Exodus 20: The Ten Commandments

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The intention has always been that people would be brought out of Egypt and that they would know God. They have been brought out of Egypt, and they know God. This is a great happy ending. Chapter 15 further enhances that thought with the wonderful Song of the Sea, which is probably the oldest biblical document. It is an old, old, majestic song. It talks about the Israelites’ reaction to their deliverance, and the people are just about as happy and excited as they can be. By the end of that chapter, however, they are complaining that they don’t have any water. Now one might consider the possibility that a people who have just witnessed all these wonderful things might have a different reaction to their need for water. But they complain, Moses cries out to God, and the water is made sweet. God says, “If you follow all my decrees, everything will go well with you.” Technically, there have been no decrees given; their only instructions so far have been to “walk.” That’s all they’ve been asked to do.

And, in the very next chapter, they are grumbling about food. “We don’t have anything to eat.” They are given manna and quail, “So that you will know that I am God.” Specific instructions are given on how to gather the food, and most of them are ignored. In the following chapter they are, once again, grumbling about water; this time Moses gives them water from a rock!

Three months to the day after the exodus, they get to the base of a mountain. God has led them to this place. The goal has always been to let the people go to worship. They have arrived, and now, they can worship. Moses climbs up the mountain to hear the word of God and is told that God is ready to initiate a covenant with them. Moses is given instructions to share with the people. Now, in the space of this short chapter, he will climb up and down this mountain three times. Moses, by the way, is potentially 80 years old by this time. And this is no hill; this is a mountain. It is so far up that when he arrives at the top, he has no knowledge as to what is going on down below as reflected in the Golden Calf story.

For him to go up and down three times suggests amazing agility. But in so doing, it enhances his role as a negotiator. He is, in fact, negotiating the covenant at this point. He is the mediator between God and these people. God will put forth a proposal; the people have to accept it. Otherwise, they would simply be trading one master (Pharaoh) for another (God). They have just been liberated from slavery. They have to have the right of refusal. God wants them to take this seriously. He tells them to prepare for three days. They do. They take the steps that insure their own purity and sanctity as well as God’s.

Ultimately, the people agree to everything. Now the scene is set for the making of the covenant, an agreement between the people and God. God will be using a form that the people could understand. Scholars believe the Ten Commandments follow a form of covenant treaties. Those treaties begin with a preamble that identifies the initiator of the treaty. The Ten Commandments start with, “I am the Lord your God.” That’s the identification, the preamble. Next, there is an historical review that usually describes the previous relationship, which includes benevolence as a foundation for the obligations. “Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” This is what God has done for them. The next section is called the Stipulations. These are the words that list the obligations, i.e. the Ten Commandments.

Following this is the section for the provision for deposit and periodic reading. One can’t have a covenant if everybody forgets what is in it. Generally, the secular overlord would give the covenant to the vassals who would put it in a special place and, periodically, they would have a big ceremony when they would take it out and read it. In Exodus 25:16, God tells Moses to place the testimony in the Ark of the Covenant.

Another element found in these covenants is a list of gods and witnesses. The covenant isn’t any good unless there is some independent party to testify that both parties agreed to it. Three different times in Deuteronomy, the other book where the Ten Commandments are listed, heaven and earth are called as God’s witnesses.

The last part has to do with curses and blessings, involving the enforcement of the covenant. If the people followed it, there’s a listing of the good things that would happen; if they didn’t, there was also a list of the bad things that would happen. Read Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-28 for an incredible and lengthy list of curses and blessings. For our story, however, it is important to note that there are no blessings or curses, per se, in Exodus. Yet, the form is similar enough that the people would have understood it. It’s the form that is significant.

People have always referred to the Ten Commandments as the law. Generally, however, laws have to do with established communities. The communities, themselves, create the laws. That is not what this is. These are stipulations for people that God has set free. In gratitude, they freely accept the conditions necessary for their covenant relationship. Every Israelite is equally under the protection of the Lord. And they owe Him allegiance. It isn’t a one-sided thing. It is mutual trust. This is aimed at putting a community together. And God is a member of that community.

This is God establishing something that they are all going to live by. These stipulations involve both vertical and horizontal relationships. The vertical has to do with people to God interactions. The horizontal has to do with people to people interactions. Both are included in the Ten Commandments. If people can trust in God, they are probably trustworthy. If everybody is trusting in God, then they can trust each other.

Now, let’s look carefully at the Ten Commandments. To begin with, it is Christians who call them the Ten Commandments. In Hebrew, they are called the Decalogue. Decalogue is from Greek words. Deca meaning ten. Logue from logos meaning word. Ten words. They are not numbered in the Bible. Because of that, people don’t agree on the numbering. The Jewish people think of them as the ten words, and the first one is “I am the Lord your God.” That’s not a commandment; it’s a proclamation. And, for them, it’s the first one. Protestants and Catholics don’t number them the same either. Protestants split the first one; Catholics split the last one. Some people read through them, count up the “Thou shalt nots” and say there are either nine or twelve; they can’t even agree on that. So, it is best to not make too much of the numbers.

To review, these are words addressed by God to Israel gathered, by His command, to the perimeter of the mountain at the base of Sinai. These words are an essential part of Israel’s experience with God. They have to be attached to the narrative which precedes and that which will follow. These people have been on an emotional roller coaster for three months. They’ve been ecstatic, fearful, comforted, saved, complaining. They’ve been getting ready for three days.

And what is the first thing they hear? “I am the Lord your God.” It could also be translated, “I the Lord, am your God.” The translation works either way. There are several noteworthy things about this statement. One is that God is an authority. He has the authority. Also, the “you” in this statement is singular. Scholars disagree whether there is any significance to this. After all, we say, “A nation is.... A community is...” So one might argue that it just means all of them collectively. This is a possibility, of course, but one could also argue that it is addressed individually to each and every person that was there. Each and every person had to walk across that dry land, and God is his/her God by an act of giving.

This is not a moral rule; this starts with God. First, they have to know God. And what is God disclosing about himself? “I am your God who brought you up, don’t have any other gods before my face.” This isn’t just a demand for loyalty or a prohibition of other gods. It is given to a people who have just been liberated. This word demonstrates God’s concern for their newly acquired freedom. They have yet to do anything that would indicate these people know how to behave. They don’t have a clue how to be a people. Yet, they are His people, and they need to understand what that means. God is trying to help them. “I am the Lord, your God.” This one is first; it’s important in that it establishes the foundation of the covenantal relationship.

The next one says, “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. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” This speaks to one’s view of God. God cannot be imprisoned in the forms of this world. He is free. He is beyond creation’s control, not concrete. He does not become tangible in holy things. God is found in His voluntary self-giving, His love, free judgment, and sovereign grace. But that commandment also mentions additional factors. It also says that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” In Hebrew, “jealous” carries the meaning of “zeal, a zealousness;” some people say “impassioned.” In this particular case, it could mean that God has undiluted loyalty. He is a strong advocate. It is part of His holiness. It is demanded by what He is.

But there is still more. It says, “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” This is a reflection of the primary family in antiquity. The way of the father was all that these families would have known. If the father was indifferent to commitment, his whole family was affected. That’s the way it was. But it is still limited, to the third and fourth generation.

Whereas the next sentence says, “showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” This love is infinite. Yes, the punishment lasts for a few generations, but the blessings go on forever. The cursing is limited; the blessing is not.

The next one has to do with His name. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” This has to do with the divine reputation. The Hebrew word for “take” is nasa. It means “to lift up, to carry, to bear.” So instead of thinking “take,” think of “carrying, bearing, lifting up” God's name. It adds a deeper dimension. What does it mean to do this in vain? Well, it means to do it falsely, to make use of for any idol, frivolous, or insincere purpose. One author translated it “for mischief.”

Names, in the Old Testament, are really important. In antiquity, the name is an essential part of a person’s personality. And the act of naming is very important. Remember when Adam named the animals? He was given dominion over them. Moses wanted to know God’s name. God named Himself. Nobody can name God. That’s why no one can understand what His name means either, because the words used for His name are the absolute essence of being. So what does this mean for Israel? It’s a protection for them. All of God’s names have to be honored, celebrated, blessed. To do anything less would be to treat this gift very lightly, to underestimate His power, and to misrepresent His nature. God’s name is consistent with His nature.

Next is a word about the Sabbath. This one is different. This says, remember: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” In Hebrew, this is written as a very emphatic imperative. It requires observance without lapse. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.” Recalling Genesis, it says that God worked six days and rested on the seventh. Slavery had not been a restful condition. But, God does not condemn people to slavery. He has built rest into His creation. This is given as a gift for their own good.

“In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”

The Israelites believe that humans are the crown of God’s creation. Reading through Genesis, one notices that everything is ready before God creates people. People have a purpose beyond industriousness. The Sabbath is a time to step back. But it’s not just a time for stopping or pausing; it is also for thinking. It is not just a day of rest, but also of remembrance; it is a time to be with God. The Sabbath is a time to ponder the actual course of life – to see to its difficulties and dangers as well as to its joys and opportunities.

Now the fact is, the Sabbath is Saturday. Christians changed it to Sunday as a remembrance and celebration of the resurrection. It is that time for replenishment, for getting one’s batteries recharged. We can only be what we were meant to be if we get refilled, replenished, and restored.

The next commandment is “Honor your father and your mother.” The first four have all focused on that vertical relationship, which is people in relation to God. Everything has been going up. But now these next six words will focus on the horizontal line. Think of it this way, because God is and is Israel’s God, it stands to reason that Israel is and must become a special people. This is the first commandment that is going beyond people to God, and one can’t pick a better transition than the relationship of a family. There is nothing more fundamental to society than the parents who give life. God as the giver of life gives the gift of life through parents. This is a very logical link from God to people.

The commandment reads, “Honor your father and your mother.” It should be noted that there is no word here about parents cherishing children. Some scholars will argue that that is just a given, that it’s just a matter of course. What else would one expect? Others, however, will point out that children were things in antiquity; they had no rights. Parents had no obligations to their children. So the argument can be made both ways.

But what is really at the heart of this commandment? This is spoken to those people who have gathered at the base of the mountain. God is talking to the adult children. He is talking to those adult children who have children but who also have parents. This is a forming community, and they need a word about this. “Honor your father and your mother.”

Like the commandment which precedes it, honor is in the imperative. This isn’t an action; it is an attitude. Honor means “give weight to, glorify, esteem in the sense of giving precedence.” It means taking someone seriously; it’s not meant to just be subject to them, but to be respectful and to recognize their right of importance, to esteem them for their priority of importance and to love them. In that sense, they will be honored.

Now, it doesn’t say anything in this commandment about honoring parents because they are honorable. There are no qualifications here, but there is a promise of long life -- for the children, not the parents. It is unlikely that this was seen as a reward; this probably reflects reality. There was a law code that stated that if a child didn’t behave, his parents could take him before the elders, and if he was found to be misbehaving in matters regarding his parents, he would be killed. So in fact, if a children did not honor their parents, they could be contributing to their own untimely demise. What is most significant about this word, however, is the mention of both mother and father. This is a male world; it is a patriarchal society. It was the boy babies that were killed in order to demoralize this society. Girls were much less significant. But here, it is mother and father. Again, God is wanting them to live beyond the standards prevalent in society. Children of any age are not to be denied the love of either father or mother.

The next commandment is “Thou shalt not kill.” It would be a whole lot better if there had been a direct object. Unfortunately, it is open ended. Moreover, the fact that this word is given to this particular society at this particular time causes some serious problems. Just three months ago, a whole lot of Egyptians died. Prior to their arrival at this mountain, the Israelites fought a big battle with the Amalekites. Before they ever move away from this mountain 3,000 of their own community are going to die. How can God say, “Don’t kill?”

Many scholars have noticed this. Some argue that the clue is in the word. The Hebrew word is ratzach, and they will argue that its meaning is limited to murder. It is not the normal word for killing. If someone or something is killed, typically, they would use a different word. So because ratzach is used, it means murder only. Others have argued that ratzach is also used in the execution of a killer. It is also used on occasion for unintentional killing. So one has to go deeper. At this time, the sovereignty of God is determined by geographical boundaries. There are the in-groups and the out-groups. After 400 years, the Israelites are still the out-group in Egypt in Pharaoh’s eyes. Both peoples have their own gods. That comes out clearly in the plagues. God is protecting the Israelites; the Egyptians are to rely upon their own gods. This is true when people go out to battle as well. The one with the strongest god is expected to prevail. And if their god wasn’t up to it, they lost. Life is viewed very simply. And when they lost, everything is fair game. In committing cruel acts, the victors are giving glory and honor to their gods. So they don’t just kill the warriors and then go home; they ransack and ravage entire villages, all the people, all their property. Such activity is really demonstrating glory to their god.

But within the group, they are expected to hold each other in mutual esteem. All are under the care of God. Remember that the “you” in the first word is singular. They are not just collectively responsible. They are also individually responsible. But even here, in reality, there is killing. But not all killing is the same. There is killing that serves the cause of life and killing that doesn’t. Since God is the author of life, no one should dare act as God. But if someone does, the community acts on God’s behalf. God, of course, remains the decision-maker. The underlying, basic principle is that life belongs to God. When they go to war, they ask God. When crimes are committed, they cast lots or get corroborating testimony from two witnesses. Both are considered to be signs from God. This word is intended to stop the killing that brings violence into a community. And actually, this is a good thing because feudal killing is the norm. If someone is killed, his kin are expected to retaliate, and they could choose whatever means they deemed to be appropriate. After that, the relatives of the original party are expected to retaliate, and it could go on and on forever. This commandment is telling them not to do that. Such behaviors violate the standard of living that God expects of those who have given themselves to Him. So He says, “Don’t kill.”

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The word “commit” is derived from two words, literally, “with and send.” Some say it has the connotation of sending forth, like an idea that is culminated in some action. In this case, it would be our actions. The word, “adultery,” literally, comes from two words meaning, “add and other.” Together, they mean to “add other,” to dilute something by adding something else to it. To adulterate means to cheapen the quality or to upset the completeness. In antiquity, adultery means sexual intercourse with the wife of another man, the fiancée of another man, or a wife with a married man.

This commandment is not meant to regulate one’s love life; it is given to protect the institution of marriage. Within this context, adultery is described as a “great sin.” Marriage is the foundation block of the community. It provides societal stability. Marriages are not monogamous, and divorce is permitted. But an existing marriage is given the fullest protection.

Yet, this commandment transcends the integrity of the home. It isn’t just a crime against persons; it also affects the covenant relationship with God. The word for adultery is analogously applied to idol worship, a violation that breeches the covenant relationship. Jeremiah includes adultery right along with the worship of idols, saying, “These are the sins that makes God’s forgiveness difficult” (see 5:7). Job lists the adulterer along with the murderous thief as a creature of the dark. (See 24:13-17) The penalty for adultery is death.

The next one is “Don’t steal.” Just like the word on killing, stealing doesn’t have a direct object. Scholars have wondered what kind of stealing would warrant such a strong sanction? Stealing is, of course, a punishable crime, but that punishment is usually in the form of a fine or repayment. So some argue that perhaps this word prohibits the stealing of people, not objects. Since this is a forming community interested in regulating relationships between people, it is, perhaps, a reference to the kidnapping of people. But, people lived close together in antiquity. Changes in family structure would spread like wild fire.

So the intent of this word is unlikely to be limited to kidnapping, nor is it used only in relation to people in the Bible. It is best described as depicting stealing of any kind and sometimes may apply to the duplicity of it, the secrecy of it. Furthermore, stealing, of any kind, disrupts relationships. This word is given by God to a forming community that has agreed to live in relationship, first of all, with Him. The penalty is not the main point; the real point is the breech of covenantal relations and the loss of God’s presence. People who live in a relationship with God are not to steal from one another.

“Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.” In ancient Israel occasions that demanded truth-telling are in relation to public affairs. Disputes between families involve property, business, personal injury. It wasn’t very different than it is now. Just like now, they also have a means for resolving those disputes. The ancient cities have walls around them, usually for protection. These walls, of course, have gates. One is considered the main gate. It is here that the elders would gather, and people would come to them with their disputes. If an Israelite had a dispute with someone, they’d bring their witnesses and speak before the elders at the main gate. There, a decision would be rendered. In some ways it doesn’t sound so very different from what we do now. The expectation, of course, is that the individual and his witnesses would tell the truth, but there were numerous laws that described the punishment that would occur if they didn’t. Things didn’t always work the way they were supposed to.

This is a covenant community; each person is individually responsible for the integrity of the legal process. But beyond this, truthfulness is required by God. The testimony given before the elders at the gate is not separate from the witness under less formal circumstances. These are God’s people, therefore, they are His witness to the world. This was a big issue with the prophets, too. Obviously, they never worried about whether they were hurting people’s feelings or going against the grain of society. They told the truth. They were interested in things like, “Are the courts serving or perverting justice? Are the rich being favored over the poor? Are bribes a factor?” They know that such falsehoods bring ruin to a community. Witnessing depends on truth-telling. At the heart of this commandment is the knowledge that language is the essence of culture and community life.

The final one is, “Don’t desire anything that is your neighbor’s.” The Hebrew word is chamad. Once again scholars don’t agree on what it means. Typically, it means “desire, yearn for, covet, lust after someone or something specifically for your own use or gratification.” But, some say that this is too broad, too inclusive. It’s too strict, too hard. They go on to argue for a narrower meaning, like connive, saying that it prohibits any practical action that attempts to acquire what belongs to your neighbor. They note that these ten words from God focus on the deeds of that forming community, that Israel’s developing religious mentality is not sufficiently advanced to hear a word about a subjective emotion. Unfortunately, chamad does mean desire in many instances. Moreover, other scholars have found Egyptian texts dating to the 20th century BCE, which show that even then, even way back then, they had concern for the inner life. A subjective emotion of desire, therefore, probably isn’t too abstract for the Israelites.

There may also be some significance in the fact that this is the tenth and last of the series. Just as the first one establishes the foundation for the covenantal relationship, this one establishes the foundation for the severance of that relationship. The violation of this commandment is like the gateway to the violation of all the others. Because it describes an attitude, it is also unenforceable. How can you enforce against coveting or desire? Who would know? If it were limited to connive, one might be able to see that. But if it’s a desire, it is something just between God and us.

But there is more, one has to read the whole commandment. It doesn’t say desire is bad; it says desiring what belongs to your neighbor is bad. The phrase, “your neighbor’s house,” refers to what he has. That includes everything that he has. The commandment, then, describes his possessions starting with his wife and going to the least important. This word allows one to appreciate beauty and good qualities, but it stands as a protection for our neighbor as well as for ourselves. This is a commandment that deals with root causes. Attitudes affect the way people live. This is like an itch that won’t go away.

It is important to remember that these “Ten Words” are not prescriptions for salvation. Nowhere does it say, “Those who do this will get to heaven.” This is the forming of a community. These are spiritual guidelines. This is a pattern for living. These words provide the boundary for the community. These are the limits.

The next few chapters describe additional laws, in considerably more detail, plus a few more rules and regulations for good measure. After hearing all these stipulations, the people agree to everything. In Ex. 24, the covenant is finally confirmed, and then it is written down. Moses builds an altar and sacrifices on it. He throws the blood on the people. Now things are binding. God has agreed, and the people have agreed. God tells Moses to come up to Him; he does -- for 40 days and nights. And of course, the Golden Calf incident is occurring down below. Finally, God says, “Go down, Moses.”

He also tells him of His intent to destroy these people. He’s had it with them, but He promises to make Moses a great nation. And Moses, who at one time claimed to be not very eloquent says, “God, what are people going to say?” It’s an incredible question. They have just made and ratified a covenant. It is now binding. It is just as binding on God as it is on the rest of the people. God can’t back out of it any more than the people can. God is just as committed, for better or worse, as the people are. God agrees.

Moses goes down and breaks the tablets. He lets the people know that he is very upset. Then he takes the golden calf, grinds it up, makes a powder of it, and makes them drink it. He tells the people they have to make a decision right then. All those who are with him should step forward. The tribe of Levite jumps forward first, which is why they become the priests of the community. 3000 other people within the community are killed on the spot. Moses makes an atonement; God sends a plague anyway and says, “It’s time to move on.” They build a tent and a tabernacle. They put the second set of tablets in the ark kept in the tent. And they start to travel. For the next 40 years, God will direct their movements using the form of a cloud. When the cloud rests on the tent, they stay. When the cloud moves, they move. This continues through the end of Exodus, providing the setting for the Ten Commandments.