The portion of Scripture known as the "Ten Commandments" ( Exod 20:3-17 ; Deut 5:7-21 ) is a key segment of the Sinai covenant, which was entered into by God and the people of Israel. This covenant was modeled on the political treaties of that day between a great king and a subject people. In these treaties the king offered certain benefits and, in turn, called for certain behaviors from the people. All these treaties followed the same basic format, which the Sinai covenant, both in Exodus and in its restatement in Deuteronomy, also adheres to closely.
In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments are a brief summary of the more detailed covenantal requirements that follow them. These requirements relate to the whole of life: ceremonial, civil, and moral. Many of the commands are very similar to those found in the law codes that have been discovered in the ancient Near East. But it is very significant that the biblical commands have been placed in the context of covenant. In the rest of the ancient law codes, the commands are simply presented as givens, dropped from heaven by the gods. There is no real motive for obeying the commands except the avoidance of punishment. But in the Old Testament, the inclusion of the laws within the covenant puts the motivation on a whole new level. Why should I treat my fellow Israelites in a certain way? Because God has said that is the way in which I can express my covenant loyalty to him. Thus obedience is an expression of grateful appreciation for what God has done for us and what we know he will do. Ethics is not about what will advance one's self-interest, but about maintaining an all-important relationship with God.
A further implication of putting the commandments in the covenant context is the aspect of character. It is apparent from a study of the ancient treaties that many of the stipulations that the kings put upon subject peoples were an expression of the various kings' characters and preferences. Thus, the carrying out of the biblical commandments is a means of learning and replicating the character of God. It is here that the continuing significance of the Ten Commandments is found: they reveal the character and will of the unchanging Creator of the universe. Thus, even though the Sinai covenant is not binding on Christians, the moral truths revealed in it are.
A final important implication of the covenant form is especially significant for the Ten Commandments. In the ancient law codes, the laws are always stated in terms of cases ("If such and such infraction occurs, then such and such a punishment shall be meted out"). There are no statements of absolute prohibition. It is easy to understand why this is the case. A polytheistic setting cannot know of an absolute right or wrong. What is right for one god will be wrong for another. But in the political treaties, since there was only one king to whom the covenanters were professing loyalty, that king could indeed make absolute prohibitions. Thus it is in the biblical covenant that the One God can summarize his stipulations for his people in a series of absolute statements, the Ten Commandments. This shows that the succeeding commands, many of which are stated in terms of cases, are nevertheless based on principles inherent in God's creation, and not simply situationally derived attempts to promote social harmony.
One of the features that marks the Ten Commandments is also typical of the stipulations as a whole. That is the wholistic character of the subject matter. Social behavior and religious behavior are treated together. This is not found elsewhere in the ancient Near East. There is mythological and ritual material, and there are social prescriptions, but the two are never related. The Old Testament insists that the ways in which we treat each other are inseparable from our relationship to God. Ethics are a religious matter, and worship of the true God is the foundation of all nonmanipulative ethics. Thus the first four commandments are primarily in relation to God while the remaining six have to do with human relationships. But it is clear that the four cannot be separated from the six, nor vice-versa.
Although the commandments are, with the exception of the fifth, all prohibitive, they are not negative. They speak about love: love of God and love of others. But what is it to love? If it were necessary to prescribe every loving act and attitude, there would not be enough books in the world. What the commands do is to define the parameters beyond which love cannot exist. This much is then clear: if I love my neighbor I will not steal what belongs to him.
The first commandment is typical of the covenantal stipulations: no other king, or in this case, god, is to be recognized. This feature of the covenants was a marvelous tool for beginning to teach the truth of monotheism. Instead of going into philosophical arguments about unity and origins, God merely tells his people that if they wish to be in covenant with him, they must refuse to recognize any other god. Eventually, having accepted this stipulation and having sought to live it out, they would be in a position to accept Isaiah's insistence that there are no other gods ( 46:9 ).
The second command has no analogue in the ancient Near Eastern covenants, but its truth was just as vital as the first for God's education of his people. Around the world, religions that have arisen from human reflection agree upon one fundamental principle: the unseen, divine realm is one with, continuous with, the visible world of nature. Above everything else, this principle suggests that it is possible to manipulate the divine world and to appropriate its power through manipulation of the visible world. In short, it pretends to make it possible for humans to take control of their destinies. This principle is everywhere expressed through the practice of idolatry. By making the god or goddess in the shape of something in nature, preferably a human shape, we both express our conviction about reality and create a mechanism for influencing that god or goddess.
Unfortunately, according to the Bible, that principle is absolutely wrong. The one God is not continuous with the natural world, or with anything in it. He created the world and everything in it as something other than himself. To be sure, he is everywhere present in the world, and no part of it can escape his power. But he is not the world and cannot be manipulated by means of any activity in the world.
How is God to teach his people a truth that is at odds with everything they have learned for four hundred years, and at odds with everything the fallen human heart wants to believe? Once again, he does not enter into a philosophical argument. He simply makes it a requirement for a covenantal relationship with himself that they never try to make an idol of him. As with monotheism, when they have lived with the requirement long enough, they will eventually be ready to draw the right conclusions about God's transcendent nature ( Isa 40:21-26 ).
The third commandment also strikes at the magical view of reality. Because of the principle of continuity, it was common to believe that a person's name was identical with the person himself or herself. Thus, simply by invoking a powerful person's name, and especially a god's name, in connection with something that one wanted to happen, it was possible to make the thing happen. God says that this is a vain, or empty, use of his name. It is an attempt to use his power without submitting to him, or living in trusting relation with him.
Instead of emptying God of significance by an attempt to use his name magically for our own ends, we are called upon to "hallow" his name, that is, to show the true perfection of his character and power by the quality of our lives ( Lev 22:31-33 ). We cannot manipulate him, but through faith and trust we can receive power from him to live lives of integrity, purity, and love.
The fourth commandment is the only one of the ten that has to do with matters of worship. There is no absolute statement given with regard to worship practices, such as sacrifices, or festivals, or clean and unclean food. Those matters had to do with a particular era, and would serve their purpose and pass away. What this one summary statement regarding worship does treat is a matter of underlying attitude. What does our use of time say about our estimate of who supplies our needs? When we work seven days a week we surely say that our needs are met through our efforts alone. But the commandment requires persons to stop their work one day out of seven and to remind themselves that it is God who supplies our needs every day of the week ( Deut 5:12-15 ). Furthermore, if God rested after his labors, who are we that we think we can outdo God ( Exod 20:9-11 )? The manner or way a Sabbath is kept is not important, but it is important that we consciously set aside one day in seven, filling it with worshipful rest, to remind ourselves to whom all our time belongs.
The fifth commandment is transitional. From one point of view it is the first of the commandments to deal with human relations. But from another point of view it continues the theme of acceptance of dependence that is at the heart of the fourth command. To honor one's parents is fundamental to any healthy personality. It is the best antidote to the foolish arrogance of "the self-made man." It recognizes that someone else gave me life and took care of me when I could not take care of myself. On the other hand, honor implies honesty. It is impossible to honor someone whom we constantly blame for our faults and failures. To honor them recognizes their faults and failures, and forgives. The person who refuses to honor his parents cuts himself off from his roots and almost certainly from his posterity. If a culture is to survive "long in the land" ( Exod 20:12 ) it must have a glad connection between the generations.
The five remaining commands all have to do with the self in relation to others. As noted above, they specify where the limits are beyond which healthy relations become impossible. We may not abuse the physical life, the sexual life, the possessions, or the reputation of those around us if we are to remain in covenant with God. Nor dare we allow ourselves to think that if we were just in someone else's shoes, enjoying what they possess, we would be happy. These brief statements, hardly more than fifty words in English, speak volumes about the character of the God who made them. They also explain some of the high value that has been put on individual worth in Western thought. To God, the boundaries around an individual's life are sacred. The insistence that all persons are to be able to hold their physical life, their sexual fidelity, their possessions, and their reputation inviolate shows that no one is a faceless molecule in some larger entity. Each one is a distinctive combination of these features, which comprise his or her identity, and they must be guarded for each person.
If we claim to be in relationship with God, we must see persons in the same way he does. Their lives are not ours to take for our purposes. Human sexuality is to be expressed in heterosexual commitment and we may not do anything that would lead someone to break those commitments. There is a boundary drawn around a person's possessions, and we may not cross that boundary to satisfy our own desires. A person's reputation is an extension of himself or herself, and we may not violate it, particularly to make ourselves look better.
What is involved here is a statement about dependence upon God. Those who depend upon themselves make themselves the center of the universe; they have broken the first two commandments. For such persons, anything is permissible in the attempt to supply their needs. Others are either enemies or slaves, in any case to be dominated, used up, and cast aside. But obviously if humans are to live together in any kind of harmony these rapacious instincts must be moderated in some way. Thus human laws. But God seeks to strike at the heart of the issue. If persons can ever realize that they are not the suppliers of their needs, but that God is, and surrender those needs to him, then ethics will move to a new plane.
Some of these commands deserve further comment. As several modern versions indicate, the King James Version's "Thou shalt not kill" is too broad to convey the sense of the Hebrew of the sixth command. The word used is ratsach [g;r'h], which does not refer to killing in general, but to the premeditated murder of one person by another. Thus, it is not proper to build a case against war or capital punishment upon the basis of this verse. These activities may indeed be condemned on biblical grounds, but this verse should only be a tertiary part of the evidence.
It is significant that all of the sexual sins that the Bible prohibits are summarized by the command against adultery. There are very important implications to be drawn from this fact. The clearest is that sexuality is to be expressed only in the context of heterosexual fidelity. It is for this reason that all other expressions of sexuality are condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20 and elsewhere. Without diminishing the seriousness of those aberrations, it is apparent that the most serious sexual sin is to break faith with one's spouse and the spouse of another, a breach of covenant.
The ninth commandment continues the emphasis upon ethical relationships. The command does not confine itself to prohibiting the telling of untruths, but speaks particularly about telling untruths concerning others. Congratulating oneself upon one's honesty is to miss the point of the commandment. Integrity is not for oneself, but for the sake of others; it is that they may live in security, knowing that we will treasure their reputation above our own.
The tenth command is in some ways merely a continuation of the previous four concerning love of one's neighbor. To love one's neighbor is to refuse to surrender to the sin of envy. It is to rejoice in the neighbor's good fortune, knowing that one's own fortune is in the good hands of God. In this sense it is the climax of the previous four commands. They only spoke about not abusing the neighbor. This one speaks about a deeper issue: guarding those springs of desire from which the abuses would arise. If we are to keep the commands not to abuse our neighbors, it will be because we have made a prior surrender of all our wants and needs to the covenant God.
It is at this point that the command begins to assume a larger function than merely the fifth of a series on nonabuse of neighbors. The Pentateuch, if not the entire Bible, is clear that the root of all evil is the human attempt to meet our needs for ourselves. From Genesis 3 on the issue is the same: Will we allow God to satisfy our desires in his way, or will we insist on trying to satisfy them in our own strength? This is where idolatry comes from; it is an attempt to manipulate the divine in order to satisfy the human desires for power, security, comfort, and pleasure. Thus it is that Paul makes the remarkable identification of covetousness with idolatry ( Eph 5:5 ; see also Isa 57:13-17 , where the same connection is implied ).
The covenant is designed as a teaching device: there is only one God who is not a part of this world; he is utterly holy, just, and faithful, and it is he who supplies our needs not we ourselves. Knowing that fact, we do not have to see others as rivals and enemies; instead we can treasure their individuality as God does. But if we give assent to all that and then succumb to the sin of covetousness, believing that happiness consists in getting hold of something that we have seen in the possession of another, we will have missed the whole point of God's instruction and be in dire peril of falling back into the very pit from which we have been lifted.
John N. Oswalt
Bibliography. W. Barclay, The Ten Commandments for Today; J. Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain; W. Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights; G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ten Commandments'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".