The Ten Words and the Ethical Dimension of Israel


The Ten Words are repeated twice in the Bible: once in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5. What is the purpose of them being repeated in Deuteronomy?

As Israel begins her conquest in Canaan, Moses delivers a final sermon before his death. After speaking about Israel’s history in chapters 1-4, he calls Israel to “hear” (the first Shema) in 5:1, signaling a new section of his sermon. This section begins with God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai and Moses’ actions as an intercessor between Yahweh and Israel. Moses says that the first thing God told him were the Ten Words, which he recounts here. The Ten Words of Deuteronomy are linked thematically and numerically with the ten statements by Yahweh in Genesis, so the Ten Words are Yahweh’s new act of creation. In that sense, the people formed by Yahweh’s word, Israel, is a new Adam because Israel is the new firstfruits of a new humanity. I argue then that the ethical dimension of Israel is first to “love Yahweh with your heart soul and mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” by following the Ten Words, which are expanded upon in Deuteronomy. To obey the Ten Words is to be a new Adam, priest-king of a new creation, who properly obeys his Father and ushers humanity into a golden age of obedience to Yahweh and his Son, the Incarnate Logos. The Ten Words also include the four shemas, and four is the number of the world. By obedience to the four shemas and the ten words, Israel was to usher in a new, worldwide creation with a new humanity obedient to Yahweh by knowledge of the Torah through the priestly people of Israel.

Based on James Jordan and many others, I think Deuteronomy is an extended sermon on the Ten Words to help Israel better understand how to follow the Torah in the land. To help Israel understand each of the Words, Moses groups the laws in different sections as expansions on the Word. If Israel struggled with obedience to a certain Word, she could check Deuteronomy to see how to better obey the law. If a law didn’t make sense, Israel could check Deuteronomy and learn how the Law reflected the heart of her ethic.

First Word: You shall have no other gods (chapters 6-11). These laws here are grouped as “The Greatest Commandment”, Israel’s election, the call to remember Yahweh and his power, that Yahweh is free to choose Israel despite what she has or hasn’t done, the incident with the golden calf (signaling that it may not have been made to reflect Yahweh alone), the new tablets of stone that God cuts, the circumcision of the heart to better serve Yahweh alone, and the reminder to serve God who waters Canaan. All of the issues here pertain to proper knowledge and worship of the one God.

Second Word: You shall not have any graven images (12-13). The chosen place of worship (where God dwells), the injunction against idolatry, and the proper way to speak God’s word (13), all teach us how to properly respect God’s revelation and not make a graven image of him. The injunctions against idolatry (because they are lifeless) and false worship spots (because the God of election chose them) are obvious; the false prophets take his revelation in vain because they speak in the name of God but don’t know what he wants. Only the Incarnate Voice of God can reflect him: with his breath, lifeless dust becomes living icons that grow into his image.

Third Word: You shall not take the name of Yahweh in vain (14:1-21a). Really, this one is harder. But it’s about holiness: taking God’s name in vain is to give up on holiness and pursue the ways of the nations.

Fourth Word: Observe the Sabbath day because it is a reminder of your freedom from slavery (14:21b-16:17). The Sabbath day is a celebration of God’s victory over his enemies (the chaotic waters, Serpent, the Canaanites, etc.). All of the feasts are celebrations of God’s victory and the redemption of his people. They also teach Israel to be more like her God and enjoy his Sabbath rest, too.

Fifth Word: Honor your father and mother that it may be well with you in the land (16:18-18:22). These are harder to identify with the proper respect of father and mother until you realize it’s more about proper respect for God. The proper respect of authorities reflects your respect for God. Legal decisions by priests, the king’s righteousness, providing for priests and Levites, abominations, prophets all contribute to the well-being of the land.

Sixth Word: You shall not murder (19-22:8). Laws about the cities of refuge, property boundaries, witnesses, laws about warfare, unsolved murders, female captives, firstborn rights, rebellious sons, and hanging men are all related to violence. These laws are designed to both curb violence before it happens and combat retaliatory violence.

Seventh Word: You shall not commit adultery (22:9-23:14). Adultery is a false mixture between a husband and someone else’s wife. Marriage reflects God and Adam, Adam and Eve, God and Israel, Christ and the Church because mixtures are holy things. To ruin that image by mixing things that shouldn’t be mixed, or outside of the proper context, is to take God’s revelation in vain. Falsely mixing your fields or your fabrics, sexual immorality, and letting into the assembly those who are excluded are to “mix” what is not to be mixed.

Eighth Word: You shall not steal (23:15-24:7). The miscellanious laws and the laws covering divorce prevent and manage stealing. Taking responsibility for damage is akin to not stealing here. This is why employers are to pay their workers (James), because not doing so imitates the sin of Cain and is against the Decalogue.

Ninth word: You shall not bear false witness (24:8-25:3). To treat foreigners unfairly gives false witness about who Yahweh is.

Tenth Word: You shall not covet (25:4-26:19). To fairly gain what your brother has when he dies, you marry his wife; to withhold your offering to Yahweh is to covet what he has and what he owns; to steal by using a false weight is to covet what your buyer has; doing these properly will end in exaltation (26:19).

The covenant blessings are then couched in curses (27:9-26; 28:15-68). Then the covenant is renewed and Moses sings his song of covenant maintained and lost and regained that Isaiah will later sing and Joshua will follow faithfully. Kings would be judged against Deuteronomy, and ultimately against the Ten Words and the heart of Israel’s ethic as a witness to the world. Jeremiah and Isaiah both judged all of Israel against Deuteronomy, and Jeremiah’s Lament was colored by Deuteronomy. The Psalms are musical expressions of meditations on the Torah in Deuteronomy. Malachi and Zechariah clearly drew upon Deuteronomy to judge the post-restoration Israel. Paul, Jesus, and John draw heavily on Deuteronomy to frame the Messianic age. Jesus preaches a new sermon on the mount based on Deuteronomy. Jesus judges the second Temple according to Deuteronomy (Mark 13//Matthew 24//Luke 21).

To understand Deuteronomy is to understand the heart of the ethic of Israel of the Spirit both in the old and new covenants. So when Jesus teaches us to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, we can learn how through Deuteronomy because it shows not just a law, but a foundational ethic.

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