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Exodus 20:1-20

Exodus 20:1-20

Background to the Book of Exodus:
Historical Situation: (History within the text)
The Book of Exodus tells how God took pity on the Israelites, the means chosen to liberate them from the Egyptians, and their consequent journeys in the wilderness. The story begins after the Israelites have been in Egypt for several generations and a new Pharaoh comes to the throne who is threatened by the number of foreigners (Israelites) in the land and takes hard measures to subdue them and stop them multiplying. We read of the call of Moses by God, the confrontations with the Pharaoh and his wise men, the subsequent release and flight of the Israelites. The pivotal event was revelation of God to Moses and God giving the Law to the people via Moses. (Put picture in here with link). The covenant set up here is conditional on the people keeping their promises (Exodus 19:5-8) - note the word "if" they do ... "then" you shall be my people.

After the initial laws in Exodus 20-23 we read the story of the wooden ark in which the tablets of stone (which have the Law written on them) are to be housed and carried. Great detail is given about this Ark in Exodus 25-27 before going into further detail about the priests who will serve and the manner of the sacrifices. We read of the people's rebellion and Aaron's role in building a golden calf to worship. Moses returns once more from one of his mountain trips and castigates the people for their unfaithfulness. The Book of Exodus finishes with a further account of the building of the ark which sounds rather repetitious of the first one. Within the Book we are given the origins of such Festivals as Passover and Unleavened Bread.

Some people have tried to find evidence within the Egyptian chronicles that the Israelites were present in Egypt in this period but the lack of written material from that era limits any discoveries. What has been found in general terms is that foreigners did serve in Egyptian households, there were building programmes using 'apiru' and foreigners did attain high service in important households (Johnstone:17-27). Rather than trying to prove historical fact as in the old Western idea of 'facts', it is better to understand the Book of Exodus as 'historiography', that is, the remembered history of the Israelite people which is crucial to their identity as the people of God.
Literary Comments
The Book of Exodus is a mixture of very early oral material which has come from different traditions and been joined together in the one book. The events are pivotal to their faith and as we have four gospels telling us about Jesus Christ so the Jews have different memories of the same events. We have four different gospels, but in Exodus the traditions are all mixed in the same book which makes it difficult reading sometimes. For example, in Exodus 19 Moses goes up and down the mountain several times and one isn't sure if he is up or down.

Some people have tried to identify some of the traditions within the Book: a tradition that uses the name of Yahweh called 'J', another called 'E', the tradition written by the Priests called 'P' and the very easily identified "D' tradition mainly found in the Book of Deuteronomy. It makes sense that different communities as in the NT had different memories and emphases which had become important to them and so when the Scriptures are committed to writing there is a desire to incorporate the diverse memories of people and their experience of God within their lives.
PURPOSE of the Book of Exodus:
To tell the story of how God raised up a leader, Moses, to release the Israelites from Egypt who lead them through the wilderness where they received the Law from God via Moses. This Law showed them how to stay in relationship with God and with each other. It gives detailed instructions for building the Ark in which the Tablets will be housed. In the Book of Exodus we have demonstrated the unfaithful behaviours of the people and God's willingness to renew the covenant. The actions of the people's apostasy and God's willingness to renew the covenant is repeated many times in the history of the people.

Context of Exodus 20:1-20
In Exod 18 Moses took the advice of his father-in-law and chose leaders to work with him, after which his father -in-law returned to his own home. At the beginning of Exod 19 the people finally arrive at the foot of Mt Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain to have conversation with Yahweh who declares that IF the people are obedient and keep the covenant they will remain in relationship with God. At the foot of the mountain all the elders and people say, 'we will do as the Lord asks". After this it is difficult to know whether Moses is back up the mountain speaking with God or at the bottom of the mountain. He appears to come down three times (vv.7,14,25) and only go up twice (vv.3,20). This sets the scene for Moses to give the ten commandments in Exod 20. What is called the Book of the Covenant follows in Exod 21- 23 which expands the commandments with particular examples and their consequences. Exod 24 is a reaffirmation of the covenant and theophanies (appearances) of God. The next seven chapters of Exodus give detailed instructions to Moses on the mountain about how the people are to make a tabernacle in which God will dwell in their midst.

Insights/Message of Exodus 20:1-20
The first commandment begins in v.3 and it is essential we notice what v.2 tells us about God. The people are reminded that God acted to save the people first before giving the commandments by which the relationship can be kept on both sides. The first four commandments relate to the divine/vertical relationship and the remaining six to fellow human beings/ horizontal relationships (Lev 19:18). These are summed up in the gospels, "You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22: 37-39). In Luke it is one command and includes the phrase, "with all your strength" (Lk 10:27), as does Mark, but he has divided it into two as in Matthew (Mark 12: 30-31). The commandments in Exod 20 are in either a positive or negative absolute, for example, "you shall" or "you shall not" or a straight command, "remember". Some commands are very brief and to the point, and others have extra wording. The first commandment recognise's that other gods exist and Yahweh is the only one to be worshipped. The echical name for this is 'monolatry'. The second commandment is obviously very important because it has very dire punishment spelled out for those people who break it. Again the fourth commandment to remember the Sabbath takes people back the creation and God as creator. In Deut 5 we find that this particular command talks not about creation, but remembering that they were slaves in Egypt and God rescued them. Each of the great law codes in Genesis to Deuteronomy are understood to be mediated from God through Moses (Exod 19:25, 20:22, Lev 1:1-2, Deut 5:1). If we don't read Exod 20:1 in context, it suggests that God speaks the Decalogue directly to the people as suggested by Childs (Childs:393). The suggestion of the ten words on two tablets only occurs later in Exod 34:28, Deut 4:13, 5:22 and 10:2-4 (Childs:395).

Message:  God's grace happened before any requirements were set out in Exod 20. It is expected that in response to God's saving acts people will want to respond and stay in relationship. God identifies self as belong to the people , "I am the Lord your God". The Hebrew word, Torah, is often translated as law which can be a negative quality for many people. Torah is more about teaching and the commandments are positive instruction to enable the people, both to stay in relationship with God, and to behave in right ways with each other. As Fretheim points out the law and story are not separate entities, but an integrated whole (Fretheim: 202). His chart shows how story and law are set out in Exod 19:1-40:38. In each case God is the subject and this pattern enables us to see more clearly that the law is a gift and not some deliberate hardship. It is interesting to reflect that if we all lived by grace knowing the right way to treat each other from our relationship with God we would not need any laws at all. That is simply wishful thinking. As Christians we need reminding about who is the centre of our worship. However, commandment three (You shall not take the name of of the Lord God in vain) would not take high priority as indeed, commandment five (honour your father and mother) does not have a high priority in society in general. In our society we tend to emphasises the ethical demands of the Decalogue because we are no longer a theocratic society as it was in Israel. So the first four commands cannot be applied to society in general. The commands do not reflect any particular time in history and are central to the life of the nation, unlike those commandments in the Book of the Covenant (Exod 20:22-23:33), the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Leviticus which reflect settled agricultural conditions and detailed instructions for running the temple (Childs: 396). Every one of these codes are tied to the revelation of God at Mt Sinai. In all traditions this linking is present - God gave these instructions. I am not attempting the task of going through each of the commandments. The crucial points are that this Decalogue is part of a living relationship and is given to enable the people to stay in covenant relationship with God as a gracious gift. When I spent a week on Iona the understanding that underlies the format of the week's activities reflect the great Commandment. We began with worship of God which was then lived out in service to fellow human beings as we shared in the daily tasks. We retreat from the world only to enable us to live out the love of God to our fellow human beings. In order to maintain our identity as people of God we must take time to remember and the Sabbath is one of those times in which the community comes together to do just that.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 21:33-46 contains a direct association to the story in Isa 5:1-7 in the Old Testament. Indeed, it is one of the closest parallels of any story used by NT writers. Whilst there is no direct quote we are meant to see that Israel's leaders are so corrupt God will find a new vehicle for the proclamation of the good news. Jesus himself is the one cast out of the vineyard. V.42 quotes directly from Ps 118 but the meaning is only clear from the context of the chapter.

Resources/Worship for Exodus 20:1-20
Worship:There is plenty of dialogue this passage which makes it a good one to read with various voices. It is almost essential to fill in the story to the end of the chapter as it would be quite odd to leave it at the point the Lectionary reading ends. The Dramatised Bible sets out the reading.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Exodus (Johnstone).

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

*Brueggemann, Walter. "The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections". In The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, [1974].
Coats, George W. The Moses Tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
Durham, John I. Exodus. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
*Fretheim, Terrence E. Exodus. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1991.
Gowan, Donald E. Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
*Johnstone, W. Exodus. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990.
Moberly, R. W. L. At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32-34. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1982.
Sarna, Nahum M. Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: 

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