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Exodus 20:1-17 – The Ten Commandments


The Ten Commandments, grounded in God's act of bringing Israel out of Egypt, start with a demand for fidelity to God and end with protection of family and property from covetous appropriation.


The role of the Ten Commandments in the community of faith has been so extensive and so deeply commented on that little can be added in this format. A few cautions might be in order:

  • Familiarity can cause a domesticated reading of the commandments. The word "covet," for example, is often understood largely in personal psychological terms, but some recent studies have suggested a more communal sociopolitical understanding.

·         The opening commandments in contrast to the later should not be construed as a sharp separation between religious injunctions and secular ones. Much is at stake for the human community in getting God right-in the Old Testament, idolatry is not sharply separated from social injustice. Deuteronomy's motivational clause for keeping the Sabbath points out the benefits of Sabbath-keeping for the whole community. The injunction not to steal assumes that God provides sufficiently. The latter commandments work if God is providing, thus presuming the earlier commandments.

·         Speaking of the Ten Commandments primarily as gifts needs to be tempered by a consideration of the context of their reception. Israel's initial reaction is to ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf; they found the experience to be terrifying. The language of gift can suggest too cozy a relationship to the commandments. When the commandments are kept, life can flourish, and in that sense they are a gift, but one does not need to read long in the canon to recognize that these very same commandments repeatedly indict Israel. The difficulty of observing these commandments is not altered by terming them gifts.

·         The commandments are not to be wielded against others. The absence of institutions of enforcement in these commandments is striking. No one should seek to turn these commandments into a house of bondage for others. Commentators have pointed out instances of abusive parents using the commandment to honor father and mother as a weapon in perpetuating their abuse. It may be necessary to introduce caveats for some of the commandments to counteract such moves. But the most immediate move available in the text is to cite the preface to these commandments against any such abuse. There is an inherent confidence that God will continue to be a God who breaks houses of bondage or slavery. In context, the first counter to an oppressive use of the commandments is the God who is characterized as one who brings people out of houses of bondage. It might be a useful practice to repeat the preface before each of the commandments.

·         We might do well to be cautious about too quickly applying the commandments as universal principles. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments are grounded in the revelation at Sinai, which in turn is integrally tied to the exodus from Egypt. The preface to the Ten Commandments implies a specificity that should not be quickly bypassed.


Exodus 20:1-17

The Ten Commandments

20Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before* me.

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. 5You 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, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation* of those who love me and keep my commandments.

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.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But 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. 11For 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 Honour 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.*

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

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