Exodus 17-20
(The Ten Commandments)
January 21st

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine.

- Exodus 19:5 (KJV)

Summary of Chapters

In chapters 17-20 the Israelites experience the growing pains of a new nation. They had to overcome shortages of essential supplies, defend themselves against other nations, define a set of laws and establish a system of adjudication. Fortunately, they had a special relationship with God who helped them with each of these challenges.

Chapter 17 records that the people were so thirsty that they were ready to stone Moses in anger, so the LORD told him to strike a rock at a place called Horeb, and water would come out of the rock.

The next challenge was an attack by the Amalekites, a roving group of marauders who were descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob who had given up his birthright for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29-34). Moses chose a man named Joshua to lead the counterattack. Meanwhile, Moses stood on an overlook and held up his arms in praise to the LORD, who provided protection and victory during the battle.

In chapter 18, we learn that Moses had established an adjudication process and spent long hours resolving all types of disputes among the people. The main flaw in this system was its dependence on one man, so his father-in-law, Jethro, suggested selecting a group of trustworthy men to serve as a team of junior judges that could handle the minor cases.

In chapter 19, after three months of travel, the Israelites set up camp in a place facing Mount Sinai. They ended up remaining there for a year - in fact all of the events of the books of Leviticus and Numbers take place there, as we shall see later.

God makes several important announcements after the Israelites have set up their camp: First, he establishes a covenant with the people, "if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6 - NIV)." Second, he announces that he will be coming down to Mount Sinai to address Moses, and instructs the people as to how to properly prepare for this event.

In chapter 20, God orally defines the Ten Commandments in the presence of Moses and Aaron who later relay the information to the broader populace. There was a brief preamble in which God establishes that he was the one who brought them out of the land of slavery. Then he gives them the commandments, beginning with the most important one. Numbers are inserted below as a reference for this study; these were not part of the Hebrew Scriptures and are not part of the translation that was used here:

    1. No other gods, only me.

    2. No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don't bow down to them and don't serve them because I am God, your God, and I'm a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I'm unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments.

    3. No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won't put up with the irreverent use of his name (see picture above for a modern and mobile reminder of this instruction).

    4. Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don't do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.

    5. Honor your father and mother so that you'll live a long time in the land that God, your God, is giving you.

    6. No murder.

    7. No adultery.

    8. No stealing.

    9. No lies about your neighbor.

    10. No lusting after your neighbor's house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don't set your heart on anything that is your neighbor's.

    - Exodus 20:3-17 (MSG)

The first five define how we should relate to God and our earthly parents and the other five define how we should relate to other people. The count shown above follows the interpretation used by the Hebrew Scriptures and the Protestant churches. In the Catholic Church the first two commandments are combined and the last one is divided into two (One for coveting your neighbor's wife and the other for coveting your neighbor's property) (1). .

Reflection and Application

One of the first takeaways from this group of chapters is that effective leadership requires the recognition that one person cannot do it all. Moses needed help holding up his arms in praise during the battle with the Amalekites and he needed to delegate some of the judicial work. Moreover, he could not overcome any of these early challenges without God’s help. Therefore, let us remember to offer help to our families, communities, and our leaders, so that they do not have to do it alone. Those of us who are leaders need to ask for and accept help from our family members, friends, colleagues, and God. Both of these points were noted by one of the most well-known leaders of the 20th century, U.S. President John F. Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963):

    And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

    With a good conscience as our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and his Help, but knowing that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.

    - Excerpts from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech, January 20th, 1961 (public domain)

Remember the name of Joshua, for he becomes an important leader. Both he and John F. Kennedy earned recognition as young men by defending their country against an aggressive foe and they both eventually became national leaders. This sequence could apply to us as well, albeit on a slightly different scale. One difficult assignment that we boldly accept can be our stepping stone to more important duties later on.

The next takeaway relates to the covenant described in chapter 19, which is the most important one in the Old Testament. God establishes his relationship with Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but the covenant only remains valid “if you obey me (God) fully (Exodus 19:5 - NIV).” If they do that, then they will be God's special people. How should they obey him? By following the commandments described in chapter 20. When we look closely at the meaning of the words in this chapter we can understand the answer Jesus gave when he was asked what is the most important commandment:

    "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

    - Mark 12:29-31 - NIV (with references to Deuteronomy 6:4,5 and Leviticus 19:18)

If we follow Jesus’ instructions than all the commandments fall into place. If we love God, we want to honor him and keep his day holy. If we love our neighbors, then we respect their property and relationships and we only speak truthfully about them. It was important for God to delineate these rules so that we would have a common frame of reference and an authoritative source for these instructions. But some of our previous readings indicate that these concepts were already written in our hearts. For example, how did the Israelite mid-wives know to disregard Pharaoh’s command to kill the babies? How did Jacob know it was wrong when he stole his brother’s birthright? How was Moses able to administer due justice before receiving the Ten Commandments?

We have a natural embedded sense of right and wrong that only could have come from our Creator. In fact, the existence of this sense of right and wrong is evidence of our Creator. For further exploration of this topic see the first five chapters of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898 – November 22, 1963). In these chapters, Lewis incrementally and brilliantly constructs a formidable argument regarding our naturally embedded sense of right and wrong - and he anticipated and addressed potential objections. The first chapter concludes with the following observation:

    These then are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in (2).

Incidentally, you may have observed that the two 20th century men quoted above both died on the exact same day in 1963. One quietly passed away as a 64-year old man whose death was overshadowed by the tragic and shocking assassination of the US President.

This topic of the 10 Commandments is certainly worthy of more intense study and reflection. For example, the Rev. Gregory Doll spent several months leading a Bible Study in which he dissected the words and related these passages to other parts of scripture and our modern life. Rev. Doll emphasized that the phrase, "Ten Commandments" is actually not an accurate translation of the original Hebrew. Moreover, this phrase tends to create a negative connotation of rules created to keep us in line. The original Hebrew is more accurately translated as "Ten Words" or "Ten Instructions." These words provide a moral structure and instruct us on how to live a healthy and abundant life. A passage in Deuteronomy emphasizes this point (3):

    "The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.”

    - Deuteronomy 6:24 (NIV)

Doll also explained that in the New Testament Paul points out that the "commandments" help us to understand our sins and need for forgiveness. For example, in Romans 7 Paul notes that the commandments show us our sins so that we will be led to Jesus Christ and justified by faith. However, most importantly, the Ten Commandments delivered by God at Mount Sinai reveal God’s nature and his plan for us. He loves us and wants us to love him and each other.

For further inspiration from John F. Kennedy, I recommend the following video of the complete presentation of his 1961 inaugural speech, in which he invokes the name of God and scripture on several occasions. For example, within the first few minutes he emphasizes that the rights of man came from God:

Inaugural Speech by John F. Kennedy, January 20th, 1961

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. Who is your favorite leader of all time and why?
    2. What tasks do you believe God would want you to delegate?
    3. In what situations do you believe God wants you to offer help as a way of showing your love for him, for family members, or neighbors?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father, please help us to hear your words, understand them, and follow them.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Judges who interpret the laws of God and their nation


    (1) Doll, The Rev Gregory, "Study of the 10 Words," Noroton Presbyterian Church, January 2011
    (2) Lewis, Clive Staples, Mere Christianity, Touchstone, New York, 1952, p. 21
    (3) Doll, The Rev Gregory, "Study of the 10 Words," Noroton Presbyterian Church, January 2011

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Exodus 21-23 (Success Comes in Small Increments)

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