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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 5

Verses 1-21

Relationship (5:1-11:32)

This section is difficult to analyze logically. In general it seeks to prepare the reader for the detailed exposition of the laws contained in chapters 12-26 by explaining to him precisely why he should regard them seriously and endeavor to obey them faith-fully. In spite of the lack of logical development, the section contains the most appealing and religiously significant chapters of the entire book.

The thought centers around God’s graciousness in entering into a Covenant with Israel. His love for Israel, quite unmerited and in fact inexplicable, should evoke love and reverence in the beloved. The glorious destiny marked out for God’s people in the goodly land should arouse in them genuine humility and dedication to his purposes. One feels here the pulsebeat of true religion.

God’s Direct Commands (5:1-21)

The Decalogue is prefaced here by a summons to hear, learn, and obey the terms of the Covenant made at Horeb. It is affirmed that this Covenant was made "with us . . . all of us here alive this day," not with "our fathers" (vs. 3).

It might seem that the writer does not know of, or has over-looked, the generation lost in the wilderness, which generation—and not the present one—actually stood at the holy mountain. But it is more likely that he means to stress the perpetual contemporaneity of the Covenant’s obligations. From the Hebrew perspective the children are seminally in the loins of the fathers; they are in him and he is in them. The patriarch represents the tribe he heads, puts his distinctive stamp on it, and determines its destiny. Obligations he assumes remain obligations of his progeny. God’s Covenant was with the people of Israel. The people before Moses at the Jordan are now this people. They cannot therefore shrug off their responsibilities.

It is possible also that the words in 5:2-3 stem from the liturgy of the renewal of the Covenant used in successive generations of Israel’s history. By this liturgy each generation shared at firsthand in the formative events of Israel’s past.

The commandments as here given closely resemble those re-corded in Exodus 20. Both obviously derive from a common source. Whether the Decalogue actually comes from the time of Moses has been much debated. A growing number of present-day scholars affirm that it is essentially Mosaic, for it fits into the pattern of suzerainty covenants known to be in vogue in the time of Moses (see comment on 4:1-14). And the fundamental conception of religion it enshrines seems to agree with the spirit and work of Moses, so far as we are able to make it out. It is possible that in their earliest form some of the commandments were considerably shorter, consisting only of a succinct injunction without qualifying phrases (for example, simply, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image"—Deuteronomy 5:8).

The Decalogue falls naturally into two parts: commandments defining man’s proper relationship to God and commandments regulating man’s relations with his fellows.

The first two commandments, the first stressing the unity and the second the spirituality of God, have already been treated (see comment on 4:15-40). It needs also to be noted that idolatry is by no means simply an ancient problem. The temptation to worship something less than the true and only God is ever with us. While images of false gods do not now smile or frown upon us from mantles and street-corner pedestals, the gods of money, sex, the state, and the like, subtly shackle our minds and lead toward individual and corporate destruction.

The one true God is said here to be "a jealous God" (vs. 9). In Hebrew the word for "jealous" does not mean "envious," as in some religions where the gods are envious of one another and even of men who are succeeding too well. It means rather that God maintains his exclusive rights over the created order and the worship of man. God stands alone. He shares his glory with no other. Men who attempt to become like God are cut down. And he will allow no other to infringe on his domain. The jealousy of God is inherent in and necessary to monotheism.

The statement that God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation (vs. 9) has given offense to many. But it is true, first, that the children to many generations are affected for good or ill by the choices and deeds of their forebears. If the fathers sow the seeds of idolatry, the children will hardly reap a harvest of ethical monotheism. Second, God’s judgment on idolatrous practices is to be seen in part in the individual and social consequences of these practices. The degradation of mankind is itself the wrath of God at work (Romans 1:18-32). Third, this statement must be balanced by the complementary affirmation that every man is responsible for his own sins (Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:2-4).

The third commandment prohibits the misuse of the divine name. The name of God, representing as it does his character and power, was to be regarded as holy (compare the petition, "Hallowed be thy name," in Matthew 6:9). It was not to be treated lightly and used for unworthy purposes, such as in magical formulas, in false oaths, in curses irresponsibly uttered, and the like.

The fourth commandment enjoins observance of the Sabbath. The Deuteronomic form is considerably longer than that in Exodus, chiefly because of the different reason given for observing it. In Exodus the Sabbath rest is grounded in God’s rest after the six days of creative activity; in Deuteronomy it is to be separated from other days both as a day of rest and as a reminder of the deliverance from Egypt. Rest for servants is especially stressed in Deuteronomy (vs. 14), in line with the persistently humanitarian outlook of the book (15:12-18; 16:9-12; 24:17-18).

Some basic truths underlie the institution of the Sabbath, as represented in Exodus and Deuteronomy. (1) The rhythm of work and rest has divine sanction. "Six days you shall labor, and do all your work" underscores the importance of work in the life of man and the danger of idleness. But man and beast can work too much. Rest is required for the good of both. God cares for all of his creatures, and the rights of all must be respected. (2) The Sabbath stands as a reminder of what God has done. He is both Creator and Redeemer, and men need perpetually to be reminded of this. Though worship of God on the Sabbath is not here specifically enjoined, it is certainly implied. (3) The Sabbath symbolizes God’s claim on all of man’s time. In Hebrew thought and practice a part frequently represents the whole (as in the giving to God the first fruits of the harvest, the first-born son, and the like). God owns all but allows us to keep the larger share. Thus the Sabbath represents his claim on us altogether. Christians have seen God’s deed and his claim supremely in Jesus Christ; hence, their weekly day of rest and worship is no longer reminiscent of the Passover and the deliverance from Egypt but of the greater deliverance accomplished on the day of Christ’s resurrection.

The fifth commandment ("Honor your father and your mother") heads the list of obligations to our fellow men. Reverence for parents is deeply embedded in Hebrew life, both ancient and modern, and forms the basis for family solidarity in the Jewish and the Christian traditions. Respect for parental authority (see Exodus 21:15; Exodus 21:17; Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and care for the aged (see Mark 7:9-13) constitute what is meant by "honor."

The sixth commandment ("You shall not kill") gives evidence of the high value placed on human life in the community of Israel. It was meant to safeguard the members of the Covenant community against unauthorized acts of killing. Apparently not included in the prohibition are the slaying of animals for food (Genesis 9:3), the killing of Israel’s enemies (Deuteronomy 20:1-4), and capital punishment (Exodus 21:12-17). It is significant that for crimes against property the death penalty was not exacted in Israel as was the case among other peoples of the ancient Near East—further evidence of the high value placed on human life. Cities of refuge were provided for persons taking life accidentally (Deuteronomy 4:41-43; Deuteronomy 19:1-13). Suicide—extremely rare in Israel (for cases see 1 Samuel 31:4-5; 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18)—is condemned not by specific prohibitions but by the whole attitude of Israel toward the sanctity of life.

The seventh commandment ("Neither shall you commit adultery") emphasizes the sanctity of marriage, a state instituted by God, according to the Book of Genesis (2:18-24). While the prohibition here relates only to the conduct of married persons, and not to sexual activities of the unmarried (fornication), Hebrew law as a whole has a stringent attitude toward sexual relationships. Sodomy, bestiality, and incest were punished by death (Leviticus 20:11-16). Polygamy was not forbidden, but it is never represented in a light way—as an opportunity for increased sexual gratification—but as a means of responsible procreation. In the fertility religions around Israel sexual license was widely tolerated and strongly encouraged by the rituals of the cult, but in Israel such conduct was abhorred (Deuteronomy 23:17; Leviticus 19:29). Jesus brought Israel’s teaching on the sanctity of sexual relationships to its highest expression in the forbidding of the lustful attitude as well as the act (Matthew 5:27-28).

The eighth commandment ("Neither shall you steal") adds to the sanctity of life and marriage the sacredness of property. Behind the commandment lies the belief that a person is entitled to enjoy the fruits of his labors and not be deprived of them by those who have done nothing to merit them. The commandment is meant to encourage industry and thrift and to protect the industrious and thrifty from the irresponsible and the indolent. Without such a law, organized society could scarcely exist.

The ninth commandment ("Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor") is intended to ensure justice in the courts. The Hebrew here is literally, "And you shall not answer against your neighbor, as a vain witness," while in the Exodus form of this commandment the word is "false." A "vain witness" apparently means an insincere, untruthful witness. Then as now, the administration of justice depended upon the availability and reliability of witnesses. If integrity is lacking in the courts, grave injury can be done the innocent.

The tenth commandment ("Neither shall you covet . . .") strikes at the root of the evil actions prohibited in the preceding commandments. It is in the heart of man that adultery, stealing, and insincere witnessing are spawned. As Jesus pointedly put it, "The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). Here Jesus developed an insight deeply embedded in Deuteronomy.

Jesus and New Testament writers took the commandments of the Decalogue seriously. They did not argue their validity—they assumed it (see Mark 10:17-22; Romans 13:9). They were careful to point out, however, that no formal obedience to these laws is adequate. God wants men who are good inwardly as well as outwardly (Matthew 5:21-48). He desires that a man should love him with all his heart and love his neighbor as himself (Mark 12:28-31; Romans 13:8-10). "Love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10). In according to love the central place in ethics, Jesus and the Church were but following the lead of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:18).

Verses 22-33

The People’s Response (5:22-33)

It is clearly stated here and in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 19:16-20; ch. 20) that the Ten Commandments were given by God directly to the people but the rest of the Law came to them through the mediation of Moses. This distinction serves to high-light the importance of the Decalogue. The phrase here, "and he added no more" (5:22), also indicates the writer’s sense of the finality and authority of the Ten Commandments.

The people’s reaction to God’s direct revelation of his will in the Decalogue oscillated between gratitude and fear. What a sublime privilege it was to hear the very voice of God, to see "his glory and greatness"! (vs. 24). They marveled that they had not been consumed by his awful Presence. But they want no more face-to-face relationships with him. Let Moses draw near to him and bring them word concerning his demands in detail!

How shallow Israel’s pledge of obedience on this occasion was is shown in the incident concerning the molten image and sub-sequent acts of rebellion in the period of wilderness wandering (Deuteronomy 9:12-24). There is pathos in God’s words, "Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their children for ever!" (5:29).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 5". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-5.html.