Exodus 20 Study Notes
20:1-17 Hebrew has two forms of negative command. One is used for specific, immediate situations, and the other, used here, is for general prohibitions. The idea is “Don’t ever . . .” It is used by a superior to an inferior but not the reverse. The eight negative commands and two positive commands (vv. 8,12) became known as the Ten Commandments (lit “the ten words”; 34:28; Dt 4:13; 10:4), or the Decalogue (from Gk for “ten words,” deka + logoi). They provide basic principles that laid the foundation for the other rules and regulations for ancient Israel.
For example, God’s delivery of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt influenced stipulations about how servants should be treated (Ex 20:1; 21:2-11). The prohibition against murder made a distinction between premeditated murder and manslaughter (20:13; 21:12-14). They were the commands written on the stone tablets and stored in the ark of the covenant to be kept in the most holy part of the tabernacle (34:28; Dt 4:13; 9:10-11; 10:4-5). The importance of these commandments is further indicated by their repetition in Dt 5:6-21 and elsewhere (Mt 19:18; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20). The first four commands (Ex 20:2-11) focus on loyalty to the Lord, while the last six (vv. 12-17) focus on dealings between humans.
20:1-2 To start with self-identification, as the Lord does here, was normal for a covenant document sent from a king and for royal proclamations and inscriptions. Delivering the Israelites had become part of his identity, what people should think of when his name was mentioned. In the ancient Near East, Israel’s system of laws was unique in that it came from God and obedience or disobedience was oriented toward God; elsewhere rulers might present laws to a deity for approval, but the laws themselves were not given by the deity. In Israel, lawbreaking was first of all an offense against the Lord, not just a disruption of order or an offense against other people.
20:3-6 Not to make an idol ran counter to every instinct of ancient Near Eastern cultures, but to do so is an affront to a jealous God. God is concerned to protect the integrity of his relationship with his people (34:14). If the Israelites made idols to worship, it would be an act of hatred, disloyalty, and repudiation. When the Lord made himself known to the Israelites, they did not see any form (Dt 4:10-20). The best way to know and worship him was to recall what he had already done and said and to be alert to trust him and see what he would do in the future.
Punishing the children for the fathers’ iniquity involved penalties for successive generations who continued to commit the iniquities they learned from their fathers. This did not mean that in a court case a son would have to suffer the penalty for his father’s crime (Dt 24:16), nor that individual standing or fellowship with God was determined by the behavior of one’s parents (Jr 31:29-30; Ezk 18:1-32). It meant the excuse, “They don’t know any better; it’s how they were raised,” does not work with God. But the Lord’s faithful love would far exceed his judgment (to a thousand generations; Lv 26:39-45; Is 65:6-7; Jr 11:9-12; 32:17-19; Dn 9:8-16).
20:7 In ancient times misusing the name of the Lord could have meant failing to fulfill a sworn oath or making an oath with the intention of deceiving someone. Those who swore an oath in the Lord’s name called on him to bring punishment if they did not keep the promise or tell the truth (Gn 24:3; Lv 19:12; Jos 2:12). Those who might do this would cause the Lord’s reputation to suffer, while acting as if his presence as a witness were not important (Dt 6:13-14; 10:20; Is 48:1-11; Jr 4:2; 12:16; Zph 1:14). To swear by the Lord’s name was an affirmation of allegiance to him that required appropriate action (Jos 23:6-8). By extension, this command would also apply when a person attached the Lord’s name to an activity contrary to his character or will, resulting in certain punishment (cp. Ps 50:16-23; Jr 14:14-16). In a sense, misusing the Lord’s name misrepresented his character, purposes, and actions revealed to the people of Israel and amounted to lying about who God is.
20:8-11 The Sabbath, introduced with the giving of manna (16:22-30; the term “Sabbath” being related to the Hb verb meaning “to cease”), would be a perpetual institution, not just a day to observe while receiving manna in the wilderness. It would serve as a reminder of the Mosaic or Sinai covenant. In Exodus it comes up for discussion again in 23:12; 31:12-17; 35:1-3. Verses 8 and 11 use forms of the same Hebrew verb qadash, “keep/declare holy,” to speak of consecrating the Sabbath. The Lord had set this day apart (declared it holy), so the Israelites should treat it as such. The list in v. 10 makes the Sabbath command particularly directed to adults who had children and were wealthy enough to own servants and livestock. If it applied to these people—the ones with the most influence in a community—it would apply to everyone. Here the Sabbath is linked to God’s resting on the seventh day from his creative work (Gn 2:3), whereas in Dt 5:12-15 it is linked to Israel’s redemption from Egypt.
20:12 A stubborn and rebellious son who refused other discipline could be taken before the elders for judgment (Dt 21:18-21; cp. Lv 19:3). Eli’s sons showed contempt for their father and for the Lord. As a result they experienced God’s judgment (1Sm 2:12-17,22-25,29-30). The respect and kindness that Ruth and Boaz showed for Naomi and that Joseph showed for Jacob provide contrasting examples (cp. Pr 1:8; 19:26; 20:20; 23:22; 28:24; 30:17). Long life may refer to the tenure of the nation in the land. Failure to honor parents was one of the sins that Ezekiel listed in a description of the people of Jerusalem before the city was destroyed (Ezk 22:7; cp. Mc 7:6). Paul also mentioned the promise associated with this command in the context of the church community (Eph 6:1-3; cp. Mk 7:9-13). Long life for individuals is also possible and is mentioned elsewhere as an outcome from the Lord for loyal obedience (Ex 23:26).
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 legal 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 case of homicide could be properly investigated to determine whether the killing was accidental or premeditated (21:12-14; Nm 35; Dt 19; Jos 20).
20:14 Adultery includes sex between a married person and anyone other than their spouse. It is referred to as unfaithfulness or betrayal.
20:15 This commandment assumes the legitimacy of personal property. It includes kidnapping as well as taking other things without permission.
20:16 Honesty is required in the case of a charge against one’s neighbor. According to Douglas Stuart, “a neighbor is anyone you have dealings with, either actually or potentially.” Implied in this law is the requirement for honesty in all one’s affairs.
20:18-21 In the same breath Moses told the people not to fear (Don’t be afraid) but to fear (lit “so that the fear of him will be before your face”). They should not fear that God might capriciously exterminate them. Nevertheless, the purpose of the frightening display is that they might recognize God’s power, his presence, and his holiness and be motivated to avoid sin and consequent judgment.
20:22-23:19 This section includes laws that were similar to those of other ancient cultures—which we know from ancient documents—altered and put into a context of motivation based on the Lord’s actions, character, requirements, and oversight.
20:24-26 Mention of places where the Lord would come and bless the Israelites provided a reminder that, unlike pagan gods, the Lord must not be considered limited to Mount Sinai or any other locality. If they obeyed him, they would enjoy God’s blessings wherever they were.