I don’t really expect people to change their terminology, but just know that The Ten Commandments are more accurately referred to as The Ten Words. Both Exodus 20:1 & Deuteronomy 5:22 refer to the list as words. (The NIV in Deut. 5:22 inexplicably translates the same Hebrew word as Ex 20:1 as “commandments” instead of “words”.) Compare this description with the first verse of Ex. 21, and Deut. 6 where the subsequent laws are clearly referred to as ordinances or commandments. In academia the 10 Commandments are frequently referred to as the Decalogue. This word originates from two Latin words: deka = ten, and logos = word.
I’m not just making this distinction to pick nits. Christians seem to often fall back on the Ten Commandments as the gold standard of moral law. We treat them as absolute stand-alone laws. However, I believe this elevates them to a purpose God never intended.
As always in interpreting Scripture, CONTEXT IS KEY. Exodus 19 provides the context for us. Before giving the Ten Words, God asks the Israelites if they want to be His people, enjoy His protection and provision, and embrace the responsibility of being His priests and holy nation. Although 19:4-6 are not phrased in the form of a question, v5 begins with an “if” indicating the conditionality of God’s promises. Moses’ actions demonstrate that God was making a proposal, or asking a question. He presented God’s statement to the nation then returned to communicate their positive response to God.
Based upon their experiences and relationship with God, the people respond, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” This connection between experience and relationship is also important. In 19:4 God reminds them of how He lovingly rescued them. We find a similar reminder in the introduction to the Ten Words in 20:2. God’s rescue of Israel forms the foundation of their relationship and motivates the Israelites’ acceptance of His proposal.
God only gives The Ten Words after the Israelites accept His proposal. They are not arbitrary stand-alone demands imposed on people whether they’re receptive or not. The Ten Words lay out the terms of God’s relationship with His people. Once they accept His invitation to become His “priestly kingdom and holy nation”, then He tells them how to fulfill that responsibility.
Christians sell God short when we expect people who have no relationship with God to observe The Ten Commandments. In Exodus, The Ten Words lay out the terms of an agreement between God and His people. Christians should spend much more time sharing why we have agreed to become God’s people, and what God has done in our lives, rather than requiring ungodly people observe the terms of God’s covenant.
- Many American Christians passionately support the public display of the Ten Commandments. If you’re one of those people, what do you see as the spiritual benefits of this tradition?
- Does your experience with God influence your faith? Or is your faith built more on promises and teaching than experience?
- Does placing The Ten Words in a context of covenant change your understanding of them?
- What similarities do you see between Exodus 19 & 20, and the Christian relationship with Jesus?