With the possible exception of some of the stories in Genesis or Psalm 23, we come to the most widely known portion of Scripture in the Tenakh, the Ten Commandments. these laws are more than simply good rules to live by. They show us something of the nature of God, we see in them not just “what we must do” but what God is like. The essence of Torah is these “Ten Words”, received by Moses on Mount Sinai. They are a gift of God’s grace given to his people, not to bring them into bondage but because they have been brought out of bondage. All of its precepts are repeated in the New Covenant.
Exodus 20:1-2 The basis for obedience to these is our redemption from Egypt. Redemption means to be purchased we were purchased by God to be His servants. The emphasis is that God himself spoke these words (Deut. 5:12 15–16 22 32–33), any theory that Moses borrowed legal concepts from the nations around them are false. The Ten may be grouped as vertical, man’s relationship to God (vv. 2–11), and horizontal man’s relationship to the community (vv. 12–17).
Exodus 20:3-8 These verses display the language of a suzerain treaty (a treaty between an overlord and vassal). The Ten are the main points of the covenant which in Deut. is written in the form of a Ketubah. In a suzerain treaty two documents are created identical for each of the parties entering into the covenant. Both of these copies were placed in the Ark of the Covenant.
Exodus 20:3 The Lord is God, the only God. The covenant called for worship alone of the one true God not as a part of a pantheon of gods. This is not suggesting that there actually are other gods but a call to reject any other entity, real or imaginary, as God. No other gods like money (Mt 6:24), pleasure, power, fame, or self can have priority in one’s thoughts, words, or deeds. God’s people and in fact all living people, owe allegiance to the God of Israel alone.
Exodus 20:4-6 The fashioning of an image representing God is forbidden because God demands loyalty to Him alone. Jealousy alludes to the motif of marriage which is how God saw his relationship with His people. When the Lord made Himself known to Israel, they did not see any form (Dt 4:10-20). The best way to know and worship Him was to remember what He had done and to trust Him for their future. Punishing the children for the fathers’ sin involved consequences for successive generations who continued in the sins learned from their fathers. This did not mean a son would suffer for his father’s sins (Dt 24:16), nor that one’s standing or fellowship with God was determined by the behavior their parents (Jer 31:29-30; Ezek 18:1-32). The excuse, of not knowing any better since this is how they raised,” does not work with God. However, the Lord’s faithful love in response to the faithfulness of the parents would bless their children to a thousand generations (Lev 26:39-45; Isa 65:6-7; Jr 11:9-12; 32:17-19; Dan 9:8-16).
Exodus 20:7 Misusing the name of the Lord was used at times as making an oath with the intention of deceiving. Those who swore in the Lord’s name called on Him to bring punishment if they did not keep their word (Gen 24:3; Lev 19:12; Jos 2:12) such actions would cause the Lord’s reputation to suffer. To swear by the Lord’s name required appropriate action (Jos 23:6-8). Misusing the Lord’s name misrepresents God’s character, purposes, and actions revealed to Israel and amounted to lying about who God is by being a false witness of God.
Exodus 20:8-11 The Sabbath was first introduced with the giving of manna (16:22-30). It served as a reminder of this covenant (31:12-17). Verses 8 and 11 use the Hebrew verb qadash, “keep/declare holy,” so as to consecrate the Sabbath. The Sabbath was applicable to rules regarding slaves and livestock and for those who came to dwell among the covenant community. The pattern of six days of work followed by a day because it is the pattern of creation. We are created in the image of God and are to follow His pattern. Israel’s day-to-day life is a re-creation. God saved Israel to be a new creation community where all things would become new. It is a reconnection to the Garden of Eden as Israel is about to enter the Promised Land, a new garden. As God ordered the universe in Genesis 1, he is now giving Israel order amid the chaos of the world around them. By resting on Shabbat, Israel is not just following God’s command, but His lead. They are doing what he did. This pattern is not a burden but a delight and high honor. By ceasing his work on the seventh day, God declared it to be different, separate, or “holy.”
Exodus 20:12 The fifth commandment. Honoring one’s parents is a counterpart to the honor due God; it forms a bridge between duties toward God and toward man. A stubborn and rebellious son who refused discipline could be taken before the elders for judgment (Dt 21:18-21; Lev 19:3). Eli’s sons are an example of disrespect for their father and the Lord, who disciplined them with death (1 Sam 2:12ff). The honor that Ruth and Boaz showed toward Naomi serve as a positive example. Long life may not only be in a personal sense but national as well with regard to being blessed in the land. Failure to honor parents was one of the sins that Ezekiel listed of the people of Jerusalem before the city was destroyed (Ezek 22:7; Mic 7:6).
Exodus 20:13 The word translated murder is not a general word for “killing,” and it is not used for killing animals or for killing humans in war or lawful execution. Cities of refuge were designated so that anyone who killed another person could run to these cities to avoid being killed in revenge. This also meant that a homicide should be investigated to determine whether the killing was accidental or premeditated (21:12-14; Nm 35; Dt 19; Jos 20).
Exodus 20:14 This commandment emphasizes the importance of faithfulness in human relationships. When such faithfulness is absent from the most intimate of relationships, all relationships are undermined. If Israelites break a marriage covenant, they are very likely to break their covenant with God (Mal. 2:16).
Exodus 20:15 Ownership of personal property is implicit in this commandment, which assumes that stealing is possible with ownership comes responsibility, and respect for the property of others. This will be given greater definition as the Mosaic law unfolds (22:1–16; Lev 6:2–5; 19:11, 13; Deut. 24:7). Stealing threatens order and causes pain. The animal thief interrupts farming; the kidnapper tears apart a family. The command against stealing is reinforced in the New Covenant (Matt 19:18; Rom 2:21; 13:9; 1 Cor 6:10; Eph 4:28; Titus 2:10; 1 Pet 4:15).
Exodus 20:16 This commandment is clarified in Lev 5:1 and Deut 19:18 which relate to justice among God’s people. If a witness in a trial fails to be truthful it compromises a judge’s ability to decide properly, a judicial system depends on the honesty of its people. “Neighbor,” is speaking of “anyone you come in contact with” rather than the narrow sense of “someone living near you” (Exod 3:22; 11:2; 12:4). This law implies that dishonesty is forbidden where stealing, false testimony, and dishonesty are linked together in Lev 19:11. We need to remember the ten are the highlights of the Covenant.
Exodus 20:17 Coveting is desiring or craving something. The commandment does not say “do not covet,” which would make no sense since much coveting is permissible or even commendable as long as it is something a person should desire and not something that belongs to someone else exclusively. The commandment is here worded with objects connected with the verb “covet.” This commandment, like the one against stealing, implies that God allows people to own things that belong to them and not to others. Those who want what they cannot properly have undermine the moral fiber of its people. There is no penalty given for this, but it’s a call to take an approach to their neighbors that respects them and their possessions. Coveting is the starting point of stealing and, in the case of coveting someone else’s spouse, adultery.
How Torah and the New Covenant complement each other:
Exodus 20:18-21 Israel was terrified by the thunder and lightning and the awesome presence of God’s Spirit on the mountain described in chapter 19. They relied on Moses to stand between them and the Lord. This reveals to us the holiness of God and the barrier that exists between men and God. They feared for their lives as they were near the presence of God. In recording this Moses is displaying the glory of God that came into the presence of men. Isaiah is described experiencing this in Is. 6:1-7. The law of God summed up in the Ten Commandments, mirror God’s holiness and glory. God’s Law is a reflection of who God is as John 1:14 tells us “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” God gave His commandments to test man so that man might fear Him. There are two different Hebrew words translated “fear” in this verse. יָרֵא yara, which is a fear that paralyizes a person with dread. The second is יִרְאָה yirah which is a respectful fear that motivates a person to honor and obey God. God appeared not to destroy them but to test them through the commandants He gave. In the previous chapter Israel became the wife of the Lord agreeing to do all that the Lord had spoken (Ex. 19:7–8; Jer. 31:32). The commands of God are given to see if His people would 1) Walk in fear and reverence 2) Obey God and not sin against Him and His Word 3) If they would trust the mediator (Moses) He appointed. Sadly, Israel failed this test as all men do so today. Mankind does not walk in the fear and reverence of God and disobeys His commands and rejected God’s appointed mediator, Yeshua the Messiah.
Exodus 20:22-26. This chapter closes with a key command repeated, not to worship other gods or idols. God gave the Ten Commandments to prove that He alone is the only one who can save and redeem man. That is why mankind must obey the Lord because there is no other way to find life and peace in this fallen world. Israel was appointed to be God’s priests to a lost and dying world and His Law would point the way that leads to life. God directed them to make their altar out of the earth he created with stones not shaped by human hands. Worship is not to be different than the religious ways of the world. The stones used were not to be touched by the tools of man which would defile the altar. The altar was to have no steps which would expose God’s priest’s nakedness. There was to be no disrespectful or immoral behavior associated with the worship services of His people.