The Ten Commandments Essay

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The Ten Commandments, sometimes known as the Decalogue, a literal translation of the Greek Ten Words, are found in the book of Exodus chapter 20 v 2 v17 and this is one of the most well known passages in the scriptures. In describing the events of that day the writer of Deuteronomy ( Deuteronomy 4 v 13) refers to them in Hebrew as The Ten Words and in Exodus 19 v 5 they are named by God as My Covenant. Although part of the Jewish scriptures these verses are considered to be important by Christians too and they are often to be found inscribed in both synagogues and churches.

The rabbis identified 600 different laws based upon these precepts, yet they can be summarised as in a story of Rabbi Hillel the Elder. A student declared that he would become a disciple of the rabbi if he could recite the whole of the Jewish Law while standing on one leg. Hillel while doing as he asked and standing on only one leg stated What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the entire Torah; the rest is interpretation.

To this can be added the Shema, Deuteronomy 6 v 4, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One Two short passages, yet they really do summarize both the Decalogue and indeed the whole law. The context is Mount Sinai three months into the journey of the Hebrews who have left Egypt and are on their way to the Promised Land. Although the scriptures, in particular the book of Leviticus, contain many more rules, some in minute detail, these ten laws are to form the basis of the new society in the Promised Land.

The chapter begins And God spoke all these words, ( Exodus 20 v 1). This is what gives them their power They are set out in a way that is relatively easy to remember and are in the form of a covenant Gods part and their part in a voluntary agreement. Yahweh announces to them , through Moses, his chosen agent that, having freed them from slavery by His power, as explained in chapter 19 You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt Chapter 19 v 4. In verse 5 and 6 He says that He will now make them will now a holy people and a nation of priests.

The people agree to this , 19 v 8 We will do everyhting the Lord has said, and in v 14 we are told tha t they sanctified themselves in preparation. The Jewish Encyclopedia, in a passage designated as Israels Call, then describes how God, through Moses and with the accompanyment of thunder, lightning, smoke and the noise of trumpets, reveals himself by his voice and there pronounces the ten fundamental commands of religion and morals. The decalogue can be easily broken into two sections.

The first part, numbers 1-4, is concerned with the relationship between God and his people You shall have no other gods but me. The second part is concerned society and with the relationships of individuals with each other, first within the family honour your father and mother and also with the wider world. ( numbers 5 -10 ) and are famously summed up by Jesus in the New Testament, in Luke 10 v 27 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.

although he was not the only one to make such summaries and in Leviticus they are also, in part , summarized,Do not seek revenge, nor bear any grudge against one of your people, but you love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19 v 18. The first commandment, verse 3, is against mental idolatry, while the second, verses 4 and 5 are against the practice of idolatry. The thing these have in common is that they forbid a great attachment to the things of earth, but an attachment to the one true God.

The words are designed to show man the way to true contentment in a relationship with God rather than being over concerned with possessions, whether obvious false gods or not. It must be remembered that the group had only recently left Egypt , a country where there were gods of all kinds, many in the shape of animals, but reigned over by human images in the shape of Osiris and his consort Isis. They would have been used to seeing worship of these false gods and may even have been involved in some cases.

The words in heaven , on earth and under the earth and in the waters could refer to bird gods, mammals, snakes and crocodiles or fish, all these being included in the complex Egyptian pantheon. In verse 5 God refers to himself as jealous. Clarke comments that He is thus expressing His immense love for his creation and the image is of a husband who wants to be sure of the fidelity of his partner. The third command is against taking the name of God in vain.

In verse 8 and 9 there are two aspects the keeping of the Sabbath and an injunction to work on the other 6 days and are accompanied by the example of God himself in creation. So these first commands are to do with reverence and mans religious duty in response to who God is and what he has done, and the second group with his moral obligations towards his fellow men for the next command is one concerned with family relationships and the rest with an ordered society do not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or be covetous or greedy.

Committing these sins is also a sin against God, because to do so would imply that what God has provided already is not good enough. Hebrew has a relatively small vocabulary and words often stand for more than one thing depending upon the context. The Hebrew word translated steal is of interest because not only does it also include the idea of being deceitful, it is also the word used for kidnapping. The following chapters of Exodus go into detail as to how these laws will work in practice as in the rules about the making of an altar in Exodus 20 v 23 onwards and the care of servants in chapter 21.

Despite all these injunctions and their ready accession to what God wanted and promised however it is only a short time afterwards that the Israelites are appealing to Aaron Up, and make us gods, which shall go before us. And then of course ( Exodus 32) he made the golden calf despite the recent injunction in Exodus 20 v 4 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.

Some words and phrases are repeated or almost so You shall and You shall not, but this is not consistent throughout and there seems to be an over emphasis on the negative, rather than the positive, whereas the New Testament summaries are in a positive attitude. Some commentators such as Adam Clarke have noted that the language used means that each person is addressed as an individual with individual responsibilities to obey, rather than the group being addressed as a whole with corporate responsibility.

The Decalogue needs to be read, and obeyed, in the context of the whole scriptural revelation of Gods desire for a relationship with his people as is made plain by a wider reading as is seen for instance in Genesis 17 where God appears to Abraham and makes a covenant with him and in passages such as Jeremiah 30 v 10 where Jacob is described as the servant of God whom he will save and in Malachi 1 v 1 where God tells of his love for man.


Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Toronto, 1984 Clarke, A. , Commentary, Exodus 20, available from http://www. godrules. net/library/clarke/clarkeexo20. htm accessed 23rd October 2008 Introduction to Exodus, Jewish Encyclopaedia, available from http://bible. tmtm. com/wiki/Intoduction_to_Exodus_%28Jewish_Encyclopedia%29 accessed 22nd October 2008 Hillel the Elder, available from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Rabbi_Hillel accessed 23rd October 2008

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