Formations 02.10.2019: First Things First

Deuteronomy 5:6-21

Moses Pleading with Israel, as in Deuteronomy 6:1-15, illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company

We usually associate the ten commandments with Mount Sinai. They appear for the first time in Scripture in Exodus 20, following directly after the scene in last week’s lesson where God speaks from Sinai with thunder and lighting, thick clouds, a loud trumpet blast, smoke, and an earthquake. When the people shrunk back from hearing this terrifying voice of God, Moses ascended the mountain to bring down the Law.

But there is another recitation of the ten commandments in the Bible, and that is what we’re studying this week. In this account from Deuteronomy 5, some forty years have passed since that first awe-filled experience. The generation that trembled at God’s voice at Mount Sinai has died in the wilderness. Now a new generation has arisen and is poised to enter the promised land.

On the plains of Moab, with the land of Canaan in sight, Moses reminds the Israelites of the obligations of the covenant—and he takes the next twenty-nine chapters to do it, starting with the ten commandments.

I can’t help but wonder, had I been one of those ancient Israelites, if my reaction would have been, “Let’s get on with it!” I mean, the promised land was right over there. All we had to do was cross the Jordan River and claim it. But instead, we’re stuck listening to Moses preach for who knows how long.

Sometimes faithfulness to God means staying put, at least until we’re in the right place spiritually. The Israelites were about to take possession of the land God had promised to their ancestors—but then what? How will they order their new lives? What shall be their stance toward God? How about the gods of the Canaanites? What obligations must they fulfill toward each other?

If they don’t stop to consider those fundamental questions, the promised land may turn out to be a far grimmer place than it should have been.

When we’re eager to move forward, it may seem like a waste of time to keep going back to the old, old story. But hearing those words again may be just what we need to stay grounded.

That way, when we do move forward, we’ll do it with confidence that we’re not leaving anything precious behind.


• When have you been eager to “get on with it”? Looking back, were there valid reasons to wait? Explain.
• What do we risk if we forget our core principles?
• Why do you think Moses reminded the Israelites of their obligations to God and others at this time?
• How might the context on the border of the promised land have shaped how the Israelites heard these commands?

Reference Shelf

The Content of the Ten Commandments

There is great diversity in the numbering of the commandments. The diversity arises largely as a result of different ways of numbering the commandment to worship no other god or gods and the commandment to make no carved images. The Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran traditions make a single commandment of these, while Orthodox and Reformed traditions number them as two. The commandment against coveting is sometimes tivided into two commandments in order to retain the number ten. Jewish tradition has numbered as the first commandment the assertion, “I am the Lord your God [or “I the Lord am your God”] who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (or “bondage”), and does not divide the commandment against coveting.

The numbering used here follows Orthodox and Reformed tradition. The commandments may be divided into four groups: God’s absolute demands (commandments 1, 2, 3, against the worship of other gods, against idolatry, and against the misuse of the divine name); God’s basic institutions (commandments 4 and 5, against the misuse of the Sabbath and the mistreatment of parents); fundamental personal demands (commandments 6 and 7, against killing and adultery); and fundamental social demands (commandments 8, 9, and 10, against stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting).

Walter Harrelson, “Ten Commandments,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 883.

Statements of Principle

Before turning attention to the individual commandments in the Decalogue, a few general observations concerning their nature, genre, and structure are in order. First, Christian readers in particular should note, as the preamble to the Decalogue points out, that, although the requirements of obedience to the covenant as expressed in the Ten Commandments are central to Israel’s identity as God’s people, they hold neither chronological nor theological priority. YHWH gave Israel the Decalogue, and its extension in the Torah as a whole, only after YHWH had redeemed and delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage in fulfillment of an unconditional promise made to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This commentary will return to this fundamental observation repeatedly because it is essential as a corrective against Christian misunderstandings and caricatures of the Torah and of the Old Testament as a whole.

A second, related observation involves the importance of accurately understanding the function of these Ten Commandments as indicated by their genre. Typically, they are described as the core of the Old Testament Law. Closer examination of the Decalogue reveals, however, that this designation is woefully inadequate. Almost by definition, laws must set clear boundaries on human activities and include some enforcement mechanism. In an influential study, A. Alt called attention to the presence of two distinct literary genres in the legal materials in the Pentateuch. Casuistic, or case law, more closely conforms to standard definitions and patterns of law. Such case laws normally define a circumstance or behavior and prescribe a punishment, penalty, or remedy….

The Ten Commandments, Alt pointed out, have very little in common formally with the case law tradition. First of all, the syntax of these commandments does not utilize imperative verbs— a circumstance easily overlooked in translation—but makes statements of fact. Furthermore, as a general rule (exceptions include the commandment against idol worship and the Sabbath commandment), the Decalogue does not define its terms. Does the prohibition against killing mean to include all killing? Or does it refer specifically to murder? Neither does the Decalogue impose penalties. Alt termed this type of pure pronouncement “apodictic” law. In effect, such pronouncements are not laws at all, but statements of principle. E. Gerstenberger has argued that apodictic law bears greater resemblance to the teaching of values in a family setting than to legal traditions in the strict sense. “Members of our family do not lie.” B. Jackson has argued further that the Israelite legal system itself did not operate by means of the application of specific codified laws, but depended on the learning and wisdom of judges as they applied the principles annunciated in the legal codes, case law, and oral traditions.

Third, given the fact that the Ten Commandments are not “laws” after all, it is noteworthy that the basic statements of principle are sometimes expanded by clauses offering theological (not legal) motivations and rationales. The Bible consistently attests to the tradition that, at Mt. Horeb/Sinai, YHWH gave Israel a special collection of ten “words” (hence the term “Decalogue” from the Latin for “ten words”) written on two tables of stone (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4). The Bible does not, however, offer a uniform picture of the contents of those stone tables.

Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003), 103–104.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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