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!