Chapter 20

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YHWH revealed himself to be the Supreme Sovereign and the only true God, for he had delivered the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement. In keeping with what he had proved himself to be to them, the first one of the “Ten Words” or Ten Commandments forbade them from having or revering any other gods. YHWH alone was the one whom they should worship. (20:1-3)

The second commandment prohibited the Israelites from making any image patterned after anything visible in the sky and after any creature on the earth or in the waters beneath the surface of the higher land. They were not to prostrate themselves in worship before any image of this kind. As the only true God, he rightly required that his people be devoted to him alone as their God. He would not tolerate any deviation from such devotion through idolatry. From that perspective, he was a jealous God. The Israelites were warned that engaging in idolatry would have serious consequences for future generations. Offspring from the individuals who initially became idolaters and demonstrated their hatred for YHWH when practicing what was repugnant to him would be inclined to follow the bad example of their forebears. YHWH, in turn, would visit with punishment the “iniquity” (“sins” [LXX]) of the idolatrous (“wicked” [Targum Jonathan]) fathers upon their (“rebellious” [Targum Jonathan]) “sons” or children to the third and fourth generation. He, however, would show kindness, enduring love, or “mercy” (LXX) to “thousands” (“of generations of the righteous” [Targum Jonathan]) who love him and demonstrate their love by obeying his commandments. (20:4-6)

The third commandment about not taking up the name of God (YHWH) “in vain” could include the use of the name in any way that did not reflect a proper reverential regard for him. In his Antiquities (III, v, 5), Josephus is more restrictive in what the commandment signifies. He wrote “that we must not swear by God in a false matter.” YHWH would not hold anyone guiltless for taking up his name “in vain” or using it in a way that disregards that he is the Supreme Sovereign, the God of truth who is holy or pure in the absolute sense. (20:7)

The fourth commandment called upon the Israelites to remember the Sabbath, keeping it holy as a day of rest by refraining from all activity that would have been contrary to observing it as a day free from all customary labors. Undistracted by the usual work, the people would also have been in a position to focus appreciatively on God’s loving care for them. Everyone was to benefit from the day of rest — sons and daughters, male and female servants, as well as resident aliens. All of them would be able to enjoy a day without having to work. With the people not laboring, even the domestic animals used in agricultural operations and for other work were to have a day of rest. (Deuteronomy 5:14) This aspect is also included in the Septuagint text of Exodus. Through Sabbath observance, the people would have been imitating YHWH, for he completed the creation of heaven (the celestial dome), earth (or land), and sea and everything “in them” (or all creation relating to the sphere in which humans live) in six days and rested on the seventh day, looking upon the completed creative work as “good” and finding joy in what he had brought into existence during six creative days. YHWH blessed the seventh day when pronouncing what had been accomplished as good and sanctifying it or setting it apart as a sacred day of rest. (20:8-11; compare Genesis 2:2, 3.)

The fifth commandment that directs children to honor their mother and father is linked to a promise. For the Israelites, the promise was that their “days” would be “long in the [good (LXX)] land that YHWH [their] God” had given them. The Septuagint adds, “that it may go well with you,” and this is also included in the quotation found in Ephesians 6:3. Parents are concerned about the welfare of their children. Therefore, when children honor their father and mother by obeying them, they avoid pursuing activities and practices that can lead to a premature death. Honoring parents also includes caring for them and coming to their aid in their times of need. (20:12; see Mark 7:10-12; Ephesians 6:1-3)

The sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments are expressed in brief terms ([6] you must not kill or murder, [7] you must not commit adultery, [8] you must not steal, and [9] you must not testify falsely against your fellow. In the Septuagint, the order of the commandments differs. Do not commit adultery; do not steal, do not murder, do not “testify falsely against your fellow with false testimony.” (20:13-16)

The tenth commandment is unique among laws, for it is humanly unenforceable, and a person’s transgressing the tenth commandment leads to a defilement of the inner person. This commandment is against coveting or against an inordinate desire to possess what others have. The commandment states that a person must not covet the house, wife, male servant, female servant, bull, donkey, or anything else that belongs to one’s fellow. As only God, not humans, can discern and judge the inmost thoughts of an individual, the tenth commandment reveals that everyone is directly accountable to him for becoming guilty of coveting. (20:17)

While the assembled Israelites heard the “Ten Words” or Ten Commandments, they also witnessed thunders and lightnings, the sound of the trumpet (shophar), and smoke ascending from Mount Sinai. The people trembled in fear and stood far off. They did not want God to continue to speak to them, fearing that they would die, and wanted Moses to relate to them the messages he received from God, saying that they would listen. Moses told the people not to be afraid, for what was taking place served God’s purpose to have them fear him and to restrain them from sinning. The people, however, did not come closer to Mount Sinai, but Moses approached where the thick cloud was, the cloud that was a manifestation of God’s presence. (20:18-21; see the Notes section.)

YHWH is quoted as telling Moses to tell the “sons [or people] of Israel” that they had heard him speak to them “from the heavens.” At that time, they had not seen any form but only heard the voice. (Deuteronomy 4:12) Therefore, they had no basis for making any image of their God, and Moses was to command them not to make any gold or silver images of other gods. (20:22, 23)

At locations where YHWH would reveal himself (cause his “name to be remembered), evidently by acting in an impressive manner to benefit the Israelites, they were to erect an altar of earth (a simple mound of soil) on which they would offer animals sacrifices. YHWH’s coming to his people at these locations signified his turning his favorable attention to them, and he would bless them there. If the Israelites chose to build an altar of stones, they were not to shape the stones with a tool but leave them in their natural state. Destroying the natural state of the stones would have constituted an act of profanation, for it would have altered their appearance from the state in which God had designated them to remain. Steps were ruled out for all altars, as ascending steps would expose “nakedness” or the private parts upon the altar. (20:24-26; see the Notes section.)


With reference to Exodus 20:19, the writer, in his letter to the Hebrews (12:18-26), warned them not to be like the Israelites who wanted to excuse themselves from having God speak directly to them.

The comments on verse 24 follow the way in which the Septuagint rendering of the text has been punctuated.

The command about altars (20:24, 25) applied particularly prior to the construction of the altar for the tabernacle. In later times, Gideon, Samuel, and Elijah must have followed this command when erecting altars. (Judges 6:26-28; 1 Samuel 7:9; 1 Kings 18:31, 32)

Exposure of private parts when ascending steps was possible whenever robes and no undergarments were worn. (20:26) The book of Exodus (28:42) does include the directive that shorts should be made for those who would be serving as priests. Likely, however, men generally did not wear shorts under their robes.