Exodus 20:1-17: A Window into God’s Character

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Exodus 20:1-17: A Window into God’s Character

PC: Stained glass image of the ten commandments in Saint Joseph Catholic Church (Wapakoneta, OH) / via Wikimedia Commons

Exodus 20:1-17 has always been a parched set of commandment for me. Important and valuable commandments, to be sure, but I had never seen anything more than do’s and dont’s—that is, until I paused and pondered on these verses for a while. This experience has allowed me to see much more in the passage, and I’d love to share that with you.

When we look at some of the details and literary features of this text, we will notice how they point to a character of God congruent with the rest of the Scripture. The enumeration becomes more than just a set of rules—it becomes a window into God’s Being. What can we discover about this Being? And how is that relevant to us?

First, let’s read the text, in which I highlighted some of the features (especially parallelisms) I will bring up:

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, 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. 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.” (ESV)

  1. A Personal God

First, I’ll point to the use of the personal pronoun your in verse 2, which implies a personal relationship between the Person who communicates and the people to whom the communication is intended. The Lord is “our” God. Thus, the first thing God declares is the personal dimension of His relationship with us. Additionally, the very fact that God communicates with us suggests that He is a personal God. Truly, such a personal God can guide us into love relationships with Him and fellow human beings.

  1. A God Who Values Freedom

The God we discover in Exodus 20 is also a God of freedom. He frees us and teaches us freedom governed by love by giving us the freedom to choose. He is a freeing God because He brought Israel out of slavery. The two spatial markers out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery are in apposition to each other, pointing to Egypt as a synonym for slavery.

But God doesn’t just free us from physical slavery. More importantly, He frees us from the slavery of sin, and Exodus 20:1-17 shows us what that freedom looks like, and how we can achieve it. After bringing us out of slavery into freedom, He teaches us, through the Ten Commandments, the kind of freedom we can enjoy when love is the highest principle.

Finally, the alternatives implied in each command imply freedom to choose.  In fact, it is precisely this freedom and the choice from different options that prompts the commands. While we are not forced to obey, we are asked to choose the best alternative available to us.

  1. A Loving and Just God

A prominent literary feature in verses 5-6 is the antithesis introduced by the disjunctive conjunction but, which puts in contrast two differing responses God exhibits to opposing human behaviors: He castigates those who hate Him, but continues to show love to those who love Him.

 

     
Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on But Showing steadfast love to
the children to the third and the fourth generation Thousands
of those who hate Me of those who love Me and keep My commandments.

This does not imply that God only loves those who love Him (since Scripture declares He loves all without partiality); I would suggest it indicates that our choices make His love evident to us (or not). When we respond to His love with love, we open ourselves up to discerning His enduring love. Conversely, when we hate, reject, and rebel against God, we close ourselves up to understanding His love.

While we can choose to hate God, He has chosen to always love us. He does, however, punish the sin, which implies retribution of those who hate Him. God’s justice is not in opposition to His love, but is itself an act of love.

It is also interesting that God specifically describes those who love Him as people who keep His commandments. This is congruent with Jesus’ words in John 14:15: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” As mentioned earlier, to love God is to keep His commandments. If God defines our love of Him as keeping His commandments, then hate towards Him suggests the opposite–disregarding His moral law. Thus, we can conclude from this context that the iniquity of sinners which prompts the retribution is the refusal to acknowledge and obey God’s moral law.

  1. A Creator God Worthy of Worship

An interesting repetition is heaven, earth and water/sea. Two of the commandments that govern our relationship with God include this triad: the second, and the fourth.

Second commandment:

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. 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.

Fourth commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 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.

 

Both commandments have to do with worship. The second command tells us how not to worship God: we must not make a carved image or any likeness of things in heaven, earth, or water, and we must not bow down to them and serve them. The fourth commandment tells us how to worship God: by keeping the Sabbath day holy. The irony in these verses is strikingly clear: the God who created heaven, earth, and the sea, is the God who is not to be worshiped through adulation to images of things in heaven, earth, and water.

It is also interesting that out of the ten, only the second and fourth commandment give rational explanations. We should not worship idols because God is jealous (vs. 5), and we should keep the Sabbath holy because God blessed it at creation (vs. 11). Both explanations have to do with who God is: a loving Creator satisfied with nothing less than complete devotion. While God requires of us total obedience, He appeals to our reason to help us understand the wisdom of His commandments.

  1. A God Who Values Relationships

Lastly, I will note the parallelism between the last commandment governing our relationship with God (the fourth), and the last commandment governing the relationships with our neighbors (the tenth), each conveyed through the enumeration of seven elements. In the fourth commandment, God enumerates seven types of human beings who should not do any work on Sabbath:

  1. You
  2. your son
  3. your daughter
  4. your male servant
  5. your female servant
  6. your livestock
  7. the sojourner who is within your gates.

In the tenth commandment, God enumerates seven things we should not covet from our neighbor:

  1. House
  2. Wife
  3. male servant
  4. female servant
  5. ox
  6. donkey
  7. anything

The addition of anything in the tenth commandment brings the list to seven and ensures the parallelism with the fourth commandment. Seeing that, in Scripture, seven is the symbol of perfection, these lists are an invitation for us to seek the divine-like interpersonal relationships that reverence to God can elicit in us.

Thus, worshipping our Creator in the manner He asks of us will increasingly make manifest in us His image, which means that our character will be ever more like the character of God. Only such a relationship with God can transform us into people who are busier giving thanks for our blessings than coveting our neighbor’s–a key aspect of wholesome interpersonal relationships.

Moreover, the tenth commandment stands at the foundation of the previous five, in the sense that envy is often the cause of adultery, murder, lying, stealing, and even parental disrespect and/or neglect. Similarly, the fourth commandment is foundational to the previous three. When we are busy worshipping God as He desires, we inevitably refuse to worship other gods, to disrespect the name of God, and to serve idols in the likeness of things. Thus, worship to God and gratitude for His blessings are key to our relationship with God and others.

A Beautiful God

I hope you have found this analysis as interesting as I have, and that you can see in this passage not only a set of rules, but also a call to a relationship with a beautiful God. This beautiful God is a God who created us out of love, with the freedom of choice (a key aspect of any genuine love relationship). He is a personal God who seeks intimacy with us and deeply desires our affection and worship, which are the only paths to truly fulfilling relationships with others. Lastly, God is love, and this implies justice,  as well as the ending of sin and suffering when He returns to make all things new.

In the end, I have a few questions for you to ponder and share with us, if you wish:

  1. Is there any particular aspect of God’s character as revealed in Exodus 20:1-17 that speaks more to you at this point in your life? Why, and how is it a helpful reminder?
  2. Have any of these particularities of the biblical God been a challenge for you? How have you overcome that challenge, and how can you help others who may have similar struggles?
  3. Have you found that staying close to God and obeying His commandments has boosted your love for others and improved your relationships? If not, how could you experience that?

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.