Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17
These verses, often called “The Decalogue” or the “Ten Commandments,” are some of the most familiar verses in the Bible and are, in many ways, larger than their context.
Inscribed on monuments, summarized as the foundation for later law codes, or memorized for the purposes of catechesis, one often encounters an abridged version of this text outside of its narrative context. Preaching on a text so well known and widely used presents both opportunity (familiarity leads to comfort) and challenge (what else can be said?). Focusing on the literary context and some broader themes may provide an entry point.
The literary context presents a larger vision for life as God’s people. Already in the first nineteen chapters of the Exodus narrative, God has seen the people’s suffering (Exodus 3:7-9), shared the divine name with Moses and by extension the Israelites (Exodus 3:13-16), shown power stronger than the Egyptian Pharaoh (Exodus 4-15), led the people across the Red Sea into freedom (Exodus 14-15), and provided food and water in the wilderness (Exodus 16-17). The words in Exodus 20 are spoken into this context in which God and the people have already been in relationship for generations. The LORD, after all, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people have already obeyed some of the LORD’s commands, and God has already acted on their behalf.
People of God
Even without the additional context, it is clear that those addressed in this text are not alone. The first words that God speaks in the passage are words of identification and relationship. I am your God (verse 2; see also verse 5). This is followed by a summary of the most recent salvific work: “I am the one who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” As important as God’s action is, the second-person pronoun is just as important. I am your God; you are the people whom I have saved. These people do not travel alone; they are claimed.
Secondly, these people are a community. Moses passes the commandments on to the whole of the camp—or at least a large number of people (Exodus 19:25). However individual these words may seem to be—and the commands are grammatically singular—they paint a picture of a community, one in which the name of the LORD will be honored, one in which there will be work and rest in turn, one in which life and faithfulness will be valued.
God of the people
Exodus 20:1-17 says as much about the God who is speaking as it does about the people who are to take part in this way of life.
First, God works on behalf of God’s people. Once more we return to those opening words, “I am the LORD your God,” the one who saved you, the one who has led you into freedom. It is telling that in the Exodus narrative God’s salvation occurs before the giving of the law. The people have already crossed the Red Sea and are already free from their oppressors. The commands represent a response to God’s action already done.
Secondly, although the values contained in these verses describe the life of the community, they also give insight into the character of the one giving the commands. If life and trust are to characterize the community, then these values belong to that community’s God as well.
The command to not murder (verse 13) is the most obvious statement about the value of life within these verses, though all the commandments, at some level, have to do with this theme. The instruction regarding the Sabbath, for instance, also concerns life (verses 8-11). The reasoning given for keeping this day holy, at least in its Exodus context, is the pattern of creation found in Genesis 1. God’s own pattern of working six days and resting on the seventh serves as the model for the people. One might even think about the adoption of this pattern as a continuation of that creation begun long ago.
One might consider the command to honor one’s father and mother here as well. Not only does this instruction have to do with actions toward those responsible for the origins of one’s life, but the reasoning for the command has to do with long life in the land gifted to the people by God (Exodus 20:12). One can read this as a type of reward or blessing bestowed upon one keeping the law, but there is also a sense that one thing leads to another, that life begets life.
The commands about not committing adultery, stealing, or coveting have to do largely with matters related to possession. They also have to do with trusting others, whether that be with words, relationships, or possessions.
The theme of trust arises earlier as well in the section concerning the use of the divine name (verse 7). One may recall that the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3 was a long time in coming. Throughout the book of Genesis, God was identified not by name but through relationship with the patriarchs, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jacob was refused knowledge of God’s name, even as he received a new name (Genesis 32:29). Hagar gave God a name, but it was not the name revealed to Moses (Genesis 16:13). Knowing another’s name allows for a certain amount of power. Moses and the Israelites could now act in God’s name. They could misuse it, misrepresent it, or honor it. There was trust involved in allowing them knowledge of the name, and that trust is reflected in the command to not misuse that name.
Exodus 20:1-17 is certainly about command and responsive action. It is a legal text, after all. It is also about relationship—the relationship between God and the people and the relationships envisioned within the community. Attending to the literary context and broader themes offers one way to explore a familiar text.