The Ten Commandments, as first set out in Exodus chapter 20, were not “categorical imperatives” wherein the Divine might have ordered, “Do what I tell you, for I am the Lord your God.” Instead, the Divine says, “I am the one who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; therefore, you shall have no other gods before me.”
So instead of “Do so and so, because I said so,” we have this: “You saved me; so I in return will worship you before and above any others.”
In contrast, the Holiness Code, introduced in Leviticus chapter 19, we find a series of commands that end with the refrain, “For I the Lord your God am holy,” or simply “I am the Lord.” Those last phrases are a tip-off that the requirements are absolute and are to be followed not as a reward for anything but “because I (the Lord your God) have said so!”
The Holiness Code shifts our “rules of the road” from the covenantal to the absolute.
We adore, and hopefully observe, the “Golden Rule” — “love your neighbor as you love yourself” — which first appears not in the New Testament but instead in Leviticus 19:18, possibly more than a millennium earlier. Interestingly, the older articulation and the later both add instructive twists:
• Leviticus 19:15 starts with “You shall not be partial to the poor...” (which Jesus might not have uttered) “... nor defer to the great” (which seems more likely).
• John 13:34 tells us Jesus gave us: “a new commandment ... that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” Jesus’ love, rather than our own, being the preferred measure. This commandment is indeed new.
Note that in Matthew 22:37, in replying to the lawyer’s inquiry concerning “the greatest commandment in the law,” Jesus refers in part to Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This last word, “might,” found in older translations into English is correct, as opposed to the substituted word and concept “mind” or “strength” found in newer translations that ignore the etymology of the phrase.
First, recognize that in ancient times, the “mind,” — the source of conscious thought, logic and resulting purpose — was believed to be in the heart, already mentioned at the beginning of the phrase. The root word in Biblical Hebrew is “m’od,” meaning “very.” In Deuteronomy 6:5, we encounter “very” amplified by two post-positional particles — one meaning “your” and a final one that clarifies the part of speech, identifying this as a noun. A strict translation would be something all-encompassing, like love God with all your “veryness,” which “your might” best approximates.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., J.D., LL.D., D. Min., K.St.J, is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain, and he previously served churches in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.