Chapters 19-40

After the narrative of the escape from Egypt, the second part of Exodus turns more towards legislation, the commandments God gave his people, telling them how they were to live, and the covenant he made with them.

7. Commandments and covenant

There are three “legal” collections in the second half of Exodus. The best known is the “Ten Commandments” (or decalogue, which means “10 words”), written with God’s finger on two tablets of stone. (Most modern pictures of the event depict Moses returning from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments split between the two tablets, five on one and five on the other, but actually all 10 were on each stone.) This was a legal contract, in keeping with similar treaties agreed at that time. A conquering king might make a treaty with a vanquished nation, for example. Each party would have a copy. In the case of the Ten Commandments, one copy was God’s and one copy was the people’s. This treaty was special, however, known in the Bible as a “covenant”. A covenant was not a bargain between two parties but a contract written by God which could be either accepted or rejected by the people.

The Ten Commandments formed the first legal collection and this was followed by what is known as the “Book of the Covenant”, which can be found in Exodus 20:23-23:33. This deals with laws relating to community life. The third collection is the book of laws in Chapters 25-31, which center on the worshipping life of Israel and are concerned with the place of worship and those conducting worship. Overlap and expansion of these laws is found in Deuteronomy. Thus there are not just Ten Commandments, but a total of 613 rules and regulations about the way to live right before God.

It is crucial to underline the importance of the context of the laws in Exodus. The Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant are sandwiched between two links which refer to the past and the future.

1. In 20:2 God says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

2. In 23:20-33 God assures the people of his presence in the future and of the provision of land, providing they keep to his ways.

The first text refers back to Egypt and the second passage focuses on entering Canaan in the future. The context tells us that these laws from God are for people who have experienced his past and are expecting his future and who will therefore be able to live in his present.

King Alfred based the British legal system on the Ten Commandments, but it is hard to see how people can understand them if they have not experienced redemption. They must be seen in the proper context.


A closer look at the Ten Commandments and the accompanying legislation reveals three basic principles which are enshrined there. First is the principle of respect. All the Ten Commandments are based on this – respect for God, respect for his name, respect for his day, respect for people, respect for family life, respect for life itself, respect for marriage, respect for people’s property, respect for people’s reputation.

The message is clear: a healthy, holy society is built on respect. So much of society today, especially the mass media, sets out to destroy respect. Television comedy often encourages an irreverent view of life so that nothing is regarded as sacred. Everything and everyone is a potential figure of fun. But it is clear that the loss of respect for God leads to idolatry, and the loss of respect for people leads to immorality and injustice.

Most of the Ten Commandments are about acts or words, but the last of the ten is about feelings – it is the only one about the heart. Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul said in Romans 7 that he had kept the first nine but he could not manage the tenth, the commandment about greed. For when we desire something we do not have, our problem is with our inner life. If you break one law you have broken them all. They all belong together like a necklace, and if you break a necklace just once the beads are all lost. In reality there are not ten separate commandments. They are all one law.

The second principle is responsibility. Increasingly we are taught that we are not responsible for our actions, even down to the claim that wickedness is due to genetics! We know that original sin is transferred through the genes, but the idea that some people are more wicked than others because they have a wrong gene leads to the view that people are not responsible for what they do. Exodus stands directly opposed to that view. The Lord God says we are responsible before him for how we live with regard to his law.

The third principle is retribution. There are three reasons for punishment under the law. The first is reformation: punishment is intended to make the wrongdoer better. The second is deterrence: the idea being that observing others being punished works as a warning to other would-be malefactors. The third is retribution: the punishment occurs simply because the person deserves it, with no necessary concern for whether others heed the warning or the guilty party learns from his errors. This third principle of retribution is enshrined in the Exodus laws.

Capital punishment is applied to 18 different sins against God, from murder to breaking the Sabbath. These also include kidnapping, cursing or assaulting parents, and occasions when a person’s uncontrolled animal causes death.

There is a very careful distinction in God’s law between intentional and accidental death. There are two sorts of killing: intentional murder and accidental manslaughter. One carries the death penalty, the other a less severe punishment. In every case we are told that there is no sacrifice in the Mosaic law for continued deliberate, intentional sin. Indeed, if you read Hebrews you will find the same thing being said in the New Testament.

It is worth noting that the denial of personal freedom through imprisonment is not an option under the law. Nowhere in the Bible is this form of punishment argued. There was, however, a clear system of restitution, a system of compensation for those who had been injured. This is the lex talionis, known today by the shorthand expression “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. If, for example, a pregnant woman is attacked and the baby she carries is born with a deformity resulting from the attack, the guilty party will be handicapped in the same way as the victim. In other cases there was a system of repayment in kind or cash when property was damaged or stolen.