Jan. 24 Reading: Exodus 19-21 Commentary
“And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.'” (Ex. 19:3-5)
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.’ (Ex. 20:2-3)
It has been 3 months since Israel left Egypt (v. 1). God has led them by way of the wilderness, with the ultimate destination being Canaan, the land promised to Abraham. Now, before the journey continues, the people are instructed to stop in the Wilderness of Sinai and camp near Mt. Sinai.
The purpose of this stop? God needed to give his law to the people. He will do that through Moses in a meeting on top of the mountain.
These laws reinforced the covenant relationship between God and the people. If they obeyed, God would bless them more than any other people group. They would be his special treasure on earth (Ex. 19:3-5).
God’s Presence at Mt. Sinai
It’s quite the scene when God descends on the mountain. The people see lighting and thunder along with a thick cloud covering the mountain. Everyone knows this is the presence of God.
God instructed Moses to set a boundary around the mountain so that the people and the priests could not come near to Him. If anyone became curious and came forward to touch the mountain, they would die. The people are also commanded to consecrate themselves in preparation for the giving of the law. This consecration involved washing their clothes (vv. 10, 14) and, for the men, staying away from their wives (v. 15).
We love lists. And in Exodus 20, Moses meets with God and receives the top ten list of laws that God wanted the Israelites to follow. It’s only the beginning though. For most of the rest of the book of Exodus, God lays out more laws that would govern the nation’s existence. These laws were the blueprint of how they were to behave, exist and interact with one another and with God.
The importance of the Ten Commandments cannot be overstated. These laws launched the entire legal code for Israel. But their impact rippled through history, serving as the standard for many cultural legal codes to come.
It’s also no accident in how the 10 laws were laid out in their order. The first four dealt with Israel’s relationship with God. The last six dealt with their relationship with one another. The implications are clear. Our relationships with people clearly matter. But our relationship with God is more important. Get the God part right first, and the people part becomes easier.
It’s also important to note that these laws were not the standard for righteousness (or what we would say today is the mechanism that leads to salvation and eternal life). Since the time of Abraham, righteousness before God (i.e. salvation) has always been about faith. Genesis 15:6 clearly states that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”, a sentiment Paul would restate in the New Testament (Romans 4:1-3).
The Ten Commandments
Below is a summary of the Ten Commandments God gave Israel. Half the list (1, 6, 7, 8 and 9) are one sentence commands and half (2, 3, 4, 5, and 10) contain explanations or reasons why the command is important.
- “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (v. 3)
- “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (vv. 4-5)
- “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…” (v. 7)
- “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…” (v. 8)
- “Honor your father and your mother…” (v. 12)
- “You shall not murder.” (v. 13)
- “You shall not commit adultery.” (v. 14)
- “You shall not steal.” (v. 15)
- “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (v. 16)
- “You shall not covet…” (v. 17)
This interaction between God and Moses on the mountain was terrifying for the people to witness. Ex. 20:18 tells us the people were afraid and stood afar off. They wanted nothing to do with God, telling Moses: “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” (v. 19).
Aren’t you glad that we don’t have to live in that fear? In fact, Hebrews 4:6 tells us we can approach God boldly to find grace and mercy in our time of need.
Exodus 21 begins to lay out the rest of the legal code for Israel. Most scholars say there are 613 Old Testament laws the Jews were required to follow. When you think about the possibility of doing that perfectly, it easily shows (as stated above) that these cannot be standards for righteousness (as no one would be able to keep them perfectly). Our relationship with God is based on faith only, not our works (Eph. 2:8-9).
Laws about Servants
Owning a servant in the Old Testament legal code was not forbidden. In some cases, a family might have to sell a son (or daughter) into slavery to pay off a debt. But if purchased, the slave had rights.
The first right we see is that the individual was only a servant for a period of six years. In the seventh year, they were to be set free (v. 2).
If a male slave was married at the time of going into slavery, he was allowed to keep his wife (v. 3). If the slave became married during the time of his servanthood, the wife and any children from that marriage belonged to the master (v. 4).
Servants even had rights to stay with their master forever if they chose (vv. 5-6).
Laws about Violence
God is the creator of all life. Therefore, He values life. He also values positive relationships between His created beings. So in the legal code, He put laws in place to deter people from harming one another.
These actions would bring the death penalty on an individual:
- Striking another man so he dies (v. 12)
- Premeditated killing of another person (v. 14)
- Striking one’s father or mother (v. 15)
- Kidnapping a man (and selling or detaining him)(v. 16)
- Cursing one’s father or mother (v. 17)
Exodus 21:23-25 is the most well-known set of verses when it comes to laws of retaliation. It reads, “But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Many cultures have taken these verses and applied them in ways that are extreme and beyond the original meaning here. In this section of Scripture, they are dealing with a man who hurts a pregnant woman (v. 22). In this case, the punishment coincided with the extent of the injury.
Laws about Controlling Animals
Animals were at the heart of ancient life. Oxen, donkeys, and other livestock served as tools in an agricultural society. But accidents with these animals would occur where another person would be injured or worse. In this section, God lays out how to handle such situations if an ox specifically hurt or killed a man.
Questions to Consider:
Do you have any “gods” in your life that you are putting before the one true God? How do you keep God #1 in your life?
In the Old Testament, God established laws that helped people relate to Him and each other. In the New Testament, Jesus simply said it this way – Love God with everything you have and love others as you love yourself. Are you doing both of those today?
Do you fear God to the point where you cannot approach Him with your needs?
What other points would you want to know about in our Exodus 19-21 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.