The Ten Commandments Why the Decalogue Matters» Mosaic

The biblical book of Genesis presents the story of how God’s new way for humankind finds its first adherent in a single individual—Abraham, a man out of Mesopotamia—and how that way survives through three generations in the troubled households of Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob, who is renamed Israel. By the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, the children of Israel are settled in Egypt, a land of good and plenty, where they are soon teeming and prospering—only, a brief time thereafter, to find themselves subjugated and enslaved. How this multitude becomes transformed into a people, out of and against Egypt, is the subject of Exodus and the following books.

The central event in the national founding of the Israelite people is the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The “Ten Commandments” (Exodus 20: 1-14), pronounced there by the Lord God to the assembled and recently liberated children of Israel, constitute the most famous teaching of the book of Exodus, perhaps of the entire Hebrew Bible. Prescribing proper conduct toward God and man, the Decalogue embodies the core principles of the Israelite way of life and, later, of what would become known as the Judeo-Christian ethic. Even in our increasingly secular age, its influence on the prevailing morality of the West is enormous, albeit not always acknowledged or welcomed.

Yet, despite its notoriety, the Decalogue is still only superficially known, in part because its very familiarity interferes with a deeper understanding of its teachings. This essay, in aspiring to such an understanding, intends also to build a case for the enduring moral and political significance of the Decalogue—a universal significance that goes far beyond its opposition to murder, adultery, and theft.

1. Structure and Context

We can begin by correcting some common misimpressions, starting with the name “Ten Commandments.” Although most of the entries in the Decalogue appear in the imperative mode (“Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not”), they are not called commandments (mitzvot) but rather statements or words: “And God spoke all these words.” Later in the Bible we hear about the ten words—in the Greek translation, deka logoi or Decalogue— but whether the reference is to these same statements is far from obvious.

No help is provided by counting. Traditional exegetes derived as many as thirteen “commands” from God’s speech in Exodus 20, and because internal divisions within particular statements are unclear, even those who agree on the number ten disagree on how to reckon them. Furthermore, no mention is made in Exodus 20 of the famous tablets of stone on which, in traditional imagery, we see the Decalogue inscribed, five statements on each. When such tablets are mentioned later on, we are not told what is written on them.

What then do we know about the structure of these pronouncements? One group of them touches mainly on the relation between God and the individual Israelite: the first words spoken are “I the Lord [am] thy God,” and within this group we hear the phrase “the Lord thy God” four more times. The second group (beginning with “Thou shalt not murder”) touches primarily on conduct between and among human beings; in this section God is not mentioned, and the very last word of the Decalogue, “thy neighbor,” marks a far distance from the opening “I the Lord.”

Next, nearly all of the statements are formulated in the negative. The first few statements proscribe wrongful ways of relating to the divine—no other gods, no images, no vain use of the divine name—while the last six begin with lo, “not.” Human beings, it seems, are more in need of restraint than of encouragement.

In this sea of prohibition, two positive exhortations stand out: the one about hallowing the Sabbath, and the one about honoring father and mother. Hallowing the Sabbath is also one of two injunctions that receive the longest exposition or explanation; the other one concerns images and likenesses. Clearly, these three deserve special attention.

But far more important than structural features is the context into which the Decalogue fits. This is the new, people-forming covenant proposed by God through His prophet Moses to the children of Israel in the antecedent chapter of Exodus (19:5­-6). The overall terms of that agreement are succinctly stated. If the children of Israel (a) “will hearken unto My voice” and (b) “keep My covenant,” then, as a consequence, (a) “ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples” and (b) “ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

It is only here, with the offer of a divine covenant, that this motley multitude of ex-slaves learns for the first time that they can become a people, among the other peoples of the earth, and that they can become a special people, a treasure unto the Lord. Moreover, their special place is defined in more than political terms: they are invited to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is a matter to which we will return.

Yet the Decalogue is hardly the bulk of the Torah’s people-forming legislation. All of the laws specifying proper conduct and “religious” observance come later: first in the ordinances immediately following the giving of the Decalogue, then in the laws regarding the building of the tabernacle, and then, in the book of Leviticus, in the law governing sacrifices and the so-called Holiness Code. So the Decalogue functions rather as a prologue or preamble to the constituting law. Like the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, it enunciates the general principles on which the new covenant will be founded, principles that in this case touch upon—and connect—the relation both between man and God and between man and man. It is less a founding legal code, more an orienting aspirational guide for every Israelite and, perhaps, every human heart and mind.

2. The Lord, Thy God

The Decalogue is introduced as follows: “And God spoke all these words, saying” (Exodus 20:1). Unlike most such biblical statements reporting a divine act of speaking, this one does not identify the audience. But the omission is fitting, for the speech appears to be addressed simultaneously to all the assembled people and to each one individually: in fact, all of the injunctions are given in the second person singular. Moreover, although pronounced at a particular time and place, and uttered in the presence of a particular group of people, the content of the speech is not parochial. It is, rather, addressed to anyone and everyone who is open to hearing it—including, of course, us who can read the text and ponder what it tells us.

If the identity of the audience is unspecified, that of the speaker is plain: “I [the] Lord am thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20: 2). Later Jewish—but not Christian—tradition will treat this assertion as part of the first statement and the basis of the first positive precept: to believe in the existence of the one God. But in context it functions more to announce the identity of the speaker—who, as would have been customary in any such proposed covenant between a suzerain and his vassals, declares the ruler-subject relationship that governs everything that follows. On this understanding, “I the Lord am thyGod” emphasizes that the speaker is the individual hearer’s personal deity: not just the god of this locale, capable of making the mountain tremble, rumble, and smoke, but the very One who brought you personally out of your servitude in Egypt.

Nor, unlike God’s self-identification to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), is there any mention here of the patriarchs. The agreement offered to the Israelites is a covenant not with the God of their long-dead fathers but with the God of their own recent deliverance. The former covenant was for fertility, multiplicity, and a promised land; the new one concerns peoplehood, self-rule, and the goals of righteousness and holiness. It rests on a new foundation, and it is made not with a select few but with the universal many.

Although the basis of the new relationship is historical, rooted in the Lord’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, the Lord’s opening declaration also conveys a philosophical message. The Lord appears to be suggesting that for the children of Israel—if not also for other unnamed auditors—there are basically two great alternatives: either to be in relation to the Lord, in Whose image humankind was created, or to be a slave to Pharaoh, a human king who rules as if he were himself divine. Egypt, identified redundantly as “the house of bondage,” is presented here not just as one alternative among many but as the alternative to living as men and women whose freedom—from bondage not only to Pharaoh but to their own worst tendencies—seems to depend on embracing the covenant with the Lord.

Israel in Egypt Edward Poynter, 1867. Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

Israel in Egypt Edward Poynter, 1867. Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

3. How Not to Seek God

After the opening remark declaring God’s relation to this people, the next statements concern how God wants them to conduct theirside of the relationship. The instruction is entirely negative.

The first wrong way is this: “Thou shalt not have other [or “strange”;aherim] gods before Me” (Exodus 20: 3). This is a declaration not of philosophical monotheism but of cultural monotheism. What is claimed precisely is an exclusive, intimate I-thou relationship like that of a marriage, requiring unqualified fidelity and brooking no other’s coming between the two partners. One might phrase it this way: “Thou shalt look to no stranger-gods in My presence.” This goes beyond turning an I-thou relation into a “triangle.” Aherim, the word translated “other” or “strange,” suggests that any such putative deities would be alien not only to the relationship as such but specifically to its human partners. The only God fit for a relationship with beings made in God’s image is the God whose being they resemble and whose likeness they embody. Only such a One would not be a “stranger.”

Yes, powers regarded (not unreasonably) by other peoples as divine—for example, the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea, the mountain, or the river—may play a decisive role in determining the character and events of human life. Yes, the powers that the Greek poets presented as anthropomorphic gods—Poseidon, earth-shaker; Venus, source of erotic love; Demeter, source of crops; warlike Ares—must be universally acknowledged and respected for their place in human life. But one cannot truly have a relationship with them, for they are strangers to all those who look to them. Only with the Lord God is there the possibility of genuine kinship.

Having established the principle of exclusivity, God speaks next to correct a second error, namely, the natural human inclination to represent the divine in artfully made visible images, and even to worship these statues or likenesses:

Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven [or “sculptured”] image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous god, remembering [or “visiting”] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third or fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing grace unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20: 4-­6)

Intended to proscribe the worship of idols, this injunction builds a fence against such practices by forbidding even the making of sculpted images or likenesses, especially of any natural being. It emphatically opposes the practice, known to the ex-slaves from Egypt, of worshipping natural beings—from dung beetles to the sun to the Pharaohs—and representing them in sculpted likenesses. But it also seems to preclude any attempt to represent, in image or likeness, God Himself. The overall message is clear: any being that can be represented in visible images is not a god. The unstated reason: God is incorporeal and trans-natural.

What’s wrong with worshipping visible images or the things they represent? Even if, as we have reason to believe, it rests on an error—mistaking a mere likeness for a true divinity—it seems harmless enough, at most a superstitious waste of time. But the practice and the disposition behind it are hardly innocuous. To worship things unworthy of worship is in itself demeaning to the worshiper; it is to be oriented falsely in the world, taking one’s bearings from merely natural phenomena that, although powerful, are not providential, intelligent, or beneficent. Moreover, paradoxically, such apparently humble submission masks a species of presumption. After all, human beings will have decided which heavenly bodies or which animals are worthy of being revered, and how these powers are to be appeased. In addition, the same human beings believe that they themselves, through artful representation, can fully capture these natural beings and powers and then, through obeisance, manipulate them. Worse, with increased sophistication of the craftsmen comes the danger that people will come to revere not the entities idolized but the physical idols as well as the sculptors and painters who, in making them, willy-nilly elevate themselves.

Perhaps the most important reason is that neither the worship of dumb nature nor the celebration of human artfulness addresses the twistedness and restlessness that lurk in the human heart and soul. To put the point positively, neither nature nor artfulness teaches anything about righteousness, holiness, or basic human decency. Indeed, the worship of nature or of idols may contribute to the problem. Making the connection explicit, the Lord vows to visit the “iniquities” of the fathers on the sons, unto the third or fourth generation.

An iniquity (avon) in the Bible differs from a sin (het). To sin is to miss the mark, as an arrow misses the target. By contrast, to commit an iniquity is to do something twisted or crooked, to be perverse. Sin is not inherited, and only the sinner gets punished; iniquity, however, like “pollution,” lasts and lasts, affecting those who come in its wake. It is not only that perverse fathers are likely to pervert their children; in addition, the children are inevitably stained by the father’s iniquity. How this comes about, the text leaves wonderfully ambiguous, thanks to the multiple meanings of the Hebrew verb poqed, which means both visiting and remembering; either the Lord promises to intervene directly and actively inflict the father’s twisted deeds on the sons, or He promises to allow those deeds to linger in the fabric of the world, contaminating the lives of the sons until repentance or cleansing is effected. Either way—and perhaps the two amount to the same thing—the perversity of the father’s deeds will reverberate through the generations.

The Israelites are not yet told what behavior they are to regard as iniquitous. Is it idolatry itself, or does idolatry lead to such twisted practices as incest, fratricide, bestiality, cannibalism, slavery? One way or the other, the fathers (and mothers) are put on notice: how they stand with respect to divinity will affect their children and their children’s children. God and the world care about, retain, and perpetuate our iniquities.

But not indefinitely—only to the third or fourth generation, the limits of any father’s clearly imaginable future. And overshadowing all is the promise of God’s bountiful grace “to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Just as the sons of iniquitous fathers suffer through no direct fault of their own, so a thousand generations of descendants of a single God-loving and righteous ancestor enjoy unmerited grace. (By the way, it has been only 200 generations since the time of Father Abraham, for whose merit the children of Abraham are still being blessed.)

From this little injunction on idol-worship we learn that God and the world are not indifferent to the conduct of human beings; that our choice seems to be between living in relation to the Lord and worshipping or serving strange gods, between keeping His commandments and living iniquitously; that the choices we make will have consequences for those who come later; but that the blessings that follow from worthy and God-loving conduct are more far-reaching than are the miseries caused by iniquitous and God-spurning conduct. There will be perversity in every generation, but the world overflows with hesed or grace.

And this surprising turn in the comment on idolatry and iniquity highlights the decisive (and perhaps most important) difference between idols or strange(r) gods and “the Lord thy God”: under the rule of no other deity could the world be seen to embody the kind of grace, kindness, and blessing here foretold. As earlier in the hope-filled rainbow sign after the flood (Genesis 9: 1-17), the token of God’s first covenant with humankind, here each and every Israelite learns that he will have reason to be grateful not only for his one-time recent deliverance from Egypt but also for the enduringly gracious (and not merely powerful or dreadful) character of the deity with whom he is covenanting.

The implications for how we are to live in the light of this teaching are clear. My children and my children’s children are at risk from any iniquity I commit; but nearly endless generations will benefit from the good that I may do. An enormous responsibility, then; and yet we know also that we are not solely responsible for the world’s fate, and that redemption is always possible. Even if we fail, there will still be hesed. To walk with hope in the light of hesed offers the best chance for a worthy life.

The final error to be corrected concerns the use of the divine name. For if visible beings are unworthy of worship, and if, conversely, “the Lord thy God” cannot be visibly imaged, all that remains to us of Him (when He is silent) is His name. Yet it is also not through His name that the Israelites are to enter into a proper relationship with the Lord:

Thou shalt not take up (nasa) the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless the one who takes up His name in vain. (Exodus 20: 7)

Without warning, and for no apparent reason, the Lord speaks now of Himself not in the first but in the distant third person. This distancing fits with the progressive distance from “thy God,” to “other/stranger gods before Me,” to vain “images and idols” not to be made and worshipped, and now to “the name of the Lord thy God” that is not to be taken in vain.

The prohibition itself, though seemingly straightforward, asks to be unpacked. What, exactly, is being proscribed? What sort of use of God’s name is “in vain”? The concept embraces not only speaking falsely but also speaking emptily, frivolously, insincerely. The most likely occasion for such empty invocations of the divine name would be in swearing an oath, calling on God to witness the truth of what one is about to say or the pledge one is promising to fulfill. But the injunction seems to have a larger intention, at the very least inviting us to ponder what would not be a vain use of the Lord’s name.

The real target of the injunction may be the attempt to live in the world assuming that “God-is-on-our-side.” That is, what is “vain” about the forbidden speech may have more to do with an inward disposition of the heart than with words overtly spoken. To speak the Lord’s name, unless instructed to do so, is to wrap yourself in the divine mantle, to summon God in support of your own purposes. It is to treat God as if He were sitting by the phone waiting to do your bidding. In the guise of beseeching the Lord in His majesty and grace, one behaves as if one were His lord and master. One behaves, in other words, like Pharaoh.

There is a deeper issue, having to do less with misconduct and more with the hazards of speech itself. Treating anyone’s name as something that one can “take up” or “lift” is to take him up, as if by his handle. Like making images of the divine, trafficking in the divine name evinces a presumption of familiarity and knowledge. To handle the name of the Lord risks treating Him as a finite thing known through and through. Even if uttered in innocence, the use of the Lord’s name invites the all-too-human error that attends all acts of naming: the belief that one thereby knows the essence.

Called by God from out of the burning bush, Moses, in the guise of asking what to respond when the Israelites inquire who sent him, seeks to know God’s name. The profoundly mysterious non-answer he receives—ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be what I will be, or I am that I am—is in fact a rebuke: the Lord is not to be known or captured in any simple act of naming. The right relation to Him is not through naming or knowing His nature but through hearkening to His words. The right approach is not through philosophy or theology, not through speaking about God (theo-logos), but through heedingHis speech.

This is not to say that the Decalogue proscribes all speaking about God. Later, there will be instruction about times and circumstances in which the Israelites will be enjoined to call upon or to praise the Lord; and the mention of His name in regular rituals and prayers can hardly be taken as a violation of this injunction. At the same time, however, the proscription does serve to induce caution. By avoiding casual speech about the Lord, one leans especially against the cultivation of a childish view of the deity—a super-powerful fellow with a beard, accessible on demand, intelligible, familiar: a projection, in short, of our own needs and imaginings. And it makes clear that our relation to the divine is not to proceed by way of naming speech any more than by way of visible likeness.

Yet, up to this point, there has been no positive instruction regarding how one should relate to the divine. What does this God want of His people? The next utterance gives the answer.

Source: The Ten Commandments » Mosaic

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