Deuteronomy 5:20

The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and last book of the Torah (“law”). It continues the story of the first 4 books and picks up exactly where the book of Numbers ends (with the people on the plain of Moab). Therefore, as we set the context for the book of Deuteronomy, it is important that we briefly summarize the theme of the previous books to see how the story of God unfolds.

Genesis describes God’s plan to bless the Israelites and the world through one man named Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Exodus focuses on God’s loving act by which He rescued the Israelites from Egypt in order to have a covenant relationship with them. Once the children of Israel are redeemed, Leviticus instructs them to live a holy life that reflects the life of their covenant redeemer (cf. Lev. 19). Since the first generation of the Israelites failed to obey God wholeheartedly, the book of Numbers displays a strong contrast between God’s faithfulness and the nation’s failure. That is why the book of Deuteronomy reiterates and expands on the covenant to a new generation of Israelites poised to enter and conquer the Promised Land. The message of the book is centered around two key terms: love and loyalty (Deut. 6:4-5).

Deuteronomy 5 begins the exposition of the covenantal principles by which the Israelites were to live in the Promised Land as vassals or servants of Yahweh. This chapter is divided into three parts.

• The first part deals with Moses’s exhortation to Israel to obey God’s commandments. Here, Moses reminds the people of God’s manifestation at Mount Horeb (Sinai) where He established a covenant relationship with them and promised that if they walked in obedience as a nation, they would serve a priestly function to other nations (vv. 1-5).
• The second part deals with Moses’s restatement of the Ten Commandments God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai after redeeming them from bondage in Egypt (vv. 6-21).

• The third part focuses on exhorting Israel to fear God and walk in obedience by reminding them of the time when their elders asked Moses to be the mediator between the LORD and His people, because the Israelites were afraid upon hearing God’s voice from the midst of the fire at Mount Sinai (vv. 22-33).

Essentially, this chapter serves to encourage Israel to be loyal to their Suzerain (Ruler) God by reminding them of their past commitments with Him at Mount Horeb (Sinai). It provides assurance that God will keep His part of the bargain and see to their success if they will walk faithfully, as well as reminding them that they experienced that God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24).

It also reminds Israel of the three pillars of self-governance set up by God as the social order for His priestly nation: rule of law, private property, and consent of the governed.

The Ninth Commandment

The LORD prohibits His people against false testimony.

The ancient Near Eastern laws spoke against false witness in court. Citizens were commanded to speak the truth in judgment and were often required to take an oath to prevent false testimony. This oath-taking involved calling on the name of a god to attest to the oath transactions. Since the ancient people thought the god would punish those who violate the agreement, they were forced to tell the truth. Some societies (like Mesopotamia) even inflicted the death penalty for falsehood. Thus, accurate witness was very important in the ancient Near East.

Amid this context, the LORD also called His people to speak the truth to ensure the Israelite community has a minimal certainty in the accuracy of one’s words. God said, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The verb translated as “bear witness” here has the idea of witnessing against someone in a legal situation. Moreover, the word translated as “false” is the same word used in the third commandment where God told His people not to use His name in vain (Deuteronomy 5:11). It basically means “empty” or “vain.” The idea is that when someone is accused without solid or valid ground, he is accused falsely.

The term neighbor seems to be used in its broader sense to refer to anyone interacted with, whether the person is a fellow Israelite (Leviticus 19:18), an alien (Leviticus 19:34), or a pagan (Exodus 11:2). The Old Testament penalty for false accusation involved doing to the wrongdoer “just as he had intended to do to his brother” (Deuteronomy 19:19). Such a measure called the Israelites for a commitment to the truth as they dealt with one another.

This is a foundation for another pillar of self-governance: consent of the governed. God appointed Moses. But Moses caused the people to choose their own judges under him, rather than selecting them himself (Deuteronomy 1:13). This command to avoid false testimony establishes the principle that each citizen of Israel is to take responsibility to see that justice is done, by ensuring people are not accused falsely.

The New Testament also contains teaching against false testimony. Jesus restates the commandment when someone asked him what to do to obtain eternal life (Matthew 19:16-18). False accusation is a serious offense because it injures people’s reputation, and potentially deprives them of what belongs to them. If an innocent person is accused and convicted of theft, for example, the restitution they paid would amount to stealing from them. Therefore, accusing someone falsely is another form of theft.

Speaking rightly of others is a key component of righteousness and truth and is a necessary element of a just society. But it is only possible if people govern themselves, and refrain from false accusation.

Biblical Text

20 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

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