The 10 Commandments
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2729 AM [Chart]
1495 BC [Chart]
The Israelites had come out of Egypt and had passed through the Red Sea. They camped at the base of Mt Sinai, where God called Moses up onto the mountain to talk with him. God informed Moses that he was going to speak directly to the people, and that he must prepare the people for this event. God said:
"I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you. ... Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people." (Exodus 19:9-11)
On the third day, God addressed the people. First he introduced himself:
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)
God then proceeded to speak what is now known as the 10 Commandments.
Commandments 1- 4
(relating to God)
"You shall have no other gods before me." (verse 3)
The obvious reference in this commandment is to the gods of other nations. The Egyptian gods would have immediately come to the minds of those present at Mt Sinai. However, the 10 Commandments have a broader application - they apply to every human who has lived from that day at Mt Sinai up until (and including) the present day. Thus a god, as defined in this commandment, is anything which comes between a human and the Lord.
(making & worship of idols)
"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments." (v 4-6)
In this commandment God forbids the making of images, whether of himself ("in heaven") or of anything on Earth. In addition to this, God forcefully forbids the worshipping of any such images. The inference is that all worship should go directly to God - the worship of an image detracts from God, denigrating and trivialising the worship experience. All faith should be placed in God, not in the perceived sacredness of an inanimate object.
(misusing God's name)
"You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." (v 7)
Most translations of the Bible use the phrase "not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (e.g. KJV) in place of "not misuse the name of the Lord your God".
This commandment is establishing the fact that the name of God should only be used in its proper context - i.e. when addressing or referring to God. To use God's name as a slang or swear word where the context of using the name has nothing to do with God is in violation of this commandment.
One can argue that the reasoning behind giving this commandment is to remind people that God is not just any other person, but is the Creator - and is therefore to be treated with respect. To use God's name as a common word is to insult God, and would be evidence of a person who is lacking in decency.
(the weekly Sabbath)
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (v 8-11)
Every document needs a seal of authenticity - particularly a document of such influence as the 10 Commandments. In modern times, this is done by using such things as signatures, watermarks, etc., which can be independently verified. In the time when this document was given, physical seals using wax were common. Whatever the method, the seal of authenticity establishes the source of authority for the document.
The 4th Commandment itself is the seal of authenticity for the 10 Commandments. No other commandment makes reference to God's source of authority. The commandment states that God created the world and everything on it - that includes humans. The inference is that humans are to live according to the 10 Commandments because God created humans.
God refers specifically to the creation week, pointing out that he blessed the seventh day and "made it holy". In order to recognise God as creator it is necessary to recognise how God created the world, and the circumstances involved. The weekly Sabbath that was instituted at creation is an integral part of the creation week. Without it the creation week is incomplete. To recognise the creation week as described in the biblical narrative is also to recognise the weekly seventh-day Sabbath.
Note that the commandment refers to the weekly Sabbath as "a Sabbath to the Lord your God". If this is "a" sabbath there must be other types of sabbaths. It is apparent that "sabbath" is a general term meaning a period of rest - the Hebrew word for "sabbath" is derived from the verb "to rest". The biblical narrative records other types of sabbath, e.g. God directed that the land was to have a sabbath rest every seventh year - i.e. no crops were to be planted, no pruning of vines, etc. (Leviticus 25:1-7)
Commandments 5 - 10
(relating to other humans)
"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you." (v 12)
This commandment specifically states that humans should act in an honourable way towards their parents - i.e. treat them with respect. It is obvious from the Bible that God considers family to be a central part of human life. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he should create a commandment that protects and guides the relationships that form within a family. This commandment is an example of one type of family relationship which God protects.
"You shall not murder." (v 13)
Short and to-the-point. This commandment doesn't need much explanation, except to say that God places a high regard on human life.
Other translations, such as the KJV, use the word "kill" rather than "murder". The term "murder" is probably more appropriate in this case, because it seems that God is referring here specifically to the killing of humans. This commandment does not cover the killing of animals - the sacrificial killing of animals was an integral part of Israelite life, and this killing was sanctioned by God.
"You shall not commit adultery." (v 14)
This commandment is another example of God protecting the relationships that exist within the family. A fully functioning husband/wife relationship is a stabilising influence to the family unit. An adulterous relationship threatens this stability to such a degree that God felt it necessary to specifically command against it, and to establish that command as one of the 10 Commandments.
"You shall not steal." (v 15)
This command protects a person's property. The protection and respect of a person's property is crucial to the establishment of a functioning society of people. Without a general respect for other people's property, a society is reduced to a state of anarchy.
To have included it as one of the 10 Commandments, God obviously sees the protection of property as an essential element of human life.
"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." (v 16)
This commandment protects a person's reputation and integrity. To lie about a fellow human is to harm their standing within society in some way. It is ultimately a destabilising influence to society, depending on the degree of the untruth told.
(no covetous thoughts)
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (v 17)
The first 9 commandments are practical in nature - that is, they deal with specific attitudes and actions. The 10th commandment deals with a person's thoughts and motives.
This commandment specifically refers to other people's property. It also speaks against desiring a romantic relationship with another person's spouse. These covetous thoughts, if left unchecked, could lead to the breaking of some (or all) of the other commandments relating to human relationships - namely commandments 5 to 9. Such covetous thought could lead directly to stealing and adultery (commandments 7 and 8). In order to obtain this, it may be necessary to lie (commandment 9). Also, such actions may bring dishonour to one's parents (commandment 5).
Upon studying the 10 Commandments it is apparent that, as a collection, they are specific to humanity. Taken individually, some of the commandments would be applicable to all created beings in the universe - such as no murder. On the other hand, other commandments are applicable to humanity only - for example, the Sabbath. While God may have used the same concept with other worlds, the Sabbath as a memorial of Earth's creation would, by definition, be unique to the inhabitants of Earth.
It is recorded that Jesus was asked what he thought the most important commandment was. Here is the question, and Jesus' answer:
"One of them [the Pharisees], an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."" (Matthew 22:35-40)
It is apparent from this section that Jesus regards the two commandments which he quoted as depicting the principles that all the other commandments rest on. Notice that the Pharisee was not asking which of the 10 Commandments was the greatest, but which commandment in all the "Law" was the greatest. By referring to the "Law" the Pharisee would have been referring to the Torah - the books of Moses, the first 5 books of the Bible. The two commandments that Jesus quoted come from the Torah - Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 respectively.
These two commandments demonstrate the principles on which the 10 Commandments are based - love for God, and love for other created beings. As has been demonstrated by the headings above, the first 4 commandments deal with love for God, the last 6 deal with love for other humans. The element underlying and pervading all of the commands of God is love.