Exodus 20: Ten Commandments and the Law of the Altar

The time has come for the Lord to give His people instructions on how to live. The Ten Commandments and the other instructions that follow are a model for a successful society. Fairness, living in peace with your family and neighbors, and yielding to a higher power are themes that dominate mankind’s successful social experiments. God is teaching His people how He wants them to treat strangers, each other, and most importantly, Him.

The Ten Commandments, to a degree, are familiar to everyone. The guidance within them seems intrinsic now, since many of them have become bellwethers whose existence indicate the proliferation of a successful social structure. But at the time, this was all new information to the children of Israel. Most of the themes in the Ten Commandments would not have been a surprise. As we read through them, let’s pick out some of the overriding themes and guidance:

  • God is to be the number one deity and authority figure in their lives and His name is sacred
    • Man is to worship God, not the things that God created
    • Those who love God and keep His commandments will receive mercy
    • Those who hate Him will receive consequences across generations
  • Man was created in God’s image – thus will his work mimic God’s work and he will maintain the seventh day of the week as a day of rest and dedication to the Lord
  • Respect for life and property
    • Protecting the authoritative structure and love in a family is vital
    • Theft and covetousness are not tolerated
  • Honesty
    • Honest with yourself to appreciate what God has given you and not to desire what others have
    • Honesty in speech and deed

These rules, while simple, are far-reaching with many implications. The commandments are intentionally broad, which increases their application in both public and personal life. They are meant to keep the people respectful and fearful of God, but also respectful and kind towards one another. The boundaries of important relationships are drawn and specified, and again we can take a moment to marvel at these simple phrases that have deep and broad implications. For example, think of the infinite number of ways we are called upon to honor our father and mother. This is true from near infancy until the time of their death and even beyond as we honor our parents’ memories. Honoring father and mother is something that a two-year-old can learn and perform, yet must also be achieved by the unruly teenager. And when the honor is achieved, the ramifications are great in terms of example, mental health (for both parents and children), and happiness. Of course we must mention that positive intent must be at play, but that is not the point. The point is that God, in His truly infinite wisdom, is not just telling His people how to live in few words, He is telling them how to thrive. Each commandment has degrees of these far-reaching implications. Not a word was wasted. Of course, as we continue into the chapters ahead, there will be many words (some argue that they are of lesser value) commanding details of life and worship whose intents are more ambiguous than those of the Ten Commandments. But, with these ten simple guidelines, God has given the people a baseline of human interaction that is simple, easy to remember, and amazingly effective.

The people are just as terrified now as they were in chapter 19 when God came down on the mountain. The nearness of His presence was a weight that they could not bear. Something about the terror of His proximity compelled them to flee and they were afraid that if God spoke to them, they would die. The text is not specific, but we can feel their terror at the Lord. His nearness must have brought a feeling, a terror, that is ineffable: ““You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” Exodus 20:19

Moses calmly explains that God is impressing them with His power, instilling fear in them intentionally so that they are aware of his unmatched mighty power that compels obedience and worship. The people, for now seemingly convinced to avoid sinning against God, remain afar off from His presence.

This chapter ends with the first explicit command to sacrifice to God on an altar. You may remember references in earlier chapters of Moses wanting to go out to build an altar to the Lord while they were in Egypt, but this is the first direct command from God where He specifies that the people sacrifice to Him on an altar. Altars of earth and stone are specified. God has already made the rocks, so there is no need for the people to use their tools to “improve” on what the Lord has already made. Burnt offerings and peace offerings are mentioned, as is the fact that the altar should be at ground level to maintain the humility and purity of the environment. The worship of Canaanite gods involved sexually perverse rituals; nothing of this sort is permitted in the holy worship of the one and true almighty God.

This initial round of instruction is a preamble to many more chapters to come specifying other laws of living, construction of the tabernacle, feasts, and the like. But for now, with these Ten Commandments, we have our inkling for God’s Old Law for mankind in the Old Testament. At the time, though, these laws were anything but old.

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