GOD REVEALS HIS LAW Exodus 20–23
“Worship the Lord your God, and His blessing will be upon you” (Ex. 23:25).The rabbis identify 613 laws in Moses’ writings. The 10 basic commandments are stated in Exodus 20. The principles expressed in the Ten Commandments are valid for all persons of all times, for they reflect the moral nature of God.
Definition of Key Terms
Ten Commandments. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews agree there are Ten Commandments. But they do not agree on which 10! Protestants take 20:3 as the first commandment. Catholics group verses 3–6 as the first commandment, and divide verse 17 into 2. Jews understand verse 2 as the first, and also group verses 3–6. Four characteristics. Four characteristics of the Ten Commandments should be noted. (1) Each is stated as an absolute. Other ancient law codes generally listed acts and their consequences—if you do this, then this will happen. We are to follow God’s commandments because they are right, not through fear of punishment. (2) Eight of the 10 are stated as negatives, but each implies a positive. Do not steal clearly calls us to respect others’ property rights. (3) Each is addressed to “you” in the second person singular. God spoke not to all Israel, but to each individual member of the believing community. We cannot guarantee others will obey God’s commands. But we each can be responsible for ourself. (4) Each commandment is relational. The first four show us how to live harmoniously with God. The last six show us how to live harmoniously with other people. We cannot violate God’s commandments without harming our relationship with Him and with others.
God gave Moses 10 basic commandments revealing how to express love for God (20:1–11) and for other persons (vv. 12–21). Specific laws dealing with altars (vv. 22–26), servants (21:2–11), personal injury (vv. 12–36), and property (22:1–15) followed. Moses also identified heinous sins (vv. 16–31), commanded compassion (23:1–9), rest for land, man, and beast (vv. 10–13), and established three religious festivals (vv. 14–19). God promised to make His people prosper if they worshiped Him only and obeyed His laws (vv. 20–33).
Understanding the Text
“He shall go free” Ex. 21:2–11. Old Testament laws protected individual slaves far more than other law codes of the era, and called for a Hebrew slave to serve no more than six years. Only by a person’s own free choice could he be bound to a master for life. This Old Testament law teaches us that each individual is to be respected, whatever his or her social position. Even the weakest were not to be oppressed, but rather were to be protected. “Held responsible” Ex. 21:12–36. The commandment said, “You shall not murder.” Here the text cites a number of specific examples showing that “You shall not murder” implies, “You shall respect the life and well-being of others.” Persons who intentionally harm others, or even cause others harm by their carelessness, are to be held responsible. Even leaving a pit one digs uncovered, should a person or animal fall into it, creates responsibility (vv. 33–34). More than one doctor who has stopped to help a person injured in an auto accident has later been sued for malpractice. Today many states protect such a person with “Good Samaritan” laws. Yet it’s easy to see why so many today feel, “I don’t want to get involved.” That saying does reflect the spirit of our times. But it does not reflect the Spirit of our God. “Eye for eye” Ex. 23:24. People who cause another serious injury are to be held responsible. But the famous lex talona-the law demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—is seriously misunderstood. In the biblical world feuds were an ever-present possibility. The principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, limits the penalty a person can impose! An injured party, or his angry and bitter family, might well try to extract a life for an eye, or a limb for a tooth! God’s Law fixes responsibility, but at the same time does not permit escalation of a dispute. “Restitution” Ex. 22:1–15. In Scripture, theft or other crimes of property are crimes against the victim. In our legal system, they are crimes against the state. Thus in our legal system the criminal is punished by the state and sent to jail. In the Old Testament legal system social harmony must be restored between the criminal and his victim, and so the criminal pays restitution. These laws remind us that when we’ve hurt or harmed others, it’s not enough to say “I’m sorry.” We have no right to ask forgiveness until the injury has been undone and restitution made. Forgiveness is free. But it is not cheap. Unyielding and compassionate Ex. 22:16–31. The laws in this passage seem almost contradictory. Several bluntly demand the death penalty-for sorcery, beastiality, and idolatry. Others call for the utmost compassion to be shown the widow and the orphan. The needy are to be loaned money at no interest. Anyone who takes a garment as a pledge of repayment must return it at night, so the borrower can use it as a blanket. Are the “harsh” laws of the Old Testament contradictory to the God of “compassion” revealed in other laws and in Jesus? Not at all. Some sins so corrupt a society and lead to so much suffering that it is necessary to take a firm and unyielding position. What’s important is to maintain our sense of balance. Unyieldingness without compassion is wrong, but so is a compassion that fails to require responsibility. Some years ago no one questioned the concept of a medical quarantine. People with a contagious disease were restricted to their homes or to sanatoriums. This “violation of the sick person’s rights” was accepted by all as necessary protection for the society. Yet today people with AIDS, a disease which is always fatal, are treated so carefully that no politician or public health official dares even mention the possibility of quarantine. While Old Testament Law guards the rights of individuals, it never does so at the expense of the community. And it holds individuals responsible for their sins. Liberty and justice for all Ex. 23:1–9. This guarantee in the U.S. Constitution is firmly established in Old Testament Law. Note a few of the principles stated here. “When you give testimony, don’t pervert justice by siding with the crowd.” “Do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.” “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” “Have nothing to do with a false charge.” Only by treating everyone the same, by being absolutely fair to rich and poor alike, to the famous and unknown, can we reflect the justice as well as the mercy of our God. “The seventh day” Ex. 23:10–13. The only Ten Commandment not repeated in the New Testament as a principle for Christians to live by is the command to keep the seventh day holy. Still, there is much to learn from Old Testament Sabbath laws. One of the lessons is found in these verses. The Sabbath was established for man’s benefit, not for God’s, so that believers “may be refreshed.” We don’t do God a favor by setting aside a day for worship and rest. We do ourselves a favor. “Worship the Lord your God” Ex. 23:20–33. How does the emphasis on worship fit into these chapters on Law? Very simply. Worship is not simply going to church and singing hymns. Worship is putting our faith into practice by loving God and following His commandments. When God gave Moses these laws to share with Israel, He identified them with worship and with success. When we put God first and honor Him with obedience, God gives us a full life.
God Spoke All These Words(Ex. 20:1–21)
The Ten Commandments are more than laws that Israel was responsible to follow. They express basic principles that human beings of all times are to live by. We can translate each one into a positive guideline by noting that each calls us to show respect for God and for others in simple yet vital ways. Here are the 10 as principles to live by.
|1. You shall have no other gods before Me (20:3).||Respect God as your one and only Lord.|
|2. You shall not make an idol (20:4–6).||Respect God’s nature and do not trivialize Him.|
|3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord (20:7).||Show respect for God as real and present always.|
|4. Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy (20:8–11).||Show respect for God by setting aside time to worship Him.|
|5. Honor your father and mother (20:12).||Show respect to your parents.|
|6. You shall not murder (20:13).||Show respect for the sanctity of human life.|
|7. You shall not commit adultery (20:14).||Show respect for marriage and members of the opposite sex.|
|8. You shall not steal (20:15).||Show respect for the property of others.|
|9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor (20:17).||Show respect for the truth and for the reputation of others.|
|10. You shall not covet (20:17).||Show ultimate respect for holiness by guarding your motives as well as your actions.|
No clearer or more significant guidelines for living have ever been incorporated in any code of law. If we live by them, we will surely please God, and our entire life will become an act of acceptable worship.
Respect for God and others is revealed primarily in the choices we make daily.