Text for the Week: The Test is How We Treat People

Scripture: Exodus 20:12-21

12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 Do not kill.

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

17 Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking, the people shook with fear and stood at a distance. 19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die.”

20 Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t sin.” 21 The people stood at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness in which God was present.

Theme- Loving others is an expression of loving God


  1. Why are these generic community laws put alongside guidelines specific to Israel’s religious life and worship?
  2. Why is “desiring” a neighbor’s life and possessions listed alongside murder which is far more concrete and can be prosecuted?
  3. Verse 1 says that God speaks verses 2-17 how does that relate to the thunder and lightening in v18 and the people’s fear of God speaking in v19?
  4. What is the test Moses mentions in v20 and why is it the people should not be afraid of it?

Helpful Information

Related Texts: Deuteronomy 5, Matthew 5:17-48,Luke 10:25-37

The concepts in v12 are similar to how the people are to treat God and point to one’s parents being highly valued.

Verses 12-20 represent broad concepts and general terms and are not specific “laws” and were not intended for legal use.

The Hebrew rasah does not equate to either “kill” or “murder” and though there is no exact or perfect understanding of the word the English word “kill” is superior because it forces the reader to meditate on the idea which is the goal of the passage.

Being a false witness is related more to the witnesses character than whether or not what is spoken is a lie, as in, do not be false to your neighbor.

It is easy to view the list of vv12-17 as concrete actions but they are meant to represent mindsets that could not be legislated against and meant for meditation among the community.

For more background see my video here


Unlike so much of the Bible, Exodus 20 consistently uses the second person singular “you”, meaning God is not addressing the community as a whole (plural you) but each Israelite as an individual. In so many places the Bible is concerned with the collective whole, the people moving forward and reflecting God’s presence in the world. But here as the Covenant is being announced there seems to be a recognition that if society is going to succeed each individual needs to buy in and commit to bringing God’s ideal into existence. The indication of the text is that unlike the rest of the laws Moses was not an intermediary, God spoke in a way that each person could understand these obligations. This is a subtle way of saying that each person has an equal share in the responsibility of creating the community that God envisions. Each person must commit to prioritizing a relationship with God (Ex. 20:1-11) and from that creating a just society, or as Jesus would later put it “loving God, and loving neighbor.” In this covenant each Israelite is taking on the responsibility of helping to create a just society that cares for and protects everyone in the community.

What is curious to me is that when God speaks here of the Israelites responsibilities to one another the language is vague and broad. There are no specifics in this list, nothing that can merit a specific law to govern people’s actions. On the surface these regulations for society might look like strict commands that are easily enforceable, but this is deceptive. In English “Do not steal” is the most simple and understandable of these principles and has the resemblance of a law, but the Hebrew word behind steal has multiple meanings and is not as easy to pin down. The broad nature of these commandments has been a thorn to many who want to pin down a precise definition to each of these social ideals. The Ten Commandments is the epitome of wisdom literature, on the surface they read as straightforward easy to understand laws, but meditating on them leads to deeper twists and turns that cause us to evaluate how society works and our place in it. These are not laws to help me govern the behavior of others they are wisdom to help me govern my own behavior. This is another reason why the Commandments were addressed to Israelites as individuals, they were not to be rules hanging over the heads of people but standards for people to reach out and attain. These are not the fence that prevents bad behavior these are the goal of a life well lived.

Even an issue that seems straightforward to us like “do not kill” has room for meditation. Is this command directed at murder, what about death by negligence, to what degree can a person claim self-defense, does it require complete non-violence? All of these are questions which come from the vague idea that in God’s ideal community we do not kill. The goal of the Ten Commandments is not to bring down precision laws on a community but to help each individual orient their lives as they learn to fit into the community around them. Hence most of these societal issues are issues of the heart and mind that cannot be policed, such as coveting and being honest.

This is the message that Jesus illuminates in Matthew 5 where he uses the refrain, “you have heard it said…” about issues like murder (killing) and adultery. He is not laying aside the law as so many seem to think he is actually revealing the purpose of the God’s message in Exodus 20. His point is that instead of focusing on what is and is not lawful someone who is truly committed to living in and producing the community God is looking for will be meditating on these principles and asking am I living to this standard and how to put myself in a position to better live this out. This is the test of in v20, the test is the society created by the Israelites if their society reflects God’s ideals they are properly meditating on these issues and if they are not their society will crumble. And the same is true of us today.

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