The Decalogue, also called the Ten Commandments, is one of the Bible's best-known passages. This very familiarity, however, means that they are often heard as demands that God makes upon us. In our resistance to such requirements, we sometimes pretend they are the "Ten Suggestions" or the "Ten Requests," as if hearing "Thank you for not stealing" somehow softens God's claim on our lives.
But are the Ten Commandments really "commandments" or law at all? The principles they set forth are very general. How can they say, "You shall not kill," when a good deal of Hebrew Scripture relates wars in which a great deal of killing takes place, not to mention the frequent imposition of capital punishment? With the exception of verse 11b, "the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name," there are no penalties for breaking these "laws," and even here no "penalty" is stipulated. It only states that God will not acquit.
Grammatically speaking, the verbal forms used are not even imperatives or commands. The negative "commandments" are either very strong prohibitions, usually interpreted, "You shall not…," or descriptive statements,"You will not…." Similarly, the positive "commandments" are not imperatives, but infinitives absolute--a verbal form that may be a very strong command: "You shall observe." But they can also be seen as a statement: "Observe the Sabbath day."
When we realize that the so-called "Ten Commandments" are designated the "Ten Words" or "Ten Statements" in Hebrew, we can see that they don't technically make demands of us. It is closer to think of them as describing what it looks like to live in relationship with God. In fact, those three positive statements in verses 7, 12, and 16 actually structure the passage by dividing it into three sections. These highlight the three relationships God's people experience.
The first section (vv. 6-11) describes a relationship with God. It begins with a positive statement that sets the boundaries for the negative descriptions that follow. Since God is the Lord, who established a relationship with Israel by freeing them from slavery in Egypt, Israel will not worship other gods, make idols, or disrespect God's name.
The third section (vv. 16-21) describes societal relationships. It, too, begins with a positive statement that sets the boundaries for the negative descriptions that follow. Honoring parents means behaving in socially acceptable ways by having reverence for life, honoring commitments, respecting property, and protecting reputations. Even desiring what others have is destructive of society.
Standing between these vertical and horizontal dimensions of relationship and anchoring them, we find worship described in verses 12-15. Like the other sections, it begins with a positive, boundary-setting statement. Then in the context of worship, it relates our experience of God to our experience with those around us.
Most important, these verses must not be seen in the context of demand or requirement because they are set within a larger story. That story began with God's creation, continued with God's call and promise to Abraham and Sarah, and was initially fulfilled in the exodus from Egypt. Deuteronomy 5:6 is the crucial setting of these so-called "commandments." There, it is made perfectly clear that God is already the Lord their God who has already established a relationship with them by bringing them out of Egypt.
We miss the point altogether when we try to view the Decalogue as a list of demands that must be fulfilled as a requirement for relationship with God. Rather, these words are addressed to us, personally, by God, concerning our relationship. Before, God had addressed Pharaoh in the plagues story and Israel in the Passover story through the person of Moses. In the Ten Commandments, however, God speaks directly to the people.
Finally, the Hebrew language, unlike English, distinguishes between singular and plural forms of the word you. And since every you in these verses is a singular you in Hebrew, this means that God asks each of us personally to embrace this conception of what our relationship should be like.
6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7you 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. 9You 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, 10but 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. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any workyou, 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. 15Remember 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 Honour 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 neighbour.
21 Neither shall you covet your neighbours wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbours house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011