20:2-3. The first commandment in the Orthodox/Anglican/Reformed reckoning. In rabbinical reckoning 20:2 is the first commandment. In the medieval Latin reckoning followed now by the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, this is the first half of the first commandment.
20:1. The Decalogue consists of God’s ‘words’, of what God ‘says’. Revelation can be perceived as a vision, as words, as involving other senses (a sweet savor; Wesley’s statement that his heart was ‘strangely warmed’), or as a vaguer feeling or apprehension. It even can be perceived as sounds that are less intelligible than words (e.g., the trumpet blasts of the Apocalypse or ecstatic music). A revelation that involves moral and ethical commands naturally will be perceived as comprehensible words or sayings. Later prophecy in Israel will often be introduced with the words, ‘the LORD said unto me’ or ‘Thus saith the Lord’. The perception of God’s revelation as centered in comprehensible words fits the Christian belief that God the Son himself is God’s ‘Word’ (St. John 1:1), his intelligible self-expression.
20:3, ‘no other gods before me’. Gray suggests ‘above me’ or ‘against’ as alternative readings. It is possible that this permits the mere existence of other deities, but it is ‘practically, if not theoretically, monotheistic’ (Gray, p. 54).
20:4-6. The second commandment. Or the second half of the first commandment in the Lutheran/Roman Catholic reckoning. In the rabbinic tradition the second commandment is vv. 3-6. Both reckonings are understandable. This commandment is an extension of the first and may be seen either as part of it or as a separable conclusion from it.
A particular and manifest kind of false god is prohibited here, namely a literal idol. Such images or idols were the typical way in which worshippers in Near Eastern and Mediterranean pagan cults encountered, worshipped, and served their deities. In short, idol-worship was the main alternative religion for God’s people, and in subsequent Old Testament history Israel was in constant danger of adopting this alternative or of compromising with it.
Since God the Father is a being ‘without body, parts, or passions’ (Article I) whom no one has seen or can see (I Timothy 6:16), any image of him will necessarily be a false image, an ‘imagination of [our] hearts’. So, first, this commandment condemns the fabrication or false imagination of God’s likeness. Because the culture in question was inclined to worship almost anything as having magical or divine properties, the prohibition here extends to making any image of a creature. If a culture has no such inclination, the prohibition would properly be limited to making an image for worship and adoration. Our own culture, which is not pantheistic in the ancient way, may legitimately take photographs, paint animals, etc. These artefacts are not thought to be divine and are not bowed down to or worshipped.
Likewise, a sound or verbal or musical artefact which is invested with divine properties would be, in principle, as much subject to the prohibition of this commandment as is a visual image. False words about the divine, for instance, can amount to a false ‘image’ of God. The emphasis should not be on the medium that is condemned (‘graven image’), but rather should rest on the falsification of God and our ideas about him that results from a given image, idea, doctrine, words, song, or whatever. In fact, since language is in fact a principal way in which God reveals himself (Christ is the Word; God speaks the commandments – see notes on verse 1 above), false language about God is probably a more serious and dangerous violation of this commandment than crude idolatry.
Once God the Son became incarnate, God did become ‘image-able’. Christ was a true image of his Father. Consequently, an image of Christ that presents him in a theologically true manner does not fall under the condemnation of this commandment. Likewise, other forms of Christian art are permissible, so long as they do not become objects of worship or adoration but remain merely vehicles for learning about the effects of God in the Christian life and in the created order.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II (787), summarized these ideas by saying that images of Christ were permitted and that Christ could be adored through them. While God alone is to be given adoration or worship (latreia), images of the saints could be given honor or respect (dulia). The decisive point is that the incarnation of God the Son altered our access to God, and so altered the concrete implications of this commandment: God the Son now has been seen and so can be imagined truly and can be represented without idolatry.
In Exodus this commandment is quickly and clearly violated by the making of the golden calf in Exodus 32. Later various cultic objects are treated as essentially violating this commandment, though they may not or did not in their original purpose: in this regard John Gray (p. 54) mentions the ephod in Judges 8:27, Jeroboam’s golden calves in I Kings 12:26-33, and the bronze serpent in II Kings 18:4.
20:4, ‘heavens…earth…waters’. Alter notes that these ‘three realms of the biblical world-picture’ are all present in the Genesis creation story (p. 429). While in the pagan mythologies each of these realms has its own deity, Israel’s God is comprehensively creator and Lord of them all as well as of history and time. There is, therefore, no room for other gods.
20:5, ‘jealous God’. Or perhaps ‘impassioned God’ (Clifford’s suggestion, p. 52). Fox notes that an Arabic cognate for the Hebrew word here, kanna, means ‘red’ (with dye) (Fox, p. 369). This suggests a change in facial color. The great prophets liken idolatry to adultery, God to a jealous husband, and Israel to an adulterous wife. God’s love and commitment to his people is passionate, and the word ‘jealous’ includes that sense of demanding sexual exclusivity. The greater the commitment in a relationship, the stronger the reaction if it is betrayed.
20:5-6, ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers….’ In ancient Israel punishments and rewards are in this life or upon one’s children, because there was not yet a strong sense of personal immortality. God dealt with a primitive people in a rough and direct manner. Later Israel comes to understand that each man bears the burden of his own sins, not those of others. Nonetheless, even today the iniquity and the goodness of parents is in a sense visited upon their children. The children of abusive parents, for instance, suffer for their parents’ iniquity: not because God punishes the children for the sins of the parents, but because such evil has ongoing consequences in our world that go beyond the immediate experience.
20:5, ‘third and fourth generation’. Repeated at 34:7. While evil is punished, it is notable that the blessing on God’s friends reaches far beyond – to a thousand generations (v. 6). The punishment is for a long time, while the blessing is forever (Fox, p. 371).
20:6, ‘kindness’. An important biblical word, hesed, meaning kindness and fidelity, also in the sense of faithful observance of the duties of an ally in a covenantal relationship.
20:6, ‘thousands’ (KJV); ‘thousandth generation’ (Alter). The Hebrew literally just says ‘thousands’. A parallel passage in Deuteronomy 7:9 adds ‘generations’ and the addition is made here by Alter and many modern translations to make a parallel with v. 5.
20:7. The third commandment, against taking the LORD’s name, or literally ‘bearing’ it, in vain. The command forbids ‘lifting the Lord’s name for vanity’, as in a magical or malicious or frivolous purpose (Gray, p. 54). The name of a thing in many societies, and certainly in ancient Israel, was more significant and powerful than we commonly think. The name held the essence of, and perhaps even power over, a thing. To know the name was to comprehend and grasp a being. When Adam names the other creatures in Genesis 2:19f., his dominion over creation is shown practically, as it is given theoretically in Genesis 1:28. Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, and Jacob/Israel are given new names (as are Simon/Peter and Saul/Paul in the New Testament) as signs of a new relationship with God. In Genesis 32:29 Jacob seeks to know the name of the angel of the LORD/the LORD; which information is withheld from him – precisely because the name contains power.
This general significance of the name for Israelites is particularly strong when the name is that of God. The personal name of God, YHWH (probably pronounced ‘Yahweh’), was revealed by God to Moses in Exodus 3 and was meant to authenticate the reality of the message God sent through Moses. In later Jewish history this name was not to be uttered at all, except by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. Various euphemisms or general terms were used instead of this personal name. Even when the name was written, it was not pronounced when the writing was read. We see this sensitivity often in Saint Matthew’s (very Jewish) gospel, where ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is commonly found where Saint Luke’s (not very Jewish) gospel will bluntly say ‘kingdom of God’.
Some argue that originally this commandment had a rather restricted meaning, namely to condemn the use of God’s name in false oaths (Clifford, p. 52) or perhaps in magic (Alter, p. 430). In subsequent religious history it has a more general meaning: it condemns blasphemy and general irreverence in using the names or titles of God, as well as false oaths. Blasphemy is to be punished by stoning according to Leviticus 24:16. We see this punishment imposed in, e.g., I Kings 21:10. The reaction of the people in John 8:56-9 can only be understood in the light of these Old Testament passages: Christ is accused of blasphemy when he applies the divine name, ‘I AM’, to himself.
The second half of the verse contains a threat to prevent violation of this commandment: God is the enforcer of oaths taken in his name.
20:8-11. The fourth commandment, the keeping of the sabbath day. This is the longest of the ten commandments. As noted in the general introduction to the Decalogue above, in Deuteronomy a different explanation (to give rest to domestic animals and servants) is given for this commandment, but the core of the commandment itself is the same. Some historical-critical scholars propose that v. 8 is the original form, that vv. 9-10 are an expansion from the Deuteronomist, and that v. 11 is an expansion from the Priestly source that ‘connects it with the P scheme of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:4a)’ (Gray, p. 54). The root of the word ‘sabbath’ means ‘“abeyance,” i.e. suspension of normal activities’ (Gray), though Childs says the etymology of the term remains somewhat unsettled (Childs, p. 413).
The sabbath is to be kept ‘holy’ (20:8). Holiness in perhaps its most basic sense means ‘separated’ or ‘set apart’. The sabbath is to be different from other days. The nature of the difference is that the sabbath is to be a day of rest (verses 9-10), which in turn is an imitation of God’s rest on the seventh day after his creation of the world (verse 11). Of course, God does not ‘rest’ in the sense of ceasing his activity, much less of being weary: God’s perpetual maintenance of the world in being is essential for the preservation of the world and all that is therein. Moreover, God is simple in that everything about God is the same, perfect, complete, entirely actual and effective at once: God cannot be more or less active. In God there is no before and after or then and now. God simply is. But the completion of creation, the perfection of God’s good work, is spoken of as his ‘rest’, meaning that its excellence as his work is complete and entire. Think of an artist who has finished a painting. Nothing more is required. The artist then ‘rests’, not that he is tired but rather that he finds and knows that his work is perfected and that there is nothing more to do to it. The sabbath mirrors this effect, willed by God, in his creation. Even when the perfection of creation is disrupted by sin, the sabbath remains as a reminder of its goodness in God’s original purpose.
See the note on 16:29 above, where we find a violation of the sabbath condemned, though not punished. The sabbath observance was already assumed there, it seems, as part of the natural law or the law that bound all men even before the positive law revealed at Sinai. Although a day of rest can be defended as an universal, natural human need, in fact something like the weekly sabbath day seems to be ‘a peculiarly Israelite institution’ (Clifford, p. 52): parallels are scarce, apart from traditions shaped by the Old Testament (Christianity and Islam). Gray notes, however, that in Mesopotamia the king on behalf of the community suspended his normal activities on the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st, and 28th days of the month (p. 54). Over time in Judaism the observance of the sabbath became increasingly structured and prescribed: x, y, and z were not permitted, a, b, and c were.