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Bible Commentaries

Peake's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 20

III. Israel at Sinai ( XIX. XL.) .

The division Num 19– 40 presents difficulties due to its very importance, see introduction to Ex. (last paragraph). But Num 25– 31, 35– 40 readily fall apart from the rest, as containing P’ s account of the Tabernacle ( see on Exodus 25:1), the introduction to which is found in Exodus 19:1-2 a and Exodus 24:15 b Exodus 24:18 a, Exodus 34:29-35 being a link section. All critics confess that in the remainder many details must remain doubtful. The Oxf. Hex. is for the most part followed here. It does not differ very widely from Baentsch, who has made a special study of this part. Gressmann’ s drastic reconstruction is highly suggestive in particulars, but as a whole is over-bold. The noteworthy fact is that both J and E preserve important traditions. In each there is an older stratum preserving these elements of the national memory of the religious and political confederation of the tribes: an awful appearance of God upon Sinai-Horeb (Exodus 19 JE, Exodus 20:18-21 E), and the giving of a sacred code, the (Ten) Covenant Words, inscribed upon stone tablets ( Exodus 31:18 b E, Exodus 34:28 J) and sealed by a solemn sacrificial feast ( Exodus 24:5 E, Exodus 24:11 J). Now these passages concur in presenting a favourable view of Israel at this period: he is the son gratefully responding to the compassionate love of his Father ( cf. Exodus 4:22 *), or the lowly bride returning the affection of her Husband. And this agrees with the view of the period taken by all the pre-exilic prophets who refer to it (see Hosea 2:15; Hosea 11:1; Hosea 11:3 f., Hosea 12:9; Hosea 12:13, Amos 2:9-11; Amos 3:1 f., Jeremiah 2:1-3; Jeremiah 2:34). Even Ezekiel’ s severe view rather points to the ancestral heathenism of the tribes (Egyptian, Exodus 23:3, but Canaanite or Amorite-Hittite, Exodus 16:3) than to any apostasy just at this epoch. Only Hosea 9:11, if it refers to the incident Numbers 25:1-5 JE, implies such a lapse. On these grounds it is probable that Numbers 32 JE (the Golden Calf and its destruction E, and the vengeance of the Levites J), together with not a little expansion elsewhere, belongs to a later stage in the moulding of the tradition. The order of incidents is hard to follow, because the editor who united J and E, in his care to preserve as much as possible of both, took the story of the tablets in J as a re-giving and rewriting of them with a renewal of the broken covenant. Much of Numbers 33 containing the colloquies with the Divine Leader belongs to this stage. All this, of course, involves a considerable disturbance of the Bible order and representation in Ex., which, but for one section, is substantially followed by D. But the essence of the great religious facts is irrefragably secure: Israel did, by whatever stages short or long, emerge from a condition little removed from contemporary heathenism, and learned to worship one gracious and holy God (p. 84). Differences concern only the manner and form of events, and their times. Later historians have so accustomed us to having at least the main events fitted neatly into their centuries B.C. or A.D. that we find it hard to think that serious writers could be centuries out in their reckoning. But just as prophets saw future events near and distant in a foreshortened perspective, so it may be that the Bible historians— called “ the former prophets” (pp. 38, 244) by the Jews— saw their instances of the nation’ s glory and shame as more closely crowded together than they actually were. The main thing is that they actually saw them, and that, too, in the mirror of eternity.” Throughout the whole we see the material, as it were, in a plastic state. As older conceptions were outgrown new touches could modify the details, though, fortunately for our chances of recognising the earlier levels of inspiration, traces of the old were not always obliterated. Sometimes we must suppose that these modifications had already been made during the period of oral tradition.

Verses 1-17

Exodus 20-24, 34. The Codes in Exodus.— Recent study has by many converging lines of argument, based on subject matter, choice of words, relation to the context, idiomatic phrasing, comparison with the historical and prophetical literature, etc., and from an immense accumulation of Biblical facts, proved the extraordinary complexity of the laws in the Pentateuch. Only results can be given here. i. Perhaps the oldest collection is the little code in Exodus 34:17-26 * J, all short religious laws, and called in the present text “ the Ten Words of the Covenant.” ii. Closely parallel with this, both in form and substance, is a somewhat larger collection called “ The Words of Yahweh” ( Exodus 24:3) or “ The Book of the Covenant” ( Exodus 24:7), now dislocated by the insertion of iii. It seems to have consisted of Exodus 20:23-26, Exodus 22:18-31, Exodus 23:1-19, and perhaps Exodus 21:12-17 E, religious and moral laws, distinguished by form and substance from their context. iii. Into this a code of laws (Numbers 21 f.), mainly about property, and embodying judicial decisions, has been thrust, “ The Judgments” ( Exodus 21:1 E). The best explanation of its position is Kuenen’ s, that D, when it was united with JE, took the place of this code, many of whose provisions it embodied, and which may, like D, have been assigned to the plains of Moab. On its insertion the clause “ and all the judgments” was presumably added in Exodus 24:3. iv. Last of all, or at any rate later than ii., the Decalogue, called “ The Ten Words” ( Deuteronomy 4:13; Deuteronomy 10:4), took its place as spoken by the mouth of God from the top of the mount ( Exodus 20:1-17). In its present position it contradicts Exodus 20:19, and breaks the connexion between Exodus 19:17 and its obvious sequel Exodus 20:18. As will be seen, it betrays large Deuteronomic expansion, and may have been inserted here as a last step towards the position, only found in Dt., that the Covenant at Horeb was on the basis of the Decalogue. With these four early codes we have to place v., the repetition of iv., in Deuteronomy 5; vi., the collection (the first and twelfth being additions) of ten curses upon moral, especially sexual, offences, in Deuteronomy 27:16-25; vii., the D code, religious, moral, civil, and criminal (Deuteronomy 12-26), called “ Statutes and Judgments” ( Exodus 12:1); and viii., the Holiness (religious-moral) code, Leviticus 17-26 (esp. Leviticus 19), called H. Leviticus 19:3 f. ( cf. Exodus 26:1 f.), Exodus 20:11 f., may be the remains of a concise religious-moral decalogue.

These are all the laws that can fairly be compared with one another. The great mass of “ priestly” laws, to which Exodus 25-31, 35-40 belong, fall readily apart from these, but turn out when examined to have also a complicated structure ( see Exodus 25:1 *). Now i. and ii., which involve agricultural observances, are not likely to be Mosaic. In their oral form, of which the frequent groups of 5 and 10 are a reminder, the earliest likely date would be the reign of David or Solomon, when more settled ways came in. But it is hard to reach assurance as to dates. These laws have even been ascribed to the period in N. Israel when, after the exile of the bulk of the Hebrew inhabitants, the new colonists demanded and obtained a priest to teach them “ the manner of the God of the land,” i.e. Yahweh ( 2 Kings 17:24-28 *). But the whole complex of legal material, regarded as reflecting a long historical process, reveals to us Hebrew law as no cast-iron cage, cramping the growing soul of Israel, but as an adjustable fence, that could be drawn in here, and pushed out there, as the Spirit of Yahweh, the Living God, might prompt, to fit changing conditions of life or quickened conscience of duty.

Exodus 20:1-17 E (expanded). The Decalogue.— Here the reader treads on holy ground. But it is firm ground, trodden by the feet of many generations of pilgrims. Let him therefore fearlessly examine the material of which this road of righteousness is composed, and the process by which it took its present form. Though it were not let down out of heaven, it will serve if it lead men’ s steps towards heaven. Welcome or unwelcome, the views that scholars hold to-day all differ from the Bible story taken literally. It will be least confusing to take by itself the view that on the whole commends itself most . i. If the Ten Words were old they are likely to have been short; and on examination all the longer ones betray marks of expansion by editors of later schools, P being recalled by the reference to the Divine Sabbath after creation ( Exodus 20:11), but D furnishing parallels to the others, see RV references. ii. It is likely that not eight only but all the Words were prohibitions. The sins forbidden will then be:

I. the worship of other gods—“ Thou shalt have none other gods before me” ( cf. Exodus 20:23 a, Exodus 34:14, Hosea 13:4; Hosea 12:9);

II. idolatry—“ Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image” ( cf. Exodus 20:23 b, Exodus 34:17, Hosea 4:17; Hosea 8:4 b Hosea 8:6; Hosea 13:2);

III. perjury— Thou shalt not take the name of Yahweh in vain” ( cf. Exodus 23:1 a, Hosea 4:2; Hosea 10:4);

IV. Sabbath-breaking—“ Thou shalt not do any business on the sabbath day” ( cf. Exodus 23:12, Exodus 34:21, Hosea 2:11);

V. disrespect—“ Thou shalt not set light by thy father or thy mother” ( cf. Exodus 21:15 ; Exodus 21:17);

VI. murder ( cf. Exodus 21:12, Hosea 4:2);

VII. adultery ( Exodus 22:6 f., Hosea 4:2);

VIII. stealing ( cf. Exodus 21:16, Exodus 22:1-4, Hosea 4:2);

IX. false witness ( cf. Exodus 23:16, Amos 5:10-12);

X. greed—” Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’ s house” ( cf. Amos 2:6; Amos 8:4-7). iii. It is clear from the references that E furnishes parallels for all the Words except the last, while all but the 5th (obviously a non-significant omission) can be matched from Hosea or Amos. As clearly, moreover, these prophets are not preaching moral novelties, but recalling old principles. iv. Only three commands can be plausibly described as unlikely to belong in substance to the Mosaic age. Coveting is the only purely inward sin condemned, and its place is justified by M’ Neile as practically including oppression and bribery; but the use of the term “ house” instead of tent implies the passage from the nomadic and pastoral to the settled and agricultural life. The Sabbath, too, was impracticable for nomads in charge mainly of live stock. Moreover, the history of religion in Israel seems to prove that there was no clear conscience against all images till a much later time ( see pp. 83f.). The first steps in this direction may be seen in Exodus 20:23, Exodus 34:17. Hence Kautzsch (HDB, Extra Vol., p. 634 b), following Eerdmans, accepts the remaining seven only as Mosaic. For a recent, competent defence of the Mosaic Origin of the Decalogue see Exp. for 1916 (Prof. M‘ Fadyen). v. It must always be remembered that negatives imply a positive, and that those of the Decalogue rest upon a principle, the foundation both of religion and morality, that man’ s true life involves fellowship: Thou shalt live in fellowship both with thy God and with thy family, tribe, nation, and (eventually) fellow-men. Ancient religion as a universal social bond profoundly affected morality; but it might consecrate immorality or condone it by offering non-moral ways of pardon. It is the distinction of Hebrew religion that it neither ordered evil nor made light of it, but called the worshippers of a righteous God to be like Him. And even those who doubt whether moral duties had been gathered so early into a code must admit both that the sense of moral obligation must have been present, and that it must have been connected with fidelity to Yahweh from Mosaic times, or otherwise Israel would never have preserved itself as distinct as it did from the Canaanites, whose civilisation, as being more advanced, left a deep impress upon Hebrew life. vi. The numbering here adopted is that of Philo, Josephus, the Ancient Church, Calvin, the later Greek Church, and Anglo-Saxon Christians, and is undoubtedly the best. But the Roman Catholic Church (with Augustine and Luther) followed the MT in uniting the 1st and 2nd Words and dividing the 10th. The Jews take the preface as the 1st Word, and combine our 1st and 2nd as the 2nd. vii. Also the order has varied in regard to the three Words after the 5th. In MT, LXX (AFM, etc.), Mark 10:19 RV, Matthew 5:21; Matthew 5:27; Matthew 19:18, it is 6– 7– 8; in LXX (B) and the Nash papyrus ( c. 2nd century A.D.) it is 7– 8– 6; and in Luke 18:20, R. Exodus 13:9, James 2:11, Mark 10:19 AV, Philo, and some Fathers it is 7– 6– 8. viii. Finally, it remains to comment briefly on the words as they now stand. When first they became part of the Horeb story of E, they must have followed Exodus 19:19, which relates God’ s answering Moses by a voice, and which may have originally gone with Exodus 20:18, the alarm of the people. Exodus 20:1 a, “ God spake all these words,” has behind it not only the editor who wrote it, but the later Hebrew and Christian centuries which have endorsed it. However spoken, these words have found their way to man’ s heart as the voice of God. The preface lb is a vital part of the whole; the peculiar loyalty demanded in the OT can be paid only to a Divine Lawgiver, who is first of all Redeemer. Hosea 12:9; Hosea 13:4 are vouchers that Exodus 20:1 b is earlier than D, though probably expanded ( cf. Exodus 13:3 *). The 1st Word (3) was probably not at first taken as denying the existence of other gods, but as forbidding Israel to affront Yahweh by recognising them in worship “ in front of” Him. Later, it was seen that, if the practice was forbidden, the misbelief was condemned. The age-long struggle against “ other gods” may be traced in the concordance. The 2nd Word (4) forbids even the making of a graven image: no doubt the purpose of worship was implied. Images were of carved wood, of wood cased with metal, of stone or solid metal. The pesel or “ graven image,” as the commonest. included all. Images of Yahweh were not only tolerated among His worshippers, but “ widely used . . . till the times of the prophets” (Driver, CB). In its present form the 2nd Word reflects a definite stage of later religious progress. The editor ( Exodus 20:4 b) in general terms excludes images of beasts, birds, and heavenly bodies, and fishes, all represented as objects of worship in lands surrounding Israel. See also Idolatry ( Semitic) in ERE. Observe that the flat earth is regarded as floating on “ the waters under the earth” ( cf. Genesis 16:8 *; Genesis 49:25). Yahweh is “ a jealous God” ( Exodus 20:5; cf. Exodus 34:14); the Divine Husband is keenly sensitive to the sacredness of the bond that links Him with His Bride Israel (Hosea 1-3, etc.), flaming forth against her when disloyal or on her behalf when unjustly oppressed. But evil has less lasting effects than good, for, whereas disloyalty only injures posterity “ to the third and fourth generation,” thousands “ belonging to” loyal lovers of Yahweh, as descending from or influenced by them, shall share in His mercy. Observe that love to God is part of what we may call the gospel of D ( Deuteronomy 6:5, etc.), which seems to be itself dependent upon the revelation of Divine love in Hosea. The 3rd Word forbids misuse of the sacred Name, either by perjury, blasphemy, or irreverence, or in connexion with magic or divination ( Exodus 20:7). Names in antiquity were thought to carry with them the power of the person named ( Genesis 32:29 *). The modern application is that the names of God actually impart spiritual power to those who pronounce them with due sense of the wealth and the weight of meaning in them, but the careless or formal use of them throws them out of gear for this high function. The 4th Word is the only one which refers to a positive religious institution, the Sabbath (pp. 101f.). With profound religious insight it is seen that unless some time is regularly offered to God, no time is likely to be consciously spent in His service. So at sunset on the sixth day the “ Cease work” sounds out (“ sabbath,” a word perhaps of Bab. origin, means this) for “ the Lord’ s day” ( Exodus 20:8, cf. Isaiah 58:13). Israel is to “ remember” ( Deuteronomy 5:12 less forcibly “ observe” ) to mark each week with its seal of sacred rest and joyous observance. It is “ business,” i.e. week-day work for gain, that is forbidden. The humanitarian side, exempting dependants, children, slaves, cattle, and naturalised aliens from toil ( Exodus 20:10), is further emphasised in Deuteronomy 5:5. For the priestly supplement ( Exodus 20:11), see Genesis 23*, where it will be observed that the editor of Gen. considers that Exodus 20:11 is not dependent on Genesis 2:3 ( see Introd. to Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:4 a). On this he accepts the argument of Budde, Die biblische Urgeschichte, pp. 493- 4 95. For the weekly rest-day there is a Bab. parallel, but the social and religious character of the Hebrew Sabbath is its own. The priestly laws elaborate ana refine the 4th Word. The 5th Word ( Exodus 20:12) impresses a duty widely recognised by ancient sages ( e.g. Plato and Confucius), respect for parents ( cf. Sir_3:1-6 , Mark 7:10-13). The “ promise” ( Ephesians 6:2) offers length of days to Israel and not to the Israelites: “ the foundations of national greatness are in the home” (King George V.). Respect for parents may be taken as the last duty of piety, they being in God’ s place, or as the first duty of morals; and so may close the first table (as originally), or begin the new (as in the Catechism). The 6th Word ( Exodus 20:13) secures the sanctity of human life, the word used referring to violent and unauthorised killing. The absence of any penalty is specially noticeable here, and favours the view that the whole is a summary of prophetic teaching, not a judicial code. For Christ’ s teaching, see Matthew 5:21-26. The 7th Word ( Exodus 20:14) affirms the sanctity of the marriage tie, and the 8th ( Exodus 20:15) the sacredness of private property; while the 9th ( Exodus 20:16) lays down the law of libel, untruthfulness being a besetting sin among the Hebrews from Jacob onwards. The 10th is understood by Paul ( Romans 7:7) as forbidding the unseen spring of wrong action, unlawful desire; but M’ Neile observes that it becomes in Mark 10:19, “ Defraud not.” [Those who take it as dealing with the inward desire are often inclined to regard it as exhibiting a much more advanced stage of ethical reflection than the other commandments. Eerdmans has elaborately defended the other alternative noted above, that it is directed not simply against a desire, but against a desire associated with an act. He refers to Exodus 34:24 in support.— A. S. P.] The clauses after “ house” were probably added. See also Deuteronomy 5:21

Verses 18-21

Exodus 20:18-21 E. Alarm of the People.— This resumes Exodus 19:17 or Exodus 19:19), and describes how the frightened people (read in Exodus 20:18 b “ and the people were afraid and trembled” ) asked that Moses and not God should speak to them. Then “ Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was” ( Exodus 20:21). This idea, afterwards much developed by the mystics, is reflected in the windowless Holy of Holies in the Temple ( cf. 1 Kings 6:16-20; 1 Kings 8:13, and RV references).

Verses 22-26

Exodus 20:22-26 E. Laws of Worship.— This begins the “ Book of the Covenant,” a small collection of religious and moral laws. The reference to God as talking with the people from heaven ( Exodus 20:22 b) was probably added after the insertion of the Decalogue. In Exodus 20:23 the pl. “ ye” shows that this was not part of the Horeb “ book,” in which “ thou” is used. The RV seems to be right (against LXX) in making Exodus 20:23 a a doublet of Exodus 20:3. Perhaps it ran, “ Ye shall not serve (make) along with me other (silver) gods.” In any case, it is over-costly images only that are forbidden. The rules for the rude altar of earth or stone ( Exodus 20:24-26) reflect primitive usage ( cf. 1 Samuel 14:32-35 *), imply the right of laymen to sacrifice ( cf. 2 Samuel 6:13; 2 Samuel 6:17) , and refer only to the two oldest and commonest kinds of sacrifice ( cf. Exodus 24:5, and pp. 98f., 197f.). Moreover, such an altar may be set up wherever Yahweh may cause His Name to be remembered (24 mg.) , i.e. by a vision, a victory, or other gracious act (p. 130). Stones were to be unhewn ( Exodus 20:25), from old custom ( cf. Exodus 4:25 *. Joshua 8:31 *) or from the survival of a prejudice against risking driving away the deity by altering the shape of the natural rock. Steps were ( Exodus 20:26) not allowed, in the interests of decency ( cf. a different provision in Exodus 28:42).

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Bibliographical Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Exodus 20". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". 1919.