Exodus 20: 1-17 The Ten Words
Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before1 me.
4 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. 5 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 the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation1 of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 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.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.1
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The Ten Commandment, or the Ten Words (Decalogue) occur both here and in Deuteronomy 5 in slightly different forms. I highlight the differences in my discussion on Deuteronomy and here I will focus more on the commandments themselves and the role they have played within both Judaism and Christianity. One of the issues that has been wrestled with across time is how to divide the list into ten with different solutions based upon one’s theology. Is verse two the first commandment of a prologue to the list of commandments (many Jewish traditions), is verse three through six all one commandment (Catholic, Lutheran traditions) or is there a break between verse three and four (Reformed traditions). Ultimately the division into ten probably serves as an easy way to remember these central precepts that all the rest of the law will unfold from and regardless of how they are divided it is ultimately the way they become internalized and lived which will become the primary goal for these words.
When historical critical methods were the favored tool scholars loved to debate whether the Ten Words evolve over time or whether they borrowed from other law codes of the ancient near east (most notably the Code of Hammurabi has been noted for some parallels between what will follow in the next chapters). Ultimately historical questions reaching thousands of years back into history become incredibly difficult to answer and what we have are the Decalogue as they have been handed down in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy as they are in their final form. For both Jews and Christians, they have served to both pass on the faith and to give some key principles to form their ethics and life from.
The initial statement at the beginning of these words take us back into the narrative of Exodus. The LORD makes a claim upon them, the LORD is their God and the LORD is known by what has occurred. The bringing out of the people from Egypt and God’s choice of them gives the LORD sole claim upon their allegiance and worship. The existence of other gods is not denied here, in the worldview of the time it is assumed and other nations served them (the prophets will later move towards a view we would recognize as monotheistic) but these other gods are not to be worshipped or followed by the people of Israel. The people have been redeemed out of Egypt and are in a covenantal relationship with the LORD their God.
The worship of the LORD is unusual in the ancient world. They are not to use images to represent the LORD their God, and this will be what is at stake in the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. The LORD is not to be reduced to the likeness of anything in the creation. The expounding on this prohibition below in verse 23 reinforces this. There will be beauty in the space that will be constructed to worship, but nothing within that space and no other item is to contain God’s image. Perhaps there is a remembrance of the creation narrative where humanity in some manner bears the image of God, but ultimately even humanity it not to be cast in metal and lifted up as a representation of God. The LORD is an impassioned God and does not enter this covenant easily or lightly. God’s vulnerability is highlighted using the term ‘jealous’ and while we may be uncomfortable with the language of punishment we will see that the breaking of this relationship, as will be seen in Exodus 32 and in prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea, brings out an intensely emotional side of God. The LORD presented in the Hebrew Bible is never some unmoved mover or unattached stoic grandfatherly god, the LORD is a God who desires to draw near but who also is vulnerable to being wounded by the unfaithfulness of the people.
The name in the ancient world is a powerful thing. As I discussed in Exodus 3 there is both necessity in a name but especially in the ancient world there was power. The four-letter name of God, transliterated as YHWH (or Yahweh- Jehovah was an old mispronunciation of these letters) is not said by the Jewish people in their worship in respect for keeping the name holy will always say Adonai (and the vowels, which are added above and below the consonants reflect the vowels for Adonai while the consonants are YHWH), in English this is why you see LORD in all caps (frequently with ORD in a smaller font if possible). The name of God was not to be used as a magical incantation, like some other cultures would do when they called upon the names of their gods, but was to be honored and respected.
Sabbath here is linked to creation and the rhythm of the LORD’s work being a model for human life. This is one of the unique portions of the Ten Commandments, since Sabbath is primarily about rest-not worship. It also is essential in the construction of a different type of society than the Egyptian society they came out of. In Egypt they were slaves, forced to work without brake for as long as their taskmasters demanded, but here children, slaves and even animals are commanded to rest. Ultimately, they were not to place their own ability to produce at the center of their lives but they were to learn to rest and trust that the LORD would provide for them and they were to rest with the LORD on this day that has been blessed and consecrated.
The command to honor father and mother, as I mention in Deuteronomy 5, is probably less about young children being obedient to parents and more about older children continuing to respect, honor and care for their parents in their older age. There will always be the temptation to look upon those who are past their prime as a burden to society but here they are commanded to be honored.
I once heard Rolf Jacobson, who teaches Hebrew Bible at Luther Seminary, state that the Ten Commandments are not about my best life now, they are about ‘my neighbor’s best life now.’ Murder, and although I grew up with the King James ‘thou shalt not kill’ the word murder is probably a better word for what is intended, prevents my needs from becoming more important than my neighbor’s life. There are times where the Scriptures do talk about capital punishment or serving in warfare and these may be viewed within the scriptures as times where the greater community is protected by the act of the one being killed or killing others but these actions are not to be the rule of life in the community, they are the exception. Adultery, which in our current culture portrays as a crime where no one gets hurt, is taken with the utmost seriousness. The punishment for those who commit adultery will be death and this may seem in our time overly harsh. Yet, in ancient times there was, “a severe rupture of trust in family trust and structure as well as in patterns of inheritance.” (Myers, 2005, p. 176) After working with couples for years as a pastor and my own personal experiences there is wisdom to learn from the seriousness cultures took adultery. I am not advocating a return to stoning or harsh punishment, but I’ve seen too often the damage that what a person thought was a simple act of pleasure does to their health, finances, to family and to their children. Adultery is one of those acts that can shatter the trust of a family and have profound and long consequences. Similarly stealing can have life threatening consequences in a culture where people are living at a subsistence level and even in our time. In a society where neighbors relied upon one another, theft could fracture the fabric of that community. When one’s home or automobile has been broken into it feels like a violation of one’s safety and security. In some cases, the loss of security may be greater than the physical loss. In other cases, where greed or theft on a large scale has endangered a person’s retirement accounts or even the money that a person needs to pay for food or medical expenses the theft can literally steal life from another person.
For a just society one of the essential elements is truthful speech. Bearing false witness, whether in a legal setting or in casual gossip can cause heavy damage to an individual. In an age where we can see the how gossip, intentional falsehoods, and cyber-bullying in personal relationships in addition to the erosion of trust in our public institutions I do think there is a longing for truthful speech, but also there is a desire for the salacious rumor and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell the two apart. Perhaps Martin Luther’s wisdom of “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the best possible light” may be helpful here as we wrestle with finding true words in a suspicious and distrusting time.
Finally coveting, and the word for coveting is more than just the natural desire of seeing someone or something one finds attractive. Chamada, the Hebrew word behind coveting is, “an intense desire, generated by passion that is not easily controlled.” (Myers, 2005, p. 178 quoting TDOT) The word for house is more than the physical building, it is one’s household which would include the other items listed behind household: spouse, servants, livestock, etc. This type of intense and open desire would erode the trust between neighbors.
Attempting to write about the Decalogue is a challenge, partially because almost every major figure in Judaism and Christianity at some point writes in detail about the commandments. They are a source of catechetical instruction in the basics of the faith for both traditions. Here I have been in more of an exegetical mode attempting to understand and compare what the commandments meant to their original audience and compare that to our time. At other points, if I was trying to instruct someone on how the commandments would impact their faith I would probably highlight different points.
Exodus 20: 18-21 Moses the Mediator
18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid1 and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
The approach of the LORD is a powerful thing and the people are overwhelmed. Although there will be times where Moses’ role as a leader is challenged the people do not want to stand in Moses’ place before God. They desire someone to mediate the divine presence. Moses will spend his life as a person caught between God and God’s people. Even when God’s intention is to graciously draw close it can be terrifying and frequently people want a predictable and not too close God. Ultimately the God of Israel is a God who is not controllable or tame, who is passionate. Moses is somehow safer, more understandable and therefore God’s presence continues to be mediated by the messenger.
Exodus 20: 22-26 How to Worship the LORD
22 The LORD said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”
The worship of the LORD is both incredibly simple and very challenging. It is simple in the reality that they don’t need images of silver or gold to represent their God. It is challenging because the people will show that they desire some physical representation of their God they can focus on and can manipulate. Idolatry will be more than just worshipping other gods, it will also be any attempt to make an image of the imageless God of Israel. It will be any attempt to limit the ways in which God can present Godself or to even metaphorically limit God’s image to being something in heaven or on earth or in the sea. It is simple that the LORD does not require elaborate tables or structures to offer sacrifices, simply an altar of earth or unhewn stones that is not set above everyone else. The worship of the LORD is to be done at a level where the priests do not ascend above the people to offer sacrifices but stand at their level. It will be a challenge not to emulate the practices of other nations that place the divine above and have their priests ascend to offer sacrifices. It is the paradox of transcendence in the mundane parts of life. God’s desire is to come down to the people’s level and to dwell, but the desire of the people tends to be to send a representative up to mediate the space between God and themselves.