Exodus 20


וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר   20:1

Exod. 20:1  “And God spoke all these words saying,

The expectant ending to the last chapter was apparently forgotten.  This one begins as if the last chapter had ended appropriately.  Or else a different scribe authored this most important chapter without considering the last one.

אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הֹוצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים   20:2

Exod. 20:2  ‘I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’

This is the first of the ten commandments.  Many have argued that this is not a commandment, as it expresses no negative or positive responsibility.  I believe that this commandment not only introduces the other commandments, but itself invites everyone to believe.  It’s as if the Lord is saying, “You shall know that I am the Lord, your God.”  That is the essential commandment.  Without it, the remaining nine can be construed as hardly more than a scribe’s imagination or simple common sense.

לֹא יִהְיֶה־לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל־פָּנָיַ   20:3

Exod. 20:3  ‘There shall be no other gods for you before Me.’

I need to discuss some interesting aspects of the last two Hebrew words, which are translated as before Me.  These words are an expansion of the word לִפְנֵי, which appears 668 times in the bible and means before.  The word is derived from פָּנִים, which primarily means face.  While this is not the first time we’ve encountered these words, the context in this verse makes it important to discuss their complex implications now.

The word most often translated as before is meant to be interpreted in a broader concept than this simple meaning.  The word implies presence.  In other words, the verse can also be legitimately translated as “There shall be no other gods for you in My presence,” not just before Me.  An additional legitimate translation could be “There shall be no other gods to [or against] My face.”  So a strong implication of these meanings is that no other god may be placed in God’s presence.  In reality, all these translations taken together provide a much more powerful interpretation than the simple words before Me indicate.  And here is the bottom line for me:  I believe that this commandment as revealed here negates the possibility that Jesus can be properly called Lord.

לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה־לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל־תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת     20:4


Exod. 20:4  ‘You shall not fashion a graven image for yourself, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or what is in the earth beneath or what is in the waters beneath the earth.’

I think this commandment is not easily understood by many (including me).  I believe that a graven image is anything that is carved, or produced from a form in which molten metal is allowed to cool, or is a three-dimensional representation (i.e., having thickness).  A broad interpretation of this definition prohibits the sculpture of almost anything. Yet later, when the Lord instructs Moses how to build the ark and the Tabernacle, He describes carvings and depictions of palm trees, birds, and pomegranates.  How, therefore, are we to interpret this commandment?  The word פֶסֶל, the fourth in the verse, can be translated as idol or simply image.  Now we are aware that idols are often thought of metaphorically.  For example, money can be construed to be an idol.  Does this mean that we can have no images of any kind?  Moreover, the Lord also says “any likeness.”  That term is far more inclusive than graven image or idol.  The term for likeness, תְּמוּנָה., can also be translated as representation or semblance, making it far more inclusive than graven image.  Perhaps the clue to the meaning of this commandment is to consider the word פֶסֶל more closely, especially in light of the next verse, which is a continuation of this second commandment.  We may infer that the terms in question refer to something worshiped.  Does that mean that only images or likenesses that would be worshiped are prohibited?  That seems to be the only reasonable, as well as satisfactory, interpretation.  The Lord is talking here about carved things that may be worshiped -- Idols!

                                                                               [Return to Exod. 32:15]

לֹא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם כִּי אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־   20:5

שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי

Exod. 20:5  ‘You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God, am a possessive God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations for My enemies,

In this verse, we encounter for the first time what is referred to in most, if not all, bibles as God’s “jealousy” in the phrase אֵל קַנָּא, there translated as “... am a jealous God.”   According to my understanding, admittedly perhaps naïve (but in my opinion strongly supported by the evidence), God does not exhibit jealousy.  I believe that trait is possessed only by humans and possibly some animals.  In keeping with the apparent belief of the ancients, the scribe would probably not have searched for a less human description of God’s trait, easily assuming that it was appropriate.  But I have, and I believe that the jealousy the scribe refers to is better described as possessiveness or sense of ownership.  After all, the Lord tells us time and again that the children of Israel are His special possession.

וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָי   20:6

Exod. 20:6  yet showing mercy to the thousandth generation to those loving Me and guarding My commandments.’

Notice that the next-to-last Hebrew word in this verse is often translated as keeping, but it is more appropriately meant to guard.  Guarding is a more inclusive term, and that’s why I prefer it.  For me it implies more than obligation -- it implies a loving relationship.  And it’s most appropriate to love the commandments.  They are, after all, God’s instructions for coming closer to Him, knowing Him, and loving Him.

In addition to this, I suspect that these two verses, 20:5 and 20:6, are misinterpreted.  I believe the phrase the thousandth generation is meant to convey a very long time, perhaps forever.  And the phrase the third and fourth generations is intended to convey a very short period.  But more important, If we read these verses carefully, they tell us something more about God’s treatment of us.

Notice in v. 20:5 who the third and fourth generations are:  The Lord’s enemies!  It’s not the children of His enemies!  Then notice who the thousandth generation is in this verse:  Those who love Him and guard His commandments!  It’s not their father, it’s the children!  Why do I emphasize this?  Well, you can find out when you’ve finished reading Ezekiel Chapter 18.                                  [Return to Ezek. 18:32]

לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת־שֵׁם־יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה יְהוָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂא אֶת־שְׁמֹו לַשָּׁוְא   20:7

Exod. 20:7  ‘You shall not take up the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold innocent he who will take His name in vain.’

An interesting change occurs in this verse.  Starting with v. 20:2, the Lord is certainly speaking directly to the people, using first-person pronouns when referring to Himself.  In this verse and continuing until the end of the Decalogue, which is v. 20:14, all the references to the Lord are in the third person.  Because of this change, many scholars believe that in this set of verses, Moses is speaking, not the Lord.

זָכֹור אֶת־יֹום הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשֹׁו   20:8

Exod. 20:8  ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it sacred.’

This verse is usually translated with a comma after the word “day.”  The more or less traditional translation (with the comma) conveys the message that you should remember to keep the Sabbath day sacred (or holy).  Without the comma it conveys a very different message:  Remembering the Sabbath allows you to keep it sacred.   In other words, if you forget that the day is the Sabbath, you are not keeping the day sacred.  Can you see the difference?   It’s subtle but yields a critical difference.

Now let’s take this alternative interpretation one small step further.  Can we now understand that if we forget it is the Sabbath, we have profaned the day?  I understand it.  What this knowledge tells me is that if we do something that causes us to forget what day it is (the Sabbath), we have sinned.  So now we have to take this understanding one small step further yet to reach a conclusion that is critical to me:  We are permitted to do only the activities that remind us it is the Sabbath day.

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל־מְלַאכְתֶּךָ   20:9

Exod. 20:9  ‘Six days may you labor and perform all your work,

וְיֹום הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂה כָל־מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ־וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ    20:10

וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ

Exod. 20:10   but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God.  You shall not perform any work, you or your son or daughter, your man-servant or your maid-servant, or your cattle, or your foreign guest who is within your gates.’”                          [Return to Exod. 31:15]

כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת־יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיֹּום    20:11

הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל־כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יְהוָה אֶת־יֹום הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ

Exod. 20:11   Because six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.                                                                                  [Return to Exod. 23:12]

Vss. 20:8, 20:9, 20:10, and 20:11 give us the first real hints at what is not permitted on the Sabbath.  The work mentioned in v. 20:10 relates directly back to v. 20:9:  “Six days may you labor and perform all your work.  No one – and this includes animals -- in our household is permitted to work at his normal six-day labor.  Is that it?  Even Exod. 16:26 included more information, the laying away of food, for example.  In this verse, v. 20:11, the scribe seems to be giving us the reason for the law. Because the Lord performed His work six days and then rested on the seventh, we are enjoined to do the same.  Why?  Because we love the Lord and give honor to Him and glory to His name. 

Please note, by the way, that mention of the wife alone is omitted among those in the household.  Does that mean she may work?  No, of course not!  She would likely be the one preparing the food, and that chore is prohibited on the Sabbath.  More than likely, the scribe overlooked mentioning her. 

However, another possibility comes to mind.  If by work the Lord means the business of the week, whether it’s farming, selling, building, or whatever, then the wife is not involved in any of these.   Only the others in the household might be either helping the man of the house or engaged in their own business.  Then is work or business something that earns profit or pay?  It would seem so from my analysis of this verse.  The Lord seems to have reduced the Sabbath observance laws to a much simpler set than the rabbis.           [Return to Jere. 17:22]

כַּבֵּד אֶת־אָבִיךָ וְאֶת־אִמֶּךָ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִכוּן יָמֶיךָ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ   20:12

Exod. 20:12   “’Honor your father and your mother so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.’

Forgive my impertinence, but I would have added another sentence to this commandment.  It would be “And father and mother, respect your children as unique persons that, like everything else, are only lent to you.”

לֹא תִּֿרְצָח לֹא תִּֿנְאָף לֹא תִּֿגְנֹב לֹא־תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר   20:13

Exod. 20:13   ‘You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not steal.  You shall not testify regarding your neighbor, being a false witness.’                           [Return to Exod. 23:1]

לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹא־תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדֹּו וַאֲמָתֹו וְשֹׁורֹו וַחֲמֹרֹו וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ   20:14

Exod. 20:14   ‘You shall not covet the house of your neighbor.  You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor or his man-servant or his maid-servant or his ox or his ass or anything that is your neighbor’s.’”

I believe the following observation is important.  All the second-person pronouns in the Ten Commandments are singular.  Thus in this unique exception regarding my rule about singular and plural second-person pronouns, God seems to be addressing each of us, whether present at Mount Sinai or not yet born.  He is not speaking to the people as a whole, but is offering a one-on-one monologue.  Notice that God is speaking through Moses (see v. 20:1), and it does not say as it usually does “Speak to the children of Israel.”  God is speaking directly by the mouth of Moses.

Incidentally, and interestingly, of the ten commandments, three are positive and seven are negative.  The numbers three, seven, and ten seem to have special significance throughout the bible.  Incidentally, in many bibles the four statements in verse 20:13 are each presented in a separate verse, thereby increasing the number of verses in this chapter by three.

וְכָל־הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת־הַקֹּולֹת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קֹול הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת־הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ   20:15

וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק

Exod. 20:15   And all the people were observing the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the horn and the smoking mountain; and the people looked, and they trembled, and they endured from afar.

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר־אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹהִים פֶּן־נָמוּת   20:16

Exod. 20:16   And they said to Moses, “You speak with us and we will hear, but let not God speak with us lest we would die.”

The seventh word in this verse, וְנִשְׁמָעָה, translated as and we will hear, is prefixed with a non-inverting vav.  The verb is first-person imperfect.

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָעָם אַל־תִּירָאוּ כִּי לְבַעֲבוּר נַסֹּות אֶתְכֶם בָּא הָאֱלֹהִים וּבַעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה   20:17

 יִרְאָתֹו עַל־פְּנֵיכֶם לְבִלְתִּי תֶחֱטָאוּ

Exod. 20:17   And Moses said to the people, “You need not be afraid, for He Who is God comes in order to prove you, and in order that reverence of Him shall be above your own regard, so that you will not sin.”

Once more we have a statement being made to the people, and all the second-person pronouns and verbs are plural.  To me, as before, this means that Moses is speaking to the individuals among the people.  Notice further that the normal translation of the next to last word in the top line, יִרְאָתֹו, is fearful of Him, but this cannot be reasonably correct,  The traditional translation of the phrase in which this word is found is rather inaccurate.  We find it translated as “... in order that you shall be fearful of Him above your own regard, ....”  The translation I propose is more accurate and offers a more reasonable meaning.

וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם מֵרָחֹק וּמֹשֶׁה נִגַּשׁ אֶל־הָעֲרָפֶל אֲשֶׁר־שָׁם הָאֱלֹהִים   20:18

Exod. 20:18   But the people stood from afar as Moses came near to the dark cloud where He Who is God was.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן־הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִםָּכֶם   20:19

Exod. 20:19   And the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘You have yourselves seen that I talk with you from heaven.’

Starting in this verse the Lord tells Moses to repeat to the people what He is dictating to him.  This dictation continues uninterrupted until Exod. 24:1.                             [Return to Exod. 21:1]

לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם   20:20

Exod. 20:20   ‘You shall not fashion with Me; you shall not fashion gods of silver or gods of gold for yourselves.’

The Hebrew in the first part of this verse is indeed strange.  Different bibles try to make something simple with it.  I believe that something much deeper is implied by it.  I believe the first part of this verse means that we must not try to fashion as God does.  Then follows one example, to make gods.  Would another example be to make life?  I think not.  Because if that were the case, a further example would be to heal, and I don’t think God means that.  By the way, this strange phrase of the verse can be translated in another way:  “You shall not fashion Me,” which is utterly weird.

So the way I interpret the expression and generalize it is as follows:  We must not make artificial replicas of what is holy.  As such, it is included in v. 20:4.

מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה־לִּי וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת־עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת־שְׁלָמֶיךָ אֶת־צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת־בְּקָרֶךָ בְּכָל־   20:21

הַמָּקֹום אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת־שְׁמִי אָבֹוא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ

Exod. 20:21   ‘An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and sacrifice your burnt offerings and your peace offerings on it, your sheep and your oxen.  In every place where I will cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and I will bless you.’                          [Return to 1Sam. 16:5]

וְאִם־מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה־לִּי לֹא־תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ   20:22

Exod. 20:22   ‘And when you will make an altar of stones for Me, you shall not build with them hewn; if you have wielded your tool upon it, then you have profaned it.’

Neither the altars in the Tabernacle or Temple were built of stone.  So why is this verse here?  I believe it refers to the ancient practice of building temporary altars of stone.  Stone altars date back to Noah (See Gene. 8:20).  Abram built altars (Gene 12:7 and 8), presumably of stone (or earth).  He apparently used then for prayer, not sacrifices.  Jacob built a more permanent altar, also presumably of stone (Gene. 33:20).  And the Lord is informing us here that if an altar to the Lord is to be built out of stone, it must be of uncut stones.  A stone that is carved or chiseled is profaned and cannot be used to build an altar to the Lord.

וְלֹא־תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת עַל־מִזְבְּחִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ עָלָיו   20:23

Exod. 20:23   ‘And you shall not go by steps up to My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be uncovered on it.’”

In this verse we find a statement that is still more interesting.  The Lord says to not have steps up to the altar.  Yet whenever I see a depiction of the altar in the temple, it appears to be built with steps before it and around it.  If I understand this verse correctly, it leaves me confused.  I imagine that an altar would have to have a ramp as a result of this verse.  Yet would that be sufficient to hide the nakedness of the priests?  I doubt it.  Then does this mean that altars were not to be so high that they would need to be climbed up to?  I don’t know.

                                                 [Return to Levi. 8:7]         [Return to Levi. 9:22]         [Return to Ezek. 43:17]

Torah Commandments in this Chapter

29.  Know that I am the Lord, your God.  V. 20:2                                              (1st of the 10 commandments)
30.  There shall be no other gods for you before Me. V. 20:3                           (2nd of the 10 commandments)
31.  You shall not fashion a graven image, that is, an idol. V. 20:4                       (part of 2nd Commandment)
32.  You shall not bow down to a graven image. V. 20:5                                      (part of 2nd Commandment)
33.  You shall not take up the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.  V. 20:7     (3rd of the 10 commandments)
34.  Remember the Sabbath, to keep it sacred.  V. 20:8                                  (4th of the 10 commandments)

35.  You shall do none of your work on the Sabbath.  V. 20:10                             (part of 4th Commandment)
36.  Honor your father and your mother.  V. 20:12                                             (5th of the 10 commandments)
37.  You shall not murder. V. 20:13                                                                    (6th of the 10 commandments)
38.  You shall not commit adultery.  V. 20:13                                                     (7th of the 10 commandments)
39.  You shall not steal.  V. 20:13                                                                       (8th of the 10 commandments)
40.  You shall not be a false witness regarding your neighbor. V. 20:13            (9th of the 10 commandments)
41.  You shall not covet anything of your neighbor's.  V. 20:14                          (10th of the 10 commandments)

Ten of the above twelve statements constitute the Ten Commandments.  Combining statements 30, 31, and 32 brings the number to ten.  I wonder why it shouldn’t be the Twelve Commandments (like the twelve tribes of Israel!)?

42.  You shall not make an altar of hewn stone. V. 20:22
43.  You shall not climb steps to the altar. V. 20:23


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