Exodus Chapter 20:1-17 Sunday School Notes

These are some of my notes for Sunday April 18, 2010 in the Lifeway Explore the Bible series.

Books referenced in these notes are:

1. New American Commentary: Exodus by Douglas Stuart

2. IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas

3. NIV Application Commentary: Exodus by Peter Enns

Ex. 20:1-2
Ancient law codes were more specific than the Ten Commandments. They were usually lists of offensive behavior and their penalty. The Ten Commandments are typically considered to more closely resemble ancient treaties than ancient law, because like those treaties they are agreements between parties in which certain behaviors are required or are prohibited. But the Commandments do resemble ancient law in that they are not an exhaustive codification of behavior. Instead they lay outlines that can then be more narrowly interpreted. (BBCOT, Stuart)

Then God spoke: This time, God himself speaks to the entire nation of Israel, giving them the “Ten Words” as they stand at the slopes of Sinai. As 20:18-21 informs us, this experience was so overwhelming the people quickly asked Moses to act as intermediary between them and God. The thunder, lightning, loud trumpet-like sound, fog, and the voice of God Himself terrified people, putting them in fear of death from being so close to the divine. Moses replied that this fear was God’s way of ensuring they kept the Commandments.

Verse 2 is a preamble of the sort common in ancient treaties, identifying the parties and also establishing an ancient “hesed relationship”. Hesed is defined as “loyalty given in response to loyalty shown”, a sort of broader tit for tat in which a kind deed requires an obligation from the recipient of the kind deed. God identifies Himself as Israel’s deity, and proves this and the hesed obligation by repeating His acts to bring Israel out of Egypt.(Stuart)

Ex. 20:3
The classic translation here of gods “before me” might lead one to think God is putting Himself at the head of a pantheon of gods, but that’s because the Hebrew expression behind “before/beside me” is a bit hard to easily render. It means something like “in front of my face”, in short, “you worship no other gods except I, the LORD God”. There is no pantheon of gods in Israel, and God has no consort. He is God alone.(Stuart, BBCOT)

Why the “before/beside me”, then? Because “gods”, Hebrew elohim, can be applied to a range of supernatural beings, and the existence of such beings is not denied in the Bible (Ps 82, John 10:34-36), only their right to receive worship.(Stuart)

Ex. 20:4-6
The prohibition of idolatry here set Israel very much apart from the rest of the ancient world, where idols were the standard way of accessing the divine. The “hesed” relationship, or tit for tat, mentioned above, governed much of ancient religion, where idols were ritually imbued with the essence of a god, which then perceived/felt whatever was done to/around the idol. If one fed/sacrificed or in some other way benefited an idol (like building an altar or temple), the god was then duty bound to reciprocate with a good deed in return. Likewise, one might try to bully a god by threatening an idol (with spells or just “I’m taking this idol and shoving it in my closet back home), though this was not considered very wise (gods being more powerful than men made them bad enemies to have). And in a sense of sympathetic magic (like the stereotypical vodoo doll) ancient fertility cults seemed to think that sex near/in honor of idols caused gods to reproduce, thus ensuring growing crops, abundant fish/animals.(Stuart)

Verse 5’s prohibition of idol worship is a strike against standard ancient divine hierarchy ideas, in which not only were their many gods, but different gods wielded power in different regions/spheres. Thus the standard ancient division of gods into three: a personal god, a clan god, and a national god. This “division of labor” among gods was likely the basis for the repeated incidents of idolatry among the Israelites, who always held the LORD as national god, but might include Baal or Heaven’s Queen as personal or clan god. Such a notion is explicitly rebuked here in verses 4-5.

Punishing for the fathers’ sin to the third and fourth has always puzzled, because it seems to contradict

Deu 24:16 NET. Fathers must not be put to death for what their children do, nor children for what their fathers do; each must be put to death for his own sin


Eze 18:20 NET. The person who sins is the one who will die. A son will not suffer for his father’s iniquity, and a father will not suffer for his son’s iniquity; the righteous person will be judged according to his righteousness, and the wicked person according to his wickedness.

There are three answers to this puzzle:
1.“Third and fourth”, “three and four” can be viewed simply as a way of saying “many, several, all”, expressing an unspecific multiple.(Enns)
2.Third and fourth generation can be viewed as expressing the whole immediate family, the parents, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren even. This reflects both the shame/group mentality of the ANE and the sad truth that problems in a family can run generations.
3.Sins visited on children can be a way of insisting on personal responsibility. If a son sins in a manner he learned from his father, he is judged on his own sin, not excused because he learned to sin from his father. In short, the law is going to be known to all, and all are to be held accountable for keeping it.(BBCOT, Enns, Stuart)

Verse 6 expresses God’s more positive desire, to bless those faithful/loyal (love= faith, hate = disloyal, unfaithful) to Him for as long as there are faithful followers of God.

Ex 20:7
Using God’s name in vain: This again is an ambiguous commandment, and traditionally considered so that Jews have developed the habit of never speaking God’s revealed name, using all sorts of substitutes for it. The HCSB’s “misuse” nicely expresses the ambiguity without expressing the possibilities, which include:

1.Dishonoring God, which includes blasphemy/foul language as well as invoking God to witness a falsehood.
2.Using the name of God to harm others, which can include specific invoking God to curse someone or again, swearing falsely with God’s name (traditionally “God do something terrible to me if I do/don’t do”, these days simply “as God is my witness”).
3.Using the name of God in magic, as a way of controlling and manipulating him, a practice well-attested in ancient amulets and magical parchments. (BBCOT, Stuart, Enns)

The punishment here is not specified, but rather it is emphasized that God will most definitely punish those who transgress the sanctity of His name, presumably in proportion to the offense.

Ex. 20:8-11
Sabbath observance is an Israelite distinctive in the ANE. No other nation had a complete rest day devoted to their god(s). (BBCOT)

The fourth Commandment is split into three portions:
1. Verse 8: the actual commandment
2.Verse 9-10, which specify how the commandment is kept
3.Verse 11 gives the reason for the commandment(Enns)

Many ancient covenants had signs showing they were being kept. The Noahic covenant was attested by rainbows, the Abrahamic by circumcision. Here the Mosaic covenant is attested by the keeping of the Sabbath.(Stuart)

Sabbath comes from Hebrew meaning “stopping, ceasing”, thus the Sabbath is the “stopping day”.

Remember in order to keep the Sabbath holy: Remember seems a passive action, but not all remembering is passive, as the husband who forgets to buy milk on the way home from work can testify.

Verses 9-10 give some notion of what is meant by a “day of stopping”. The common labors of the rest of the week are to be set aside. Does that include then the feeding of animals and people? It’s hard to see how it can, especially since the prohibition of working livestock, family members, slaves, and non- Jews seems to be a sort of humanitarian relief for people and livestock, so then not feeding people and animals would not be a humanitarian relief. In fact Deu 5:14-15 makes the humanitarian intent more central.
However, verse 20:11 then gives a more theological motive to the Sabbath: it is following the order of the universe, because God rested from His own labor on the seventh day of Creation. In this sense the giving of the Law and the land in Canaan to the Israelites is a re-creation of the Garden of Eden. It is also a sanctification of the Israelites, who keep a day God Himself declared “holy”. (Enns, Stuart)

Ex. 20:12
Honor your parents: Yet again an ambiguous commandment. It can be interpreted several ways:

1.The parents stand in relation to children as God to Israel. Thus they must be honored.
2.Parents are those who pass on the commandments, by teaching its terms to their children. Thus to honor parents is to remember and obey the terms of the commandments.
3.Care of aged parents and respect for their terms of inheritance. This is thus maintenance of orderly society.(BBCOT, Enns, Stuart)

Ex. 20:13
Never murder: The Hebrew here for “murder” (rasah) is usually used of killing someone not an “enemy” of the people, but is used of unintentional killing (Deu 4:41-43). Again ambiguous, the context seems to exclude applying it to war or criminal punishment. It is used of one person killing another person, so it is simplest to view this commandment as excluding a private individual killing another private individual, intentionally or accidentally, for motives base or apparently noble (That said, the debate over self-defense or defense of others is another thorny knot I don’t propose to address.(BBCOT, Enns, Stuart)

Ex. 20:14
ANE culture comes into play on the law of adultery. Technically, it applied most forcefully to married women, who were off limits sexually for anyone besides their husbands. Why? Because women were at best seen as part of the husband and his honor, and at worst simply the husband’s property. Because marriage was polygamous in the day, a married man who slept with an unmarried woman was not an adulterer, and was only penalized by marrying her or, if the father thinks marriage is a bad idea, paying a fine.

You may say this ignores many sexual crimes. Indeed there are more sexual regulations put forth later in the Law, and many condemn various sexual practices by implication:

1.Premarital sex and cohabitation (Ex 22:16-17; Lev 21:13-14, Deu 22:13-22)
2.Incest (Lev 18; 20:17-19)
3.Bestiality (Ex 22:19; Lev 18:23; 20:15-16, Deu 27:21)(Stuart)

Rape is regulated in Deu 22:22-29.

Ex. 20:15
Stealing is taking something without permission, either outright or by trickery. Stealing includes kidnapping (Ex 21:16), taking animals (Ex 22:1, 12) and material things (Ex 22:7). Stealing can be seen as both a crime against the individual owner as well as society, since a proper society will feel obligated to replace what has been stolen, especially if it is a basic necessity of life like food, clothes, or shelter. (Enns, Stuart)

Ex. 20:16
False witness can be specified to slander and libel, character assassination, but it is plainly more than that. Since ancient Israel depended hugely on witness testimony in its judicial system, society itself required a respect for truth in formal settings to maintain order. By extension, does this forbid dishonesty in general dealings with others? I think plainly it does.(BBCOT, Enns, Stuart)

Ex. 20:17
It is hard not to see the tenth commandment in terms of “thought gives birth to action”, though most ancient law only attempted to regulate actions, as also law today. It seems a summary commandment, intended as most of the commandments, to create an ordered, moral society. Specifically, it doesn’t even forbid coveting an unmarried woman, or another woman’s husband. Thus while it implies a good society is created by good thoughts and desires, it leaves the working out of what is good thought to deriving implications, or the fuller law to be given later.(BBCOT, Enns, Stuart)


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