Exodus 20:1-17 – The Ten Commandments


Exodus 20:1-17


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.