Bible study 70 – Exodus 20Posted: December 12, 2016
God tells Moses (although the Oxford Bible insists he talks to all the Israelites) the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments.
This is really exciting for me, because I was made to memorize these in elementary school; they are clearly very important in Christianity. The strange thing is… these commandments were obviously made for Jews, and Jews only. God is speaking explicitly to a gathering of the entire Jewish nation, whom he has just called “his priestly kingdom”; no one else of the hundreds of millions of people on earth are mentioned. Every single command says “you”. The first commandment even says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (…).” How could non-Jewish Christians think that God wanted them as well to follow these commandments?? I guess some of this will become clearer once I get to the New Testament.
Comments on some of the individual commandments:
“(…) you shall have no other gods before me” suggests that other people have other gods, and does not prescribe strict monotheism (that there only is one god). It continues: “(…) I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation (…).” I… don’t remember this part from Christianity class.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol (…)” was left out from my Christianity lessons (although we did learn about the golden goat-story that will soon follow); I guess this has something to do with the proliferation of Jesus-on-the-cross statues in Protestant churches, not to mention the huge amount of saintly idols in Catholic churches, and an actual full-sized painting of God himself in the most holy building in Christianity.
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” I was taught to keep the “rest day” (Norwegian: “hviledagen”) holy, and my teacher made it clear that this was Sunday. But resting on Sunday (the Lord’s Day) and the Sabbath (which falls on Saturdays) are two more or less independent traditions (as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), with the Sunday tradition arising from various New Testament references. Of course, if you’re trying to make sense of the Ten commandments as a Christian, switching Sunday for Sabbath is a good idea; but this is obviously not what God is actually saying. The Sabbath is defined in detail in the Old Testament, and it is not the same as Sunday.
“You shall not murder.” I was taught “You shall not kill,” and have often heard it used as an argument from Christians against everything from capital punishment to war. But this interpretation obviously contradicts about a third of the chapters this far in the Old Testament (including the previous and the next chapter), where killing (by God and humans) is an important and divinely sanctioned part of daily life. Defined narrowly enough, however, a prohibition on “murder” (as it is translated in NRSV) makes much more sense in this context.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” I usually hear this interpreted as “You shall not lie,” which is a clear rewriting. Law and justice were very important for ancient Jews, as shall become very clear in the next book (Leviticus). Christians, I suppose, were more interested in just being nice people.
The commandments are not numbered in this text, and after a short interlude, God continues with instructions for how to build him a simple, earthen altar; there is nothing to suggest that these altar-building instructions are less important than the not-murdering commandment. However, we will apparently return to these commandments in Deuteronomy (without the altar-building), and there will be proclaimed to be 10 of them.