The Ten Commandments (20:1-21).  The Hebrew term, Words (davarim), is preserved in the term ‘Decalogue’ (deka-, ‘ten’ + logoi, ‘words’).  In the Septuagint text as in Hebrew the word for the commandments in 20:1 is ‘Words’, Logoi.  In New Testament Greek, however, when Jesus is referring to one of the commandments he speaks of them as entolē (cf. Matthew 22:36), meaning an ‘injunction’ or ‘command’.  Forms of entolē occur almost 70 times in the New Testament, usually referring to the Ten Commandments, other Old Testament laws, or precepts of Jesus.

The Ten Commandments or Words, first appear here in Exodus 20, then are repeated, with small variations, in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  The number of the commandments is not specified here, but quickly is apparent to readers.  The commandments traditionally are divided into two ‘tablets’, the first concerning duties to God, the second concerning duties to man.  The numbering of the commandments differs in different Christian traditions:

1.  In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, followed by Anglicans and the Reformed, the first two commandments are ‘Thou shalt have none other gods but me’ and the prohibition against the making of graven images.  The tenth commandment forbids coveting.  This makes four commandments concerning duty to God and six concerning duty to other people.

2.  In most of the Latin Fathers, such as Saint Augustine, and in the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran traditions, the commandments against other gods and the making of graven images are counted as one commandment, then the commandment against coveting is divided into two.  This makes for three commandments concerning God, seven concerning our neighbor.  See, for example, the reference by Caesarius of Arles to three and seven commandments (ACCS, Exodus, p. 101).

This difference in numbering in part relates to one of the main two differences between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Decalogue.  In Exodus a wife is classed with the other objects of covetousness, between ‘house’ and ‘manservant’ almost as if she were an object of domestic property.  In Deuteronomy, the wife is listed first, followed by the house and domestic property, suggesting a higher and separate status.  For more detail on the differing numberings of the commandments, see first note on 20:1 below.

The other main difference between the two versions of the Decalogue concerns the explanation for the sabbath command.  Both texts command observance of the sabbath.  In Exodus the sabbath is explained in essentially religious terms, namely in honor and imitation of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation.  In Deuteronomy the reason is humanitarian:  the need for a day of rest from labor.

The commandments are part of a stream of tradition that includes earlier Biblical passages (the sabbath is already referred to in the creation story in Genesis 2:2-3), the recapitulation of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, its expansion in the other legal codes of the Pentateuch, its reaffirmation in whole or part in the New Testament, and its constant presence in the moral teaching of the Church.  This living tradition may be partially distinguished from the original meaning of the commandments.  For instance, ‘thou shalt not steal’ may have originally referred primarily to kidnapping; however, within the context of the tradition it clearly has more general meaning. 

Some scholars detect in Exodus 34:10-28 another version of the commandments:  one that is perhaps even older than that in Exodus 20, but which is more concerned with ritual and festal matters.  If there is an historic connection between the commandments in Exodus 20 and 34, then those in chapter 34 may in part explain the original meaning of those in chapter 20.  For instance, the commandment against ‘adultery’ may originally have been less concerned with sexual sin than with the religious danger of marriage to non-Israelites, if 34:15f. is equivalent to it – ‘lest…you take of their daughters to your sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make your sons go a whoring after their gods.’  But again, the original meaning and the meaning within the full stream of the tradition, should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

As for the tradition of the commandments within the New Testament, in Saint Mark 10:19 our Lord says to the rich man, ‘Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and thy mother.’  In Saint Luke 18:20 the list is identical, except for the omission of ‘defraud not.’  In Saint Matthew 19:18f. the list also omits ‘defraud not,’ and then adds at the end ‘and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’  One might conclude from these passages that the fifth commandment, concerning honoring parents, had a different number in the order of the commandments known to our Lord.  In Ephesians 6:2, however, Saint Paul, after telling children to obey their parents, writes, ‘Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise….’  Our Lord omits mention of the final commandment, except, perhaps, in (most, though not all, manuscripts of) Mark 10:19 with its command ‘Defraud not.’  The word translated there as ‘defraud’ also appears in James 5:4, where it means to hold back from a laborer the wages he has earned.  In both cases a kind of coveting seems to be in question:  doing evil to or harming the rights of others on account of an excessive love of money.

It is generally thought now that the tradition ascribing the commandments to the Mosaic era is sound:  ‘there is a growing tendency to relate to Moses the primitive 10 words…or at least to admit that his authorship can be neither denied nor proved by scientific methods’ (John Gray, p. 53).  The commandments, which are brief, absolute, unconditional, apodictic laws, are suited to simple nomadic society in contrast with the Covenant Code that begins in 20:22, with its more elaborate, casuistic laws appropriate to a more socially complex community.  On this apodictic vs. casuistic distinction, see the discussion in Childs, pp. 389-391. 

According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, following an idea found even in the early Fathers, the Decalogue is not only a revealed, divine law, but also conforms to the natural law.  Aquinas argues that even the commandments concerning our duty to God are obligatory not only because of revelation, but also because of a universal, natural law that antedates the revelation on Sinai.  So, for instance, there is natural need for a day of rest and for special times to be set aside for the worship of the Creator.  The law of the sabbath gives a particular form to this natural need and law, but the law itself is universal. 

Since the Decalogue gives expression to natural and universal human obligations, it is not abrogated or abolished by the New Testament, though the exact form of its observance may be altered from time to time and place to place.  And in fact, as noted above, our Lord and Saint Paul and other New Testament and Church writers repeat all of the commandments in some form at some point.

It is noteworthy that the first commandment in each group is positive (love God; honor parents).  The root of all commandments and duty is love and gratitude.  The commandments in negative form are extensions of the priority of positive love. 

Huesman provides the following division of the commandments in various reckonings (p. 27):

    Rabbinic                       Greek & Reformed         Latin Fathers/RCs/Lutherans

  1. 20:2                                    20:2-3                         20:2-6

2. 20:3-6                               20:4-6                         20:7

3. 20:7                                   20:7                             20:8-11

4. 20:8-11                             20:8-11                       20:12

5. 20:12                                 20:12                           20:13

6. 20:13                                 20:13                           20:14

7. 20:14                                 20:14                           20:15

8. 20:15                                 20:15                           20:16

9. 20:16                                 20:16                           20:17a

10. 20:17                                 20:17                           20:17b

The Anglican division is the same as the Greek, which also was that of Philo and Josephus.

God is identified with his people and, in particular, with a clear, known, historical event:  ‘I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’  Israel’s religion is an historical religion.  That is, it is not only concerned with universal, cyclical, natural phenomena, which formed the focus of the nature religions of the Near East.  It is not only concerned with the cycle of the seasons and with ensuring the fertility of cattle and fields.  It also is concerned with concrete, historical events.  If nature religions are primarily cyclical, Biblical religion is linear:  it concerns events that happened in the past and it looks forward to events in the future.  It is not only concerned with ‘what happens’ (new life/spring, growth, harvest, death, new life/spring, growth, etc.), but also with ‘what happened’ (we were delivered from Egypt by God).  Today we tend to take a linear view of history for granted.  This view, however, is not self-evident and was, in a sense, a discovery made by Israel under God’s inspiration.  Later there will be a great difference between the dying and rising gods of Mediterranean pagan cults and Christ.  There are similarities, but Christians assert that Christ’s death and rising occurred sub Pontio Pilato, ‘under Pontius Pilate’.  That is, it does not only concern a universal truth about the cycles of nature, but also concerns an intervention in our world by the Lord who stands above nature and who entered into it in a particular and historical manner and time and place.

Thus the command follows:  ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’  The other ‘gods’ are in a radically different class from the true God, who is uniquely transcendent above and yet active and involved in our history.  The reader of Exodus recalls that in the earlier chapters of the book that involved Pharaoh, the author presents a (radically unequal) struggle between Pharaoh and his servants and God and his servants for the obedience of and rule over Israel.  The reference here back to the deliverance from Egypt refers also to the smashing of Pharaoh’s false claims by God’s intervention in the plagues and, finally, at the Red sea:  ‘Since [the LORD] defeated their former lord and master, he and no other deity is their God.’ (Clifford, p. 52)  Anything interposed between God and his will for his people is a false god.  Pharaoh interposed himself.  Other false gods are chosen by God’s people themselves.  Some idols set themselves up before us; others we freely choose.

The first commandment is the root of all the others because it establishes God’s unique authority, supremacy, and claim over his people in history.  All sins committed against the subsequent commandments flow from and include the violation of this command.  All sins are acts of disobedience that interpose our will or some lesser object between God and his claims on the one side and us and our duty on the other.

The commandments are in the second person singular (‘Thou shalt…’).  While God is establishing a covenant with the people and nation of Israel, it is addressed to and binding upon each individual in the nation.  Israel obeys the commands when every Israelite obeys the commands. 

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