Guardrails: The Ten Commandments

The following is an excerpt from The New Interpreter’s Bible on the Ten Commandments, written by renowned scholar Leander Keck.  I do not believe this violates any copyright issues, but if I learn otherwise, I will take it down immediately.  This is one of the commentaries I use regularly.  The exposition is longer than most people would care to read, but I would encourage you to read it anyway, because the Ten Commandments are the foundation of what it means to be faithful people.  Deeper learning and reflection are worth your time.  Enjoy!



The terrible, holy God of Sinai is always at the brink of “breaking out” against Israel and spilling over in self-aggrandizing destructiveness (19:22, 24). We are, in the light of that danger, hardly prepared for the proclamation of the Ten Commandments in this next unit. The God who threatens to break out in inexplicable rage instead breaks out in magisterial command. The relation of theophany to law is an odd one. The juxtaposition of the two genres, however, is definitional for what happens to Israel at Sinai. Command is rooted in theophany. The juxtaposition of theophany and command asserts that, for Israel, there is nothing more elemental or fundamental (even primordial) than the commands that intend to shape and order the world according to the radical and distinctive vision of the God of the exodus.

The Decalogue itself is likely a distinct literary entity that originally was not connected to this theophany. There is, moreover, serious critical question about the date and provenance of the decalogue and, therefore, about its Mosaic authorship. These commands may, like much of the legal material of the OT, have some linkages to already established legal materials of the ancient Near East. None of that, however, takes us very far in interpreting the commands as we have them.

We must, even with all of these critical uncertainties, try to take the corpus of commands as they are given. This means, first, that they are given in the context of the Sinai covenant. They constitute the substantive vision around which the God-Israel relation is ordered. Sinai binds Israel to this vision of social possibility and places Israel under this particular obedience. Second, the commands are given with the authority of Moses. They are in some sense an authentic articulation of what Mosaic faith in its core is all about. Third, even if these two traditions originated separately, the connection of exodus and command in 19:4–6 (and 20:1) binds the Sinai commands to the liberation passion of the exodus narrative. The commands are a decisive way in which Israel (and Yahweh) intend to sustain and institutionalize the revolutionary social possibility that is asserted and enacted in the exodus narrative.

The commands are commonly understood as divided into two “tablets”: one concerning relations to God (vv. 1–11), and one concerning the neighbor (vv. 12–17). The relation between the two tablets is of crucial importance to biblical faith. It is self-evident that the second tablet is the more readily available, practical, and pertinent to us. It is risky, however (especially among “theological liberals”), to take the second tablet by itself, as positive law concerning human relations. But such a view misses the primary covenantal point that these “neighbor demands” have their warrant, impetus, and urgency in the character of this particular God. The second tablet is not just a set of good moral ideas. It contains conditions of viable human life, non-negotiable conditions rooted in God’s own life and God’s ordering of the world. Thus it is important to “get it right” about Yahweh, in order to “get it right” about neighbor. Karl Marx has seen this most clearly and programmatically: “The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”

Marx means that “God talk” always implicitly asserts neighbor relations and that every mode of neighbor relations inevitably bootlegs some powerful (even if hidden) notion of God. Thus it is not the case simply that Israel must attend both to God and to neighbor, but that the way of attending to God determines our ways of attending to neighbor and vice versa. It is precisely the worship of the God of the exodus that provides the elemental insistence and passionate imagination to reshape human relations in healing (cf. 15:26), liberating ways.

Norman Gottwald is correct in saying that in its recital of liberation and especially in the actions at Sinai, Israel initiates a revolutionary social experiment in the world, to see whether non-exploitative modes of social relationship can be sustained in the world. In commenting upon the first commandment, Pixley comments:

“The problem is not, of course, whether to call the rain God Yahweh or Baal. Behind the conflict of these gods is the social reality of a class struggle.… The polemical formulation of the commandment to worship Yahweh, then, has its explanation in the long struggle of the peasantry to rid itself of the domination of a long series of kings … who resurrected the old forms of class domination.… An Israelite had no choice but to reject any form of loyalty to any god who had not saved the slaves of Egypt.

Thus the Decalogue stands as a critical principle of protest against every kind of exploitative social relation (public and interpersonal, capitalist and socialist) and as a social vision of possibility that every social relation (public and interpersonal, economic and political) can be transformed and made into a liberating relation.

Exodus 20:1–7, “No Other Gods Before Me”


Israel’s destiny under command is rooted in the self-disclosure of God. These commands might be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be “practiced” by this community of liberated slaves. The speech of God itself is abrupt in its beginning. Except for vv. 5–6, which are quite general, chapter 19 gives no hint that commands are to follow from the theophany. In Israel, however, God’s self-giving is in the form of command. Thus the tradition holds closely together “a god so near” and “a torah so righteous” (Deut 4:7–8). God is known in torah; nearness is expressed as righteousness.

20:1–2. The self-disclosure of God begins with a succinct reference to and summary of the recital of liberation (v. 2). The first utterance is, “I am Yahweh.” Thus God speaks the same powerful formula that has been reiterated throughout the exodus narrative (cf. 7:5), in which the formula is designed to reassure Israel and to challenge Pharaoh. Here the formula serves to impose a claim upon Israel. The event of the exodus provides the authority for the commands as well as the material claim of those commands.

20:3. This verse (conventionally the first commandment) is programmatic for all Israelite reflection on obedience. Walther Zimmerli and Werner H. Schmidt have taken this command (together with the second command of vv. 4–6) as the essential command, for which all other law is exegesis, and as the leitmotif of OT theology. We may identify four related themes.

First, the command requires Israel to mobilize all of its life, in every sphere, around one single loyalty. In the contemporary world, as in the ancient world, we practice a kind of henotheism, which lets different gods have their play in different spheres. This command insists on the integrity, coherence, and unity of all of life. Israel is a community destined to “will one thing.”

Second, it is not likely that this command makes any claim about monotheism in any formal sense. That is, it does not insist that there are no other gods. It insists only that other gods must receive none of Israel’s loyalty or allegiance. This command thus is in keeping with Deut 6:4, which also allows for the existence of other gods, but denies them “air time.”

Third, the last phrase, “before me,” may also be read, “before my face.” Because face in reference to God often means “sanctuary” or “altar,” the command may mean “in my presence”—“in my shrine.” On this reading, the command pertains precisely to the practice of worship and asserts that the liturgic life of Israel must be under stringent discipline in order to avoid compromise.

Fourth, H. Graf Reventlow has offered an alternative reading of this command that has considerable merit. Reventlow observes that the formulation of this command is not “Thou shalt not,” but rather “there will not be to you.” He proposes that the statement is not an imperative command, but an indicative, whereby Yahweh in light of the exodus declares the banishment of all other gods (cf. Psalm 82 for the same motif). On this reading, the statement is a declaration of theological emancipation, whereby Israel can freely and gladly serve Yahweh, without any distracting compromise. One does not need to obey this command but only to hear and trust the good news of triumph and banishment.

20:4–6. The second command (vv. 4–6), often linked to the first, further asserts Yahweh’s distinctiveness, which is to be enacted in Israel. The command, in fact, is a series of three prohibitions followed by an extended motivational clause. The three prohibitions are: You shall not make.… You shall not bow down.… You shall not serve.… This threefold prohibition serves as a counterpart to the formula of banishment in v. 3.

Two understandings of the commandment are possible. In the NRSV and NIV renderings, the command precludes “idols,” the assignment of theological significance to any element of creation, the investment of ultimacy in what is not ultimate. Clearly, if “no other god” has any real power and, therefore, any real, substantive existence, it is grossly inappropriate that Israel should invest such an object with ultimacy.

The word פסל (pesel), however, need not be rendered “idol.” It is more properly rendered “image,” a visible representation of Yahweh. The temptation, then, is not the creation of a rival that detracts from Yahweh, but an attempt to locate and thereby domesticate Yahweh in a visible, controlled object. This latter reading, which is the more probable, is also more subtle. It does not fear a rival but a distortion of Yahweh’s free character by an attempt to locate Yahweh and so diminish something of Yahweh’s terrible freedom.

The motivational clause begins in v. 5b, introduced by כי (, “for”). The reason for the prohibition is Yahweh’s very own character; Yahweh is a “jealous God” who will operate in uncompromised and uncontested freedom. Yahweh’s jealousy is evidenced in two ways in a formula that is more fully stated in Exod 34:6–7. Negatively, this jealous God is one of deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commands, so that the cost of the affront endures over the generations (34:7b). Positively, this jealous God is one who practices massive fidelity (חסד ḥesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant (34:6–7a). The two motivational phrases are in fact more symmetrical than the NRSV suggests, for “reject me” is in fact “hate” (שׂנא śānēʾ), as the NIV translates, thus contrasting precisely those who “love” and those who “hate” Yahweh.

Thus the idol (as rival and alternative) or the image (as localization and domestication) is an attempt to tone down Yahweh’s jealousy. There are two reasons for toning down God’s jealousy: resistance to God’s deep moral seriousness or discomfort with God’s massive fidelity. Yahweh’s character, to which this command witnesses, holds to both moral seriousness and covenantal fidelity. The measure of both “punishment” and “showing steadfast love” is adherence to the command. The temptation of Israel, here precluded, is to tone down the primacy of command. Israel in covenant must trust itself to the terrible freedom of the God who will be obeyed.

20:7. The third command continues the line of the disclosure of God from the first two commands. This command is often misunderstood and misused, when it is taken to refer to “bad” or vulgar language. While “right speech” is indeed at issue, more is at stake than not cursing or using obscenities. What must be understood is that the “name” of Yahweh bespeaks God’s powerful presence and purpose. The utterance of the name is the mobilization of the presence and power of God, an assumption that is still evident in prayers offered “in the name of Jesus.” To make “wrongful use of the name,” or as Walter Harrelson suggests, the use of the name “for mischief,” means to invoke through utterance the power and purpose of Yahweh in the service of some purpose that is extraneous to Yahweh’s own person. That is, the violation is to make Yahweh (who is an ultimate end) into a means for some other end. Such a practice may be done in quite pious ways (without anything like “curse”) with an instrumental view of God. This command thus follows well from the first two, because all three concern seductive ways in which the God of the exodus is diminished or trivialized.

The sanction (threat) of this command is ominous indeed: Yahweh will not “acquit” those who seek to use God for their own purposes but will hold such persons guilty to perpetuity. The severity of this threat is congruent with the motivational clause of v. 5.


These first three commandments are preoccupied with the awesome claims of God’s person. God insists, in the light of the exodus, upon being accepted, affirmed, and fully obeyed.

1. It is not always helpful in teaching and preaching the commandments to go through them one rule at a time, as though using a check list. To be sure, there is some need for specificity of interpretation. That, however, is only preliminary to the main interpretive task, which is to voice the large and demanding vision of God that defines biblical faith.

The truth of the matter is that the biblical God is not “user friendly.” The theological crisis present in all our modern situations of proclamation and interpretation is that we are all “children of Feuerbach.” In the nineteenth century, Ludwig Feuerbach fully articulated the hidden assumption of the Enlightenment, that God is in the end a projection of our best humanness. That Feuerbachian “betrayal” takes more than one form. The “liberal temptation” is to diminish the role of God, either to remove God from public spheres of life and leave God for interpersonal matters, or to make God an object of adoration rather than a subject who can do anything. One signal of such reductionism is the slogan that “God has no hands but ours.” The reactive “conservative temptation” is the projection of a settled, sovereign God who in fact is not operative as a political character (as in the drama of the exodus) but is only a set of fixed propositions that give certitude and stability. Either way, in our shared theological failure of nerve, we end with a God very unlike the one who makes a self-disclosure here.

2. Exposition of these commandments has as its topic the voicing of the holy, jealous God of the Bible who saves and commands; a God who is an active, decisive presence in our common public life, but who in holiness is beyond all our most pious efforts at control and manipulation.

There are no analogues, no parallels, no antecedents, no adequate replications or explanations for this God who confronts us in and through the narrative of liberation. It is the majestic act of “getting glory over Pharaoh” (14:4, 17) that bestows upon Yahweh the right to speak and to command. The exodus shows that Yahweh has now displaced every other loyalty, has driven from the field all rivals, and now claims full attention and full devotion from Israel. This people would not have entered history except for Yahweh’s demanding solidarity against Pharaoh. The question of this faith in the modern world is whether there is a people, a concrete community, that can embrace and practice this demanding loyalty. Most of the people with whom we preach and teach are (like us) both yearning and reluctant, both ready and hesitant, to embrace these commandments that bespeak a lifetime of ceding over authority.

How, indeed, can a “mystery” be demanding? We expect a mystery to be amorphous and transcendental; we expect a demand to be coercive, visible, and political. In these three utterances, however, Yahweh is indeed holy mystery who, in the very utterance of mystery, enunciates demand.

3. This uncompromising demand is properly voiced in a world of unacknowledged polytheism. We have always lived in a world of options, alternative choices, and gods who make powerful, competing appeals. It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy, and security. In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant.

In the Christian tradition, baptism is the dramatic form of making a God choice, in which receiving a new name and making promises is choosing this liberating-covenantal faith against any other shape of life. Thus in the Christian tradition, appropriating and living out baptism means living by a single loyalty among a mass of options.

4. The second commandment, in its prohibition, inventories the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth (v. 4; cf. Deut 4:17–18;). The triad, of course, refers to all of creation (cf. Gen 1:28). The command asserts that nothing in creation is usable in making God visible or available. God’s sovereign mystery is discontinuous from everything and anything in creation. The propensity to encapsulate God in creation leads to an attempt to retain for ourselves control over some piece of creation. The clearest, most extensive treatment of this confusion in the Bible is Rom 1:20–25. To imagine that anything in creation could possibly embody the creator God is a result of “futile thinking” and “senseless darkened minds” (Rom 1:21). The outcome is false worship based on a lie instead of the truth (v. 20).

In contemporary church discussions, this powerful, polemical, doxological statement has often been side-tracked and related only to issues of homosexuality. The confusion of creator-creation, however, is much more profound and ominous than an argument about sexuality. Attempts to “image God” by taking creation in our own hands are much more evident in technological abuse of creation and in military exploitation, by which “God as power” comes into play without any restraining awareness that “God as power” is also “God as Holy Mystery.” It may in the end be the case that the “shameless acts” men commit with men (cf. Rom 1:27–28) are not sexual as much as they are military and technological. The Mosaic prohibition against idols and images has profound sociopolitical implications, for the practice of worshiping idols is never simply a theological or liturgical matter but always spills over into social, ideological, and political practice, inevitably with the intent of partisan advantage. Carlos M. N. Eire has shown how the prohibition on idols became a driving power for Calvinism as a sociopolitical force. Where the church is soft on idols, it becomes muted on social criticism.

5. The third commandment asserts that God cannot be put to use and is never a means toward an end (v. 7). The notion that the ultimate human purpose is to “glorify and enjoy God” means that God is pure end and never means. Using God’s name mischievously however, is an enormous temptation, because the holy God is vulnerable to being made into an ideological tool.

Exodus 20:8–11, “You Shall Not Do Any Work”


The fourth commandment is conventionally included in the first tablet. However, because the sabbath command occupies such a prominent and decisive position in the Decalogue, and because it enjoins rest for humanity as well as honoring God the creator, I take it as a command that stands between and connects to both tablets.

Unlike most of the other commands (see also v. 12), this one is not a prohibition; rather, it enjoins Israel to positive action. Israel is to remember (זכר zākar). The act of remembering here, as in the remembering of the Eucharist, means to appropriate actively as a present reality. The seventh day is to be marked as “holy time”—i.e., as time completely devoted to Yahweh.

The initial command of v. 8 is explicated in three parts. There is first an acknowledgment of six legitimate days of work. Then comes the command for a day of rest for the one addressed, ostensibly a land-owning man, who will provide rest for all creation under his dominion (vv. 9–10). Finally there is a motivational clause (v. 11).

The positive command itself indicates that sabbath remembrance is in fact a complete and comprehensive work stoppage. There is no mention of worship. The way in which this day is to be acknowledged as holy—i.e., different and special—is to separate it from all days of required activity, productivity, coercive performance, self-securing, or service to other human agents. Moreover, this covenantal work stoppage is not a special privilege of the male believer. The entire society that makes up the family, village, or clan is to share publicly in this act.

How is it that a covenantal work stoppage bears witness to this self-disclosing God? The answer is given in the motivational clause: Israel rests because God rests. This God is not a workaholic; Yahweh has no need to be more secure, more sufficient, more in control, or more noticed. It is ordained in the very fabric of creation that the world is not a place of endless productivity, ambition, or anxiety. Fretheim has made the case that exodus liberation is aimed at the full restoration of peaceable creation. There is no more powerful hint of that connection than in this commandment.

While the motivational clause links this teaching explicitly to creation, the preamble of v. 2 links the command to the exodus as well. Such a connection between the command and the preamble hints at a connection made much more explicit in Deut 5:12–15, where the motivation of creation has been subordinated to that of the exodus. In this text the purpose of the covenantal work stoppage is to remember and reenact the exodus. Moreover, Hans Walter Wolff has observed that the phrase “as you” in Deut 5:14 makes the sabbath a great day of equalization in which all social distinctions are overcome, and all rest alike. To be sure, that nice phrase is not present in our version of the command, but it is in any case implicit. The implicit act of equalization in sabbath witnesses to the intention of the creator that creation should be a community of well-being, in which all creatures stand together, equally and in shared rest.


1. This sabbath commandment stands at mid-point between two other extended expositions of sabbath in the book of Exodus, both of which are important for explicating the command (16:5, 22–26; 31:12–17). The story of manna (16:5, 22–26) indicates that rest is possible because God gives enough food, and all who gather either little or much have equally enough. The command of 31:12–17 indicates that God needs to be “refreshed,” and therefore that those made in God’s image also need to have life (נפשׁ nepeš) restored (cf. Pss 19:7; 23:3). Sabbath is necessary because of God’s own vulnerability. Thus in sabbath, Israel relies on God’s generosity and participates in God’s vulnerability.

2. The sabbath command is given its foundation in the creation narrative of Gen 1:1–2:4a. That text, commonly taken to be exilic, is part of the development whereby Israel in exile comes to rely on sabbath as one of the two major distinguishing marks of Judaism. (The other is circumcision.) The cruciality of sabbath is further evident in Lev 26:1–2, where it is paired with making images as the preliminary to the great recital of blessings and curses. (Notice that these two verses have a double use of the formula “I am Yahweh.”) In Isa 56:4, 6, moreover, sabbath is reckoned as the key mark of keeping covenant in the community after the exile.

Sabbath looms so large in exilic and post-exilic Judaism because the Jews are now politically marginal and vulnerable. They are endlessly at the behest of someone else. Sabbath becomes a way, in the midst of such vulnerability, to assert the distinctiveness of this community by a theological announcement of loyalty to Yahweh. It is also a political assertion of disengagement from the economic system of productivity that never has enough. Thus Judaism in its covenantal work stoppage practices disengagement from the socioeconomic political enterprise that in its endless productivity offers safe, secure rest and well-being.

3. Contemporary practice of sabbath is not concerned to devise a system of restrictions and “blue laws.” Rather, sabbath concerns the periodic, disciplined, regular disengagement from the systems of productivity whereby the world uses people up to exhaustion. That disengagement refers also to culture-produced expectations for frantic leisure, frantic consumptions, or frantic exercise.

The pastoral issue for many persons is to develop habits and disciplines that break those patterns of behavior. Sabbath practice is not to be added on to everything else, but requires the intentional breaking of requirements that seem almost ordained in our busy life. Sabbath thus may entail the termination of routines, the disengagement from some social conventions, or even the lowering of one’s standard of living. The very concreteness of sabbath is a sacrament witnessing to the reality of exodus and to the governance of the creator who has broken the restless penchant for productive activity. The healing of creation, and of our lives as creatures of God, requires a disengagement from the dominant systems of power and wealth. Sabbath is the daring recognition that with the change of sovereigns wrought in the exodus, such unrewarding expenditure of labor is no longer required. It is only a bad habit we continue in our disbelieving foolishness (cf. Luke 12:16–20).

4. This fourth commandment is commonly placed in the first tablet, honoring the majesty of God. It belongs in the sequence concerning God’s sovereignty (first commandment), God’s freedom (second commandment), God’s holy name (third commandment), and now God’s holy time (fourth commandment). It is clear, however, that the neighbor concerns of the second tablet begin here to intrude upon the first tablet. The affirmation about God’s rest leads to a command about human rest. In this latter accent, sabbath serves to acknowledge and enact the peculiar worth and dignity of all creatures, and especially of human creatures. Consequently there are limits to the use of human persons, and of all creatures, as instrumental means to other ends. Sabbath is a day of special dignity, when God’s creatures can luxuriate in being honored ends and not mobilized means to anything beyond themselves. In the commandments that follow, we shall see that this limit to the “usefulness” of human creatures introduced in the fourth commandment now becomes a leitmotif for the second tablet.

Exodus 20:12–17, Neighbor Relations


This set of six commands includes one positive command (v. 12), followed by five prohibitions. Calvin offers that charity “contains the sum of the second tablet.”

20:12. God enjoins Israel at the mountain to “honor” father and mother. The command consists in an imperative followed by a motivational clause. The command concerns the problematic relationships between one generation and the next. We have seen that the Exodus narrative is understood as a tale told to ensure that the children and the children’s children will know and embrace the memory of liberation (10:1–2). The book of Genesis is preoccupied with the safe transmission of blessing and promise from one generation to the next. Moreover, Michael Fishbane has suggested that the urgent command of Deut 6:4–9 evidences that the children were resistant and recalcitrant to the core teaching of Israel (cf. Ps 78:5–8). And Deut 21:15–17 attests to the fact that Israel struggled with the continuity of generations and the valuing of the life-world of the parents by the children. It may be that every society struggles with this issue, but the children’s loyalty is peculiarly urgent in a community whose faith works only by remembering unrepeatable events.

The command is to “honor.” The Hebrew term כבד (kābēd) includes among its meanings “be heavy,” suggesting the sense of “give weight to.” The negative warning of 21:17 forms a suggestive counterpoint to this command, because the term curse (קלל qll) may also be rendered “to treat lightly.” Such a nuance is important, because the command does not advocate obeying or being subordinate but treating parents with appropriate seriousness. Childs concludes that it was “a command which protected parents from being driven out of the home or abused after they could no longer work.” (Cf. Prov 19:26.) Calvin shrewdly notes that in Eph 6:1, the commandment is quantified, “in the Lord,” so that “the power of a father is so limited as that God, on whom all relationships depend, shall have the rule over fathers as well as children … Paul … indicates, that if a father enjoins anything unrighteous, obedience is freely to be denied him.”

The motivational clause concerns keeping the land, which is God’s gift. This is the only command of the Decalogue that includes land as a motivation. Several possible connections might be made concerning this command and its motivation. First, the connection may be a quite general one, that distorted relations between the generations lead to a forfeiture of shared well-being. Second, the connection may be a quasi-legal one, suggesting that the capacity to retain the inheritance (נחלה naḥălâ) of land depends on embracing the promises of father and mother. Third, if the land is understood as a result of withdrawing from the slave economy for the sake of a covenantal, egalitarian community, then the land will be held only as long as the covenantal vision is held with passion. In any case, socioeconomic security depends on the right ordering of interpersonal relations between the generations, perhaps between the generation of power and that of vulnerability.

20:13. The command against murder is terse and unadorned. While scholars continue to sort out the exact intent of the term murder (רצח rāṣaḥ), the main point is clear: Human life belongs to God and must be respected. Walter Harrelson (following Barth) takes a maximal view of the prohibition and interprets it broadly as “reverence for life”—i.e., all human life. H. Graf Reventlow suggests that the term murder originally referred to blood feuds and epidemics of killings that grew out of an insatiable thirst for vengeance between clans and families. Still other interpretations of this command suggest that murder is precluded within the community of covenant but that the prohibition does not apply outside of one’s own community of covenant. It is entirely possible that all such distinctions, in a kind of casuistry, make too fine a point. Appeal to Gen 9:6 suggests that biblical faith has drawn an uncompromising line against the taking of another life, period. Human life is intrinsically of value and may not be ultimately violated.

20:14. The prohibition against adultery concerns distorted sexual relations, or more broadly, distorted human relations. Again, the command is so terse as to invite and require interpretation. Most narrowly construed, “adultery” consists in the violation of the wife of another man. Such a patriarchal reading understands the woman to be the property and trust of a man. For ample reason, of course, the command has been much more broadly understood in Jewish and Christian communities. Most comprehensively, the prohibition points to the recognition that sexuality is enormously wondrous and enormously dangerous. The wonder of sexuality is available in a community only if it is practiced respectfully and under discipline. The danger of sexuality is that it is capable of evoking desires that are destructive of persons and of communal relations. It is inevitable that such a command will be subject to ongoing dispute, because around the subject of freedom and discipline in sexuality we deal with the most intense and elemental mystery of human existence. There is in this command neither license for permissiveness nor a puritanical restrictiveness. Everything else is left to the interpretive community.

20:15. The eighth command on stealing is characteristically terse. On the face of it, the commandment concerns respect for the property of another. It does not probe behind the social fact of “property” to notice, as Marx has done so poignantly, the probability that private property arises regularly from violence. It is enough that what is possessed by another must not be seized.

On the basis of Exod 21:16 and Deut 24:7, Albrecht Alt has proposed that the original form of the prohibition was “Thou shalt not steal a person.” The gain of such an interpretation is that it focuses on the cruciality of the human and is not drawn away toward lesser “objects.” It is, perhaps, neither necessary nor wise to choose between a more conventional focus on property and Alt’s focus. The materiality of Israel’s faith recognizes that selfhood includes the necessary “goods” to make a life of dignity possible. That, of course, leaves the vexed question of relation between the essential goods of the “have nots” and the extravagant goods of the “haves.” This command cannot be used as a defense of “private property” without reference to the kinds of sharing that are required for available human community. Harrelson concludes: “The commandment not to steal means, in effect, that persons are not to whittle down, eat away at, the selfhood of individuals or of families or of communities.”119

20:16. The ninth commandment (v. 16) is not a general command against “lying” but concerns courtroom practice. The prohibition understands that a free, independent, and healthy judiciary system is indispensable for a viable community. The courtroom must be a place where the truth is told and where social reality is not distorted through devious manipulation or ideological perversion. It is remarkable in this list of prohibitions that concern the sanctity of human life, the mystery of sexuality, and the maintenance of property, that courts should be so prominent. The prohibition, however, is a recognition that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.

The sphere of this command is narrowly circumscribed. Truth-telling concerns “your neighbor”—i.e., a fellow member of the covenant community. The neighbor is not to be “used” by lying in order to enhance one’s own interest. Community requires drawing a line against private interest in order to make social relations workable.

20:17. The tenth commandment, on coveting, is somewhat different from the other elements of the second tablet. It concerns the destructive power of desire. It is not helpful, however, to interpret “desire” as a vague, undifferentiated attitude. Rather, it here concerns desire acted upon publicly, whereby one reaches for that which is not properly one’s own. Such reaching inevitably destroys community. The text knows that humans are indeed driven by desire. The commandment regards desire in and of itself as no good or bad thing; its quality depends on its object. The tale of Genesis 3 is the tale of desire misdirected (cf. v. 3).

Notice that desire in ancient Israel is characteristically not directed toward sexual objects (as we might expect) but pertains primarily to economics. Its concern is to curb the drive to acquisitiveness. Thus the object of desire may be silver and gold (Deut 7:25; Josh 7:21) or land (Exod 34:24; Mic 2:2).

The supreme and legitimate “desire” of Israel is to do the will and purpose of Yahweh.

In this prohibition, the primary object of desire is the neighbor’s house. That “house,” however, includex wife (reckoned in a patriarchal society as property), slaves, and working animals. The command expects that within a community of genuine covenanting, the drive of desire will be displaced by the honoring of neighbor, by the sharing of goods, and by the acceptance of one’s own possessions as adequate. This commandment, placed in final position in the Decalogue, is perhaps intended as the climactic statement of the whole, referring to Yahweh’s claims at the beginning (v. 1). Yahweh’s victory over the Egyptian gods in the same action defeated the spiritual power of coveting.


This second tablet, anticipated in the fourth commandment, indicates that the holiness of God puts God beyond the reach of Israel, and mutatis mutandis, the intrinsic worth of human persons as creatures of God puts humans beyond the reach of abuse and exploitation.

The second tablet is a magisterial assertion that human life is situated in a community of rights and responsibilities that is willed by God. Within that community, human life in all its ambiguity and inscrutability is endlessly precious and must not be violated. This affirmation seems so obvious that we are reluctant to voice it. It is now clear that in the obduracy of totalitarian society and in the rapaciousness of market economy, a humane life of shared rights and responsibilities is exceedingly fragile. The interpretive task is to show that this fragile bonding in covenant that guarantees dignity and well-being is a live possibility among us. The second tablet is indeed an articulation of a more excellent way; it is a way in which human life is intrinsically worthy of respect, in which human persons are honored ends rather than abused means, and in which rapacious desire is properly curbed for the sake of viable community.

1. The fifth commandment concerns the struggle between the generations, a struggle that is inherently filled with tension (v. 12). On the one hand, there can be a kind of traditionalism that submits excessively to “the way we were.” On the other hand, there can be a one-generation narcissism that imagines nothing important happened until “us.” That intergenerational tension requires a seriousness that does not simply capitulate but that honors in freedom and response. In the angel’s announcement to Zechariah, a remarkable transposition of the relation of the generations is anticipated: “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17 NRSV).

Here it is not the children who submit to the parents, but the parents who are “turned” to the children. This assertion of the angel does not override Moses’ command. Rather, the two statements are in tension, and adjudication requires that both parties, parents and children, must be engaged in the process. The commandment precludes a new generation that disregards the parents and does not give them due weight. The angel’s poem precludes a blind, mechanical submissiveness of children to parents. “Honor” is a more delicate, transactive maneuver, whereby both parties grow in dignity through the process.

2. The prohibition on killing asserts that human life is valuable to God, and under God’s protective custody (v. 13). No doubt distinctions and differentiations are to be made in enacting this command. The most obvious of these now before us concern capital punishment, war, euthanasia, and abortion. The interpretive community is of no single mind on these great questions, and no consensus is in prospect. The commandment itself states a non-negotiable principle and nothing more. That, however, is a great deal in a society where life is cheap, where technology is impersonal, where economic greed is unbridled, where bombs are “smart,” and where ideology is powerful. The murder that makes the newspapers signifies a breakdown of the human infrastructure, which legitimates brutality. The murder behind the headlines—i.e., the killing that happens a little at a time, mostly unnoticed and unacknowledged—is kept ideologically obscure. Such slow, unnoticed destruction diminishes human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves. The interpretive issue may be this: If human life is precious, what public policies are required in order to enhance and protect it? The old-fashioned responses of employment, housing, and health care are not remote from this command. Calvin counts on the positive application of this command, “that we should not only live at peace with men … but also should aid, as far as we can, the miserable who are unjustly oppressed, and should endeavor to resist the wicked, lest they should injure men.”

Jesus intensified the command to include anger (Matt 5:21–26; cf. 1 John 3:15). One wonders whether in our society Jesus might have focused not on anger but on cynical indifference that is sanctified by a greedy, uncaring individualism that is in its own way killing.

3. The prohibition against adultery concerns the primal mystery of human existence and viable human relationships (v. 14). Our interpretive concern, of course, moves beyond the patriarchal assumption that operates with a double standard. Fidelity should be the guiding theme of interpretation of this command, as distinct from legal arrangements that bespeak old property practices and rights. Formal, legal relations of marriage provide the most durable context and basis for such fidelity. They do not, however, in and of themselves amount to fidelity. Our social context has few models or norms for fidelity of a genuine conventional kind. (It is for that reason that the relation of Yahweh-Israel or Christ-church have become such powerful models and metaphors, though these metaphors are beset with enormous problems in their patriarchal articulation.)

Continuing reflection on this commandment, which concerns genuine fidelity, may go in two directions. On the one hand, there is a struggle with legally constituted relations (marriage), which are not always relations of fidelity because of abusive behavior and a lack of authentic mutuality. On the other hand, there is a struggle concerning the possibility of a genuine relation of fidelity that is outside the conventional sanctions of legal marriage. It is clear on both counts that interpretive issues are not simple and one-dimensional.

In its fullest interpretation, the command against adultery envisions covenantal relations of mutuality that are genuinely life-giving, nurturing, enhancing, and respectful. Such a notion of long-term trust is treated as almost passé in a narcissistic society, preoccupied with individual freedom and satisfaction.

4. There are many ways to “steal a self” (v. 15). Such a focus in the eighth commandment raises important issues regarding what it takes to make a self socially viable. We are, of course, aware of theft and household burglary. We are increasingly aware of white-collar crime whereby large sums of money and property are seized in seemingly “victimless” crimes. Serious covenantal relations preclude such activity.

We must take care, however, that our interpretation of this commandment is not a mere defense of private property and the status quo as a justification for the unjust distribution of goods. Faithful interpretation requires us to probe even the subtle forms of “theft” that rob persons of their future. Here are three facets of theft to which the commandment may point.

First, the terrible inequity of haves and have nots in our society (as in many others) means that babies born into acute poverty are at the outset denied any realistic chance of surviving in a market economy. Because we believe in the goodness of God’s creation, we believe such children are intended by God to have what is necessary for an abundant life. Very often, however, they do not—because they have been robbed of their future. They are not robbed by “bad people”; they are robbed by power arrangements and structures that have long since relegated them to the permanent underclass. Over such arrangements and structures, the command speaks out: “Thou shalt not steal!”

Second, a like theft continues to occur between developed and developing nations, whereby a long-term pattern of deathly dependence is fostered. For a long time Third World countries have been treated only as colonies, natural resources, or markets, kept in a dependency relation, so that nearly all benefits of the relation go to the developed economy and its colonial agents. Patterns of military control and credit arrangements guarantee not only long-term dependency but a predictable cycle of poverty, hunger, and endless destabilization. There is no doubt that we in the West are the primary beneficiaries of such practice.

Third, in interpersonal relations that lack mutuality, characteristically there is an aggressor and a victim. In that unequal relation, which is carried on by invisible but brutal power, the “self” of the victim is endlessly stolen and diminished. The radical vision of Moses is that covenantal practice does not permit these modes of destructive power in relations, public or interpersonal.

5. The three commands on killing, adultery, and stealing together constitute something of a special group. Not only are they the most tersely expressed commands, but also they all address the ways in which vulnerable persons in community are assaulted, diminished, and destroyed. Such actions, condemned in these commands, are all acts of uncurbed power, which fails to recognize that the perpetrator and the victim share a commonality and a solidarity that preclude destructiveness. Contemporary interpretation need not get bogged down in casuistry about this or that command, but can focus on the shared solidarity that precludes destructiveness, either in the transactions of public (economic) power or in the intimacy of interpersonal relations.

6. Viable human community depends on truth telling (v. 16). This commandment is not concerned with “white lies,” but the public portrayal of reality that is not excessively skewed by self-interest or party ideology. The primary point of reference is the court, where witnesses speak and testimony is given. The commandment insists that courts must resist every distortion of reality, every collusion with vested interest (cf. 18:21; Pss 15:2; 24:4), which makes such truth telling prerequisite to worship.

More broadly construed, the commandment enjoins members of the covenant community not to distort reality to each other. The major pertinence of the prohibition in our society is the collapse of truth into propaganda in the service of ideology. That is, public versions of truth are not committed to a portrayal of reality, but to a rendering that serves a partisan interest. Such a practice may take many forms. Among the more blatant practices of “false witness” in recent times has been the use of propaganda through which defeat has been described as military victory or reporting has simply been silenced, so that no truth need be told at all. Such a public tendency is not new. Isaiah 5:20 already addresses those who distorted reality (self-)deception.

Moreover, Jeremiah understood that religious leadership is equally tempted to deception, which both advances institutional interests and seeks to give credence to theological claims (see Jer 6:13–14; 8:10–11). The commandment continues to expect that there is a viable alternative to this deceptiveness in public life.

7. The final commandment on coveting does not address general envy (v. 17), but concerns a kind of acquisitiveness that destabilizes the property and, therefore, the life of another. Marvin Chaney has shown that the oracle of Mic 2:1–5 is, in fact, an exposition of the command. That is, the command concerns primarily land and the development of large estates at the expense of vulnerable neighbors.

The propensity to covet in our society is enacted through an unbridled consumerism that believes that the main activity of human life is to accumulate, use, and enjoy more and more of the available resources of the earth. An undisciplined individualism has taught us that we are entitled to whatever we may want no matter who else may be hurt. Such individualism, however, is driven by a market ideology based on an elemental assumption of scarcity. If there is a scarcity of goods needed for life, then energy and passion are generated to gather and accumulate all that one can (cf. 16:19–21). M. Douglas Meeks has shown that the ideology of scarcity, which drives our economy, is, in the end, an act of theological doubt that does not believe that God’s providential generosity is finally reliable. This commandment summons the faithful to break with the practice of acquisitive individualism and to reject the ideology of scarcity upon which it is based. Thus the commandment requires a massive repentance that is theological in substance, but that is manifested economically.

This commandment functions as a crucial conclusion to the entire Decalogue. We may note two important connections to the preceding commands. First, this command is related to the command on sabbath. Whereas coveting is an activity of untrusting restlessness, sabbath resists such anxious activity.

Second, the decision to cease coveting relates to the first commandment. Giving up such a fearful ideological pursuit cannot be accomplished by an act of will. Rather, it may grow out of an affirmation that the powers of coveting and greedy consumption have been defeated. Such powers, then, need have no control over us. In Col 3:5 (NRSV), the first and tenth commandments are nicely joined: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly … greed (which is idolatry).” Violating the tenth command derives from a violation of the first.

8. In interpreting any of the commandments, it is important to discern clearly the position they occupy in biblical faith. It is possible to conclude simply that these are the most foundational absolutes of God’s purpose in the world. That is, the commandments occupy a peculiar and decisive claim, articulated in the categories of revelation. They disclose the non-negotiable will of God.

Alongside that claim, George Mendenhall’s political understanding of the Decalogue may be useful. Mendenhall has proposed that these ten commands are “policy” statements. They are not in themselves guidelines for specific action, but provide the ground and framework from which specifics may be drawn. Taking them as policies links the commands quite clearly to the concrete community Moses formed. This means that, rather than contextless absolutes, they are proposals that counter other kinds of policies. Such an understanding invites adherents to this covenant to recognize that they have made, and are making, peculiar and distinctive ethical decisions related to a core decision about covenantal existence.

There are important ecclesiological implications in such a recognition. In fact, in some older Christian liturgies, the commandments are recited at baptism. In baptism, the believer pledges allegiance to a vision of social reality that is rooted in God’s wonders and deeply at odds with the dominant assumptions of an acquisitive, individualistic society. The community of faith in our time urgently needs to recover the programmatic intentionality of these commands.

9. In Matt 19:16–22, Mark 10:17–22, and Luke 18:18–30, Jesus alludes to the commandments, though he does not cite them all. Two matters strike us in reading those narratives. First, the reference to specific commandments is kept selective. Harrelson observes that Jesus uses only those commands that pertain to the rich—i.e., the one to whom he speaks. Second, the commandments are, for Jesus, a first-level demand, preparatory to the more rigorous demand, “Go, sell, give, come follow.” In these narratives, the commands are not considered unattainable modes of conduct; they are, rather, the threshold to more serious discipleship and a step on the demanding way to “eternal life”!