The Ten Commandments--The Making
of the Covenant
Imagine, 4000 years ago, taking a bunch of newly
freed slaves and trying to impress upon them their
new status as Children of God. What would help
them make this transition?
God decided to make a covenant with them, using
a formula they would understand. How could they
be asked to promise something if they didn't understand
the nature of the promise? The form had to be
familiar to them. At that time in society they
had covenant treaties with distinct parts.
- Preamble -- identified the initiator
of the treaty. The Ten Commandments start with,
"I am the Lord your God."
- The historical review -- described
the previous relationship that included the
benevolence as a foundation for the obligations.
"Who brought you up out of the land
- Stipulations. These were the words
that listed the obligations -- the Ten Commandments.
- Provision for deposit and periodic reading.
One couldn't have a covenant if everybody forgot
what was in it. So what usually happened was
that the overlord would give the covenant to
the vassals who would put it in a special place
and, periodically, during a big ceremony they
would take it out and read it. Exodus
25:16 God told Moses to place the testimony
in the Ark.
- List of gods and witnesses. The covenant
wasn't any good unless there was some independent
party to testify. Three different times in Deuteronomy,
heaven and earth are called as God's witnesses.
- Curses and blessings. The covenant
was only good if people were going to keep it
enforced. If they followed it, these were the
good things that were going to happen; if they
didn't, these were the bad things that were
going to happen. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy
27, 28 have an incredible and lengthy list of
curses and blessings.
This covenant was God establishing something
that they were all going to live by. These stipulations
involved both vertical and horizontal relationships.
The vertical has to do with people to God. The
horizontal has to do with people to people. Both
were included in the Ten Commandments. If people
can trust in God, they are probably trustworthy.
If everybody is trusting in God, then they can
trust each other.
The Ten Commandments
- In Hebrew they are called the Decalogue--Deca
= ten. Logue = word.
- There are many parallels in Babylonian and
Egyptian texts to the last six, which regulate
the relationships between people. There aren't
any parallels to the first four addressing the
relationship of people to God.
- Setting: These words are addressed by God
to Israel gathered, by His
command, to the perimeter of the mountain at
the base of Sinai. These
people have been on an emotional roller coaster
for three months. They've been ecstatic, fearful,
comforted, saved, complaining. They've been
getting ready for three days. They were taking
this all very seriously. Now what was the first
thing they heard? "I am the Lord your
God." It could also be said: "I
the Lord, am your God."
- The first commandment starts with God. It
sets the tone for everything that follows. First
they were to know God; God is disclosing himself.
"I am your God who brought you up, don't
have any other gods before my face."
This word demonstrated God's concern for their
newly acquired freedom. They didn't have a clue
how to be a people. God wanted them to be His
people, and they didn't have it yet. They didn't
know how. So He was trying to help them. Don't
sell your birthright. Be single-minded. Start
from God. To believe in God is to believe from
the consciousness of God. We believe in a lot
of things, we only believe from the standpoint
of one thing.
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Today: "Please have a God."
Many people don't. But is that really true?
Isn't there always something as a last resort
in which people depend upon and to which
they give their final allegiance? When God is
gone, people put
something else in His place, some object in
which they place their final
trust, some idol of their own making. Everyone
has a god. Now we're
just talking about what kind of a god it will
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven
image... Today: The point is
one's view of God. God cannot be imprisoned
in the forms of this world. He is free. He is
beyond creation's control, not concrete. He
does not become tangible in holy things. God
is in His voluntary self-giving, His love, free
judgment, and sovereign grace. God does not
want us to destroy ourselves by serving the
creature instead of the Creator. He doesn't
want anything between us. He doesn't want anything
between us even if it is good. He wants direct
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord
thy God in vain... Today: This has
to do with the divine reputation. The Hebrew
word for "take" is nasa
-- sounds like NASA, sending up shuttles that
carry things up, lift things up. Nasa
means "to lift up, to carry, to bear."
To do this in vain means to do falsely, to make
use of for any idol, frivolous, or insincere
purpose, or for mischief. God gave His name
in friendship, for a relationship. All of God's
names have to be honored, celebrated, blessed.
To do anything less would be to treat this gift
very lightly, to underestimate His power, and
to misrepresent His nature. God's name is really
saying, "I am here, you don't have to
call me. I am here."
God's name is consistent with His nature. And
if we're going to that name, if we're going
to carry it, bear it, and lift it up, then it
must be consistent with ours as well.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Today: "Remember" is
a very emphatic imperative. It isn't for those
days when we have time to remember; it is to
remember without lapse. Remember this in terms
of the covenant. Do this every week. Why? God
does not condemn people to slavery. He has built
rest into His creation. We call it R and R,
rest and recreation. And what is recreation
except re - creation? The Sabbath is a time
to step back; it is a time to be with God.
The next six words will focus on the horizontal
line -- people to people.
- Honor your father and your mother.
Today: Honor is in the imperative; it
means "give weight to, glorify, esteem
in the sense of giving precedence."
It means taking someone seriously, it's not
meant to just be subject to them, but to be
respectful and to recognize their right of importance,
to esteem them for their priority of importance
and to love them. In that sense they will be
honored. Now as we honor parents, we become
honored parents. To the extent that we are honorable
and honored parents, that is what we are teaching.
And that is what the children pick up.
- Thou shalt not kill. Today:
It would be a whole lot better if there had
been a direct object. Unfortunately, it is open
ended. But wait! Isn't this the same society
that just witnessed the death of a whole lot
of Egyptians, who fought a big battle with the
Amelekites? Before they ever move away from
this mountain 3,000 of their own community are
going to die. So what is this "Don't kill?"
Does it make any sense? Let's go a little bit
deeper. At that time, the sovereignty of God
was determined by geographical boundaries. Each
community had its own gods. The one with the
strongest god was expected to prevail. Enjoying
the spoils of war was really demonstrating glory
to their god. But within the group, they were
expected to hold each other in mutual
esteem. All were under the care of that same
God. Since God is the author of life, no one
should dare act as God. And if someone did,
the community acted on God's behalf. There is
an underlying, basic principle that life belonged
to God. When they went to war, they asked God.
When crimes were committed, they cast lots or
needed corroborating testimony from two witnesses.
Both were considered to be signs from God. This
word was intended to stop feudal killing. Such
behaviors violated the standard of living that
God expected of those who had given themselves
to Him. This is still hard for us today. We
have war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia.
These all raise hard questions. Whether we like
it or not, these are all forms of killing.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery. Today:
Again, this was given by God
to a forming community. It is intimately connected
to life within that
community. The word, "adultery"
comes from two words meaning, "add
and other." Together, they mean to
"add other," to dilute something
adding something else to it. To adulterate means
to cheapen the quality
or to upset the completeness. In antiquity,
adultery meant sexual
intercourse with the wife of another man, the
fiancée of another man,
or a wife with a married man. It was not meant
to regulate one's love
life; it was given to protect the institution
of marriage. It provided
societal stability. Marriages were not monogamous
and divorce was
permitted. But an existing marriage was given
Actions that dilute, cheapen the quality, pollute,
or upset the
completeness in relation to marriage violate
the covenantal agreement.
In so doing we adulterate our own self worth
as persons, sell ourselves
short on the real meaning of life, and it affects
our relationship with
God. At issue is the purity of our actions not
the prudishness of them.
God did not make us to use or to be used by
other people. We should
love and regard each other as priceless, because
we are each in a
relationship with God.
- Don't steal. Today: It is best
described as depicting stealing of any kind
and sometimes may apply to the duplicity of
it, the secrecy of it. Stealing of any kind
disrupts relationships. This word was given
by God to a forming community who had agreed
to live in relationship, first of all, with
Him. The penalty was not the main point; the
real point was the breech of covenantal relations
and the loss of God's presence. People who live
in a relationship with God were not to steal
from one another. A Thesaurus has dozens of
words available to depict stealing. There's
really only one way to be honest. Nothing anyone
has is really his in any ultimate sense. Everything
is God's; we are merely custodians. This is
a word that speaks to those who are tempted
to misuse their lives to pilfer other people's
lives, or to rape the earth. It stems from a
vision that is out of focus. What's mine is
God's, and we'll share it.
- Don't bear false witness against your neighbor.
Today: In ancient Israel occasions that
demanded truth - telling were in relation to
public affairs. Disputes between families involved
property, business, and personal injury. If
an Israelite had a dispute with someone, they
brought their witnesses and spoke before the
elders at the main gate. There a decision would
be rendered. Witnessing depended on truth telling.
At the heart of this commandment was the knowledge
that language is the essence of culture and
- Don't desire anything that is your neighbor's.
Today: The Hebrew word is chamad.
Typically, it means "desire, yearn for,
covet, lust after someone or something specifically
for your own use or gratification."
But, some say that this is too broad, too inclusive.
It's too strict, too hard. They, then, argue
for a narrower meaning, like connive, saying
that it prohibits any practical action that
attempts to acquire what belongs to your neighbor.
But we have to read the whole commandment. It
doesn't say desire is bad, it says desiring
belongs to your neighbor is bad. This is a commandment
that deals with
root causes. Attitudes affect the way people
live. This is like an itch that won't go away.
There may also be some significance in the fact
that this is the tenth and last of the series.
In fact, let's think of this as a summary commandment.
The violation of this commandment is like the
gateway to the violation of all the others.
Because it describes an attitude, it is also
unenforceable. How can you enforce against coveting
or desire? Who would know? If it were limited
to connive, we might be able to see that. But
as desire, that is something just between God
These Ten Words are not prescriptions for salvation.
We haven't heard anywhere, "Those who
do this will get to heaven." This was
the forming of a community. These were spiritual
guidelines. This was a pattern for living. These
were the limits. Everything else was okay. This
was not a one-time thing; this was a process.
The children of Israel spent the rest of their
days figuring out the practical application of
those Ten Words that they were given at the base
of that mountain. They learned how to live with
each other, and how to live with God. In a very
real sense, we are still learning too. Our story
is very much connected to theirs.
Mary Jane Chapin Chaignot