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The Ten Commandments and the Law

Exodus 20:1–17

1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

You’re likely familiar with the Ten Commandments in some capacity whether you’re a lifelong student of the Bible or a newcomer to biblical study. The Ten Commandments are not only well known in the traditions of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) but also in the social sciences and anthropology.

First, the structure of the Ten Commandments is important. The first 4 are specifically in referencing the people’s relationship to God. The next 6 are in reference to people’s relations to one another. Note that there isn’t much of a transition between them. The fifth command goes right into honoring your father and mother. This is precisely why Jesus answers the question of which is the greatest commandment the way he does. He says the greatest law is to love the LORD your God with all your heart soul mind and strength (commands 1-4) and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself (commands 5-10). Remember he was only asked for one. (See Mt. 22:37–39; Mk. 12:29–31; Jesus also expresses this idea in Mt. 5:23)

It’s common to think of the laws in the OT in 3 different categories: ceremonial (religious, temple practices; civil, laws governing society; moral, laws governing individual ethical matters). This distinction can be helpful but is certainly limited. These categories are not taught in the OT or NT. These categories become unhelpful when we begin to think of them as separate realms of worship, where one is better or more important than the others. Instead worship and reverence for God is to be deomonstrated in obedience to all of the laws, not only the ceremonial laws of temple worship.

God speaks these Ten Laws to all the people. Whereas God certainly had a unique relationship with Moses as the people’s representative, their faith wasn’t solely based on what Moses said. The people experienced and saw first hand God’s work in the Exodus from Egypt and here they all heard the voice of God and saw his great power.

We should think of the Ten commandments less as case law (if someone does this, this will be the punishment) and more as the principles that those case laws are based on. Notice there are no punishments prescribed as would be expected in case laws. There is a blessing in the 5th one and some reasons for the principles are given but no punishments like many of the other laws in the Mosaic Law.

The thing we shouldn’t miss about all of these laws is how intricately connected they are to a relationship with the LORD. It is the LORD himself speaking these. An event like this had never happened before in history. He reminds them of what he had done for them in the past—bringing them out of slavery in Egypt. The laws themselves are based in his character. These laws are given within the narrative of Exodus itself, not as a separate legal document.

We would be remiss to miss this. The God of the universe, even in the laws that he gives his people wants to be in relationship with them. He wants them to know that he himself stands behind the laws. This isn’t just common sense, based on trial and error of human experience. No, these laws originate from the one and only transcendent being, and he wants his people to obey him because they know him. They are to obey him out of love and fear of him.


Today I’d invite you to spend some time reflecting on how you’ve viewed the law. Have you disassociated it from its narrative context or from God as our loving father. How might this new perspective change how you view the law and what you expect of it.

Additional Content

For the additional content I’ve included a part of the Bible Project’s podcast on the Purpose of the Law.

Listen to the entire Bible Project Podcast

(ff to 6:20 for the additional content)