Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
The dramatic scene at Mt. Sinai signals the fulfillment of the promise made to Moses in his first encounter with God on this mountain back in Exodus 3.
“I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (3:12). That promise reaches its culmination in the revelation at Sinai, when God makes a covenant with the people and gives them the law to shape them into a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:6), a notion equivalent to the “kingdom of God” that we encounter in the New Testament.
The covenant at Sinai is made over the course of Exodus 19-24. Both the Decalogue and the so-called “Book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:33) are properly understood in the context of the covenant relationship between God and the people. Tradition places the divinely inscribed copy of the Decalogue (31:18; 32:16) within the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:1-5). Thus, the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are at the symbolic center of the people’s worship.
The laws are, in fact, symbols themselves. Their simple form does not lend itself to practical use. They are not case laws. There is no punishment attached to them, and they are not in the form “if X happens, then do Y.” When these laws do appear in such a format in other parts of the Old Testament, however, the punishment is death, which reflects the fact that transgressing the boundaries they establish was understood to be terribly destructive to the community’s health. Maintaining these boundaries was key to their identity and wellbeing.
While it may seem obvious that the Decalogue serves as a guide for the maintenance of communal wellbeing — stealing, murder, etc. are clearly not conducive to stability or growth — identity may seem to be outside of its purpose. They do, in fact, draw their identity from these laws and the covenant of which they form such an integral part. Consider the first four laws, which deal with cultic practices. These are based on their self-understanding that they are a people redeemed from slavery by their god (Exodus 20:2). Their practice of eschewing statues to represent God and limiting their worship to the adoration of YHWH is, in the context of the Hebrew Bible, of central importance to who they are. The people are to match God’s single-minded devotion to them with a single-minded devotion to God. Even the keeping of the Sabbath reflects their calling to mirror the character and actions of God. Unlike Deuteronomy 5:12, in which the basis for the Sabbath command is ethical, in Exodus 20 the observance of the Sabbath was to keep holy the day that God had consecrated at creation (v. 11, which is outside of the scope of the lectionary reading). Their actions were to correspond to God’s actions. Their character was to reflect God’s character.
The commands that govern divine-human relationships are linked to those that govern communal relationships in the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” Many scholars note that the form — as well as the fact that the parental relationship often serves as a metaphor for the divine-human relationship (see Isaiah 1:2) — links the positively formulated first four commandments with those that follow. That is, the divine-human commandments are stated positively and the fifth commandment, which has to do with human relationships, is also stated positively. The commandments that follow are all stated in the form of a prohibition, “You shall not … ” It’s important, I think, to note that the structure of the Decalogue connects the laws that govern divine-human interactions with the laws that govern human relationships. Ethics thus find their grounding in the people’s religious experiences and vice versa.
The formal structure of the Decalogue, with the form of the fifth commandment clearly linking the two groups of laws, underscores the fact that the ethical laws governing human relationships within the community have the same overall purpose as the cultic laws: shaping the people’s identity and character so that they correspond with the identity and character of God. Each individual law — “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery” — is a means by which God will shape the people into a holy nation. God’s desire for justice forms the foundation for the laws that require the people to respect the lives and property of others.
It can be difficult to imagine how to preach from this story of the giving of the Decalogue so as not to sound as thunderous as God does here. I might suggest using a key word in the final verse of the reading as a starting point: “test.” At the conclusion of this reading, the people of Israel, overwhelmed by the awesome sights and sounds that accompany God’s delivery of the Decalogue, beg Moses to act as their intercessor. Moses responds: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” The theme of testing has become quite familiar to a reader of the narratives that track the journey of the people from their miraculous escape from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. It’s not a theme that we tend to associate with the Ten Commandments or the making of the covenant at Sinai.
There have been several other tests for the people as they’ve journeyed through the wilderness. They were tested at Marah, when God made bitter water sweet (Exodus 15:25-26), and they were tested in the wilderness of Sin, when they were given manna and quail to eat (Exodus 16:4; cf. 17:2). In each case, the test takes the form of instructions to be followed by the people. The exact nature of the instruction in Exodus 15 is unclear, but in Exodus 16 the test takes the form of directions for the gathering of manna. In both narratives, the tests enable the people and God to establish a closer connection with each other. The people learn from the test more of the nature of God — “for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26b); “you shall know it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 16:6) — and God learns more about the people: “In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4). It’s clear from these tests that obedience to the instructions of God is linked to the people’s reception of a blessing and the overall health of the community. This is not to say that there are strings attached to the blessings; rather, the blessings flow from obedience. The Decalogue, when viewed as a part of this series of tests that were to shape the people’s identity, is thus not only a series of laws but a fertile ground from which blessings and health and prosperity can grow from God.