Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Exodus 19:1 states that “on the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai.”
For the next two years (see Numbers 10:11), the foot of Sinai was home. The first order of business God undertook was to give the people instructions for how they were to live in the land that they were entering, the land that God had promised to their ancestors. In preparation, God reminded the people of all that God had done for them thus far in the journey (Exodus 19:4); admonished the people to keep the covenant (19:5); commanded that the people consecrate themselves and wash their clothes (19:10); and established limits around the base of Sinai that no one was to cross (19:12).
On the third day, God appeared on the mountain in a thick cloud, accompanied by thunder, lightning, the blast of a trumpet, fire and smoke, and earthquake. The Old Testament often describes the appearance of God (a theophany) with one or more of these phenomena, but the description of this particular appearance of God includes all of the elements of a theophany. The people would know in no uncertain terms that God was in their midst and that this was a solemn, holy occasion–perhaps the most holy in all of the life of Israel.
God prefaced the instructions to the people with a reminder of their history together: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). These are brief words, but words pregnant with meaning. “LORD” translates the word “Yahweh,” the personal name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14 before he is sent back to Egypt to demand the release of the Israelites. This “Yahweh” is “your God,” the God who demonstrated power greater than Pharaoh, the god of the Egyptians; the God who parted the Reed Sea and allowed you to stand for the first time in your lives on free ground; the God who has been leading you for the past three months in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; the God who has provided you with food and water. “I am the LORD your God.”
The instruction to the people begins in Exodus 20:3 with the Decalogue, called “apodictic law” and defined as “absolutely certain or necessary.” The remainder of the instructions found in the Pentateuch are called “casuistic law,” defined as “solving particular cases of right and wrong by applying general principles.” We may think of the Decalogue as the basic foundation upon which was built the more detailed instructions that follow in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy–613 detailed instructions, according to Rabbinic tradition (thus, the Jewish prayer shawl has 613 fringes).
The foundational instruction, absolutely necessary to the Israelites, includes two positive instructions and eight negative ones. The first instruction, according to the NRSV translation: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The verbal form of this instruction (and of the seven other negative instructions) is called in Hebrew an “absolute prohibition” and might better be rendered as: “You will not have any others gods before me.” The instructions are not requests from God, not suggestions, not general guidelines, but absolutes. God, in essence, is saying, “If you are going to be my covenant people, my priestly kingdom (see Exodus 19:5-6), then you will not have any other gods, you will not make graven images, you will not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord, you will not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet. There will be no exceptions, no excuses. You simply will not do these things.”
By the same token, the two positive instructions employ a verbal form called an “infinitive absolute.” The infinitive absolute is an ancient way to express a command in Hebrew, and is used most often in divine and prophetic speeches. Thus we may render the two positive instructions as “You will remember the Sabbath; you will honor your father and your mother–no excuses, no exceptions. (Note that in the parallel account of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, the Hebrew verbal forms of the instructions are the same.)
The absolute instructions from God to the Israelites at the foot of Sinai address two realms of life–the people’s relationship with God and their relationships with one another. The first four instructions have to do with relationship with God; the last six with human relationships. Both relationships are necessary for a healthy faith, but the order in which the instructions are given makes it clear that our relationship with humanity is predicated upon our relationship with God. Walter Brueggemann writes, “It is important to ‘get it right’ about Yahweh, in order to ‘get it right’ about neighbor” (NIB, vol. I, 839-40). The call to treat humanity−all humanity−with respect, dignity and compassion is a direct outgrowth of the very being and nature of God. If we truly call the God of Sinai “our LORD,” then we have no options, no excuses. We can and we must follow God’s instructions.
Jesus summed up the instructions of the Decalogue in answer to the Pharisees’ question about which is the greatest commandment. He replied to their question, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your mind . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself . . . on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).