Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
The words of the Decalogue are for many so familiar and even ingrained in memory that we can easily fool ourselves into thinking their meaning is transparent, a simple guide to life in communion with God and one another.
Yet the meaning of many of the “commandments” contained in these verses is ambiguous. Their simple imperative and apodictic formulations (“you shall” and “you shall not”) float above context, lacking the situational specificity of the case-laws found in the covenant code that follows in Exodus 20:19-23:33. Unlike biblical tort law, which frequently specifies procedures and amounts for reparation through restitution or compensation (Exodus 22:1-17), damages for injury (21:22-35), and punishment, including capital punishment, for criminal offenses (21:12-17), here no consequences are specified.
Instead, the case law and other instructions that follow the Decalogue elaborate the meaning of each commandment while also offering further guidance for life together. The book of Deuteronomy testifies that, in a later period, another body of legal and moral instruction took shape that revised, reinterpreted, and actualized these commandments and Israel’s covenant code for communities whose circumstances, ways of life, and interpretive principles differed from those of their forebears.
For these ten “words” (Exodus 20:1) to have enduring meaning for Christian communities, we must allow ourselves to be puzzled by their meaning, to dig into their context and complexity, and to own up to the interpretive lenses we use and moves we make in appropriating these words for our own faith and conduct. Only then can they challenge our complacency and invite us into shared discernment regarding what God asks of God’s people today.
In your preaching this week you might challenge your congregation to consider more fully some of the commandments whose ancient and contemporary meanings are not always so clear to us. I focus on the first commandment, but first examine the assertion of God’s identity that introduces and grounds the commandments that follow.
The identity God proclaims is relational and historical, tied to the people of Israel whom God led out of bondage (Exodus 20:2). This divine self-revelation is startlingly particular. It suggests that we who inherit this text cannot make any assertion about the identity and will of this God that does not begin with “Israel” and with “freedom from slavery.” The past here anchors present and future; knowledge of history conditions self-understanding and shapes group identity and conduct.
From this self-revelation follows the first imperative: “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Readers would do well to recognize that in its most ancient context, this verse presumes a polytheistic cultural environment. So far as we can tell, it even allows for belief in the existence of other deities and divine or semi-divine, supernatural beings that may exert agency and power in the world. Yet it mandates that for God’s people none of these other possible beings will be placed “before” God.
The meaning of that last short phrase, “before me,” is something of a puzzle. It literally means “against my face” or “beside my face”, possibly “toward my face”. What might this signify? Some have argued that, contrary to some interpretations of the next commandment, various references to the “face” of God in Psalms and other biblical texts belong to a body of evidence that suggests that early Israelites had a cult statue of YHWH.1
In this line of reasoning, God’s “face” before, against, or beside which there may be for God’s people no other deity would refer in part to the face of God’s cultic statue or similar symbolic representation of God in the sanctuary. The commandment would then prohibit reverence of other deities in the sanctuary spaces of Israel, including in the temple that would later be built in Jerusalem. This sanctuary was to be the fundamental point of orientation for God’s people. The house of God that is the temple contrasts with the “house of slavery” from which God freed the Israelites. They are thus called to turn aside from the powers and principalities that would endorse and even demand bondage and exploitation, and instead orient their common life toward one God alone: the God who frees slaves.
Language of “face” is also frequently used to signify the site of encounter and recognition that together make relationship and morality possible.2 The strong connection between encounter with God, identified as “seeing God’s face,” or meeting God “face to face,” and ethical relationship among humans is developed in Genesis 32 and 33 (see especially Genesis 32:30-31, 33:10) and in Moses’ reception of the law at Sinai (especially Exodus 33-34). With this symbolism in view, “before my face” takes on significance beyond simply orientation.
When Jacob met God “face to face,” he bore in his own body the wound of his encounter. But he was also blessed, and received a new name to signal the transformation he experienced (cf. the later transformation of Moses, whose “face to face” encounter with God will transform his own face, Exodus 33:11, 34:29-35). This encounter with God made possible his recognition of the personhood of his brother Esau, and from that recognition arose their reconciliation (Exodus 33:10).
The close linking in the Decalogue of relationship with God to the relationships among God’s people strengthens the possibility that this unusual prepositional phrase has a deeper significance. Allowing another deity or power to obscure or obstruct God’s face prevents encounter and recognition. It leads instead to misrecognition — falsely identifying God with powers that are not God, whether they be forces of nature, human inventions, temporal rulers, personified fears, or wish fulfillments. When these powers overtake the space between ourselves and our God, they prevent us from recognizing, encountering, and honoring one another.
As you prepare to preach this week, you might ask, is your congregation oriented toward the God who sets slaves free? What powers have crowded your sanctuary? How have other deities led us to misrecognize God and one another? Will we allow our encounter with God to transform our life in community?
1. See, e.g., Herbert Niehr, “In Search of Yahweh’s Cult Statue in the First Temple,” in Karel van der Toorn, The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 73-95.
2. Cf. the influential work of Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers and Duquesne University Press, 1969).