Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

God is not the oppressive Pharaoh who wants to exploit them

October 8, 2023

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Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

When it comes to the Ten Commandments, it’s easy to start with the first thing God commands the people to do (20:3). However, what comes before any commandment is crucial. God identifies who God is: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2). These words describe why God deserves our devotion. They explain that God is not the oppressive Pharaoh who wants to exploit them. This is the rescuing God who takes them out of the worst experiences of their lives. Why obey these commandments? Why do the right thing? Because God is one who saves and redeems. The New Testament gets at similar ideas when it says, “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). 

No other gods (20:3)

Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions pair this commandment with the previous words, which is a good exegetical move regardless of one’s tradition: the only God we should ever have is the one who sets the captive free and rescues from oppression. How quickly people are willing to settle for something less! An executive once told me that he has one rule when it comes to hiring people: “Don’t settle”. If only people had the same rule when it comes to what they worship!

No idols (20:4)

The next verse prohibits the construction of idols. Traditionally, many interpret this verse alongside the preceding one, equating idolatry with the worship of other gods. However, it’s possible that this prohibition aims at not only the worship of other gods, but also using images to worship the one true God. 

Many Christian traditions allow artistic depictions of Jesus in worship. However, in recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that Jesus would not have resembled the pale-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed figure on many stained-glass windows. These images renew questions about whether any depiction of Jesus is problematic. 

Raising questions about stained glass windows might work better in small group discussions than in sermons, which do not afford laity the same opportunities to express their reactions. One can still faithfully challenge churchgoers by thinking of this commandment as Paul does, who equates idolatry with greed (Colossians 3:5).

Name in vain (20:7)

This commandment prohibits not only disrespectfully using God’s name, but also using religion to harm others or for personal gain. A key biblical concern is leveling false accusations against others—swearing in God’s name that the accusations are true—while harming the innocent (see also Leviticus 19:2). This commandment prohibits such behavior, as will one of the last commandments (20:16). 

More generally, this commandment prohibits any use of God’s name for worthless, selfish, or harmful purposes. When politicians say “God bless America” to garner more votes, they use God’s name wrongfully. When parents use religious guilt to make their children do what they want, they use God’s name wrongfully. When Christians make a show of their religion, they use God’s name wrongfully. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re not using God’s name wrongfully: it will make you more loving and sacrificial instead of leading to personal gain.

Remembering the Sabbath (20:8–9)

The next commandment is pure gift. Unlike Pharaoh, who worked the Israelites to death, God both practices and requires rest. The Hebrew word for “Sabbath” simply means “Stop”. The Sabbath day is an invitation to stop all work. Preachers and theologians have a sad habit of making the day just about worship. The commandment actually says nothing about worship. It insists that people stop their anxious striving and resist busyness. It’s a deathblow to the assumption that we are only what we accomplish. It’s an invitation to sleep in, take naps, and experience renewal.

Honoring parents (20:12)

The most important thing I’ve ever read about this commandment comes from an anonymous interpreter: 

No text has done more damage to abused children than the words, “Honor your father and your mother.” … I know that those words tormented me as a child, and I believe they have tormented others…. From my…work with the Hebrew of Exodus 20, two facts are clear to me: the first is that honor is not a synonym for obedience and the second is that the Decalogue is not addressed to children.¹

To honor someone is to consider them significant, important, and weighty. It does not necessarily entail obedience. Because this commandment is not addressed to children, it should be seen first and foremost as directing people to care for elderly parents. 

Murder, adultery, theft, and coveting (20:13–15, 17)

It’s common for Christians to interpret commandments about murder and adultery in light of Jesus’ warnings against hatred and lust (Matthew 5:21–30). These words of Jesus do not replace Old Testament law, but rather bring out its fullest sense (Matthew 5:17–20). In warning against hatred and lust, Jesus engages in the Jewish practice of setting up a fence around the law.² Rather than allowing people to walk right up to the very edge of disobedience, he encourages people to run the other direction. It’s exactly what the last commandment about coveting does with theft: it causes people to focus not only on exterior actions, but also inner drivers of behavior.

False witness (20:16)

This commandment is often mentioned in connection with the need to be honest. However, it deals with the most insidious use of lies: falsely accusing others and thereby using human legal systems to harm the innocent. Deuteronomy 19:16–20 expounds on this commandment, saying that the false accuser’s desired punishment should be leveled against the false accuser. This crime is described elsewhere as an abomination hated by God (Proverbs 6:16–20).

Conclusion (20:18–20)

Many parts of the Bible underscore the importance of the Ten Commandments (called the “Ten Words” in Hebrew; Exodus 31:18, 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13, 9:10, 10:1–5). Exodus 20:18–20 suggests that God spoke these words directly to the people, whereas other legal materials were mediated through Moses (see also Exodus 20:1; Deuteronomy 5:22–33).


  1. Anonymous source quoted in Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 168.
  2. Jordan J. Ryan, The Role of the Synagogue in the Aims of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 168.
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