgiver YHWH. His Decalogue can, in general, apply even though no two cultures are completely identical, no two situations are similar, and no two individuals are completely alike—not even so-called identical twins. Were all ten commands worded positively, their multicultural and multisituational usefulness would crumble.
Along with ancient Jewish leaders, I’ve concluded that the Decalogue applies specifically to cultures enjoying shalom, but may not be as apropos during times of chaos. The Jews had suffered a devastating blow when Antiochus Epiphanes’ minions invaded on a Sabbath. One thousand persons hiding in a cave were massacred. After that loss, Judas Maccabaeus decided that during Sabbath hours fighting defensively was permissible. He said, “If anyone attacks us on the Sabbath day, whoever he may be, we shall resist him” (1 Maccabees 2:41, NJB).”
Did you know that Adventist nurses in Adventist hospitals have a harder time getting off work on Sabbaths than do Sabbatarian nurses serving in non-Adventist hospitals, such as those operated by Catholics or Baptists! Extenuating and other special circumstances allow for extraordinary behavior, even to the extent of violating one or more of the Ten Commandments.
How would our theology have evolved had our pioneers understood the points made in this essay? Suppose they had held that the negative wording of the Decalogue allowed for many behavioral options, and hence more freedom? Might this have helped them and us be more careful about legalism?
Some may find the thrust of this essay not heterodox or even heretical. Would you really expect the Adventist Review to publish a piece like this? That’s why Adventist Today provides an outlet for analytical minds. It’s also why so many of us gratefully lend financial support to this publication.
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.