Commentary on Exodus 19-20 (The Ten Commandments)

At the beginning of chapter 19, the Israelites have finally reached the base of Mount Sinai, on the third day of the third month after the Exodus from Egypt (48 days).  The people of Israel would reside at Mount Sinai for a full year – the rest of the Book of Exodus, all of the Book of Leviticus, and the first ten chapters of the Book of Numbers all take place here.

In verses 3-6, God speaks to Moses and announces the covenant that He will make with Israel. God first reminds Israel that He brought them out of Egypt. He then tells them that if they will obey His commands, He will bless them as His special people – “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Note that this is a conditional covenant with Israel. They will only be blessed if they obey God.

Douglas Stuart, in his Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary), notes that this covenant “represents the separation of his chosen people from the general world population, or, stated in terms of the overall biblical plan of redemption, the beginning of the outworking of his intention to bring close to himself a people that will join him for all eternity as adopted members of his family.”

Additionally, “full monotheism is expressed in the words ‘although the whole earth is mine.’ This is one of the clearest early statements of monotheism in the Bible and certainly must have represented a sudden education for many of those present to hear Moses first relay these words to the people, since so many of them had grown up polytheists.”

In verses 7-8, the people agree to God’s covenant. Unfortunately, the remainder of the Old Testament conveys the sad truth that the Israelites were unable to hold up their side of the bargain.

God then tells Moses to prepare the Israelites for His coming in great glory on the mountain at Sinai. Moses warns the people to stay back from the mountain or they will be put to death. After three days of preparation, the people of Israel assemble at the foot of the mountain and God puts on an amazing display of pyrotechnics – thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, tremors. God again warns Moses that only he and Aaron are allowed to go up the mountain.

Once everyone has been assembled, God starts to speak to the Israelites and his first words to them are the Ten Commandments, or literally the “Ten Words.” The commandments are outlined in other parts of the Bible in different order, so they have been numbered in different ways by modern Jews and Christians. It seems that the best way to harmonize most of the biblical texts is the following:

Ex 20:2-6 – 1st commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Ex 20:7 – 2nd commandment “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”

Ex 20:8-11 – 3rd commandment “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

Ex 20:12 – 4th commandment “Honor your father and your mother.”

Ex 20:13 – 5th commandment “You shall not murder.”

Ex 20:14 – 6th commandment “You shall not commit adultery.”

Ex 20:15 – 7th commandment “You shall not steal.”

Ex 20:16 – 8th commandment “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

Ex 20:17a – 9th commandment “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”

Ex 20:17b – 10th commandment “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Another popular way to delineate the Ten Commandments is to make verses 4-6 be the second commandment and to combine verses 17a and 17b as one commandment.

These ten commands from God are general moral instructions that can be applied to all sorts of specific situations. The many other laws found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are all applications of the Ten Commandments.

Following is a brief word on each commandment.

The 1st commandment is a straightforward command to worship only Yahweh, the God of Israel. The Israelites were surrounded by cultures where polytheism (worship of multiple gods) was the norm. God is teaching his people that they are to discard all of the other false gods that were worshipped in Egypt and that will be worshipped in Canaan.

The 2nd commandment is meant to teach the Israelites how they are to call on Him. They are not to presume upon Him, but to treat His name with dignity and respect befitting the Creator of the universe.

The 3rd commandment instructs Israel to rest every 7th day and to assemble in worship on that day, repeating the pattern of the creation week.

The 4th commandment reminds children, both young and old, that they are to respect and honor their parents for as long as the children live. Even after their parents have died, they are to honor the teachings and instructions of their parents. This command assumes that the parents taught correctly about God, so it is not a blanket command for children to blindly follow their parents, even when their parents are clearly wrong about God.

The 5th commandment repeats what God taught in Genesis 9:6, that one man is not to take the life of another man without proper justification.

The 6th commandment reiterates God’s restrictions on sexual intercourse. It is to occur between a man and a woman who are married.

The 7th commandment forbids taking what does not belong to you.

The 8th commandment stresses honesty and accuracy.

The 9th and 10th commandments forbid a person to passionately desire or yearn for that which belongs to his neighbor, whether that be his neighbor’s spouse, property, or wealth. In essence, any kind of covetousness is prohibited.

  • I think you’re forgetting that Moses smashed this first set and went back for another one. At the end of that summary, we read: “And [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”

    That’s the first use of the words “Ten Commandments” in the Bible, and that’s for the second (and very different) set in Exodus 34.

    I’ve written more here.