Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
What does it mean to belong to a community? Does belonging come with certain rights and responsibilities?
The book of Exodus is about belonging. Summed up in The Decalogue, composed, in part, of Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, and 12-20, is the beginning of a new community and a new people. Those chosen to join would become God’s people and God would become their deity in covenant relationship. Collectively, the people would come to be known as the nation of Israel, a treasured possession and a priestly kingdom.
Belonging is at God’s gracious initiative
Exodus 20:1-17 is frequently referred to as The Ten Commandments or The Decalogue1 that comprises a list of stipulations. The Decalogue is largely regarded by some scholars as the preamble to a covenant (Hebrew: berit) or binding treaty between the Israelites and God. The preamble identifies the parties entering into the agreement, the purpose, the obligations, and usually the consequences of breaking the terms of agreement. The preamble is followed by 613 statutes and ordinances that comprise the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:1-23:19). Although the Book of the Covenant belongs to the genre of law code, the commandments found therein are instructions in how to live in right relationship with God and neighbor as the covenantal people of God.
The covenantal agreement between God and the Israelites established at Mount Sinai in Exodus 20 is initiated by God. God’s plan to make the Israelites God’s own people is revealed earlier in Exodus 19. Other scholars contend that Exodus 19:3-7 is actually the preamble to the covenant. Atop the mountain, God commences with the covenant by reminding the Israelites that they bore witness to God’s beneficence towards them when God delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians and provided for them on their wilderness journey (Exodus 19:4). God offers the covenant with the qualification that the people must hearken to God’s voice and obey the covenant, the details of which have yet to be revealed to them. If they accepted the stipulations, then the Israelites would become God’s treasured possession among all the peoples (19:5). Additionally, Israel would be a priestly nation consecrated unto God (19:6). Thus, God’s election of Israel as God’s own people with a special status among the other nations is an extension of God’s prerogative rather than any deed on the Israelites part.
Belonging comes with responsibilities
There are two types of covenants or treaties in the ancient Near Eastern world of the Hebrew Bible: parity and suzerainty. Parity treaties are between equal parties, such as the covenant between Abner and David (2 Samuel 3:12-13). Suzerainty treaties are between unequal parties, such as a king and vassal. God as a supreme being is superior to Israel; thus, the treaty or covenant represented by the relationship between God and Israel in Exodus 20:1-20 is understood as a suzerainty treaty (see also Deuteronomy 5:6-21). Many scholars regard The Decalogue more as a moral code than a legal code. Legal codes often contain a list of consequences or punishments for violating any of the statutes or codes in “if/then” or “casuistic” terms. However, The Decalogue does not impose such conditions on the Israelites because its religious and moral qualities take for granted that these are “apodictic” or beyond dispute.
Eight of the stipulations are in the form of prohibitions (Exodus 20:3, 4, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17) and two are framed positively (Exodus 20:8, 20:12). Beginning with verse 2 or 3, depending on which faith tradition’s or denomination’s numbering system one follows, is the list of stipulations that the people in the position of vassal must follow. Exodus 20:1-4 (5-11) addresses the divine/human relationship between God and Israel. Exodus 20:3 does not deny their belief in the existence of other gods; rather, it emphasizes that God expects loyalty from the people of Israel in response to God’s lovingkindness (chesed) towards them by their exclusive worship of the Lord God. The people also must not invoke God’s name when making an oath, a curse, or any other misuse of the Lord God’s name (verse 7). Exodus 20:12-17 is geared towards familial and social obligations between humans, to include honoring parents and abstaining from theft, murder, false testimony, and adultery. The responsibility to uphold the covenantal obligations lies with the Israelites.
Belonging comes at the price of exclusion
Israel’s identity as the people of God also comes at the exclusion of others on the basis of gender, nationality, and social class. The term “Israelites” (literally “sons of Israel”) usually constitutes males and females. However, it is only the male members of the community who are instructed to avoid physical contact with the opposite sex before being consecrated in preparation to covenant with God (Exodus 19:14-15). Although women are addressed in The Decalogue, the injunction against adultery applies to men engaging in sexual relations with another man’s wife, not between a married man or woman and someone other than their spouse. We also cannot overlook the fact that from including male and female slaves in the command to rest on the seventh day (Exodus 20:10) to the prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s property (Exodus 20:17), The Decalogue reflects the interests of the elite class of society. Finally, other peoples and nations were excluded from the covenantal relationship.
The Decalogue should not be understood as a strict list of laws given by God to the people to follow in blind loyalty or out of fear of retribution if they disobeyed. Rather, it should be regarded as the exercise of God’s free will toward the Israelites and their acceptance of God’s gracious initiative to be in covenantal relationship with God as a new community—a community as the people of the Lord God.
- Literally “ten words” or “ten utterances” (Exodus 34:28; see also Deuteronomy 4:13).