God gives Moses ten thou-shalt-nots:

  1. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). This language suggests that other gods exist, but that God claims exclusive worship from the Hebrews. Taken alone, it’s a rather weak argument, but taken with all the other passages we’ve been covering over the last few chapters and it seems rather clear that the ancient Hebrews were Henotheists.
  2. The next is a prohibition against graven images, or any likeness of anything found in heaven or on earth. The fact that this is an actual commandment makes it doubly hilarious when certain groups insist on having carvings of stone tablets inscribed with the commandments displayed in courthouses. An interesting point brought up by Collins on page 41 of his Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is that this commandment suggests that we are the idols. Just as other groups were making figures in their gods’ images, we were created in the image of our god.
  3. No taking God’s name in vain. In Genesis 2, I talked about the power of names. There, the power was in choosing names, while here it’s in speaking it. In many ancient cultures, knowing someone or something’s “secret name” gives you the ability to control them or cast spells on them. Here, God is talking about his secret name, YHWH. So the prohibition is about using God’s name when reciting a spell or curse to control God and make him do your bidding. Think of the phrase “God dammit!” or “God damn it!”
  4. Keep the Sabbath. This applies to individuals, as well as to their servants, cattle, and even any foreigners staying in their cities. This is actually a very progressive rule and the only commandment that isn’t either concerned with cultic segregation or with obvious behaviours that are were already prohibited in every culture.
  5. The Ten Commandments, c.1480-1490

    The Ten Commandments, c.1480-1490

    Honour your parents.

  6. No murder.
  7. No adultery.
  8. No stealing.
  9. No “false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). This seems to suggest that it isn’t lying that’s wrong, but rather lying against someone. So telling grandma that you love the reindeer sweater she knitted you with the real bells attached wouldn’t actually be a sin because that lie is for someone.
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions, including their house, wife, servant, ox, ass, or anything else. Sorry, ladies.

The second commandment understandably made some Roman Catholics rather nervous, so they sweep it under the carpet by combining it with #1 and expanding #10 into two separate commandments (no coveting your neighbour’s house and no coveting his stuff, either!).

Some Jews will see the first part of the chapter, called the declaration (where God introduces himself as the speaker), as the first commandment. They then also combine #1 and #2 to fix the numbering.

Some have noticed that 10 seems like a rather arbitrary number, and that the ten commandments could really be condensed into just two:



Or, if you’d prefer, just one: “Don’t be a dick.”

Do not fear

So God is yapping away at Moses, and all the while the rest of the Israelites hear only thunder claps and the sound of a trumpet (which was associated with cultic occasions). Having presumably never been caught out in a storm before, they start to get pretty freaked out, so they ask Moses to make sure that God doesn’t address the crowd lest they be killed.

To which Moses replies: “Do not fear; for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin” (Exod. 20:20). Soo… God will keep the people from sinning by scaring the bajeezus out of them, so they shouldn’t be afraid? What’s Moses trying to accomplish here?

Altars of earth

God wants an “altar of earth” built and sacrifices made there in any place where “I cause my name to be remembered” (Exod. 20:24). He does allow for stones to be used in their construction, but they must not be hewn. “For if you wield your tool upon it you profane it” (Exod. 20:25).

My study bible says that this is in contrast to the fancy pagan altars.

Unfortunately, my study bible is distressingly silent on the next part. “And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it” (Exod. 20:26). So basically, God really doesn’t want your “tool” anywhere near his altar!

But seriously, this probably has something to do with wearing robes, and people’s ability to see up said robes when someone is climbing stairs.

Additional notes

God then re-emphasises that people shouldn’t be making idols. “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me” (Exod. 20:23). I wanted to touch on this because it’s a nice illustration of how utterly alien the Bible is to what most modern day people believe. Today, we have no problem with the idea that God can create people, but this shows a mutual creative power. God seems to believe that people can create other gods by making idols. So the ban on idolatry, really, is so that the creative power flows only in one direction.

I also wanted to mention a titbit that came up while God was giving his commandments. He says to Moses: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exod. 20:5). Quite contrary to the individualism of “Christian-founded” America, the Bible is all about collective guilt and collective salvation.