God’s Commandments Require Us to Read and Think Carefully
From Editor: This article by Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher (Germany) is a chapter in the upcoming WRF/WEA book on The Decalogue and is posted here in its entirety. Dr. Schirrmacher argues for the importance of understanding that the "Bible does not give us God’s commandments in a unilinear fashion; the Bible gives us God’s commands through a spectrum which runs from foundational statements to case examples."
This chapter is adapted from Thomas Schirrmacher, Leadership and Ethical Responsibility: The Three Aspects of Every Decision, translated by Richard McClary, edited by Thomas K. Johnson, Vol. 13 of the WEA Global Issues Series (Bonn: VKW, 2013), 54-68; https://www.academia.edu/83724725/Thomas_Schirrmacher_Leadership_and_Ethical_Responsibility_The_Three_Aspects_of_Every_Decision_edited_by_Thomas_K_Johnson.
The Bible is not a collection of rules and regulations one can memorize and quickly apply in every situation. The Bible, the written source of God’s commandments, is a small library with literary diversity and different forms of reasoning. There are universally valid, positive commandments such as “You should love. . .,” as well as universally valid, negative commandments such as “You shall not steal. . .” Such prohibitions should protect God’s order for humanity at places where it is vulnerable, regarding, e.g., property, marriage, and truth-telling, whereas the positive commandments set the meaning and direction of life before God and in society.
In addition to universal positive and negative commandments, the Bible contains nuanced directives. These include case studies which apply to similar situations, along with commands that declare the priority of obligations (such Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” which is quoted in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7; and 1 Samuel 15:22, “to obey is better than sacrifice,” which is referenced in Psalm 51 and Jeremiah 7). Some commands, such as regulations regarding divorce, give instructions for a situation where other commandments have already been violated. A few commands define exceptions to general rules, such as killing in self-defense (see Exodus 22:1-2, quoted below). Some do not mention exceptions though exceptions are known from other texts or are seen as self-evident.
There are even practices which Holy Scripture endorses but never raises to the level of a commandment. Fasting is a good example. While great blessing rests upon fasting, and we find many biblical models for it, fasting is never presented as a general duty. This manner of presentation of God’s commandments requires us to seek wisdom; this means we must read and think very carefully about God’s commandments.
Five levels of law in the Bible
The Bible does not give us God’s commandments in a unilinear fashion; the Bible gives us God’s commands through a spectrum which runs from foundational statements to case examples. One can distinguish five levels of Old Testament law: 1) ultimate principles; 2) foundational commandments, often one or more of the Ten Commandments; 3) rules for implementation; 4) case studies in relation to people; and 5) case studies regarding nonhumans. Other levels could also be delineated, and one does not find every level represented for every topic. The point is not the number; rather, the point is the nature of law and commands as they range from entirely general statements to completely concrete examples.
Sometimes two or more levels are addressed together in one verse, as we will see in 1 Timothy 5:17-18. Many times, a principle is formulated generally and exemplified through a case example. This can be seen, for example, in Proverbs 15:16-17: “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred” (also cf. Proverbs 16:8; 17:1).
An example: five levels of law regarding murder
- 1st level, ultimate principle: Love of neighbor
- 2nd level, foundational commandment: Do not murder
- 3rd level, rule for implementation: Manslaughter at the time of burglary
- 4th level: Human case law of a railing around a roof
- 5th level: Nonhuman case law of cisterns
- 1st level: Leviticus 19:18: “. . .but love your neighbor as yourself.”
- 2nd level: Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder.”
- 3rd level: Exodus 22:2-3: “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.”
- 4th level: Deuteronomy 22:8: “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” This command naturally applies to parallel cases: It is also manslaughter if one does not think about others and allows them to endanger themselves.
- 5th level: Exodus 21:33-34: “If a man uncovers a pit [or a well] or digs one [or lets it be opened] and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay for the loss.” This is an example of case law where the example has to do with animals, yet it applies all the more to people. Jesus also argued about the Sabbath with laws relating to animals. He did this to justify people’s actions (e.g., Luke 13:15-17; 14:4-6; Matthew 12:10-12).
Regarding a railing around a roof, Luther wrote, “This can be a proverbial and general law, that in public community things are so built, and one behaves in such a manner, that one does not cause others to be exposed to any dangers, disadvantages or damages.”
Since case law applies to similar situations and illustrates the central principle – even in the case of manslaughter – this command also applies in cultures that have other types of roofs. It applies to life situations in which it is necessary to take preventative measures to protect people. That a railing should be a protection on a flat roof, and that a pit should have a barrier around it, means that every person is responsible for injuries and death in the case where one does not protect or warn others. In all legislation that is influenced by Christianity, there are corresponding provisions, for instance, that areas around road construction sites and pits and manholes be clearly sealed off.
A case law (casuistry, from the Latin casus, the case) is a law that illustrates a general principle by using a particular example. Martin Honecker rightly writes: “Casuistry is the ‘explanation of individual cases’ in morals and jurisprudence. The word is largely used as a negative label when it is understood as a synonym for ‘hairsplitting’ and ‘sophistry,’ but casuistry primarily means – and this matter of fact is quite well justified – to apply rules to an individual case.”
Biblical case laws are not case laws only in the sense of precedent decisions. They are basic commands, enacted once and for all; the canon of these case laws does not expand. Biblical case laws illustrate foundational principles in relation to a particular case, and we must transfer the principles to similar cases.
Examples of similar case laws
The command that a millstone should not be given as security (Deuteronomy 24:6) naturally does not mean that only millstones may not be given as security. Rather it refers to everything that is required for survival.
The commands regarding blind and deaf people, “Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road” (Deuteronomy 27:18) and “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God,” refer not only to these examples but convey the idea that people are not to take advantage of others’ disabilities. One must be considerate of their limitations. Job was for this reason “eyes to the blind and feet to the lame” and “a father to the needy” (Job 29:15-16). These provisions have strongly shaped our culture.
In the Old Testament petty larceny of food is not theft: “If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23:24-25). This is a typical case law that does not apply only to grapes and grains. Rather it establishes that the amount needed to meet one’s needs is exempt from punishment.
Case law points to the fact that biblical ethics are an ethic of principles. It is decisive that for each commandment out of which external visible application arises, an ultimate divine principle is first recognized. The highest principle is love toward God and neighbor. This lies at the bottom of all commandments, and they are only properly understood from that standpoint. From this basis principles are derived which form the basis for more specific moral rules and civil laws.
Understanding the principles at the highest level of Old Testament commandments is crucial to properly understanding how the New Testament builds on Old Testament ethics. The New Testament emphasizes the principles in the Old Testament commandments.
An ethic of principles is also of importance for the application of biblical commands in the present, in the ever-new cultural situations we face. What is decisive is how the basic principle is put into practice. Old Testament law, for example, requires “righteousness in the gates.” This is because the Israelites’ courts met “in the gates.” What is decisive is the principle of righteousness, along with the public character of holding court, not the city gate as such, which many cultures do not have.
Regarding casuistry, one must differentiate the Old Testament from later Jewish casuistry. Old Testament casuistry illustrates a basic command with specific cases and examples, showing how the principle should be applied to similar cases. For this reason, the cases discussed represent only a portion of the imaginable cases. Casuistry alone is too concrete to derive truly basic principles from it, but to do without casuistry leaves ethics and law too abstract and distanced from reality.
Furthermore, inner-biblical casuistry, which can call upon the authority of God’s Word, must be distinguished from interpreters’ casuistry, which tries to apply biblical ordinances to present-day cases. The latter is acceptable, but the conclusions drawn from it cannot be placed in the same category as a command of God, such as was claimed in the Jewish Talmud or in Catholic canon law.
“All human thought and action hang together with a worldview. Everyone arrays themselves and their actions within the framework of a comprehensive interpretation of man and the world, within which behavior first achieves meaning.” The word “framework” is crucial. As important as absolute moral principles are, an individual cannot live with them alone, making decisions solely based on them. We must think to make decisions about how we live. God’s Word sets a framework for our life, thought, and planning, but it does not fill out this framework. This is responsible freedom. God does not live our lives nor treat us like robots; He produces the conditions so we can live. Essential principles are often illustrated for us in the Holy Scriptures via case examples. But the Bible summons us to weigh our plans, think through them, consider, seek counsel, and then take responsibility for our decisions.
That is why large portions of the Old Testament law are formulated negatively (“You shall not. . .”). The precise thing that disturbs many people has to do with freedom. The “not” sets boundaries without prescribing details. Gustav Friedrich Oehler observes, regarding Old Testament law: “The stipulations of the law are mainly found in detail in negative terms. The requirements go into detail regarding what an Israelite is not allowed to do. . . However, it is easy to recognize that in respect to positive duties, the law in many cases only expresses things generally. The intention is not to expressly mandate, but rather to put forth facts, examples, and institutions which allow the positive aspects to freely flourish.”
Job acknowledges (23:12): “I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.” Job’s love for the poor, who are described in this connection, goes well beyond what was required. Still, based on this fact, one may not come to the opposite conclusion that love can get along without moral order and rules.
When the Old Testament calls for uniformity and reliability regarding weights and measures for business, the values involved are not simply private values. These principles form the basis for every functioning economy and are the precondition for equitable prosperity. Two principles are at work that are referenced in the Ten Commandments, but these are also generally recognized in secular societies. These principles are, namely, honesty over against lying (“You shall not give false testimony”) and the right to property ownership over against theft (“You shall not steal”) as well as the internal attitude (“You shall not covet”). Whoever deceitfully infringes upon these principles destroys not only personal relationships but potentially an entire society. In Amos 8:4-6 God warns about oppressing the poor and the weak by using dishonest weights and measures.
Question 110 of the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism deliberately refers to the Old Testament standards of honest weights and measures in its explanation of the commandment against stealing. It also binds the state to monitor this and indeed shows just how comprehensively the Reformation viewed the Old Testament commandment against theft: “What does God forbid in the eighth commandment? He forbids not only outright theft and robbery, punishable by law. But in God’s sight theft also includes cheating and swindling our neighbor by schemes made to appear legitimate, such as: inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God. In addition he forbids all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.”
Although the principles in the Bible are unambiguous, the Bible does not speak about measurements, weights, and currency units that are valid for all times and cultures. The Bible does not tell us to use ancient Middle Eastern units of measurement instead of modern measures such as kilograms or pounds, kilometers or miles. Yet the principle of reliability of the data a seller reveals is at all times of foundational importance for the economy and for all of life in society.
Biblical texts regarding measures and weights
- Proverbs 16:11: “Honest scales and balances are from the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of his making.”
- Proverbs 20:10, 23: “Differing weights and differing measures – the Lord detests them both. . .. The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.”
- Leviticus 19:35-36: “Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin.”
- Deuteronomy: 25:13-16: “Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”
- Ezekiel 45:9-12: “. . .do what is just and right . . .. You are to use accurate scales, an accurate ephah and an accurate bath. The ephah and the bath are to be the same size, the bath containing a tenth of a homer and the ephah a tenth of a homer; the homer is to be the standard measure for both. The shekel is to consist of twenty gerahs. Twenty shekels plus twenty-five shekels plus fifteen shekels equal one mina.”
Criticism based on these commands
- Hosea 12:7: “The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud.”
- Amos 8:4-5: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land. . .that we may sell grain. . .skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales.”
- Micah 6:10-11: “Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?”
Further principles for business
The famous saying, “the worker deserves his wages” (1 Corinthians 9:9; Luke 10:7; cf. Deuteronomy 25:4) makes every type of work valuable and creates an obligation for equitable pay that may not be withheld (Mark 10:19; Deuteronomy 24:14; Leviticus 19:13; James 5:4). The command is understood in the New Testament equally as an obligation toward church elders and toward working animals, illustrating the organic unity of the several levels of ethical principles. “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages’ ” (1 Timothy 5:17-18). This principle touches a foundational temptation of business-people and of materialism: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4). Not to pay wages or not to pay them completely or too late is grievous theft: “Do not steal. . .. Do not deceive one another. . .. Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Leviticus 9:11-13).
The Old Testament very generally and rather often warns about oppressing others by paying low wages and uses clear formulations that even Karl Marx could not outdo: “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him” (Leviticus 19:13). “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns [within your jurisdiction]. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise, he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor” (Jeremiah 22:13).
The biblical statements about the binding nature of agreements relating to labor, as well as the necessity of and entitlement to payment, are of wide-ranging importance. Still, they are not so formulated that we concretely know exactly how a labor agreement is supposed to look and what wage is appropriate. God alludes to the necessity of the legal certainty of a labor agreement and to adequate compensation. However, the concrete configuration reached between the contractual parties as well as the institutions in charge of overseeing the legal aspects are items that are entrusted to others and may change in times and cultures.
When we read God’s commandments carefully and think deeply about them, life should begin to change. We may need to repent, and this repentance may go far beyond the hidden realm of our souls to change our actions. And once we begin to think deeply about God’s commands, we will see that such obscure references to ephahs, homers, gerahs, and railings around roofs were applications of eternal principles to local situations, and we can articulate those principles in our secular and multi-religious societies. Then we can be much more confident to proclaim God’s Word in our time.
 See the overview by Walter C. Kaiser, Towards Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 64-66. Quotations from the Bible in this chapter are from the New International Version.
 See R. T. Foster, “Fasting,” in David J. Atkinson and David H. Field (eds.), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 376-378.
 Martin Luther. “Anmerkungen zum fünften Buch Moses,” column 1565 in Martin Luther, Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 3, edited by Johann Georg Walch (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung, 1986, 19102 reprint). In Old and New Testament times houses had flat roofs that were also used. Grass, that animals were sometimes allowed to eat, grew on the roof (Isaiah 37:27; Psalm 129:6). Women spread things out on the roof so that they would dry (Joshua 2:6), and in the summer, tents were put up on the roof and people slept there (2 Samuel 16:22; cf. Nehemiah 8:16; 1 Samuel 9:25). A person was safe on the roof (Matthew 24:17). Important news was called out from roofs (Isaiah 15:3; Jeremiah 48:38; Matthew 10:27), which led to people subsequently meeting on roofs (Isaiah 22:1). When people gathered in a house, the roof could be uncovered and people could get to the center of the house as the friends of the paralytic were able to do in Mark 2:4; Luke 5:19, in order to bring him to Jesus.
 Cf. P. D. Toon. “Casuistry,” in R. K. Harrison (ed.). Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 52-53.
 Martin Honecker, Einführung in die Theologische Ethik (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990), 170; also 170-175.
 Hansjörg Hemminger, Psychotherapie: Weg zum Glück? Zur Orientierung auf dem Psychomarkt, Münchener Reihe (Munich: Evangelischer Presseverband für Bayern, 1987), 5.
 Gustav Friedrich Oehler, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Stuttgart: J. F. Steinkopf, 18913), 289.
 Quoted from http://www.crcna.org/pages/heidelberg_commandments.cfm#QandA%20110.
 These are Hebrew measures.
 The terms are more Hebrew designations of measure.
Thomas Schirrmacher, Archbishop and Prof. Dr. theol., Dr. phil., PhD, DD has been Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents Protestant churches belonging to 143 National Evangelical Alliances with a total of 600 million members, since March 2021. Before that, he was the WEA’s Associate Secretary General for Theological Concerns (Theology, Theological Education, Intrafaith and Interfaith Relations, Religious Freedom, Research) and director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (Bonn, Cape Town, Toronto, Colombo, Brasilia), the world’s largest research network involved in supporting religious freedom and opposing the persecution of Christians and other religions or worldviews. He is an individual member of the WRF.