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Basic principles of the covenant (20:1-17)
The form of the covenant God made with Israel followed a pattern that was common in the ancient world when an overlord made a covenant with his subjects. God introduced himself to his people by declaring his name and status as Yahweh the sovereign Lord, and recounting to his people what he had graciously done for them. He reminded them that their God was living and active, and that the words they were about to hear were a revelation direct from him (20:1-2).
After the introduction came the basic covenant obligations, summarized in ten easily remembered commandments. These were not laws in the legal sense, for they carried no penalties. Rather they were the principles on which the nation’s laws would be built and by which the nation should live.
The first three commandments were concerned mainly with attitudes to God. He alone was the true God; there was room for no other (3). No image of any kind was to be an object of worship, whether used as a symbol of the true God or as the representation of some other (false) god. God would act in righteous judgment against those who rebelled in this way, and against those of succeeding generations who followed the bad example of their ancestors. The sins of one generation would affect the next. But to those who remained faithful, God would prove himself faithful (4-6).
Yahweh’s people were not to misuse his name, either in swearing to a statement that was not true or in swearing to a vow that was not kept. They were also to be careful not to use his name irreverently, such as when cursing in anger (7; cf. Leviticus 24:16).
In the fourth commandment God showed that people could combine an attitude of reverence towards him with an attitude of care for their own needs. The weekly Sabbath encouraged people to worship God, since the day was set apart to him as holy, but at the same time it benefited them by making sure they had adequate rest from their regular work (8-11).
The remaining six commandments dealt with people’s duties in the community. They were to be faithful to their family responsibilities, and in doing so would help towards a healthy stable society and ensure for themselves a long and happy life. They were to act with love and consideration towards others by refraining from murder, maintaining purity in sexual relationships, respecting other people’s rights to their possessions, refusing to make false accusations, and avoiding the desire for anything belonging to another person (12-17).
Correct attitudes in worship (20:18-26)
Moses was satisfied when he saw that the people, having witnessed the frightening events connected with God’s coming to Mount Sinai, were suitably humbled. They became aware of their shortcomings and at the same time developed a greater fear of God (18-21).
People were to show a similarly humble attitude when they built altars at places of God’s special revelation (e.g. 17:14-16). Because Israel was a wandering people, such altars were not to be permanent; because Israel was a sinful people, the altars were not to be lavish. They were to consist of simply a mound of earth or a heap of loose rocks, depending on which material was available in the region. The altars were not to be so high that they required steps, in order to avoid any immodesty that might occur if people lifted up their robes while climbing the steps (22-26; cf. 28:42-43).
Characteristics of Hebrew laws
Hebrew laws were mainly of two kinds. The first kind we have met in the Ten Commandments. These were absolute standards, usually in the negative (e.g. ‘You shall not steal’). The second kind, which we shall meet repeatedly in the next three chapters, consisted of laws that probably resulted from cases where Moses or his assistants had given judgments, and those judgments now became standards for use in future cases (e.g. ‘If a man borrows anything from his neighbour, and it is hurt or dies . . . he shall make full restitution’). Laws of the first kind may be considered basic principles; those of the second kind, the application of those principles to specific circumstances.
When reading the Hebrew law code, we should remember that it was designed to suit the cultural and social habits of the time. It’s purpose was to maintain order and administer justice among a people whose way of life was already established. For example, it did not immediately outlaw slavery, for the social, economic and political order of the age was so constructed that slavery could not be instantly abolished. But Hebrew law introduced attitudes of consideration for the welfare of others that were unknown in most other ancient cultures, and so began the process that eventually brought an end to slavery.
Hebrew law was in some ways similar to other law codes of the ancient world, but it also had some important differences. A fundamental requirement was that the punishment had to fit the crime. There was not the brutality found in some ancient nations, where punishments were out of all proportion to the crime (21:22-25; Deuteronomy 25:3). Also, justice was the same for everyone, regardless of status. Laws did not favour the upper classes, but guaranteed a fair hearing for all (23:3,6; Leviticus 19:15).
In particular the Hebrew law code protected the rights of the defenceless and disadvantaged, such as the poor (23:6), foreigners (23:9), widows and orphans (22:22), debtors who sold themselves into slavery (21:1-11) and even those who were born slaves (23:12).
The basic reason for these differences was no doubt that the Hebrew law came from God, a fact that is stated repeatedly. Legal, moral and religious matters were not separated as in some law codes, for in the community of God’s people all areas of life were relevant to each other. The people viewed everything in the light of their understanding of God and their relation to him.
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Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Fleming's Bridgeway Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26