Laws. Rules. Prohibitions. Those are the things a contemporary audience might think of when they hear the Ten Commandments. For such an audience the text speaks only of what one must do and what one must not do. Here, it seems, is a preeminent example of God as a rule-maker and an uncompromising arbiter of proper conduct.
Yet, within the framework of Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments generate love from their audience, the Israelites who are preparing to enter the ‘promised land’. In the following chapter, those who hear these instructions encourage one another in words that Jews call the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6:4–5). The Ten Commandments are not the prelude to judgement. Instead, the place where the people of God hear the Ten Commandments becomes the spot they recall falling in love with God.
All this resembles the vows between two people at a wedding ceremony. One might hear marriage vows as a list of things one must and must not do. One might. That is hardly the correct way to interpret those words. It is certainly not what they intend to express or to produce in response. Marriage vows are at best a deep and heartfelt expression of an enduring and precious love for another person, even if phrased in formal, legalistic words. No ‘I will’ should ever arise without the exclamation ‘I fell in love here’ preceding it.
Likewise, the Ten Commandments are formulaic statements, but ones that express God’s love for God’s people. They give outward and generalizable form to a relationship that is inwardly and personally aflame (as Emin’s words are both shareable by others and yet reproduce her own unique handwriting). The Commandments’ words provoke the people of God to declare their love for God in response, and shape that declaration into a way of life. They provide a way to love God back. This is why the Shema has served as the central confession of Judaism and why Jesus taught it to his followers as the ‘greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:36–38).