Exodus 20

The Word Made Fresh

1Then God said these things:

2“I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.

3“You shall have no other gods besides me.

4“You shall not make any idols to bow down to. You shall not worship anything in the sky or on the earth or under the water. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them in any way. I am the LORD your God, and if you worship other gods you and your children shall suffer punishment for three or four generations. 6But I will steadfastly love a thousand times over those who love me and live by my laws.

7“You shall not use my name trivially. Whoever misuses my name will not be held innocent.

8“Remember to honor the Sabbath day of rest. 9You have six days to attend to your labors, 10but the seventh day is a day of rest set aside to honor the LORD your God. You shall do no work on that day – none of you, and that includes your children, your servants, your animals, or any foreigner who lives in your towns. 11The LORD made heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day, and that is why the LORD has set the seventh day aside as a day of rest for you.

12“If you treat your father and mother honorably you will live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

13“You shall not kill.

14“You shall not commit adultery.

15“You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not falsely accuse your neighbor.

17“You shall not lust after your neighbor’s house, or spouse, or servants, or animals, or anything else belonging to your neighbor.”

18When the people heard the thunder and saw the lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the smoke encircling the mountain they shook with fright and stayed back. 19They told Moses, “We’ll listen if you speak to us, but if God speaks to us, we’ll die!”

20Don’t be afraid,” Moses told them. “All of this is only to convince you that you must have respect for God’s laws.”

21So the people stayed back while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was waiting.

22The LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You are witnesses that I have spoken to you from above. 23You must not make “gods” of silver or gold and honor them next to me. 24But you may make for me an altar of whatever is on the ground around you, and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and peace offerings from your sheep and oxen. Wherever I make my name remembered, I will come to you and honor you. 25If you build an altar of stones, use undressed stones that have not been shaped or chiseled. It would dishonor me if you used a tool to shape it. 26And do not make an altar that is so high you have to use stairs, so that you will be exposed every time you climb it.'”

Commentary

1-3: There is some confusion about whether God is speaking here to Moses only or to all the people. Verse 19:9 indicates that all the people will hear when God speaks to Moses but verses 20:18-19 seem to indicate that they do not. In any case, what we have in this chapter is known as the Ten Commandments, and they are certainly intended for all the people, not just Moses. God identifies himself first as the LORD who brought them out of Egypt. That is a defining part of God’s relationship with Israel throughout the Old Testament. The first commandment is that they have no other gods besides the LORD.

4-6: Commandment #2 forbids them from making an idol or worshiping an idol. The worship of idols will damage the relationship for three or four generations but refusing to acknowledge any other god will result in God’s blessings for a thousand generations. They are not to make images of anything God created for the purpose of worshiping them.

7: Commandment #3: God’s name is sacrosanct and not to be misused.

8-11: Commandment #4: The Sabbath day is to be kept holy by refraining from work as a reminder that God is the Creator who made the heavens and the earth and then rested on the seventh day. This commandment is repeated in the Bible more often than any of the others.

12: Commandment #5: Dishonoring one’s parents results in losing your place.

13: Commandment #6: Murder is forbidden. Life is a gift from God that should be honored. Of course, God also gives them other laws, the breaking of which are considered a capital offense, and that is why “murder” is probably a better translation than “kill.”

14: Commandment #7: Adultery is forbidden. The marriage covenant is as holy as the covenant with God. This commandment is for human relationships to be the counterpart to Commandment #1. (This commandment would have negated Abraham’s liaison with the maid Hagar and other ‘liaisons’ in Genesis.)

15: Commandment #8: Stealing is forbidden.

16: Commandment #9: “Bearing false witness” has to do specifically with legal testimony but can probably be understood to extend to any conversation about others.

17: Commandment #10: Coveting is forbidden. It is an interesting commandment because it seems to be a sort of hedge to prevent breaking #8.

18-21: The people are understandably afraid; they are standing at the foot of a mountain that is shaking and covered in smoke with thunder and lightning punctuating the scene and a continual trumpet blast. It’s enough to drive you crazy. They beg Moses to serve as a go-between and give them some distance from the Almighty, and Moses agrees. They stand a little farther away and Moses approaches the darkness “where God is.”

22-26: God repeats to Moses the commandment that they are not to make gold or silver gods “alongside” God, which means primarily that they are not to incorporate pagan practices in their worship. They can make altars for sacrifices, but altars can only be made out of things that God has made – dirt or naturally occurring stones. The commandment not to make altars so high they can only be reached by steps is an interesting one: apparently it refers to the temptation to “look up the skirt” of the person standing above, which would be a distraction from the purpose of the altar.

Takeaway

The Ten Commandments are the foundation on which other laws are based. All ten of them have to do with relationships either with God or with each other. They do not, and are not intended to, cover every possible error, but rather serve as a foundation on which other laws are based. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a good summary of the Ten Commandments, but “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” goes much further.