The Ten Commandments – The Illustrated Bible Dictionary

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Meredith G. Kline, Ten Commandments in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, rev. ed. by J.D. Douglas, N. Hillyer. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press; Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1980, pp. 1533-1534.

The ‘ten words’ (debarim; cf Ex. xxxiv. 28; Dt. iv. 13, x. 4) were originally uttered by the divine voice from Sinai in the hearing of all Israel (Ex. xix. 16-xx. 17). Afterwards, in the presence of Moses on Sinai, they were twice written by the finger of God on the obverse and reverse of two stone ‘tables’ or tablets (Ex. xxxi. 18, xxxii. 15, 16, xxxiv. 1, 28; cf Dt. x. 4). The first pair were shattered by Moses in angry symbolization of the significance of Israel’s sin of the golden calf (Ex. xxxii. 19). The second pair were deposited in the ark (Ex. xxv. 16, xl. 20). Later, Moses republished the Ten Commandments in slightly modified form (Dt. v. 6-21).

The common designation of the contents of the two tablets as ‘the Decalogue’, though it enjoys biblical precedent, has tended to restrict unduly the Church’s conception of that revelation. It is, indeed, a comprehensive summary of the law of God, the permanent validity of which is evident from the nature of its contents and the New Testament attitude towards it (cf. e.g., Mt. xix. 17-19, xxii. 37-40) and is further marked by its awesome promulgation, its durable physical form, and its location under God’s throne in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, it is not adequately classified as law; it belongs to the broader category of covenant. The terminology ‘covenant’ (berit; Dt. iv. 13) and ‘the words of the covenant’ (Ex. xxxiv. 28; cf. Dt. xxix. 1, 9) is applied to it. It is also identified as the ‘testimony’ (‘edut; Ex. xxv. 16, 21, xl. 20; cf 2 Ki. xvii. 15), which describes the covenant order of life as one solemnly imposed and sworn to so that ‘edut becomes practically synonymous with berit. The two tablets are called ‘the tables of the covenant’ (Dt. ix. 9, II, 15) and ‘the tables of the testimony’ (Ex. xxxi. 18, xxxii. 15, xxxiv. 29). The ark as the depository of the tablets is called ‘the ark of the covenant’ or ‘of the testimony’; and the tabernacle where the ark was located, ‘the tabernacle of the testimony’.

The historical occasion of the original giving of this revelation was the establishment of the theocratic covenant. The principles of Ex. xx. 2-17 as elaborated and applied in casuistic form in the book of the covenant (Ex. xx. 22-xxiii. 33) served as a legal instrument in the ratification of that covenant (Ex. xxiv. 1-8). The later, Deuteronomic, version is part of a document of covenant renewal.

When, therefore, the Scripture designates the revelation of the two tablets as ‘the ten words’, it clearly does so as pars pro toto. At the same time, this terminology and the preponderance of law content which it reflects indicates that the type of covenant involved is essentially the establishment of an authoritative order of life as a declaration of the Covenant-giver’s lordship over His servants.

The covenantal character of the Decalogue is illuminated and corroborated by ancient international treaties of the type used to formalize the relationship of a suzerain and vassal. Suzerainty treaties begin with a preamble identifying the covenant lord, the speaker (cf. Ex. xx. 2a), and an historical prologue recounting especially the benefits previously bestowed on the vassal through the favour and might of the lord (cf. Ex. xx. 2b). The obligations imposed on the vassal, the longest section, follow. The foremost stipulation is the requirement of loyalty to the covenant lord or negatively the proscription of all alien alliances (cf. Ex. xx. 3-17, the first and great principle of which is whole-hearted love of Yahweh, who is a jealous God). Another section enunciated the curses and blessings which the gods of the covenant oath would visit on the vassals in accordance with their transgressions or fidelity (cf. Ex. xx. 5b, 6, 7b, 12b). Among other parallels are the ‘I-thou’ style, the practice of placing a copy of the covenant in the sanctuaries of the two parties, and the administrative policy of renewing the covenant with the successive generations of the vassal kingdom. In covenant renewal documents, modification of the stipulations, and particularly modernization, was customary. That explains the various differences between the Ex. xx and Dt. v forms of the Decalogue. For example, Dt. v. 21 adds ‘his field’ because of the relevance of land ownership to Israel’s now imminent inheritance of Canaan.

In brief, the two tablets contained the quintessence of the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. Yahweh, Creator of heaven, earth, sea, and all that is in them, is presented as covenant Suzerain. The theocratic covenant relationship is traced to Yahweh’s redemptive election and deliverance, and its continuance to the thousandth generation is attributed to His faithful mercies. The covenant way of life is sovereignly dictated in ten commandments, the standard of Israel’s consecration to her Lord.

The very fact that the law is embedded in divine covenant disclosure points to the religious principle of personal devotion to God as the heart of true fulfillment of the law. But there is no incompatibility between the divine demand communicated in concrete imperatives and the call of God to personal commitment to Him in love. Yahweh describes the beneficiaries of His covenant mercy as ‘them that love me, and keep my commandments’ (Ex. xx. 6; cf. In. xiv. 15), The biblical ethic is rooted in biblical religion, and biblical religion is not shapeless mysticism but structured truth.

The revelation of the law in the context of redemptive covenant action indicates that conformity to the law is a soteric achievement of the grace of Yahweh who delivers from bondage. In this context even the preponderantly negative form of the Decalogue serves to magnify the grace of God who, though obliged to protest negatively against the sin of fallen man, offers His protest not as a final condemnation but as the standard of life within a restored covenant communion. The negative form thus becomes a divine promise to the redeemed servants of perfect ultimate triumph over the demonic power within and without, which would enslave them in the hell of endless alienation from God. An ethic rooted in such religion possesses the dynamic of faith, hope, and love.

Since the administration of the covenant of grace is an historically progressive development and the Decalogue appears as an integral element in the organic unfolding of covenant revelation, it is natural that the Decalogue’s abiding principles are formulated in terms appropriate to the Mosaic age. For example, the specific form of the sabbath law reflects the Old Testament eschatological perspective and the promise appended to the fifth word (and elsewhere related to the entire law, cf. Dt. v. 33-vi. 3) employs the imagery of the contemporary, typical manifestation of God’s kingdom. This does not detract from the Decalogue’s authority as a permanent norm, but does require that the specific application at any given time reckon with the realities of redemptive history as an eschatologically decisive movement. The unbeliever, for example, is the believer’s ‘neighbour’ until the judgment, but not after that.

As for the division into ten words, the Decalogue’s parallelism with the suzerainty treaty structure shows the error of regarding the preamble and historical prologue as a commandment. Also, the variant forms of the prohibition of covetousness in Ex. xx. 17 and Dt. v. 21 contradict the division of it into two commandments, and that obviates the associated error of combining into one what most Protestants, following the oldest tradition, have regarded as the first and second commandments. The customary division of the Decalogue into ‘two tables’ stems from a mistaken conception of the nature of the two tables, which were actually duplicates (cf. M. G. Kline, ‘The Two Tables of the Covenant’, WTJ, XXII, 2, 1960, pp. 133-146).

BIBLIOGRAPHY. C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, 1940, pp. 271-465; G. Vos, Biblical Theology, 1954, pp. 145-159.

M.G.K.

Scanned and Edited by Robert A. Lotzer on July 04, 2006.