Written On The Human Heart

As the Ten Commandments move forward through history, one interesting assertion found throughout scripture is that just as the original law was written on stone, one day Yahweh will write them on human hearts.  Speaking of this new covenant, the prophet Jeremiah writes,

I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

This is an important image in scripture – the image of God writing the law not on stone, but on the human heart.  I summarize this in the introductory chapter of Ten Essential Words:

Stone tablets can break, ink smears and paper crumbles, hard drives can crash, and public displays can be outlawed.  But something written on the human heart has staying power.  That is because when it is written on your heart, it becomes a part of who you are.  The evidence is not so much in your words but in your actions  – in the way you live.  This is what God is getting at when he uses that phrase: that these commands penetrate all the way to the heart level.

As I mention in a previous post, I am reading a book entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.  The author, John Walton, has many fascinating insights into the meanings behind the language of the Old Testament.  One of his comparative observations involves this image of something being written on the human heart and may shed more light on what the writers had in mind by employing this image.

We most often associate something being written on the heart with memorization.  If I memorize the Ten Commandments, I am writing them on my heart.  Walton points out several difficulties with this interpretation.

First, where this image is used in scripture, it is Yahweh who is doing the writing.  If memorization were the goal, we might expect the language to describe the action of the individual writing them on their own heart.  Next, the Hebrew word we translate as heart, is actually better translated in this context as the entrails or more specifically the liver.  This is a less than inspiring image for us moderns so we stick with the idea of the heart.  When taken together, along with some other grammatical issues, the image being conjured is that of divination, or the reading of entrails of a sacrificial animal.

Now divination is not looked favorably upon in scripture.  So why would the image of reading entrails be utilized here?  Why would this make sense?  Because it would have been a practice that the people were familiar with, being surrounded by cultures who engaged in such activity, as well as being tempted to dabble in such practices themselves.  Hence the need for Yahweh to prohibit it.

In essence, Yahweh is saying you need not engage in divination to understand the revelation of God.  You only need to read the signs that I have already made plain to those who have eyes to see.  In this case, it is not the memorization of Torah that is being emphasized, but the revelation of Torah.  If you want to understand the Ten Commandments, you need look no further than the people of God.  It should be written all over their lives!

The Use and Misuse of Images

The Second Commandment prohibits the use of images to represent God. Have you ever wondered what constitutes a misuse of images today in worship? I address this issue in Ten Essential Words, concluding:

So we are given permission to use images that expand our view of God and draw us closer to God.  But at the same time, we are warned of the dangers of holding any one image so tightly that it limits our view of God and risks replacing God altogether.  That is the very definition of idolatry.

Here is an excellent post on this same issue, from a Catholic perspective. The author similarly concludes:

So, am I saying that images are necessary? No, you can strip away practically everything from candles to the tabernacle (and believe me, somebody out there has already done that) but as long as you have the Gospel (and good liturgy), you are fine. Am I saying you should incorporate images into your private or corporate prayer and worship? No, but if you want to try, go ahead. Am I trying to turn you all into idol-worshippers? Most definitely not. Am I saying that images should never be used because of the potential for falling into error? No. The moral of the story is not no images because they can be abused, it is that we can make idols out of anything, even good things. If images are a scandal to you, then keep far from them. If you venerate images and your weaker brother finds them to be a stumbling-block, then be tender to his conscience.

For the full post, read A Window upon Heaven.

The Name of God

The First Commandment states, ““I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.”  In an excerpt of chapter two of Ten Essential Words, I write that it is not the second part of that command that is important, but the first part, “I am YHWH your God.”  God is introducing himself to his people.  He is establishing a relationship with them by giving them the personal name of God.

I am reading a fascinating book by John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.  In this book, Walton purports a further nuance to this introduction by God.  This introduction does not necessarily indicate they have never heard the personal name of God before, though being dispersed throughout Egypt this many have been true for some.  Rather, God is introducing his new role among them – God is introducing “a function that they had not as yet experienced.”

The name YHWH can mean “to be” or I Am, but in that same sense it can mean “the God who creates” or brings into being.  When God says, “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” God is literally calling Israel into existence: “I am the God who is creating at this very moment!”  In the Ancient Near East, something did not exist until it had been “separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”  So it very well may be that by separating them out from Egypt, giving them the name Israel, and establishing a covenant with them, God is announcing his creation of them as a people.  “I am YHWH, the God who is creating.”  The Hebrew people may have existed before in the physical sense, but God was announcing that from this time forward, they would start living and having purpose.  He was bringing them into existence!