The Ten Commandments

At the heart of the Mosaic Covenant is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17). By observing these commandments Israel would be building a national civilization that is consistent with God's will. And the nation would be holy enough for the Holy God to dwell in their midst. To better appreciate the meaning of the Ten Commandments we present it as follows (adapted from Kaiser 1983: 84):

I am (being) the LORD, who redeemed you from slavery in Egypt,
(1) You shall have no other gods beside Me;
(2) You shall not make any image as an object of worship;
(3) You shall not abuse the name of the LORD your God.

(4) Remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy,
     You shall not work more than six days in a week.

(5) Honoring your father and your mother,
(6) You shall not murder;
(7) You shall not commit adultery;
(8) You shall not steal;
(9) You shall not bear false witness;
(10) You shall not covet what others have.

This way of presenting the Ten Commandments not only retains the imperative (commanding) sense of “remember” and “honor” but also enables us to classify the commandments into three categories: relationship with God (commandments 1-3); relationship with money (commandment 4); and relationship with people (commandments 5-10).

The first three commandments are based directly on who God is. The Bible presents God as omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-present) and omniscient (all-knowing). This view of God is consistent with the teaching of Genesis 1:1 that God created everything in the universe out of nothing, which this exposition presupposes at the outset.

If God is all-powerful (Jeremiah 32:17, 27) He can be fully trusted to protect and to provide. So there is no need to trust in other (so-called) gods as a backup in case God fails. To trust in and hence worship anything besides God amounts to denying His omnipotence. If we worship “God” plus something else we are worshipping a “God” of our own imagination, that is, a “God” who is not all-powerful and thus may fail. Worshipping a god of our own imagination is the essence of idolatry. Hence one can be idolatrous even when one claims to be worshipping the Creator God.

The main concern of the second commandment is not worshipping foreign gods, as this is taken care of in the first commandment. It is prohibiting the making of any physical object of worship, even when it is intended to represent the Creator God Himself. For if God is all-present (Psalm 139:7-10), He fills the universe. Representing Him with a physical object limits Him to a specific location. This amounts to denying His omnipresence. This is again idolatry as it is worshipping a god of human imagination.

Violating the third commandment, such as when people swear falsely in God's name, is unlike violating the other commandments. For abusing God’s name is not just violating a commandment of God, it is also violating the name of God. And God’s name stands for who He is. Since this violation abuses God Himself one would not dare do it if he is consciously aware that God knows what he is about to do. To misuse God’s name intentionally thus ignores that He is all-knowing (Psalm 44:20-21). So unless one denies God’s existence altogether, abusing God’s name amounts to denying God's omniscience.

God’s omnipotence was most obvious to the Israelites, for they had just witnessed how He manifested His power to redeem them from slavery in Egypt. If they consciously observed the second and third commandments, they would also cultivate the sense that God is also omnipresent and omniscient.

The fourth commandment is about money, as it limits one’s economic activities. It is about submitting one's economic life to God. Elaborations of this commandment show that it is not just about observing the Sabbath day, but also the Sabbath year (Exodus 23:10-11), where the land is to rest for a year. The ecological concern of this commandment is obvious. And on the seventh Sabbath year, called the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8-34), land that had been sold was to be returned to the original owner. The economic concern of the Sabbath commandment is thus unmistakable. It serves to curb economic greed, which is the cause of the current ecological crisis.

The fifth commandment is about honoring human authorities. Like the Sabbath commandment it covers more than what is explicitly stated. When we consider the book of Deuteronomy we shall see that it is not just about honoring parents, but also the other human authorities in the nation. This explains why the next five commandments are tied to it. For these commandments are basic to law and order in a nation.

The sixth to the ninth commandments, which prohibits murder, adultery, theft and lies, constitute the basic morality recognized by all cultures. Though traditionally many cultures deviate from God’s will by permitting a man to have more than one wife at the same time (polygamy), it is unimaginable that any culture would permit a man to freely have another man’s wife. Hence a deviation like polygamy does not mean that there is no core morality recognized by all peoples. In fact, insofar as polygamy circumvents what would otherwise be adultery, it recognizes the commandment against adultery.

The commandment against lying has a specific application in a court of law. It fact, it is phrased in legal language: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In the course of a trial, a sworn testimony may be required (Bovati 1994: 283-88, footnote 62). When this happens, this commandment goes together with the commandment against abusing God’s name. So the ninth commandment is basic to the enforcement of laws based on the previous commandments.

Even more basic to these commandments is the tenth commandment. For covetousness, an expression of sinful human disposition, is the cause behind murder, adultery, theft and lies. This commandment teaches that “true obedience involves not only avoiding certain actions but also intentions and attitudes toward others in relationship, perhaps best captured in such words as envy or greed or lust. Covetousness has a way of breeding discontent and easily leads to abuse and crime; it is a basic source of social disorder and trouble in interpersonal relationships” (Fretheim 1991: 238).

Jesus was applying this teaching when He said a man who looks at a woman with lustful (covetous) intention has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28). Most crimes are caused by the covetousness of the criminals themselves; some crimes are triggered by the covetous actions of others, such as a jealous husband assaulting his wife’s lover. If covetousness, the pre-crime attitude or intention, is curbed in the heart, there would hardly be any crime. But in practice this can happen only when people believe in the Holy God, who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, and thus fear Him and keep all His commandments.

This explains why Paul could say that covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). For one cannot be truly worshipping the all-powerful, all-present and all-knowing holy God and yet willingly harbor covetousness in his heart. Such a person is worshipping a god of his own imagination, which is, Money, Power and Sex. Jesus puts it more bluntly: “You cannot serve God and Money” (Matthew 6:24). In this light the Sabbath commandment, which is basically a commandment to curb covetousness, unites the first three commandments with the last six. No wonder Isaiah could just refer to the Sabbath commandment when he obviously meant the Ten Commandments (Isaiah 56:1-8).

In other words, how we relate to God (commandments 1-3) and how we relate to people (commandments 5-10) are affected by how we relate to money or material things (commandment 4). This exposes the moral implications of (scientific) materialism, the view that all that exists in this universe is material. For scientific materialism not only implies atheism but also economic materialism, the view that all that matters in this life is the material, which justifies preoccupation with material things. This is precisely what the Sabbath commandment opposes.

Therefore all ten commandments come in one package. We cannot affirm the universal applicability of the commandments against murder, adultery, theft and lies without affirming the universal relevance of the other commandments as well. In fact, the Sabbath commandment, which unites all the commandments, is explicitly based on God’s creation of the world (Exodus 20:11). This means it is applicable to all human beings, not just the Israelites. Israel was to observe the Ten Commandments because the nation was called to build a human civilization as a model for all nations.

This does not mean that all the laws of Israel, which are applications of the Ten Commandments in their historical and cultural context, are directly applicable today. How the Ten Commandments is to be applied today depends on the context of the nation concerned. We will now look at Exodus 20:22-23:19, known as the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:7), to see how the Ten Commandments was applied in the context of ancient Israel. This will help us see how the Ten Commandments can be applied in our context. For now we will focus on the laws that apply the commandments against murder and theft.

It is important to recognize that just as the intention of a commandment goes beyond what is explicitly stated, a law that applies a certain commandment can be extended to all cases similar to the specific case discussed (cf. Stuart 2006: 442-45). Hence the case of an ox killing a person due to the negligence of the owner (see below) covers all similar cases, such as the case of a dog killing a person as well as the case of someone recklessly riding a horse, or driving a car, and killing a person.

We will begin with the concept known as lex talionis (the law of retaliation) as expressed in Exodus 21:23-25: “you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” It is obvious from the context that this is a frozen formula not to be understood literally. It simply means the penalty must fit the crime, not less than what is deserved and certainly not more (cf. Sarna 1986: 182-89). For in the next two verses we read that if a man destroys the eye or knocks out the tooth of his slave, he shall set the slave free as restitution. The formula is applied literally only in outright premeditated murder, not even in manslaughter (Exodus 21:12-14). We have seen that in the case of murder the sentence that fits the crime is the death sentence (Genesis 9:6).

The case of the goring ox (Exodus 21:28-32) further illustrates how the formula is to be applied. If an ox gores a person to death it must be put to death (cf. Genesis 9:5). The ox’s owner is not liable, unless he had been warned that his ox had a habit of goring and yet did not confine it. In this case, he faces the death penalty as well. Even then, since it was not exactly premeditated murder, there was a provision for him to pay a ransom for his own life. But the restitution is “whatever demanded of him” by the victim’s family, presumably subjected to the judge’s agreement (cf. Exodus 21:22). This shows there is no price-tag to a human life. This provision upholds the sanctity of human life, both that of the victim as well as the offender.

This provision applies equally whether the victim is a man or a woman, an adult or a child. However, it did not apply if the victim was a slave, in which case the owner of the slave would get a restitution of 30 shekels of silver, the then price of a slave. This does not mean that a slave was not considered a human being. From the other laws relating to slaves, especially when compared to similar laws in neighboring nations, we can see that slaves are still valued as human beings.

For instance, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (sections 15-16) prescribes the death penalty for anyone who helped a slave to escape through the city-gate, or who harbored a fugitive slave in his house and did not surrender him at the summons of the authorities. In contrast, we read in Deuteronomy 23:15-16 that a fugitive slave should not be surrendered to his master; in fact he should be allowed to dwell freely in whichever town he chose to live in (cf. Baker 2009: 130-34). This contrast in fact highlights the fundamental difference between the laws in the Old Testament and those of the neighboring nations: human values have priority over economic considerations (Wenham 1979: 282).

Why then a price-tag on the life of a slave in Exodus 21:32? There is such a thing as the law of unintended consequences, that is, “actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended” (Norton 2008: 505). We have seen how Pharoah’s attempts to prevent the Israelites from leaving Egypt actually promoted it. Just as a law made with bad intentions may have good consequences, a law made with good intentions may have bad consequences. In this particular case, which represents all cases of causing death due to negligence (such as Deuteronomy 22:8), if a slave owner is entitled to a restitution of “whatever is demanded” he may be tempted to set his slave up to be killed. This would endanger the life of slaves. In any case the ransom money did not benefit the slave or his family.

So the “price-tag” actually protects slaves and does not compromise on the principle that human values are more important than economic considerations. This principle is also exemplified in the case of a thief being killed in the act of breaking in (Exodus 22:2-3): “If the thief is killed at night, the killer is not guilty of murder; if in the daytime, he is. The principle guiding this ruling is: killing is justified to protect oneself and family, but not to protect property. If it were legitimate in the protection of property, they would be no distinction between night and day” (Patrick 1989: 35). For in those days there was no electricity; one could not even see whether the intruder was armed or not at night. With a little imagination we can appreciate why killing the intruder was an act of self-defense. In fact this is the law to turn to for Biblical support for the legitimacy of killing in self-defense.

As for the penalty for theft the Old Testament prescribes restitution, paying back more than what was stolen (Exodus 22:1-4). If the thief was not able to do that, he would be sold as a debt-slave (made to work for pay) to meet this demand. This law is still applicable today, as Charles Colson (1988: 154-55) testifies:

Recently I addressed the Texas legislature . . . . I told them that the only answer to the crime problem is to take nonviolent criminals out of our prisons and make them pay back their victims with restitution. This is how we can solve the prison crowding problem.

The amazing thing was that afterwards they came up to me one after another and said things like, “That’s a tremendous idea. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?” I had the privilege of saying to them, “Read Exodus 22. It is only what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.”

We have seen so far that, except for murder, restitution is the standard penalty imposed. The criminal justice system embodied in these laws differs from that which currently dominates in modern states; instead it matches Restorative Justice (Van Ness and Strong 2010), the alternate criminal justice system that is gaining popularity worldwide and has recently been promoted by the United Nations (2006). We shall elaborate on this when we look at the Ten Commandments as the Constitution of ancient Israel.

Inasmuch as the commandment against covetousness (pre-crime sin) cannot be enforced by human authorities, there are laws to prevent crimes that are enforceable only by God. For instance, if someone discovers his enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, he is to bring it back to its owner (Exodus 23:4-5). An “enemy” is defined as “one who hates you,” not one whom you hate; it is assumed that one should not hate one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:17). Only the conscience of a God-fearing person would be pricked to observe this law. Jesus reiterated this teaching when He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). If enough people do this, the crime rate would be negligible.