Selections From Israel's Story Week 2

The Ten Words: Exodus 20

By Sara Koenig

Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: Exodus 20


Week 2
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Why the Ten Commandments Matter

While much of the legal material of the Old Testament is skipped over by many Christians, the Ten Commandments are often the exception to that trend. In fact, in his Larger Catechism, Martin Luther said that the Ten Commandments gave us, “what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God.” Out of all the many commandments in the Old Testament, why are these so important?

One reason is that they are the very first laws given. They are primary in order as well as significance, for the laws that follow in the Bible build on the Ten Commandments.

Another reason the Ten Commandments are considered so important is that they are repeated almost verbatim in Deuteronomy 5. [see Author’s Note 1] No other body of instruction is given twice in the Old Testament, and repetition is a tool frequently used in Hebrew to signal emphasis and importance.

Ways the Commandments Are Divided Into 10

Exodus 34:28 specifies the number of commandments as 10. However, more than 10 things are commanded, and thus there are a number of ways that Exodus 20:1–17 gets divided into 10 commandments. Though the differences are slight, the implications are noteworthy.

One of the most common separations comes from Exodus 20:3–6. Are “you shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not make for yourself an idol to worship” the same commandment, or are they two separate commandments? If they are the same commandment, the call is not to worship anything or anyone other than God. If they are two different commandments, then the second one is a call not to make any sort of image or idol that represents the LORD. Such an interpretation influenced the way that reformed churches would set up their sanctuaries, where even a cross could be an image.

Another common distinction in the numbering comes at the end. In some traditions the command not to “covet your neighbor’s wife” is a distinct command — as it is in Deuteronomy 5:21 — while other traditions include the wife as one among many things belonging to a neighbor, including a neighbor’s house, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to a neighbor, as Exodus 20:17 says.

Negatives and Positives

Most of the commandments are negatives, set up as prohibitions. The only two commandments formulated as positives are the commandments about the Sabbath and honoring one’s parents. One benefit of these negatives is that they move us away from the tyranny of the “shoulds.” In other words, legalism often involves the idea that “you should do X, Y, and Z.” The commandments largely tell you what NOT to do, and there then is a lot of freedom in how you should live. They are boundaries, within which there is a lot of safe space to roam.

However, even though most of the commandments are negatively expressed, many of the interpreters of the Ten Commandments understood that there was something positive implied in each one. For example, though the text says, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Luther exhorted everyone to “employ his tongue and make it serve for the best of every one else, to cover up his neighbor’s sins and infirmities, excuse them, palliate and garnish them with his own reputation.”

One of the great Torah scholars of the middle ages, Maimonides, taught that there were, in all, 613 commandments. In that light, having only 10 commandments seems simple! But, if these are simple, they are deceptively so, for following these commandments can engage our whole heart, mind, and soul. As we look at each commandment below, it is important to remember that this is more than just a list. The commandments are a call to live.

No Other Gods

Exodus 20:1–3 starts the list by prohibiting: “no other gods.” This command, however, must not just be lifted out of the surrounding context, which gives identity, relationship, and history to the command by clarifying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2):

  • First, God is identified as the LORD (see Frank Spina’s Lectio discussion of Exodus 3, under “Moses and the Burning Bush”). In 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah puts it as follows to the people, “If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
  • Second, God’s relationship with Israel is emphasized by the pronoun in “your God.” The LORD is the God to, and for, Israel.
  • Third, what the LORD has done for Israel — bringing them out of Egypt and slavery — is revisited. The motivations for sole obedience to God are connected with who God is and what God has done.

There are manifold ways in which we can live out this command today, helped by its restatement in Deuteronomy 13:4:

The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast.

Again, our God is the LORD, and not other gods. But those of us for whom allotheism does not seem to be a temptation are still tempted to take control of our own lives. Instead, though, we are to follow — not take the lead. We are to listen and obey. We are to trust. And our willingness to relinquish control to God, to allow God to be God, is grounded in our memory of our history with God and awareness of the identity of God. The LORD, the God who saves and delivers, is the only God.

No Idols

Exodus 20:4–6 gives the command not to make any idols, not to bow down to them or worship them. The list includes things in heaven, things on earth, or things in the water under the earth. [see Author’s Note 2] An explanation for why we ought not to make any idols is included in this prohibition, but some may stumble over the reason stated: that God is “a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5–6).

First, God’s self-description as “jealous” might cause us to pause. But, this is not the only place in the Bible where we read of God as jealous. [see Author’s Note 3] God is not jealous of us, God is jealous for us. God’s love for us is so great that God does not want to share us with other gods. God is wholly devoted and committed to God’s people, and cares deeply when we turn away from God.

Second, if we are able to understand God’s jealousy as different from human jealousy, it is still disturbing that God’s jealousy is connected with generational punishment, something that will be repeated in Exodus 34:7. But this is another idea that must not be read without the rest of the biblical witness. Deuteronomy 24:16, for example, clarifies, “Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.”

In the prophets we find God reversing this earlier practice: Jeremiah 31:29–30 refers to future days when, “they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (compare Ezekiel 18:1–32).

Even within the context of this text, and this verse, it helps if we examine carefully the numerical difference. Punishment is extended to the third or fourth generations, but God’s steadfast love is meted out to thousands of generations beyond those who were faithful. Then again, perhaps it does not require much care to notice how much greater a thousand is than three or four! If it still seems unfair that God would punish following generations, is it not also “unfair” that God extends love?

In terms of the specific prohibition against idols, many different biblical texts expand on the futility of worshipping something besides God. Isaiah 44:9–20 expresses the absurdity of a carpenter who cuts down wood from a tree and uses half of it as fuel for keeping himself warm, and then makes the rest of it into a god that he worships.

Two chapters later, idols are described as heavy burdens, things that literally need to be carried, in contrast to God, who carries Israel (Isaiah 46:1–4). Today we are endlessly creative in the idols we make. If we don’t physically or literally bow down to them, there are numerous things to which we give more worth than God. Indeed, the most popular television show is American Idol, a name that suggests our society has no problem with idolatry.

Another aspect to the command against idols is that no images or idols are to be made of God. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses reminds the Israelites that, when God gave the commandments, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. … Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves ….” (Deuteronomy 4:12–16).

The main point is that God was not represented in a physical form, but known through God’s words. Such an understanding makes the incarnation, and John 1, all the more profound.

The Name of the LORD

This commandment is often abbreviated as, “You shall not take the name of the LORD in vain,” but a more literal translation of the Hebrew would be: “You shall not lift up the name of the LORD your God in an empty way, for the LORD will not leave unpunished the one who lifts up his name in an empty way.” Certainly, lifting God’s name up in an empty way would be to use God’s name as a curse word, but this is also true if God’s name is used as a punctuation to our thoughts (e.g., the texting abbreviation “OMG”) instead of addressing God.

Instead, this commandment points to the belief that there is power in God’s name, something that Philippians 2:9–10 states about the name of Jesus. Another contrast to “lifting up the name of the LORD in an empty way” is found in the Psalms: blessing God’s name (Psalms 103:1; 113:1–2; 145:1–2).

We also should note that the commandment does not just give a general or generic name for God, but the specific name YHWH, which was revealed to Moses in Exodus 3, expanded upon in Exodus 6:2–8, and restated in Exodus 34:6–7. [see Author’s Note 4] This commandment is connected with the previous ones, as well. In relation to the first commandment, it specifies who is to be the only God. In relation to the second commandment, the name YHWH is a form of the verb “to be.” God is the God “who is.” There is no object at the end of that name, which underscores the warning against trying to contain God in a particular image or object.

Week 2
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The Sabbath

It has been said that Christians treat the Ten Commandments as if they were merely the Ten Suggestions. Certainly, many view keeping a Sabbath as a helpful suggestion — if only they didn’t have so many responsibilities and so much to do. The text is aware that work is a given: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9). But our rationalizations and excuses do not change the fact that this too is a command: to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy — different, or set apart, from the rest of the week.

The reason given is that God rested (Exodus 20:11). [see Author’s Note 5] Whether or not God needed rest, or what that implies about the power of God, is, largely, a moot point. God rested, and the earth did not fall apart. Despite what we think about our own responsibilities, if we stop doing our work for one day, the world will continue. In that way, God gives us a model and a pattern.

Also, practicing Sabbath requires trust. When some of the Israelites attempted to gather manna on the seventh day, the LORD told Moses, “See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days …” (Exodus 16:29). Sabbath is a gift, just as manna is a gift, and God provided so they could rest. The text also specifies “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:10). Rest is not simply rest for my own personal sake or gain. Instead, Sabbath should be directed to God in a day that is consecrated and blessed.

Within the Sabbath commandment is another troubling detail, that the list of people who are not to work on the Sabbath includes your male or female slave (20:10). Though the Israelites were set free from being slaves, they kept slaves. This history cannot be ignored or whitewashed. Still, the laws about how the Israelites were to treat their slaves suggest that they were to treat them differently from the way the Israelites had been treated.

Honor Your Father and Mother

This is the second positive command in a list that consists of mostly prohibitions. As Ephesians 6:2–3 notes, this is the first commandment with a promise, “so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). What “to honor” means in Hebrew is to treat something as if it has weight. The opposite would be treating parents — both father and mother — as if they were insubstantial.

Thus “honoring” is not equated with “obeying.” The commandment goes somehow deeper — if there are disagreements or struggles with our parents, we might not always defer to them, but we do treat them seriously, with respect. We do not always do well in the United States with treating our elders, and our elderly, as if they are significant. Also, in Ephesians, the corollary command is, “And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

The New Testament makes clear that there is a responsibility for parents as well as for children. Indeed, this commandment is one that affects generations. If you treat your parents well, it becomes a pattern for your own children, who will treat you well, and therefore live long in the land.

Do Not Murder

This command is fairly simple, consisting of only two Hebrew words. But what makes it a hard commandment to understand is all of the killing that is sanctioned by God later in the Old Testament. Some wonder: how can this be an absolute command, when there are so many wars that follow? It becomes more clear in the Book of the Covenant, the section of laws found in Exodus 20:22–23:33 [Author’s Note 6], that what is prohibited in the Ten Commandments is a premeditated act of murder.

Still, the Hebrew word is used a number of ways, and in fact can be translated as either “murder” or “kill.” To commit to the act of taking the life of another person is probably not something most of us will face. However, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, if our words or thoughts are murderous, that still is equated with killing. As this commandment is discussed in the Heidelberg Catechism, it is put as follows:

Q. 107. Is it enough, then, if we do not kill our neighbor in any of these ways?

A. No; for when God condemns envy, hatred, and anger, he requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him, to prevent injury to him as much as we can, also to do good to our enemies.

Do Not Commit Adultery

Within the cultural and historical context of the Old Testament, adultery was defined as a married woman sleeping with any man except her husband, and primarily viewed as a crime against the husband. But, even within the commandment it does not seem to stay entirely there. A frequent expression for sexual intercourse in Hebrew is the verb plus preposition, “to lie with,” plus the object, “her/a woman,” etc. (compare Genesis 19:32–34; Exodus 22:16). But the verb in the commandment is a different one, without any object.

Thus, it leaves open the possibility that adultery can also be committed by married men, against their wives. In fact, other places where adultery is discussed specify that both the man and the woman are to be punished for the act (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). This commandment is broken many times in the Old Testament: David commits adultery with Bathsheba, for example, and the prophets decry Israel’s adultery against God (Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel).

One reason adultery is so serious is that it is symptomatic of the breakdown of societal ties. The marriage relationship — ideally — should be one of the strongest ones, and when the promises of fidelity are broken, so also trust is broken. Though Jesus moves this commandment beyond the act of adultery to the desire that fuels such an act (Matthew 5:27–29), that is not to say that sexual desire is always forbidden. In fact, Song of Songs celebrates the goodness of sexuality when it is expressed in an intimate and committed relationship: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song 6:3) and “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (Song 6:9).

Do Not Steal

The most basic understanding of “stealing” is taking something that belongs to another person. In some ways, this is a fairly basic command, agreed upon by many different cultures. But as this commandment gets worked out throughout the Old Testament, we see more nuances. The word ganab, “to steal,” gets translated as “kidnap” in Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7.

Thus a person can be stolen. Absalom “steals” hearts in 2 Samuel 15:6, hearts that did not belong to him. In Joshua 7, Achan is punished because he “steals” things that belong to the LORD. In fact, what that last example makes clear is that, fundamentally and ultimately, all things belong to God. But as this commandment is amplified in Exodus 22:1–15 and Deuteronomy 22–24, it does not remain simply, “do not take something from my neighbor.” It becomes more proactive: if I see my neighbor’s ox wandering around, I have responsibility to act. I cannot ignore it when my neighbor loses property, or might be in financial jeopardy, but am called to secure her or his economic well-being.

Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor

Unfortunately, this commandment is sometimes abbreviated as “do not lie.” While truth telling is certainly a concern, the commandment is more specific than that. A literal translation would read, “you shall not testify against your neighbor as a lying witness” (Exodus 20:16). Of primary concern, then, is justice in the court (compare Exodus 23:1–3; Amos 5:10).

Other laws express the need for multiple witnesses in a court case (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 19:15–19), which suggests that this command was often broken when a single witness would not speak the truth. But the main reason I think the abbreviation is unfortunate is that a general prohibition against lying misses the concern for the neighbor in this commandment.

The neighbor came up in the previous commandment as implied, and is specifically mentioned in the following commandment, as coveting the possessions of “your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17) are forbidden. Leviticus 6:2–7 gives instructions for atonement for all sorts of sins against one’s neighbor, and these instructions underscore how important it is to have good relationships with neighbors. Deuteronomy 22:1–4 also gives a list of ways the Israelites should care for their neighbors, and includes the admonition, “You may not withhold your help” (Deuteronomy 22:3). This is another commandment that Jesus further clarifies in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), as it answers the question, “who is our neighbor?”

Do Not Covet

In the book of Exodus, this commandment includes one verb for covet, while in Deuteronomy 5:21 there are two different verbs, “you shall not covet…neither shall you desire.” Those words are obviously linked: to covet is defined in the dictionary as “to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regards for the rights of others.” Included in the commandment’s list of what not to covet are a house, wife, field, male or female slave, ox, or donkey, but then the blanket “anything that belongs to your neighbor” ends the commandment.

One of the problems with coveting is that it so often leads to other sins. As Achan admits, “when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantel from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them” (Joshua 7:21). Micah 2:2 also makes the connection between coveting and action, describing the wicked as those who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away.”

Though this is the last commandment, it is not the least. In fact, if this command against coveting is kept, the previous commands can be kept more easily. That is, one who does not covet a neighbor’s wife will not commit adultery. One who does not covet a neighbor’s house won’t steal. Proverbs 21:26 gives a positive alternative to coveting: generosity. “All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back.”

There are so many more things that could be said by way of further introduction to the Ten Commandments, but the best response is not, “I understand,” but “I do” and “I will.”

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. This Lectio explores a well-known pillar of Judeo-Christian belief, the Ten Commandments.  Which commandment do you find the most surprising? The most obvious? Which one is the most intuitive to your normal behaviors?  The most challenging?  Spend some time reflecting on the reasoning behind your reactions to each of these questions.
  2. Do you tend to think about commands in terms of “you shall not” or “you shall”? In your estimation, what difference does it make that most of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions?  What do you think of the Lectio writer’s assertion that the Commandments create freedom through boundary setting?  How might this interpretation differ from a popular understanding of the Ten Commandments?
  3. Spend a few minutes re-reading through Exodus 20.  What positive actions are implied in the negatively worded commandments?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

The only differences in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6–21 are (1) the reasons for keeping the Sabbath — in Exodus it is because God rested on the seventh day of creation (Exodus 20:11), while in Deuteronomy it is because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15), and (2) the order and precise makeup of the lists of what must not be coveted: Deuteronomy lists wife first, whereas the Exodus list begins with house, and Deuteronomy adds field.


Author’s Note 2

The division of heaven-earth-water recalls God’s creation in Genesis 1, where the waters above the earth were separated from the waters below the earth.


Author’s Note 3

See Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15, 32:16, 32:21; Joshua 24:19; Psalms 78:58, 79:5; Ezekiel 16:38–42, 23:25; Joel 2:18; Nahum 1:2; Zephaniah 1:17, 3:8; Zechariah 1:14, 8:2. God’s jealousy also comes up in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 10:22; James 4:5.


Author’s Note 4

Jewish reverence for this name of God is the reason Jews won’t vocalize it, instead substituting “Adonai,” the Hebrew word for “Lord.” Their care for this name of God comes out of this commandment — they can be certain that they are not using this name in an empty way if they do not use it. The reason why we spell out the four consonants instead of including the vowels is out of respect for Judaism.


Author’s Note 5

In Deuteronomy, the rationale for keeping the Sabbath is different. Instead of using creation as a rationale, that God rested after creating the earth, the reason to keep the Sabbath goes back to the Exodus, as if to say, “there was a time when you were slaves, and could not stop from working. Now that you have been set free, you may stop your work.”


Author’s Note 6

The Book of the Covenant (compare Exodus 24:7) is generally thought to be the oldest section of legislation in the Bible.


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