Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17
The Decalogue was God’s direct address to Israel: “God spoke all these words” (“words,” not commandments).
God’s own introduction to these words is important for an appropriate understanding: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Commandments are not a law code, a body of laws that are meant to float free of their narrative context. This introductory line about redemption — often omitted from printed versions of the Ten Commandments, unfortunately — is recognized in Judaism as the first word; “you shall have no other gods before me” is the second word.1
This opening word of God accomplishes several things. It keeps the commandments personally oriented: I am the Lord your (singular) God. Obedience to the commandments is relationally conceived. These are words given to you by your God. The law is a gift of a God who has redeemed you. The Ten Commandments, then, are a gracious word of God and they begin with a word of good news about what God has done on behalf of “you” as a member of the community of faith. The commandments are to be read through the lens of that redemptive confession. God’s saving actions have drawn the people of God into a new orbit of life and blessing, to which the people respond by giving a certain “commandment shape” to their lives.2
The Ten Commandments are an integral part of the covenant between God and people at Mount Sinai. This covenant is a specific covenant within the already existing covenant with Abraham. The Sinai covenant does not establish the relationship between Israel and God. Israel has long been God’s people when Sinai happens (“Let my people go”). These commandments are given to an already elected, redeemed, believing, and worshiping community. They have to do with the shape of daily life on the part of those already in relationship with God. The commandments give shape to Israel’s vocation. At the same time, the Ten Commandments specify no judicial consequences for disobedience. Their being obligatory is not conditional on their being enforceable. Their appeal is to a deeper grounding and motivation: these are the commands of the Lord your God, who has created you and redeemed you.
“You shall have no other gods before me” introduces the commandments and gives shape to all the others. Idolatry is the focus. But how will we define idolatry? It commonly has reference to material images; the story of the golden calf comes to mind. In such cases, “other gods” is shaped by the commandment against graven images in Exodus 20:4. “Other gods” could include any person, place, or thing that we hold to be more important or as important as God. These “other gods” could also lift up the long-standing gods who have long been worshiped among us, such as money, property, fame, power … the list is long. The command is to be absolutely loyal to God. In Martin Luther’s language, the call is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. This commandment is the grounding for all other commandments, which draw out what loyalty to God entails in various aspects of the relationship.
Less well remembered is that idolatry includes the language one uses to speak of God. Might the problem of idolatry for us often be verbal images? Our ideas about God and the verbal images we use for God can be idolatrous; they often have as high a standing in our thinking/speaking about God as does God himself. Or, we can reduce God to a set of fixed propositions and make God into a settled, unchanging God. Is that not to break the first commandment? And negatively affect the way in which the other commandments are kept?
The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places. This is shown by a comparison of the Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5; the latter text contains some important new developments. For example: the wife — on a list of property in Exodus 20:17 — is removed from that list in Deuteronomy 5:21; wife is exchanged with house and given her own commandment, perhaps reflecting a changing role for women in that culture. Might additional changes be made in the commandments in view of changing times and places? Such as, you shall not covet your neighbor’s husband! What commandments might you add to the ten?
Before the Ten Commandments were given, the Bible talks much about law; indeed, laws are already specified in the pre-sin creation accounts (Genesis 1:28). Such commands are reflective of God’s law given for the sake of the world before sin. To obey these commandments and others which follow in their train is to act as one was created to act. And so commandments become an integral part of the life of the community of faith before we get to Mount Sinai.
While the address of the commandments is individual, the concern is not some private welfare. The focus of the commandments is vocational, to serve the life and health of the community, to which end the individual plays an important role. The first commandment lays a claim: How you think about God will deeply affect how you think about and act toward your neighbor.
The first commandment is positively formulated in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Notably, Jesus uses this positive formulation of the first commandment. Luther follows in this biblical trajectory by giving each commandment a positive thrust. The commandment to love one another does not set the Ten Commandments aside, however; it opens up the particularities of the Ten Commandments to limitless, on-the-move possibilities in view of new times and places.
1 For more on the numbering of the Ten Commandments in various traditions, see Rolf Jacobson’s 2014 commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17.
2 See Terence E. Fretheim’s 2009 commentary on Exodus 20:1-17.