120- Exodus Chapter 20

Demands That Call for Obedience

Exodus 20:1-20

The Ten Commandments are the second major focus of Exodus, along with the Passover account. (Exodus 12) There are repeated with a slightly different wording in Deuteronomy 5:6. These Commandments seem to have served as the basis for a major portion of the laws of Exodus. They are certainly the foundation for the ethics of the Old Testament and have made a major impact upon the law codes of the nations of the civilized world.

Covenant Background

Biblical interpreters consider the divine covenant with Israel to be unique. There is no similar covenant known. There are many covenants mentioned in the Bible and known from the ancient world, these were generally made between two individuals or nations with an essentially equal status to one another. In the Bible, examples of this kind of covenant can be seen between Jacob and Laban, (Genesis 31:44) between David and Jonathan. (1 Samuel 18:3) Obviously the covenant between God and Israel was on a totally different basis. In no way could it ever be seen as between to equals.

Recent archaeological discoveries made by Dr. George Mendenhall have shed significant new light upon the form of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. This special study has focused upon the “suzerainty treaties” which were common in the ancient Near East of the second millennium B.C. This kind of treaty or covenant was made between a suzerain (great king) and his vassal. The suzerain usually identified himself as “king of kings” and ‘lord of lords.” These titles were picked up later in Revelation 17:14 and Revelation 19:16 as descriptive of the Lord Jesus. By these titles the suzerain claimed ultimate authority over all other kings. In the typical treaty of this nature, several features stood out. Note these as we compare them with the covenant statement in the Bible.

  1. The suzerainty treaty began with a statement identifying the great king: “Thus says XYZ, king of…” compare with “I am the LORD your God.” (Exodus 20:2)
  2. Then followed a statement of the events which led up to and made the treaty possible. This usually emphasized the gracious acts of the suzerain for the vassal. Compare this with “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)
  3. At this point, the treaty would usually set forth a prohibition against any foreign alliances. This should be compared with “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3)
  4. Following this would be a statement of the covenant obligations for the vassal. Here would be set forth a list of matters which must be done and those which were prohibited. This compares with the rest of the Ten Commandments, setting forth Israel’s obligations to God.
  5. After this came the statements concerning where the covenant document was to be kept and specifying its public reading. Although this is not contained here in Exodus, it is recorded in retelling this event in Deuteronomy 31:9-11.
  6. The typical suzerainty covenant called upon the gods of the great king and his vassal to serve as witnesses. As would be expected, this element is lacking in the Old Testament account of the covenant. It is worth noting however, that the prophets regularly called upon the heavens and the earth to serve as witness against Israel for having violated the covenant. (Isaiah 1:2 Jeremiah 2:12)
  7. These treaties usually concluded with a list of blessings and curses that would befall the vassal depending upon whether he remained loyal to the covenant. This compare with Exodus 23:20-33 and Deuteronomy 27:1 to 28:68.

Two things stand out in this comparison. First, the form of God’s covenant with Israel was one with which they were certainly familiar. It was a form with which Moses must have been trained in the palace of Pharaoh. Thus God had begun the preparation of Moses long before Moses ever knew it. The use of these forms serves to illustrate again how God frequently takes common things and fills them with uncommon truth. Second, the very use of this form said to Israel, with an unmistakable clarity, that Yahweh was the great King, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The use of the form itself communicated God’s claim to absolute sovereignty over Israel.

Chapter 20

Verses 1-11

The opening statement points out several fundamental facts. First, the covenant was given by God. The covenant was not a matter of negotiation between God and the Israelites. They could only accept it or reject it. In later years they often broke the covenant but there was no way that they could change it. God’s covenant with the Israelites was never a matter for debate. By their acceptance the Israelites were accepting the lordship of Yahweh. Likewise by rejecting the covenant they would be rejecting His lordship.

Second, the covenant was rooted in Yahweh’s historical acts. God was laying claim upon Israel because He first redeemed them. Fundamental to Israel’s understanding of God is that He had redeemed them. Some have suggested that the covenant was basic to Israel’s faith, but it seems more appropriate to say that the Exodus was basic to the covenant. We should never minimize the importance of the covenant, but we should never magnify it over God’s redemptive act in the Exodus.

Third, and less significant, Israel was reminded of their heritage as slaves. The Israelites had no greatness to which they could point as bases of God’s love for them. The Israelites were free not because of their power but because of God’s power. Therefore they had no bases for pride.

“You shall have no other gods before Me.” God’s call upon Israel was that He was to have their sole allegiance. The word “before” can mean besides or in addition to. We should note that this commandment made no claim to Yahweh’s being the only God. That would come much later in Israel’s history. This was not a statement that other nations did not have other gods, but that Israel could not do so.

This commandment prohibiting no other gods was implicit in that “you shall have only me.” The Hebrews had come out of Egypt whose people had worshiped many gods. They were going to Canaan, where there were an equally large number of gods. The fact that they were going to be tempted to have many gods is obvious from the fact that the prophets condemned them for this very sin.

This Commandment speaks to our contemporary culture as well from two directions. To those who seek to place their allegiance in God and in any other source of power, either real or imaginary, it is God’s command for a total commitment. For those who think there is no God at all, it is the divine claim that a person must have God. There is no real life apart from God.

“You 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. You 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, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Let’s realize that this Commandment was not a prohibition against artwork but against anything that might take the place of God in Israel’s understanding. In the ancient world the idol maker was in many was a theologian. It was not his intention to say, “My god has the body of a lion, the legs of a bull, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a man.” Rather, the idol maker was saying, “My god has the speed of a lion, the power of a bull, is exalted as the eagle, and has the wisdom of a man.” With the use of a visual aid, he was trying to describe his god’s attributes. However, the worshiper transferred these attributes to the idol itself. The basic thrust of this commandment was the prohibition against substituting anything for God.

This can become a real problem in contemporary Christianity. We have a tendency to substitute allegiance to certain words and phrases that describe God for a genuine submission to God Himself. Even orthodox descriptions of God can become an idol. Nothing must be allowed to take the place of God in our lives.

The statement that the Lord is a “jealous” God would be better translated as a “zealous” God. This word, which is used only of God, focuses upon an action rather than upon an emotion. It speaks of the fact that God will act to prevent Israel’s unfaithfulness or to transform if it occurs.

“The third and fourth generation” is a typical expression of the ancient wisdom movement that merely implied continuance. It is true that the sins of one generation have their effect on the following generation. The real emphasis here was on God’s steadfast love, which was far more extensive than His judgment. It is imperative to see that the demonstrable fact of love is obedience. Biblical love was never an emotion but was always an action. The love that God promised is a word always found in the context of the covenant. God committed Himself to an unswerving covenant loyalty in His actions.

“You 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.” This Commandment is probably the most misunderstood of the ten. Most will think that it applies to cursing only or the use of some word for God in an expletive. Although it certainly applies to such usage, to narrow its meaning to this alone is almost to misunderstand it completely. Basic to its understanding is the understanding of the Old Testament concept of “name.” A name is descriptive of the person who bears it and it reflects who that person is.

“Take” is a verb translated to mean lift up, bear, or carry. Further, the phrase “in vain” literally means “for nothing” or “emptiness.” In seeking to grasp the meaning of this Commandment, we must also consider the fact that among ancient peoples, divine names were considered to have magical properties.

This Commandment was clearly a prohibition against assuming that the mere use of the name of God would produce results. God will not be manipulated by those who seek merely to use His power. Anyone who carries about the character or nature of God and has nothing happening in his life has violated this Commandment. The presence of God in anyone’s life should produce visible fruits.

He who carries about the nature of God must be a fruitful person. Anyone who fails to do this we have this warning “the Lord will not leave him unpunished.”

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but 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. For 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.” The longest Commandment has often been misinterpreted. “Remember” should not be translated as an imperative but as a continuing action. The phrase is difficult to translate, but something like this comes close. “Remembering the Sabbath day for keeping it holy.” As we learned before, that which is holy is set apart for God. A day that is holy is one which is devoted to God’s special purposes.

We must also note that this Commandment governs the use of all time, not just the seventh day. Israel was responsible, as we are, for the use of all the time God has given. The seventh day was peculiarly devoted to God’s service, but all time was a stewardship from Him.

We can get into problems when we define how to keep a day holy. Let us recognize immediately that it cannot be done by legislating standards. Jesus established the basic principle when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) The Pharisees had missed the point when they tried to legalize its observance. The day is kept when it glorifies God.

The foundation for the Sabbath observance was set in God’s creation. Further, it was God who hallowed it or made it holy. The responsibility of man is twofold. Man must demonstrate that he recognizes its holy nature. Further, he must keep all time as God’s gift.

The first set of Commandments focused on the vertical dimensions of the covenant, specifying fundamental relations between man and God. The second set turns their attention on the horizontal dimensions. Here the concern was with the relations that existed between members of the covenant community.

At first glance these commands seem quite restrictive; we should note that this is not really true. A negative command is only for a specific action, leaving all other areas free from restrictions. A positive command is far more restrictive, for if you can only do what you are told to do, large areas are left forbidden. The fact, therefore, that all but the first of these last six are negative gives Israel a greater freedom than we might have at first expected.

Verse 12

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” This, like the fourth Commandment, is a positive obligation. Also, like the forth, it was stated in terms of continuing action. Their lives were to be characterized by honor towards parents. The word “honor” comes from a word which literally meant to give weight to or to give significance to. The people were to recognize the importance of their parents and to make sure that they were put in positions within the community that utilized that importance.

We tend to limit this command only to young children. But this was not the intent at Sinai. Paul certainly applied this to children, (Ephesians 6:2) when it was given as a part of the covenant it was addressed to the adults of the covenant community. This was also a command to give significance to the senior citizens. In many primitive societies, when a person became old and useless, he was sent out to die. It was not to be so in Israel.

The promise connected with this set forth the concept that an enduring society must not only care for its elderly; it must profit from their wisdom. Paul appealed to this promise in his letter to the Ephesians. (Ephesians 6:2-3)

Verse 13

“You shall not murder.” in the Hebrew translation the word is “kill.” Kill is a rare word in the Hebrew and has been translated to our English word murder. This may be correct and so states that no man can lift up violent hands against another. It is certain that the Old Testament never considered this to be a prohibition against capital punishment, as many of the covenant laws have a death penalty. Neither is it a prohibition against war, for Israel; regularly went forth to battle, sometimes at the command of God.

Jesus further explains the concept behind the meaning of this word in Matthew 5:21-22. It is probable that the word referred to an act of violence that arose out of feelings of hatred or malice. Perhaps murder is the closest word that we have in the English language. We must not lose sight of the emotional bases behind the actual meaning.

Regardless of the specific meaning of the verb, the basic purpose of the command was to set forth the sanctity of life. Life is God’s gift and therefore life is sacred. No man has the right to destroy what God has given.

Verse 14

“You shall not commit adultery.” This command is a prohibition against the taking of another man’s wife. Yet is falls short of the attitude taught by Jesus. (Matthew 5:27-28) In the Old Testament times a woman considered as little more than property which could be bought, sold, or taken by force, this laid a new foundation for marriage. The marriage covenant was to be considered inviolable for people in the covenant community.

Israel took this command seriously, as not even King David could ignore this command. (2 Samuel 11:1 to 12:15) Adulterers and murders were understood to be of the same nature. (Job 24:13-17) When the Prophets sought for an image to describe Israel’s sins against God, they used the image of Adultery. (Isaiah 1:21 Hosea 1:2)

The Hebrew’s were called by this Commandment to a purity of life to which no other people had ever been called. God’s people were to live by a higher standard.

Verse 15

“You shall not steal.” The word used here for steal implies taking something secretly. It may be of significance that this commandment and the two prior relate to things done secretly. In the ancient world, as well as in the modern, many people believed that nothing was wrong as long as you did not get caught.

Property could not be taken from another is the basic thrust of this Commandment. Again this was an important commandment o the Israelite people. The Prophets had severe words of censure for those who stole the property of others. (Isaiah 5:8 Amos 3:10) Property was to be gained by labor and not by thievery. Stability in a society was, and is, dependent upon security of life, home, and property.

Verse 16

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” There is some question as to the actual meaning of this Commandment. It is possible that it meant that the covenant community had a right to expect and demand truth in legal matters. If this was correct, then this commandment would have been limited to a prohibition against lying in legal proceedings. It is also possible that this referred to the normal speech of daily life. It would be a more likely meaning in its appearance, since each of the other Commandments related to life in the community.

Verse 17

“You 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.” This Commandment not only deals with the emotion of covetousness but also the active planning of the appropriation of the coveted property. However, the word used here does not necessarily carry that meaning.

It may be the better part of wisdom to interpret that as being nothing more than what it appears to be, as prohibition against envy. Ultimately, the foundation for this Command was the concept that everything a man possessed was a gift from God. Further, to envy what another had was to despise what you had. Therefore covetousness was a rejection of His loving providence.

Verses 18-20

As Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments the people were caught up in the phenomena that demonstrated the presence of God. The presence of God had struck them with terror, for “they trembled and stood at a distance.” The Hebrew words are much more graphic in their description, as the last word literally means that they were staggering or reeling. The awesome holiness of God sent them backward from His presence. The people may have come out in curiosity and drawn close to the mountain, but the actual presence of God had produced the opposite effect.

It is implied that the fear of death had sprung up in the people in response to hearing the words of the Ten Commandment. The demand of God had showed them just how far they were from the holiness of God they were. For the first time they could see the real nature of their sin. The awesome light of God had illuminated the stain of sin.

Consequently, they desired Moses should be the mediator between them and God. Knowing their own sinful natures they did not wish to hear the voice of God directly. The fear of death at the voice of God is a common theme throughout the Old Testament. (Isaiah 6:5)

Moses was obviously willing to be Israel’s mediator. This is the very nature of God’s spokesman. There was both the divine call to service and the human call to intercession. Moses’ earlier call from God gave him a willingness to respond to this request of his people.

Moses urged the people to not be afraid. God had not come to kill them as a punishment for their sin but “to prove” them. This emphasis upon testing is basic to Exodus. The presence of God searches out the heart of men. This knowledge of testing should serve to help them develop the proper “fear” of God. The true fear of God is the desire to avoid sin rater than to avoid the consequences of sin.

The ultimate purpose of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and the covenant at Sinai was that they should not sin. God’s purpose for Israel was that they should be able to live lives of such quality that they would find it satisfying and fulfilling. The same may be said of the redemptive work of Jesus in our lives. It is His purpose to deliver us from sin and its consequences so that we may really live and not merely exist. This is the good life, the abundant life, in every sense of the word.

Decrees That Govern Life

Exodus 20:21 to 24:14

This section of Exodus is known as “The Book of the Covenant.” The title comes from the statement that “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people.” (Exodus 24:7)

Although not all the laws in this section are directly related to the Ten Commandments, they are expansions of the basic demands of the Decalogue. They served as the foundations of Israel’s faith and life. They governed her worship and her ethics. From the beginning, the people of Israel clearly understood that they were a people governed by law. But they also recognized that the laws by which they were to be governed were those of God.

In seeking an understanding of these legal materials, we must beware of trying to interpret them primarily from a Christian point of view. To do so is to miss their essential thrust. We must begin by seeking to understand them against the background of their own time. We must also beware of actually failing to consider them because we find the details foreign and strange.

Verses 21-26

We are now given instructions concerning the nature of proper worship. “You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.” Obviously based on the Second Commandment, this prohibition covered anything of value. For the Hebrews, gold and silver covered all precious metals. Any type of image would be far removed from the God who actually “has spoken to you from heaven.” But proper worship involved more than a mere prohibition.

They were given instruction for the making of an Altar. Although sacrifice had not yet be regulated or even commanded. Foreign to our own thinking, the ancient sacrificial system was a means by which men expressed their adoration of and gratitude to God. Life was considered sacred. Therefore any animal that was slaughtered was killed in a manner which would express both reverence for life as well as thanks for the gift. The altar itself was to be either of earth or of unhewn stone.

Natural objects were considered to be exactly as God had made them. For man to take the dirt and make bricks or to take the stone and shape it was to imply that he could do a better job than God had done. Building altars out of natural elements as dirt or stone would be quicker and more suitable to a nomadic people.

Israel was being told that not only was worship important but proper worship was important.

Key Verses’

Mark 2:27, Ephesians 6:2-3, Matthew 5:21-22, Matthew 5:27-28, Job 24:13-17, Isaiah 1:21, Hosea 1:2, Isaiah 5:8, Amos 3:10, Isaiah 6:5


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Exodus Chapter 20


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