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Like a Rock: Exodus 20

Exodus 20 (link.) You hardly even need a post about this chapter, do you? After all, these are the Ten Commandments. These are not really there to be debated but there to be obeyed. Let's take a look at both the Decalogue (Ten Words, see Today's Nerd Note) and the rest of the chapter.

I like Durham's summary title for the Ten Commandments section in the Word Biblical Commentary on Exodus: Yahweh's Principles for Life in Covenant. This gives us a proper starting point for understanding the idea here: the Ten Commandments are not the whole of the covenant between God and Israel or between God and humanity in general. Rather, they are the "executive summary" or "Powerpoint bullets" of the covenant.

Later, of course, we see Jesus summarize the covenant down almost to Twitterform: "Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength" (Mark 12:30) and "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12:31). Rightly considered, those two statements sum up the Ten Commandments, which are themselves a proper summary of the covenant that we see in the whole of the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy).

What, then, are the contents of this summary of the covenant, these basic principles? The first is not one of the commandments, exactly, but is critical to the discussion. It addresses identity: God identifies Himself by both name and deed: Yahweh, who brought the Israelites out of slavery. Between being the God Who Is and Who Created All Things and being the Deliverer of Israel, He establishes here His right to set the rules.

That's a critical component going forward in life. Who gets to set the rules? In many cultures, it's the Golden Rule: he who has the gold, makes the rules. Certain people or interest groups are in charge, so they set the rules. You can find this reflected historically in many places. Kings or priests with armies, wealth, or food were able to say "This shall be the law!" with little regard for the opinions or needs of others.

God establishes here that He sets the rules. He made all there is and in the case of Israel, He delivered them from slavery and so made them as a nation. He has the right and the responsibility to set those rules. The lawgiver is more important than the laws: if the lawgiver lacks authority, the laws don't really matter, do they? God has that authority.

The Commandments themselves are straightforward: first, recognize God and count no equal with Him. That is whether among other suggested gods, your own words, or your own efforts: all of these are dismantled by the first four commandments. These four, though, are definitely worship-driven commandments:these are about worship of the One True God in appropriate ways. Three of them, as with five of the next block, are given as "negatives:" no specific action is commended but certain actions are prohibited. This is actually easier to do, as I can be fairly certain that I have made no graven images today.

Further sermons, of course, could develop about taking the Lord's name in vain, putting other gods before Him, and keeping a day focused on Him. Some will even happily argue over the day that should be observed, but that's another post. After we're done with through the whole Bible.

The next six commandments highlight how we ought to treat each other in light of God's covenant. These start with respect and honor to those who raised you and then proceed to your marriage and your neighbors. Really, there's no one else left after that, is there? No. You're either family or neighbors—so be good to each other.

This being the chapter with the Ten Commandments, we often look right past the last few verses. Let us make quick mention of the content of Exodus 20:22-26. Here we see three things commanded after God highlights that He has spoken to the people (something they feared in Exodus 20:19) and they have lived. They are not to make idols. That's a repeat. They are to make altars wherever they are, and God will come to them and bless them, but those altars are not to be made of hewn stones, worked with tools. They are also not supposed to have steps to the altar—because everyone wears robe/gown type clothing.

Catch the "no-tool-worked stone" rule. Think of it this way: there is no way that we can make the grace of God more amazing and beautiful than it is, just as there was no improving the beauty of God accepting the sacrifices and praises of His people then. We do not adorn the Gospel by chiseling more into the stones, only by using the Stone Himself: Christ Jesus.

Today's Nerd Note: The Ten Commandments are sometimes called the Decalogue, which is Greekish for "10 Words." This is based on the idea that the Ten Commandments are actually just written as 10 words in Hebrew. That's the art image, as well, with just 10 sets of letters etched in the rocks in the hands of Moses.

This is one of those traditional labels that is right in some ways and wrong in others. First, Hebrew is a compact language, but it's not that compact. Seriously—some of the commandments are just one word. You shall not murder is one of those. Hebrew uses inflected endings to show person and number of verbs, and prefixes to show negation, so it is the word for "murder" with "you" shown in the ending, "shall" shown by using the imperative inflection, and "not" stuck on the front of the word. So it's one word.

However, Hebrew is not quite compact enough to put all of Exodus 20:8 into one word. This is expanded. Even so, one could boil that commandment down to one word that says "You shall honor" but it doesn't work without defining the object of the honor.

So, Decalogue is not an invalid term, but it does not quite give the complete picture. However, I'd love to see someone actually try and carve the whole passage into a piece of stone. The Lord Almighty had to have some compact writing going on.


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