Gospel Doctrine Lesson 14- Exodus 15-20, 32-34.

The Ten Words, from the 1638 Amsterdam Esnoga synagogue. Public domain.

Insert here my usual gripe about how we’re trying to cover so much ground in so little time, but let’s talk about The Ten Commandments. It’s a common-knowledge topic, and everyone’s seen the film, so we all know everything about them, right?


By traditional Jewish count, the Torah has 613 commandments or mitzvot (rhymes with boat; the plural of mitzvah): 248 positive commandments or “thou shalts” and 365 negative commandments or “thou shalt not”s. While the ten here are traditionally considered among that count, the text does not refer to them as  “commandments.” Rather, they are the ten devarim (pl. of davar, the phrase is found in Exo 34:28, Deu 4:13, and Deu 10:4). A davar is a word, a thing, a matter, or cause. A parallel term is the decalogue, Greek for “ten words.” Moreover, as Nahum Sarna says,

the Ten Commandments do not constitute a legal system. They express general principles of right and wrong, but they contain no provisions for their enforcement.

Although we talk about the LAW of Moses, this and the details of the chapters that follow are not like modern law codes. First, there is no word for “law” in Biblical hebrew. It’s typically translating the word torah, which means something like “authoritative teaching.” Second, there’s nothing like police or sheriffs. It is the collective community that ultimately enforces the standards of the community. Third, while there will be “judges,” they don’t function at all like judges today; even in the broader ancient near east, where you find various law codes (e.g. Laws of Hammurabi, or Middle Assyrian Laws), they are not cited in courts or decisions.

What the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah of Moses are, is part of a formal relationship. They are the terms of the covenant God establishes with the Israelites. If the Israelites wish to stay in this relationship with God, these are the terms he sets forth. I’ll have more to say about this when we get to Deuteronomy, but note that these open with the phrase “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. This is part of the ancient covenant pattern. The major party is identified in relation to the lesser party “I am the Lord, and I am your God” along with a reminder of what the one has done for the other. “I brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

Ancient covenants in and out of the Bible frequently included a ritual ratification ceremony involving (among other things) a simile curse. That is, the binding party would carry out actions emblematic of the death they would undergo if they violated the covenant. The Law of Moses was inaugurated this way in Exodus 24, for example. Here’s footnote 52 from my BYU Studies article on atonement in the Old Testament.

The simile-curse aspects of the covenant-ratification ritual in Exodus 24 have long been noted. The throats of animals were cut, the blood collected (called “the blood of the covenant”), and half splashed on the altar and half on the people who had just agreed to the covenant. This was a “symbolic action in which the people were identified with the sacrificed animal, so that the fate of the latter is presented as the fate to be expected by the people if they vio lated their sacred promise (i.e., it is a form of self-curse). Thus the ratification ceremony was, in effect, the pledging of their lives as a guarantee of obedience to the divine will.” David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 1:1185 s.v. “Covenant.” Scott Hahn connects this with kinship: “ The sprinkling of blood is a ritualized oath-curse—in technical terminology, a Drohitus. The sprinkled blood of the slain animals represents the curse of death that both parties invoke upon themselves should they prove unfaithful to their covenantal obligations. The mutual sprinkling of blood may also convey the idea that both parties now share one blood—that is, they have become kin.” Hahn, Kinship by Covenant, 47.


The number makes clear that there are ten of these words or commandments, but what are the ten? It’s not like they’re numbered in the Bible. For example, what constitutes the first commandment?

less obvious is the manner in which the number ten is attained. Here, there are varying traditions that center on (1) whether verse 2 [“I am the Lord your God”] is an independent declaration on a par with the others or simply an introduction to the entire document; and (2) whether verses 3 and 4 are treated as a single item or as two distinct commandments. On each of these issues, rabbinic tradition favors the first alternative….  Another approach is taken by Philo of Alexandria (d. 50 c.e.), in his work on the Decalogue, and by Josephus (d. after 100 c.e.); both reflect early Jewish traditions that make verse 3 the first commandment and verses 4–6 the second. Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions interpret verses 3–6 as the first commandment and divide verse [17] into two commandments.- Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary

The 10 Words 

  • 2-3 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
    • The treaty/covenant pattern opens with the deity/king/superior party identifying themselves and reminding the vassal what has been done for them. Note, then, that the second statement is not a declaration of monotheism, but of covenant loyalty; whatever other kings exist, Yahweh is our king and none other has claim upon us for our loyalty. Note also the presumption of the existence of other divine beings in Exo 15:11, among others. “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?”
  • 4-6 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
    • Other cultures had a variety of statues, images, etc. to represent deity, though they did not think these were the gods themselves. Israel, by contrast, was not supposed to make such representations for purposes of worship. This was understood differently at different times, sometimes completely aniconic, other times much less so. Some synagogues during and after the New Testament period have a good number of “pagan” and biblical representations, such as the zodiac, Melchisedek, the Jerusalem temple, etc. See here, for example. The main idea here is not representation as such, but offering homage to these things as others did.
  • 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
    • KJV “in vain” means “for nothing, no good purpose” hence “wrongful use” in the translation I’ve used. It originally referred to oaths. That is, if one swore an oath by God’s name without intent or failing to keep it, that reflected on deity, bringing dishonor and shame upon God. Consequently, God would not hold guiltless anyone who misused it. Some of our “swearing” today has resulted from shortened oath phrases, e.g. “I swear X by God!” eventually just becomes “by God!”
  • 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
    • When the 10 Commandments are reiterated in Deu. 5, the verb used with the sabbath is “observe/keep” instead of “remember.” Is there a real difference, or are these perfect synonyms? Holiness essentially means separate, different; a sabbath (shabat means to cease) was different from all the other days because one did not work. Note that the Israelites had no weekend. The regular weekly sabbath was Saturday; on Sunday morning it was back into the fields, but there were other sabbaths as well, holy days (which become holidays in English). A purpose of the seventh day was, therefore quite literally, rest. Exo 23:12 reads Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures did not have a regular day of rest, only the holy days.  For a great read on this, see BYU professor Craig Harline’s Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Superbowl (Yale University Press, 2011.) One of our modern cultural issues is that our regular weekly sabbath no longer seems like a blessed rest from otherwise unceasing daily labor, as much as the half of the weekend that is religiously restricted. See also my suggestions for fourth Sunday discussions.
  • 9-11 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
    • The rational for the sabbath here is emulation of creation; that is, in ceasing from our our own creative human works on the 7th day as God did, we can better appreciate the works of creation God has done. The rationale in the parallel version in Deuteronomy 5:15  differs significantly, Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. Why does the iteration of the commandment right after leaving Egypt take creation as the motive (a very natural one), but the later iteration in Deuteronomy uses freedom from Egypt?
    • Note also that the text nowhere defines “work.” LDS are well acquainted with facile comparisons that imply Judaism was rigidly overbearing, but it was a serious question; God has forbidden something without clearly defining it, so how should we understand it? While LDS tend to answer these questions unsystematically, the rabbis noted that instructions about constructing the Tabernacle  were interrupted with a reminder to observe the sabbaths (Exodus 31). From that, it was clear that the actions involved in constructing the tabernacle constituted “work.” They derived 39 categories of work from those actions necessary to construct the tabernacle. It is clear that some of these go back much further than the Mishnah which enumerates them. For example, John 5 records the story of a man who was healed. Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.”  Now, Mormons tend to read this as “those darn legalistic Pharisees, making a hedge around the law! Clearly, such a thing was not right.” But note, this (or a very similar) interpretive understanding of the sabbath prohibition goes back at least hundreds of years. Jeremiah 17:21-22 reads Thus sayeth the LORD: For the sake of your lives, be sure that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath nor do any such work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors. 
    • Notably, the LDS Church in Israel observes Saturday as the weekly sabbath, and in Muslim countries, the LDS Church observes Friday as a sabbath. The key, I think, is to set apart or sanctify one day as different from the others. The question is, how should we do that? What principle(s) do we use to rationalize our decisions about what is and isn’t appropriate for a day of worship?
  • 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
    • This is the only commandment without a “not,” a positive commandment. “To honor” here means to take seriously, to respect, to treat with authority one’s parents. Notably, this is one of only a few places where promise of long life is given. Deuteronomy 5 adds to long life “so that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
  • 13 You shall not murder.
    • KJV “shalt not kill,” but the verb means to murder or commit homicide, and is not used for administration of justice, in war, or with God as the subject. It “denotes illegal behaviour against the community which is always directed against an individual” according to HALOT. “This command, therefore, cannot be used to justify either pacifism or the abolition of the death penalty, both of which would have to be argued on other grounds.”- Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary
  • 14 You shall not commit adultery.
    • A 1631 misprint of the KJV accidentally omitted the not, and quickly became a collector’s edition. Several people were severely fined. (See McGrath, p.216.) Leviticus 20:10ff spells out some of the illicit combinations possible, and their consequences. Like law codes outside of Israel, such as the Middle Assyrian Laws, adultery was often punishable by death. It was

      considered a “great sin” (ḥăṭāʾâ gĕdōlâ) by the biblical author (Gen 20:9) and a “sin against God” (Gen 20:6; 39:9; Ps 51:6). This characterization of adultery as a “great sin” was not limited to Israel. It is found in texts from Ugarit… and Egypt (…where adultery is labeled a “great crime”). In several Akkadian texts, ḫaṭû, cognate to Heb ḥṭʾ, “to sin,” refers specifically to adultery; ḫāṭı̄tum (fem. sing. part. of ḫaṭû) indicates an adulteress .

      The economic aspect of the crime, i.e. as a simple violation of the husband’s property, seems to have played a minor role compared with the social and religious dimensions of the crime. Adultery is the height of treachery (Jer 9:1; Mal 3:5; Ps 50:18) and adulterers are linked with murderers (Job 24:14–15). Adultery is an assault upon the sanctity of the nuclear family, which is divinely ordained (Gen 2:18, 24; Prov 18:22). The prohibition of adultery, the 7th commandment of the Decalogue, along with the 5th—“Honor your father and mother …”—seek to protect this sacred institution….Both parties to the illicit union are ritually defiled or rendered impure (ṭmʾ; Lev 18:20; Num 5:13; Ezek 18:6; 23:13, 17; 33:26). The adulterer commits an “abomination” (tôʿēbâ; Ezek 22:11), while adultery is included in the Pentateuch’s catalog of sexual crimes which defile the land of Israel, causing it to “spew out its inhabitants” (Lev 18:20, 24–25).- Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Adultery.”

  • 15 You shall not steal.
    • This is fairly straightforward. Finally, right? Note that Deuteronomy later expands greatly on economic equality, not oppressing the hireling in his wages, not taking advantage of the foreigner, etc.
  • 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
    • A somewhat legalistic phrase, this literally reads “You shall not answer against your neighbor as a lying witness.” Notably, prophets elsewhere in the Bible are not always strictly honest; Abraham lies about Sarah,  Jeremiah lies to protect himself (Jer 38:24-27), Elisha instructs Hazel to lie to his master, both knowing it’s a lie (2 Kings 8:10); David lies to Ahimelek (1Sa 21:1-3) Both the midwives and then Moses lie to Pharaoh about going into wilderness to offer sacrifice (with the implication that they’ll just come right back after.) Jesus even appears to lie in John 7:1-10, telling his brothers he’s not going to the festival, but then secretly goes anyway! For an interesting exploration of God and honesty, check out these two posts by Evangelical  Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser, post 1 and post 2.
  • 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
    • This commandment appears to be property-based. Note that the addressee is apparently male (as it does not say “or your neighbor’s husband”) and note also that while one’s wife is listed among the house, slaves, and animals, Proverbs 31:10ff attributes a good bit of social and financial control to a married women. We should be careful about extracting or generalizing from either of these extremes.
    • As for coveting, it is generally a parallel to “lust.” While we mostly know “lust” as something with sexual overtones, “lust” in the New Testament refers just to strong desire for anything. The Hebrew word here was used back in Genesis 2-3, when the woman saw that  the tree was desirable to make one wise. In other words, coveting/lust is setting your heart on something, a must-have. I know little about Buddhism, but I believe one of its principles is that many problems are caused by desire. I would adapt that to say, misplaced desire. He has never said this elsewhere, but Elder Holland came through our mission and said something that struck me firmly; “Do not want what cannot be.”

Tradition portrays tablets with 5 commandments on each.

However, this is unlikely to be the case.

The rationale for two tablets of stone (as at [Deu] 5:19) derives from ancient Near Eastern state treaties, whereby both sovereign and vassal would retain a separate copy of the treaty. The popular image of a single tablet with a double arch misunderstands that historical context. –The Jewish Study Bible

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.


3 thoughts on “Gospel Doctrine Lesson 14- Exodus 15-20, 32-34.

  1. Ben, I notice you use Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis quite a bit. It would seem that his 1970’s ‘Understanding Genesis’ would be a precursor to the JPS Commentary. I have Understanding Genesis and I’m going through it now and will buy the JPS Commentary once I’m happy with an Amazon price that I like. Do you know what major differences there are between the books though?
    Also, I presume you are using his JPS Commentary on Exodus now – how would you compare the content there to his JPS Genesis?


    1. I’m a fan of Sarna, it’s true. I have his Understanding Genesis. While I haven’t made a comparison, I think the commentary has more granular detail (since it tries to be verse-by-verse) whereas Understanding tends to be bigger picture, forest-not-the-trees perspective. I’m also using the Exodus JPS volume (I got the whole set at prepublication price from Logos, https://www.logos.com/prepub/about), but I haven’t read his Exploring Exodus book. JPS Exodus is about half the length of JPS Genesis.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s