The Dual References to the Ten Commandments

The Dual References to the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 20: 1 – 17; Deuteronomy 5: 1 – 22.

In the Sinai, following the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, Yahweh promulgated the Decalogue, commonly known as the Ten Commandments. He prefaced it with an emphatic missive, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2): a profound implication in laying out the groundwork for their new life in the Promised Land. Under normal circumstances, a people are rooted geographically, but in the case of Israel, her rootedness was meant to be in their God, to whom everything on this earth belongs. The first four commandments dealt with how they ought to relate to a holy God, while the next six referred to their relationship within the covenant community, and more widely, with the human family. This significant inventory of relational ‘dos-and-don’ts,’ given just prior to their conquest across the Jordan River, outlined the boundaries of their newly found freedom, shaping their covenantal relationship towards their God and testifying to Israel’s distinctiveness among the nations. The Israelites’ forty years’ Exodus trek, where an entire generation perished, was indicative of this indiscipline that God was attempting to reign in; to be without restraint as a society, as the Decalogue inferred, is equivalent to a licentious childhood, with its devastating impact on family and civic life. With the advent of the Decalogue, inevitably, Israel was at a crossroad, would they be rooted in their obedience to God through their observation of the Law and thereby be a witness to God’s mercy and grace or would they renege and bring on themselves death, destruction and Divine judgment?

Not unlike many other Biblical repetitions, the dual records of the Decalogue, in the Exodus and Deuteronomy narratives, remind us of the importance of this document. In an earlier theophany that took place at Mount Sinai, soon after the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, God gave Moses the ten laws. The second mention was forty years later in Moab, when Moses rehearsed these same laws, together with a larger compendium of rules and regulations in the Book of Deuteronomy. Essentially, the two versions are similar, although the Deuteronomic version, due to additional explanatory material, is lengthier. The principal difference is found in the fourth commandment, where in Exodus, keeping the Sabbath holy was referenced to the creation account, when God rested on the seventh day (Ex 20:8-10), whereas In the Deuteronomy manuscript, the reason was attributed to their salvation from slavery in Egypt (Deut 5:12-15), apart from a longer list of those who were supposed to keep the Sabbath. Both emphasised man’s dependence on God, complementing each other: to rest on the sabbath day was to remember that man, as a part of God’s created order, was totally dependent on the Creator, while the memory of their servitude in Egypt was also a reminder to be merciful to others (servants and foreigners) who would be in their midst in the conquered territories. There is perhaps a symbolic parallel between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Christian context (the first day of the week; Rev 1:10), where the redemptive theme is replicated; i.e., of Israel by their God from slavery and the resurrection of Jesus Christ which marked the liberation from an old life and entry into a new life.

The Decalogue remains as relevant today as it was in the past, and its general acceptance into the basic legal framework of many countries is testimony to its influence and significance (c.f., Ex 20:13-16). For the Christian community, it continues to epitomise the values and holiness of God, and the goal of holy living in Christ. The choice remains with us, and the advice given to the Israelites by Moses, where to choose life is to live it abundantly (Deut 30:19), is equally pertinent today.