17 November 2014

Exodus 20:1-17

“Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (vv. 1-2)


In Hebrew the ten commandments are known as "the ten words"; it is unique to Yahweh that he is a god who acts and speaks, unlike other gods, who are merely passive statues, images or other objects of worship. Therefore, these commandments are God's self-revelation. God is revealed not through abstract philosophical statements, but in an earthy involvement with the everyday behaviour and relationships of people. Just as God expresses through word and action, so God may be known through the words and actions of God's people.

As such, this is the second high point of the book of Exodus, in which God made the covenant with God's own chosen people, who were saved from slavery in Egypt (chapters 12-14) in the first high point of the book. It was in that act of salvation that the covenant was founded; God reminds the people of Israel of that salvation before calling forth their response in the form of obedience to the following commandments.

The commands are apodeictic - that is, absolute and applicable in any situation - and were probably originally short, sharp prohibitions and commands; comparison with the account of these commandments in Deuteronomy 4:13-14 suggests that verses 13-16 may retain the original Mosaic form of the commandments and the explanatory material appended to the others may have been added by the later priestly tradition, to support the practices of the Jerusalem temple cult. If so, then these short, sharp commands could easily have been written on small, pocket-sized stone tablets.

In any case, it is clear that the commandments were intended for the flourishing of the community under God and in relation to one another. The first four concern the Israelites' relationship with God, and the last six their relationships with one another, as Jesus, the living Word, summarises in the two great commandments: "Jesus answered, 'The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." The second is this, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these.'" (Mark 12:29-31)

To Ponder

  • God takes the initiative in the covenant relationship by loving and saving us first. How do we respond?
  • To worship something is to be devoted to it and to give it the best of your energies and abilities. If you reflect honestly and deeply, is there anything in your life that you might be worshipping in place of God?

Bible notes author

The Revd Anna Bishop

Anna Bishop is a wife, mother and Methodist presbyter. She is currently without appointment while her two small children teach her a spirituality of interruption! She is living in the Salisbury circuit, where she leads Baby-interrupted Bible Study and Little Blessings, a service of worship for babies, toddlers, pre-school children and their carers.