Deuteronomy 5: The Ten Commandments Revisited

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Deuteronomy 5: 1-21 The Ten Commandments Revisited

Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. 2 The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4 The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. 5 (At that time I was standing between the LORD and you to declare to you the words of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:

 6 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me.

 8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

 11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

 12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

 16 Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

 17 You shall not murder.

 18 Neither shall you commit adultery.

 19 Neither shall you steal.

 20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

 21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

As we have seen in previous chapters there is the continued collapse of time between the current generation hearing (or reading) these words and the generation that was present at Mount Horeb (Sinai) who heard the original ten words (commandments) delivered. The hearing and reading of this law is to bring the hearer/reader into the presence of the God of Israel speaking to them these words. They are brought into the story of the people who made the journey out of Egypt and who saw the events of the Exodus. They are now the generation receiving the Decalogue (ten words) and charged to live out of them. Moses has already become the mediator of God’s word and now Moses’ voice captured in these words mediates the voice of God to the people.

Martin Luther interpreted the first commandment, which Luther heard being the commandment to have no other gods, as meaning “we are to fear, love and trust God above all things.” (Luther, 1994, p. 13) and for Luther all the other commandments flow out of this one each beginning with “we are to fear and love God so that…” The relationship, or perhaps better the covenant with the LORD precedes the giving of these words and as Deuteronomy narrates the commandments it begins with another reference back to the Exodus, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. It is from this narrative and this action that the LORD has the position to speak these words that constitute them as a people.

When you look at how the commandments are structured here in Deuteronomy two commandments receive significantly more words than the others, the commandment or words dealing with making idols and the commandment/words on the Sabbath. Since Deuteronomy 4 deals heavily with not making images for God I will not recover that ground here even though it is important, but the idea of a Sabbath is one that is heavily needed in our culture.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Sabbath is not primarily about worship, it is about rest. Especially with the center of worship becoming centered in the temple in Jerusalem in ancient times it would have been impossible for the people to come together at the temple every week, but the command to rest for all people: men, women, slave and free, young and old and even animals are to be able to rest on this day. Interestingly the rationale for the Sabbath shifts in Deuteronomy from in Exodus. In Exodus 20 the rationale for the Sabbath harkens back to the creation narrative where the people are to reflect the action of God resting on the seventh day. In Deuteronomy the decisive event is the Exodus and more emphasis is placed on allowing male and female slaves to rest even if they are not Hebrews and that this commandment flows out of their experience of being liberated from being slaves in the land of Egypt.

In our time we may feel there is too much going on to take a day of rest. I think churches and religious organizations of all types often fall prey to the consumeristic drive to fill every available place and time with some activity, but there is something profoundly countercultural about taking a day of rest. Of unplugging from the unending demands of the world of commerce and work and allowing our bodies and spirits to be renewed. I struggle with this personally, I am not good at sitting and resting although I know it can be healing. Sabbath is an act of resistance to a productivity and consumer based mindset where a person’s life is defined by production and acquisition. It allows not only people but the community to breathe and listen.

The commandment on honoring the father and mother has typically been explained to me as young children honoring their parents as they grow and has been used as a tool to ensure obedience, but perhaps in our culture it is time to hear perhaps the justice based way that the commandment was originally meant to be heard in. The vulnerable in any society are the young and the old and the more I read about this commandment the more I am convinced that this refers to those parents who are now older and now rely upon their children for protection. We live in a culture that values youth and does not value the elderly in the same way and unfortunately they can become looked upon as a burden to society. In the ancient and the modern world there are the elderly who die of neglect and the lack of care, but in honoring the father and mother the working generations are called to care for those who are no longer able to care for themselves.

As a pastor in the United States I sometimes hear people state that our legal system is based upon the Ten Commandments, but it is difficult to make an argument that this is correct. The commandments against murder and stealing are a part of our legal system (and every legal system I am aware of but this doesn’t necessarily flow from the ten commandments) but for example coveting is a central part of the capitalist system, and it would be hard to make an argument that our legal system prevents us from making images, worshipping other gods, violating the Sabbath, dishonoring father and mother, committing adultery or bearing false witness. I think sometimes the commandments being displayed is a way in which people create their own images that they can honor but not necessarily follow. The Ten Commandments may be a part of the resonant images of our country’s religious past but they are not an active part of the legal framework of our system of laws.

Deuteronomy 5: 22-33 Standing Between the People and God

 22 These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. 23 When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; 24 and you said, “Look, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. 25 So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? 27 Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the LORD our God will say. Then tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.”

 28 The LORD heard your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me: “I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. 29 If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever! 30 Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandments, the statutes and the ordinances, that you shall teach them, so that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.” 32 You must therefore be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. 33 You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.

The writer of Deuteronomy spends a lot of time emphasizing the immediacy of these words to the hearers and again links the hearers to the generation that heard God’s words at Horeb (Sinai). Even though these words are mediated by hearing and writing across generations they bear an immediacy to the God who speaks through Moses to the people. The fear and reverence of that generation at that moment are lifted up as a positive and as the book of Proverbs will say at a different time, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1.7)

From the mouth of the LORD we hear this lifted up and also lamented as we, and subsequent generations of hearers and readers will know, that this does not last. As the words emphasize here, “If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and keep my commandments always, so that it might go well with them.” Deuteronomy begins a long retelling of the story of the people of Israel as they look back at how they made this journey from being a people at the edge of the promised land to being a people looking back at this lost land from their exile in Babylon and throughout the nations. Throughout Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings we will hear a continued narrative of how the people often did not have such a mind as this. Their time in the promise land would last for generations but not forever but whether in their tent in the Exodus or their isolation in the exile or anywhere in between or beyond they are to be a people who hear these commandments and ordinances and live out of them. When these words are read in a new generation they are once again joined to the story of the people of the Exodus who were brought out of the land of Egypt, who heard the voice of the LORD at Horeb(Sinai) and entered into the promised land.

9 thoughts on “Deuteronomy 5: The Ten Commandments Revisited

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