The Ten Commandments Restated

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.

In the Hebrew language, the translation of the terms “Ten Commandments” is literally “Ten Words” (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13). In Greek, the translation of “Ten Words” is deka logoi, from which we get the English term “Decalogue.” This document known as “the Decalogue” is foundational to all the laws of the Bible. It is also foundational to the English common law and the laws of the United States. It was written on two tablets of stone, in accordance with the ancient custom of providing a written copy for the two parties involved in a treaty. It was not written by human hands, but by the finger of God (Deuteronomy 9:10; 10:1-5). The Decalogue was thus given to the Israelites so that they would learn to live as God’s people, in God’s special place (the Promised Land), under God’s rule, and serving a priestly function to other nations. It is a special document because it is the only legal document written directly by the LORD. The rest of the law was mediated to the Israelites through their leader, Moses.

The Ten Commandments were God’s gift to Israel and were first given on Mount Sinai when Israel was redeemed from bondage in Egypt. Total obedience to these laws was the means whereby Israel would become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Therefore, in Deuteronomy, Moses restated the Ten Commandments on the plains of Moab to instruct the new generation of Israelites on what God required since the old generation had died out in the wilderness. This restatement of the covenant given at Mount Sinai reflects the event recorded in Exodus 19 and 20, as well as the Abrahamic promises (Genesis 12-15) and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:6; 7:12).

The Decalogue continues to be an important document. This is clear from the numerous citations in the New Testament (Matthew 5; 19; Mark 10; Luke 18:20; Romans 7:7-8; Romans 13:9; and Jas. 2:11). In fact, the New Testament provides us with two key principles that sum up the essence of the Ten Commandments: love for God and love for our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). The first four commandments relate to humanity’s relationship with God. They could be summarized by saying “God gets to determine moral truth, not humans.” The last six commandments deal with human relationships. They could be summarized by saying “Respect the personal sovereignty of every other human.” Together, these form the basis for self-governance, which is the organizing principle advocated throughout scripture as bringing the greatest blessing to humanity. People choosing to honor one another, working in mutual cooperation, contributing to rather extracting from others.

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