Biblical Commentary

Exodus 20:1-20



Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, as instructed by Yahweh (Exodus 13-15). However, the journey was difficult, and the people complained often. They complained about the threat of Egyptian soldiers at the Red Sea (Exodus 14)—and bitter water at Marah (15:22-27)—and the lack of bread and meat (Exodus 16)—and the lack of water at Rephidim (17:1-7). In each instance, Yahweh responded by giving them what they needed—deliverance at the Red Sea—sweet water at Marah—manna and quail—and water at Rephidim.

Then, “In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai” (19:1). That wilderness is the area near Mount Sinai—we don’t know its exact boundaries. It is a desert wilderness in which there is little to sustain life—and certainly not enough to sustain the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The Israelites are completely dependent on Yahweh for their survival.

Yahweh reminded the people how he had saved them, and promised: “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:5-6a). The people agreed to obey (19:8), so Yahweh had them prepare for a service of consecration (19:9b-15) by washing their clothes and refraining from sexual activity. Yahweh had Moses warn the people not to touch the mountain, and dictated that anyone who violates that rule is to be stoned (19:12-13).

In a theophany (an appearance by God) characterized by thunder, lightning, the loud blast of a trumpet, smoke, and fire, Yahweh appeared to Moses and the people (19:16-25). Yahweh allowed Moses to take Aaron with him as he ascended the holy mountain, but warned Moses to tell the people not to come too close to the mountain lest Yahweh “break forth on them” (19:24).

This is a turning point in life of Israel. Until now, the book of Exodus has focused on Yahweh’s saving actions to bring Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Now the emphasis shifts to emphasize the covenant relationship that exists between Yahweh and Israel—and the responsibilities of Israel to Yahweh as their part of that covenant.

The repetition of these commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 emphasizes their importance. However, they do not constitute the full giving of the law. That began with Exodus 20, and will continue through Exodus 31. The giving of the law will then resume with Exodus 35-40 (chapter 40 being the last chapter of Exodus). The books of Leviticus and Numbers are largely additional giving of the law, and Deuteronomy is a later restatement of the law.


We usually refer to Exodus 20:2-17 as the Ten Commandments. That title does not appear in this text, but does appear in three later verses (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4). However, the Hebrew word that we translate as “commandments” in those verses is debarim, which is more often translated as “words.” As we shall see shortly, the distinction between Ten Words and Ten Commandments is significant, because Jews regard verse 2, which is not in the form of a commandment, as the first of Ten Words.

Jews and Christians agree that there are ten words/commandments—but they number them differently:

• JEWS regard verse 2, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” as the first word. While this verse is not in the form of a commandment, it does establish the foundation upon which the commandments are based. To get ten words/commandments, Jews regard verses 3-6 as the second word and verse 17 as the tenth word.

• CATHOLICS (and some Protestants) count verses 3-6 as the first commandment. They then split verse 17 into the ninth and tenth commandments—one a prohibition against coveting a neighbor’s house and the other a prohibition against coveting a neighbor’s wife, slave, livestock, or anything else that belongs to the neighbor.

• MOST PROTESTANTS regard verse 3 as the first commandment and verses 4-6 as the second commandment. They do not split verse 17 into two commandments, but regard it as the tenth commandment.

To summarize, these three groups number the commandments as follows:


v. 2

vv. 3-6
v. 3

v. 3-6

v. 7
vv. 4-6

v. 7

vv. 8-11
v. 7

v. 8-11

v. 12
vv. 8-11

v. 12

v. 13
v. 12

v. 13

v. 14
v. 13

v. 14

v. 15
v. 14

v. 15

v. 16
v. 15

v. 16

v. 17a
v. 16

v. 17

v. 17b
v. 17

Later, God will give Moses these commandments on two stone tablets (Exodus 31:18). We usually picture the first tablet as containing the first four commandments (or five, depending on the numbering system). These first commandments have a vertical focus—Israel’s relationship to God. We picture the second tablet as containing the last six (or five) commandments, which have a horizontal focus—Israel’s relationship to people within the covenant community.

Three of the words/commandments (vv. 5, 7, 11) contain a “for” clause, giving the reason behind the words/commandments.

One of the words/commandments (v. 12) offers an incentive for obedience—” that your days may be long in the land that Yahweh your God gives you.”


1God (Hebrew: elohim) spoke all these words (Hebrew: debarim), saying, 2“I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

“God (elohim) spoke all these words” (debarim) (v. 1). Two facts suggest that God speaks these words directly to the people rather than through Moses. First, the people are assembled at the foot of the mountain (19:17). Second, after God gives the words/commandments, the people become afraid and say to Moses, “Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die” (20:19).

The emphasis of this verse is that God is the one who speaks these words.

“I am Yahweh (YHWHYahweh) your God (Hebrew: elohim), who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (v. 2). As noted above, Jews regard this as the First Word of Ten Words, because it establishes the foundation on which all the other words/commandments are based. Christians acknowledge the foundational character of this verse, but view it as prologue and regard verse 3 (or vv. 3-6) as the first commandment.

In this verse, Yahweh establishes his identity (“Yahweh your God”) and, by implication, the Israelites identity (Yahweh’s people). Yahweh also reminds them of their recent salvation history—he brought them out of Egyptian slavery.


3“You shall have no other gods (Hebrew: elohim) before me.

4“You shall not make for yourselves an idol (Hebrew: pesel—carved or graven image), nor any image (Hebrew: temuna likeness or image) of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6and showing loving kindness(Hebrew: hesed—mercy, kindness, love) to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall have no other gods (elohim) before me” (v. 3). This verse does not assume monotheism—that there is only one God. The Israelites only recently left Egypt, where Egyptians worshiped many gods (Anat, Isis, Osirus, Ra, and others). This commandment does not require the Israelites to believe in only one God, but requires that they put no other gods before (or in addition to) Yahweh. It establishes Yahweh’s unique and exclusive claim on Israel, with whom Yahweh has established a covenant relationship. In that sense, the claim of this verse is much like the unique and exclusive sexual claim that a husband has on his wife—or a wife has on her husband.

“You shall not make for yourselves an idol (pesel—carved or graven image), nor any image (temuna—likeness or image) of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them” (v. 4-5a). The combination of these two words, pesel and temuna, make it clear that the Israelites are not to make any image of any kind that might become an object of veneration or worship.

Once again, their tenure in Egypt would have exposed them to many images that were objects of veneration for the Egyptians. The Egyptians had images for each of their many gods, and regarded these images as objects of worship.

Does this verse prohibit images of Yahweh? Scholars are divided on that question. Some say that this commandment prohibits all images, including images of Yahweh. Others refer back to the verse 3 prohibition of other gods, and conclude that verse 4 prohibits only images of other gods.

This verse does NOT prohibit the fabrication of all holy objects or images. In Exodus 25-40 Yahweh gives detailed plans for the fabrication of tabernacle and its furnishings, to include the Ark of the Covenant with its winged Mercy Seat—and “a veil of blue, and purple and scarlet, and fine twined linen, with cherubim” (26:31; 36:8, 35). The cherubim would certainly be an image of one sort or another. These and other holy objects, however, are intended to facilitate worship of Yahweh, and are not to become objects of worship.

“for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God” (v. 5b). This is the first of the “for” clauses that state the reason for a particular word/commandment.

The word “jealous” might not be the best word to use here, because we usually use that word to describe an insecure person who is fearful of losing something. Yahweh is not insecure, but has intense feelings for Israel that cannot abide unfaithfulness. Many scholars would translate this word as “zealous.”

“visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me” (v. 5c). Many people today find it highly offensive that Yahweh would punish innocent children for the sins of their parents. We find something of the opposite in Ezekiel 18:2-4, where God responds to people who say that God is punishing them for their parents’ sins. God replied, “the soul who sins, he shall die.”

However, the principle in this verse is that the actions of parents affect their children. Ungodly parents often (but not always) produce ungodly children, and those ungodly children can expect to be punished for their sins.

The sins of one generation are often visited on successive generations. Parents who are addicted to alcohol or drugs tend to wreak havoc with their children spiritually, psychologically, and physically. I have a friend whose father was an alcoholic. He died many years ago, but she is still struggling to cope with the psychic injuries she sustained during her childhood. Our family knows a young woman whose parents (aging hippies) abuse alcohol and drugs. That girl is trying hard to overcome her heritage. To this point, she has not succumbed to drug use, but does seem unable to break free from the ties to her parents that lock her into their dysfunctional behaviors. Children whose parents are guilty of infidelity or gambling or criminal activity face many of those same issues.

This principle also works on a larger scale. We in America are still paying a terrible price for the decision of our ancestors to practice slavery. Our current generation is practicing deficit government spending, which will cause fiscal and political problems that will plague our children in the future. Nations across the globe are suffering from the imperialism of earlier generations. We are paying the price today for the failure of past generations to contain pollution. Our profligate use of energy threatens the welfare of future generations. Etc., etc., etc.

So it might be appropriate to view the punishment reflected in verse 5 as a kind of natural law—akin to the law of gravity. Someone has said that we cannot break the law of gravity, but can simply break ourselves by disregarding it. So it is with our behavior. Behavior has consequences, and those consequences affect our neighbors and our children as well as ourselves.

“and showing loving kindness (hesed—mercy, kindness, love, loving kindness) to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (v. 6). The word hesed has a rich variety of meanings—kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. “When applied to Yahweh, hesed is fundamentally the expression of his loyalty and devotion to the solemn promises attached to the covenant” (Renn, 633-634).

Note the contrast between “on the third and on the fourth generation” of verse 5c and “a thousand generations” of this verse. The curse is for a relatively short time, but the blessing is for a very long time.

Also note the contrast between “those who hate me” in verse 5c and “those who love me and keep my commandments” in this verse.

The connection between “love me” and “keep my commandments” suggests that the keeping of the commandments is the outward sign of our inward affection.


7“You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

“You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain” (v. 7a). Yahweh’s character and identity are tied up in Yahweh’s name, so using Yahweh’s name to do something dishonorable would profane Yahweh’s name. People are not to use Yahweh’s name to give assurances that they don’t intend to honor. This would include using Yahweh’s name in connection with an oath sworn falsely—or using Yahweh’s name in connection with any sort of deception or dishonorable activity. Clergy need to listen carefully here. If we use God’s name in ways intended to manipulate other people, that would be a wrongful use of God’s name.

While using Yahweh’s name as a curse-word would be so foreign to the Israelites that the idea would never occur to them, such usage would nevertheless qualify as a wrongful use of the Lord’s name.

“for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (v. 7b). This is the second of three “for” clauses in these verses. These clauses give the reason why a person should obey the commandment. In this instance, Yahweh warns that he will not acquit anyone (or leave anyone unpunished) who misuses his name.


8“Remember the Sabbath (Hebrew: shabat) day, to keep it holy (Hebrew: qadosh). 9You shall labor six days, and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates; 11for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.

In all three numbering systems (Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant), verses 8-11 count as one word/commandment. It is the longest of the commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath (shabat) day (v. 8a). The Hebrew word shabat has more to do with stopping or ceasing than it does with resting. It has come to mean resting because the cessation of work implies resting.

“to keep it holy” (qadosh) (v. 8b). The Hebrew word, qadosh, means holy in the sense that God has set aside something or someone for a holy purpose. The sabbath is holy, because God established the sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Israel is holy because God chose Israel to be God’s covenant people. The tabernacle and temple are holy, because God set them aside as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites are holy because God set them apart for his service.

All holiness is derivative—derived from the holiness of God. The sabbath is holy because God made it so.

“You shall labor six days, and do all your work” (v. 9). This verse lays the foundation for verse 10. It says there are six days to work—the implication being that Yahweh has established six work days as part of the created order of things.

This verse doesn’t require that people work six days a week, but restricts them from working more than six days a week.

“but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (v. 10). This verse defines what is involved in remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy. That requires refraining from working on the sabbath.

This is not the first mention of refraining from work on the sabbath. When Yahweh initiated the provision of manna, he said, “On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days” (16:5). This made it unnecessary for them to collect manna on the sabbath. When some of the people tried to gather manna on the sabbath, they found none (16:27). The Lord said, “Behold, because Yahweh has given you the Sabbath, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days. Everyone stay in his place. Let no one go out of his place on the seventh day” (16:29-30).

The commandment not only applies to adult Israelites, but also applies to their children, their slaves, their livestock, and any alien residents who happen to be living among them. These provisions are intended to eliminate loopholes. Without them, an Israelite might feel free to make the sabbath a work-productive day by having other people do what he is constrained from doing personally.

The Mishnah (oral law) specified thirty-nine types of work that were prohibited on the sabbath, and rabbis rendered judgments with regard to particular cases. Certain exceptions were allowed, such as acting to preserve life or to save a life.

Jesus was involved with six sabbath controversies in which he was accused of working on the sabbath. Five of these involved healings, and one involved his disciples picking grain on the sabbath.

• In one instance, he defended healing a sick man by reminding the Pharisees that they would rescue an animal in distress on the sabbath (Luke 14:1-6).

• In another instance (not involving an accusation that Jesus was working on the sabbath), Jesus reminded his critics that they would circumcise a child on the eighth day, even if that happened to be a sabbath (John 7:21-24).

• When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to pick grain on the sabbath, Jesus reminded them that David “entered the house of God…and ate the show bread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him” (Mark 2:26). And then he added this principle: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

The early church quickly adopted the first day of the week (rather than the seventh day) as its day of worship, because Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the first day of the week. The apostle Paul, responding to a controversy regarding sabbath observance, made it clear that Christians are permitted to observe or not to observe the sabbath. However, if they decide to observe it, they are to do so in honor of the Lord Jesus (Romans 14:5-6).

“for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy” (v. 11). Genesis 2:1-4 concludes the first account of the creation, and says that God rested on the seventh day “and made it holy, because he rested in it from all his work which he had created and made” (2:3). It would seem that God did this, not because he was exhausted, but to serve as a model for the Israelites, whom he would require to keep the sabbath day as a holy day.


12“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which Yahweh your God gives you.

The earlier commandments were all focused on giving honor to God. This is the first of the commandments that are focused on relationships with other humans. Because the family is the building block of society and the bond between children and parents is so fundamental, God chose honoring parents as the first human-directed commandment.

“Honor your father and your mother” (v. 12a). Note the equal status accorded fathers and mothers, a remarkable bit of legislation in the patriarchal society of that day.

Most scholars agree that this commandment was intended for adults rather than children. The primary concern of this commandment was for grown children to provide support for aging parents. Their system called for aging parents to turn over property (usually land and livestock) to their grown children, and called those children to assume responsibility for the care of their parents.

Jesus called attention to the fact that some children would sidestep this requirement by declaring that they had given to God whatever support the parent would have received from the child. Jesus denounced this practice, saying that those who practiced it made void God’s law in favor of their own traditions (Mark 7:11-13).

While the primary concern of this commandment has to do with the financial support of aging parents, we would be remiss to leave it at that. There are other ways to honor parents. One is by taking time to visit them or to talk to them. Another is by sending personal cards or letters. Another is by speaking graciously about them to other people. Another is by remembering special days such as birthdays or holidays and sharing those days with them. The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination.

“that your days may be long in the land which Yahweh your God gives you” (v. 12b). The author of Ephesians calls this commandment “the first commandment with a promise” (Ephesians 6:2)—and this is the promise. Yahweh is leading them toward the Promised Land. If they want to enjoy their tenure in that blessed place for a long time, they should honor their father and mother.


13“You shall not murder” (Hebrew: tirsah).

This commandment was intended to protect the covenant-community, Israel, against wanton killing. It was not intended to proscribe capital punishment or killing in war.

The earlier translation of this verse, “Thou shalt not kill!” created confusion, because it appeared to prohibit all kinds of killing—or at least all taking of human life. That was not the intent. The word tirsah has to do with killing without legal authorization—killing that results from malice or hatred—killing that we today would label as murder. That some killing is permitted is attested by two facts:

• Jewish law prescribes capital punishment for a number of offenses (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13-16; 20:11-14; Numbers 35:16-21, 30-33; Deuteronomy 17:6; 22:20-24, etc.).

• Also Yahweh commanded the Israelites to enter the Promised Land and to put the inhabitants to death (Joshua 6:17, etc.).

However, even though this commandment does not prohibit capital punishment, killing in self-defense, or killing in a wartime environment, it does offer substantial protection against wanton killing based on malice or hatred.


14“You shall not commit adultery.

The word adultery means sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, at least one of whom is married to another person. In its original patriarchal context, it seems to have meant only sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who married to another man. It did not prohibit men from having more than one sexual partner. That culture was polygamous, so men were permitted to have multiple wives and/or concubines (a concubine being a woman in an acknowledged relationship with a man whose status was less than that of the man’s wife).

Other Jewish laws limited the sexual relationships in other ways. A man was forbidden:

• To have sexual relations with his daughter-in-law (Leviticus 20:12).
• To have sexual relations with another man (Leviticus 20:13).
• To take both a woman and the woman’s mother as wives (Leviticus 20:14).
• To have sexual relations with an animal (Leviticus 20:15)
• To have sexual relations with (or to uncover the nakedness of) his sister (Leviticus 20:17).
• To have sexual relations with a menstruating woman (Leviticus 20:18).
• To uncover the nakedness of his mother’s sister or his father’s sister (Leviticus 20:19).
• To have sexual relationships with his uncle’s wife (Leviticus 20:20).
• To have sexual relationships with his brother’s wife (Leviticus 20:20)—although there was an exception that, in the event that a married man died without children, his brother was to take the deceased man’s wife as his own wife, so “that his name not be blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)—a practice that also gave the widow a certain amount of security.
• To profane his daughter by making her a prostitute (Leviticus 19:29).
• To have sexual relationships with a virgin engaged to another man (Deuteronomy 22:23-27).
• To “lay hold on” a virgin and have sexual relations with her (Deuteronomy 22:28-30).

However, the fact that the sin of adultery was the one sexual sin singled out for mention in these Ten Words/Commandments shows how seriously it was regarded. The family is the building block of society, so for a man to intrude upon another man’s home and wife constituted a threat, not only to the other man’s family, but also to society at large.

Today, people tend not to take adultery nearly as seriously as they did in Biblical times, but adultery continues to cause broken hearts, broken families, and wounded children. Because broken families are usually less viable financially than intact families, adultery also contributes to problems associated with children being raised in poverty.


15“You shall not steal.”

Some scholars consider this word/commandment to prohibit only taking another person’s belongings by stealth. However, there is no reason to limit it in that manner. The taking of property by stealth is called theft and the taking property by violence is called robbery. Our laws rightfully consider robbery to be the greater of the two crimes, because robbers are more likely to inflict physical injury on the victim. We should consider this commandment as proscribing both theft and robbery.

We should note that stealing has the potential to cause serious injury to its victims—even if there is no physical violence involved. That was especially true during Biblical times, when most people had only enough to maintain a marginal existence. If someone stole their sheep, it could result in their starving or losing everything. The poorer the victim, the more serious is the crime of stealing.

However, even the affluent suffer when they become victims of theft or robbery. The feeling of being personally violated creates a kind of fear that is slow to go away. That kind of fear can cause victims of theft or robbery to lead guarded, fearful lives.

We should also note that stealing can go beyond the taking of physical possessions. The next commandment forbids bearing false witness, because false witness has the potential to rob a person of reputation and/or personal freedom.

For additional provisions in Jewish law that flesh out how to deal with the crime of stealing, see Exodus 22:1-16 and Leviticus 6:1-7; 19:11-13. The New Testament also includes mentions stealing (Matthew 19:18; Romans 2:21; 13:9; 1 Corinthians 6:10; Ephesians 4:28; 1 Peter 4:15).


16“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

This commandment has to do primarily with the bearing of false testimony against a neighbor—i.e., against a member of the covenant community—in a legal setting. However, there is nothing in this brief commandment that limits its application to a legal setting.

While false testimony in a legal setting can have serious, even fatal, consequences, it can have serious consequences in other settings as well. False witness can result in the loss of a person’s good reputation or job. It can damage a marriage or relationships between friends. For most of us, our greatest temptation with regard to this commandment is gossip.

Leviticus 5:1 specifies that a person who knows the truth and fails to volunteer as a witness to save another person shall himself “bear his iniquity.”

The seriousness with which the Jews took the issue of false witness is attested by the numerous times that it is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 23:1; Leviticus 6:3; 19:11, 16; Deuteronomy 5:20; 19:16-20; Psalm 27:12; 35:11; Proverbs 6:16-19; 12:17; 14:5, 25; 18:5; 19:9, 28; 21:28; 24:28; 25:18; Zechariah 5:3-4; Matthew 15:19; 19:18; Luke 3:14; 18:20; 1 Timothy 1:9-10).

Because of the potentially serious consequences of false witness, Jewish law required the corroboration of at least two witnesses to convict a person of a crime (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Numbers 35:30), and required witnesses to take the lead in carrying out a death sentence (Deuteronomy 17:7)—a requirement intended to emphasize the seriousness of the person’s testimony. If it appeared that a person might be guilty of false witness, Jewish law required that there be a thorough inquiry. If the inquiry substantiated the charge of false witness, the law required that the community impose the same punishment on the false witness that the false witness intended to impose on the other party (Deuteronomy 19:16-20).


17“You shall not covet (Hebrew: hamad) your neighbor’s house (Hebrew: bayit). You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

As noted above, Catholics (and some Protestants) split verse 17 into the ninth and tenth commandments—one a prohibition against coveting a neighbor’s house and the other a prohibition against coveting a neighbor’s wife, slave, livestock, or anything else that belongs to the neighbor. That probably is because the parallel commandment in Deuteronomy 5:21 uses two different verbs. It proscribes coveting the neighbor’s wife or desiring the neighbor’s house, field, etc. However, Jews and most Protestants regard Exodus 20:17 as one commandment.

“You shall not covet (hamad) your neighbor’s house (bayit). You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (v. 17). The first question to address is what is meant by the word hamad, which we translate as covet. Does this commandment proscribe simple desire or does it proscribe only desire that is sufficiently intense to tempt the one doing the coveting to act on his/her desire—to take by stealth or force that which is desired?

There is no doubt that this commandment proscribes the latter—desire so intense that it tempts the one doing the coveting to act on his/her desire. While mild desire for something belonging to a neighbor would probably not constitute a culpable offense under this commandment, as we move up the desire-scale to more intense longing, we move up the danger-scale and the temptation-scale as well. If we dwell on our desire so that it grows in intensity, we will almost certainly violate this commandment.

The next question, then, is how much control we have over our desires. If we desire something belonging to our neighbor, is it possible to control that desire so that it doesn’t spiral out of control—so that we don’t violate this commandment?

The fact is that we have a great deal of control over our desires. We can choose to dwell on our desires so that they grow more intense—or to look for other avenues to meet our needs. Whether a desire becomes an obsession depends more on the way that we choose to handle it than on the nature of the desire.

While it is true that some desires (alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, etc.) can lead to addictions that are very difficult to control, that does not invalidate the significance of choices. Seldom does a person become addicted with his/her first drink—or his/her first experience with drugs—or his/her first peek at a nude photo—or by one trip to the gambling table. Desires grow into obsessions and addictions by repetition—and by our decision to nurse them. If we exercise good choices prior to becoming addicted, we can prevent the addiction.

Even after a person becomes addicted, there is hope that he/she can regain control of his/her life. Alcoholics Anonymous and similar organizations offer peer-group support that can help an addicted person to gain control over his/her behavior. However, that person must choose to go to the organization’s meetings and to follow the organization’s procedures and guidelines.

I conclude, then, that we can control our desires, particularly if we begin to exercise control over them before they become obsessive or addictive. We can make choices that lead to covetous behavior—or we can make choices that will keep our desires within permissible bounds.

One implication here is that good spiritual training is vital so that the person will know what is and what is not permissible. In our culture, there are people whose upbringing leaves them handicapped at this point.Many parents fail to instill good values in their children.

Another question has to do with the definition of our neighbor’s house (bayit). Does this commandment proscribe coveting the neighbor’s real estate, or is there more involved?

The Hebrew word, bayit, has a broader meaning than our word house. It refers to the person’s household, which would include the person’s family and possessions. Therefore, when this commandment proscribes coveting a neighbor’s house, it includes other things, such as the neighbor’s wife—and the neighbor’s new BMW—and the neighbor’s new laptop. The implications are spelled out in considerable detail by the rest of the verse, which ends by telling us not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor.

What is especially significant about this commandment is that it goes to the heart of our behaviors. If we gain control over our desires, we won’t be tempted to murder—or to commit adultery—or to steal—or to bear false witness. Jesus reinforced this same principle when he said that it is necessary to control our anger so that we don’t become guilty of murder (Matthew 6:21-26)—and to control our sexual desires so that we don’t become guilty of adultery (Matthew 6:27-30).


18All the people perceived the thunderings, the lightnings, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled, and stayed at a distance. 19They said to Moses, “Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die.”

20Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before you, that you won’t sin.”

“All the people perceived the thunderings, the lightnings, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled, and stayed at a distance” (v. 18). Fear in the presence of the Almighty is common. These people have reason to be afraid. Yahweh has already warned them not to come too close to the mountain lest he “break forth on them” (19:24). These sights and sounds—thunder, lightning, trumpet blasts, and a smoking mountain—would intimidate most people.

“They said to Moses, “Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die” (v. 19). The people appeal to Moses to serve as a buffer between them and God. They prefer to get the word from God second-hand. They fear that they will not survive further encounters with God, and promise to listen (implying that they will obey) when Moses speaks.

“Moses said to the people, ‘Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before you, that you won’t sin'” (v. 20). The words “Don’t be afraid” appear often in scripture. Sometimes the concern is an enemy, but often the concern is the presence of the Almighty.

However, Moses reassures the people that God has come to test or prove them rather than to destroy them. It is appropriate for them to fear God—to reverence God and to have a healthy respect in God’s presence. This reverence or fear will help them to avoid sinning.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan