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The Ten Commandments as virtue habituation

Read:  Exodus 20:1-17

You have probably never thought of the 10 commandments in terms of virtue habituation, so here is something new.

The word ‘commandments’ might make us think of orders, rules and laws that are given and that need to be externally obeyed.  But this is not the full picture.

Exodus 20, indicates that God ‘spoke’ a set of words and the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses the term δεκάλογος, (dekalogos), which means “ten words”.  So, beyond mere rules, and to how do these words have a shaping effect as tools of virtue?

First of all, think about them as ‘tools’ that are similar to those that you saw in Week 9 – A plan for virtue.

  • There is character friendship.  These 10 words are not given to individuals, but to a community.  And that community and their leaders were bound together in a walk of obedience to God.
  • There is virtue literacy. These 10 words are explained further in Exodus and Deuteronomy, to make sure they were understood.  And they were to be passed on to children and remembered.  And the history of the people of Israel is full of examples of obedience and disobedience to these 10 words.

But most of all there is habituation. These 10 words were to become a daily routine in the life of the people of Israel.  We see that, to help the formation of habits for some of these words, God tells Israel to establish yearly festivals and regular sacrifices.  These create habits of worship (‘you will worship no other God than me’) and of rest (‘you shall observe the Sabbath’).

In Deuteronomy 6 we have further instructions concerning the habituation of these words:

  • These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates …‘(vs 6-9).

So this is not just a list of rules.  God sets up a genuine educational programme to shape the character of his people.

And this character is one of virtue. Can you identify the other virtues that are associated with each of the ten words in Deuteronomy 20:1-17?

  • The person who has no other gods is the person who is faithful.
  • The person who does not use the name of God in vain in making vows is the person who is honest… 
  • The person who…

Can you identify the other virtues that are associated with each of the ten words in Deuteronomy 20:1-17?


A prayer:  To God who has spoken these 10 words I wish to express my gratitude.  Thank you for these guidelines that are here to shape us into your people and flourishing human beings.  May they become habits in my life, together with the people with whom I am called to walk.  And may they shape my character in virtue.

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