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Exodus 20:1-17

Exodus 20:1–17 (NASB95)

1Then God spoke all these words, saying, 2“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3You shall have no other gods before Me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. 7You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

8“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.

12“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

13“You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Before we talk about the meat of this passage, we need to get some misconceptions and poor representations out of the way.  First off; you are more than likely used to calling this section the “Ten Commandments”, or if you’re super fancy, “The Decalogue”.  That’s a title given to this section by later (but still ancient to us) authors which is never given to the passage inside the text itself.  Also, there are more than ten commandments here; conservatively there are 12 of them.  And even though all of the disparate traditions of Judaism and Christianity call them something like “the ten commandments”, not all of us agree on which ones should be combined or treated as separate.

The other big misconception is: this is not what was on the tablets Moses brought down from the mountain, only a small portion of it.  Moses brought down two, full size writing tablets (which believe it or not did have something approaching a ‘standard size’, though not quite as standard as an 8x11 sheet of paper); and the covenant with YHWH was written on those tablets both front and back.  Because of this, way too many depictions of Moses holding the tablets make it look like God accidentally printed His short to do (or not do) list off in 200 pt font because one of the angels was messing with the printer settings.  The tablets Moses was carrying were the covenant contract between YHWH and His people written out twice, once on each tablet, not just this abbreviated list of commands.  YHWH is signing what’s called a ‘Suzerain Covenant’ with Israel, which is a political/legal agreement native to ancient cultures in the Fertile Crescent (among other places); and is a format He’s clearly using in order to help His people better understand Him, His Character, and His expectations. 

‘Suzerain’ more or less refers to the more powerful party in an agreement where one party agrees to protect and seek the welfare of another, while the other party (often referred to as the vassal) makes concessions to submit to their new Suzerain (usually in the form of tribute, submission to the other’s legal codes/cultural norms, sometimes building a temple to the Suzerain’s chief deity in their city, and finally a commitment to the political and military interests of their Suzerain).  In these sorts of covenants, the text of the agreement would be written out twice on two separate tablets.  One would be held in the hall of records, or throne room of the Suzerain, the other would be held in an equivalent location by the vassal, who would also usually build a monument with either the whole text or an abbreviation of the agreement in a more public place.  In that way, if the vassal were ever to fail to uphold their end, the suzerain would have documented evidence of their divine right to punish their vassal, and the vassal would have no excuse for not knowing that they had violated the covenant.

What’s unique about YHWH’s covenant with Israel is that both copies of the agreement are stored in the box beneath His throne, the ‘Mercy Seat’ as it’s sometimes called, which is why that box comes to be known as the ‘Ark (meaning ‘container’ or ‘box’) of the Covenant’.  It is what it says on the tin; the box that holds the covenant.  YHWH takes on responsibility for both the suzerain’s copy and the vassal’s copy, implicitly accepting the whole weight of the covenant, and the consequences of its failure, upon Himself.

But as I said, the ‘Ten’ Commandments are not the covenant, just a part of it.  And by the way, YHWH does have Israel set up that public monument I talked about earlier, you can read about it in Deuteronomy 27, and when He does, most of these ten don’t make the cut.  Rather, the Ten Commandments function more like a memory device for young Israelite children to learn the covenant and the story around the covenant.  The way the Torah tells the story of the covenant is to intersperse narrative with related commands.  The idea is that no list of commands can ever completely form the moral horizons of a people such that they are prepared for every situation.  Instead, the Torah teaches us how to think morally given the circumstances of the immoral and broken world we live in. 

So both Exodus and Deuteronomy, when they give the Ten, follow them up with a series of related stories which thematically (more or less) follow the progression of these commands.  That way, when a young Hebrew is learning and memorizing parts of the Torah, if they lose their place, they can go back to the list, and see where they’re at.  That’s what makes these commandments so centrally important, as a means to remember the whole; if you were taught that you can just memorize these ten and forget the rest of the story, you were taught to treat these passages in the exact opposite way to how they are meant to be used.

Now, given that I literally just said you shouldn’t focus on just this passage independent of the rest of the book, I’m going to have to trust you to follow through because my actual task at this moment is to help you focus on this passage without forcing you to read the rest of the book first.  So let’s dig in from the top; what is the first commandment here?  If your answer is “no other gods”, then you are in the majority; but some traditions prefer to combine “no other gods” and “no idols” into a sort of joint first command.  I think the latter of those two is just flat out wrong for reasons I’ll get into in a second, but I also want to push back on the prior because it skips over something ve