The Commandments: Biblical Reasons to Obey

There are a number of reasons given to obey God's laws.

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From Mitzvot: A Sourcebook for the 613 Commandments. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. © 1996 by Jason Aronson Inc.

The Bible suggests a number of reasons to obey God’s commandments. The following is a summary of the biblical themes related to observing God’s commandments: 

Divine Compensation and Punishment

Deuteronomy 11 and 28 are devoted to describing the rewards and punishments that God will bring upon those who obey or disobey Him. The rabbis made the theme central by choosing the following text as part of the second paragraph of the Shema, to be said each morning and evening:

“If you will earnestly heed the commandments which I command you this day, to love and serve God with all your heart and soul, then will I favor your land with rain at the proper season--rain in autumn and rain in spring--so that you will have ample harvest of grain and wine and oil. And I will assure grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat to contentment.

“Be careful lest you are tempted to forsake God and turn to false gods and pray to them. For then the anger of God will be aroused toward you. God will then close up the heavens and there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce. You will soon perish from the good land which God is giving to you” (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).

This passage clearly shows the Torah holding out the reward of an abundant harvest for obeisance to God’s mitzvot. There are some people who have great difficulty with this section of the Bible, since there are many cases of people who do good and fulfill commandments and yet who suffer, and of bad people who have been known to prosper. Suffice it to say that the Torah had no doubt of the certainty of God’s response to obedience and disobedience regarding His commandments.

Human Compensation and Punishmentmoses and the ten commandments

The Bible clearly expected that many of its commandments would be enforced by the human courts. A biblical judicial process was set in place to cover a variety of aspects of life in which the guilt or innocence of a person would be determined. Here are some examples of punishment for those found guilty of violation of a commandment:

“When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or a fist, and he does not die but has to take to his bed, if then he gets up and walks outdoors upon his staff, the assailant shall go unpunished, except that he must pay for his idleness and his cure” (Exodus 21:18-19).

“When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal” (Exodus 21:33-34).

The Wisdom and Good Teachings of the Commandments

The Bible suggests that we should obey God’s commandments because it would be unwise not to. Thus, Moses says this to the Israelites:

“See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land which you are about to invade and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

The Commandments Define the Ethical Life

The Torah affirms that God’s commandments are ethical and moral because God is a moral God, and it explains that the commandments help set for people the true standard of morality. For example, it states in Psalms:

“The teaching of God is perfect, renewing life; the decrees of God are enduring, making the simple wise. The commandments of the Lord are just, rejoicing the heart; the instruction of God is lucid, making the eyes light up. The fear of God is pure, abiding forever; the judgments of God are true, righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:8-10).

The Commandments are Part of Our Covenantal Relationship with God

The Jewish promise to obey God is expressed in the covenant (brit) that our ancestors made with God at Mount Sinai. Here, God promised to enter into a long-term relationship with the children of Israel. This relationship included giving them a homeland and rewarding them with physical pros­perity. The Israelites’ side of the bargain was to obey those commandments that God revealed to them, saying “all that God has commanded, we will do and we will hear/obey” (Exodus 24:7).

The question that modern Jews ask is the following: If our ancestors voluntarily agreed to enter into God’s covenant, why are we obligated by it as well? Moses had already anticipated this objection when he spoke to the second generation of Israelites who had not been a part of the Sinai experience:

“God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that God made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire” (Deuteronomy 5:2-4).

The Israelites and their descendants for all generations were expected to see themselves as if they themselves had stood at the mountain and obligated themselves to fulfill the covenant of God.

The Commandments Enhance God’s Reputation and Honor

The commandments also served as a way of sanctifying God’s Name (reputation) and making it holy and unique. Since God gave the Israelites commandments as part of the covenantal agreement, the commitment to follow and obey them reflected not only upon the Israelites themselves, but upon God as well. Good behavior, according to the Bible, brought honor upon God, whereas bad behavior profaned God’s Name and reputation:

“You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am God. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I am the Lord” (Leviticus 22:31-33).

The Bible recommends that Jews do what is right—perform God’s commandments —because God’s reputation depends upon it. Sanctifying God’s name is a powerful motivation to do what is right.

The Commandments Are a Way to Become an Extraordinary People

The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh, which literally means, “set apart” or “like no other.” The Torah states that in obeying the mitzvot, the Jewish people become a nation that is unique and set apart from all the other nations in the world. Since the Israelites agree to obey God’s com­mands, they are called God’s treasured people. While this theme permeates the Bible, there is one especially famous expression of it, which occurred when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai:

“Moses went up to God, and God called to him from the mountain saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My most treasured possession among all the nations. Indeed all of the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ ” (Exodus 19:3-6).

This passage defines “holy” as meaning special and unique from among all others. It is important to note that the Israelites are to be God’s holy people only if they are obedient to God’s commandments.

Obeying Commandments is the Way for Israelites to Show Their Adoration of God

The Torah describes God as the lover of the Jewish people. Giving them the Torah was a sign of that love. The following biblical passages illustrates God’s extreme affection for the Israelites:

“For you are a people consecrated to God: of all the peoples on earth God chose you to be His treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that God set His heart on you and chose you. Indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because God loved you and kept the oath He made to your ancestors that God freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

“Know, therefore, that only the Lord your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps His gracious covenant to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments, but who in­stantly retaliates with destruction against those who reject Him—­never slow with those who reject Him, but paying them back in­stantly. Therefore, observe faithfully the Instruction, the laws, and the norms with which I charge you today” (Deuteronomy 7:6-11).

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.