Intellectual Heritage 51, Summer 2002


The Purpose of the Ten Commandments

Rolanda Findlay

In the biblical book of Exodus, God made an important and significant oath to the Israelites. After freeing the Israelites from the slavery and captivity of the Egyptians, God promised the Israelites a land of their own, known as the "land of milk and honey". God also promised that they would be known as His people, becoming a "priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 6:6-8). However, God never explicitly stated how and when the Israelites were going to receive all that he had promised them. He only told them they must obey him fully and keep his commandments (Exodus 19:5,6). Because using miracle after miracle, had rescued the Israelites from Egyptís authority, and sustained them in the wilderness, the Israelites expected to benefit from another marvelous phenomenon. The Israelites expected God to miraculously and immediately give them the blessings He promised. But as the text shows, God had a completely different idea about how the Israelites would receive his promises. It was through hard work, discipline, sacrifice, faith, confidence, and unity that the Israelites were going to be able to gain the Promised Land and become the nation God wanted them to become. To instill these essential assets into the Israelitesí mindset and way of life, God gave them the Ten Commandments to obey.

The Israelites had many obstacles to overcome before God could give them their blessings. Ownership of their own land would be a complete lifestyle change for the Israelites. They simply were not prepared to handle what God wanted to give them. To picture and understand the Israelites at this time, remember that they were newly freed slaves (Exodus 12:40). Since the Israelites had been in captivity as a people, for over 400 years, they all had a "slaveís mentality". They were subservient and lacked self-confidence and courage. The Israelites were a downtrodden people, accustomed to being beaten down and belittled by the Egyptians. The Israelites had no money or resources. The only possessions they had were the clothes on their backs. The Israelites did not even know how to get their own food because in Egypt their food was always provided to them. God had to send them manna and quail from the heavens, while they were in the wilderness, so they would not starve (Exodus 16). The Israelites were disorganized and had little faith in themselves and one another. They were scared and lost, because this was the first time they were on their own. In addition, the Israelites were tired and worn, dirty and hungry. It was a pitiful scene! They were completely dependent on the Lord to create in them into a new nation.

In His infinite wisdom, God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments and other ritual laws to obey, to help the Israelites form their new nation and a good society. God told the Israelites that if they followed his commandments he would bless them with the "land of milk and honey", meaning a land that gave them everything they needed (milk), and everything they wanted (honey). God also promised to make them a "holy nation", meaning he would unite them and make them honorable and sanctified people (Exodus 19:5,6). God knew that the Israelites, in their fragile state, would have to be transformed as a people, into a united society, to handle these blessings. So God gave them fundamental laws of moral and physical conduct. He gave them general and particular laws. The general laws are the Ten Commandments.


The Ten Commandments can be broken down into three groups. The first group of laws in the Ten Commandments deals directly with God. There are three commandments in this first group--Thou shall have no other gods before the Lord, Thou shall have no idols, and Thou shall not swear against the name of the Lord (Exodus 20). These three laws serve many purposes. First, they developed the relationship between the Israelites and God. The laws instilled a high level of respect and honor for God into the Israelites life, thus, giving the Israelites a holy (separately reserved for God) life. It was a thoroughly deserved reverence, considering the Lord delivered them out of their enemyís hands. A current example of this high regard, is when the presiding judge walks into the courtroom, everyone in the courtroom stands to show respect and allegiance to the judge, for the great duty that he/she is performing.

Secondly, by making these laws, God is commanding the Israelites to trust and never forget His power. God has accepted them as His children, and now is establishing Himself as their leader. The first group of commandments unites the Israelites, by keeping the memory that God is their leader and savior, fresh in their memory. Additionally, by incorporating Himself into the law, God is ensuring that the Israelites will pass on the knowledge of Him, and their way of life onto their children. The Israeliteís actions of honoring God will live as an example to other nations, and future generations.

Thirdly, God is keeping the Israelites out of troubleís way by telling them to only follow Him. No man can faithfully serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). The Lord is establishing himself as the Israelitesí one, truthful master, because He alone knows what is in their best interests. The Israelites are plainly instructed to keep God first and never put anything before Him, and never to use his name in vain, for many beneficial reasons. It builds unity within the community, and provides discipline. This first group of laws stands as a symbolic reminder of the Lordís authority and greatness.


The second group of laws in the Ten Commandments deals with collective worship and family values. There are two commandments--Thou shall keep the Sabbath holy, and Honor thy father and mother (Exodus 20). The first law means to keep the Sabbath day, traditionally known as Sunday, reserved for communal worship with the Lord. This commandment clearly was to build community spirit and responsibility. If everyone worshiped together and shared such a personal experience, it was bound to make them grow closer, not only to the Lord, but also to one another. The Sabbath stood as a weekly reminder for the Israelites of Godís greatness. It was also a tradition to be shared with and passed down to their children so that they also would not forget the infinite power of the Lord. The Sabbath also provided a public assembly, which also stood as an example to other nations of the dedication the Israelites had to their Lord.

The second law deals directly with family structure. "Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12). This scripture is quite explicit. It is an ideal that cooperates with the other Ten Commandments. The family component is added into the Ten Commandments because each individual core family has to be strong to make a strong community. The Lord tells the Israelites to obey their parents and elders, because the elders have a storehouse of information and experience, and usually act in wisdom as opposed to whim. This commandment is not just reserved for children. Even as adults, it is wise to listen to the advice of elders, because the elders should possess insight and understanding. It is also an analogy to the relationship the Israelites are supposed to have with the Lord. The Lord is to be the leader of the Israelites life. Learning obedience at an early age towards their parents and elders, lays the foundation of obedience to the Lord.


The third group of laws in the Ten Commandments deals with human morality. They are rules that are essential in any community. Thou shall not murder, Thou shall not commit adultery, Thou shall not steal, Thou shall not bear false witness (lie), and Thou shall not covet thy neighbor (Exodus 20). These five separate laws, and their purposes, are self-explanatory. A society cannot survive if the occupants of said society do not agree to live by these specific regulations. They are laws that protect, and keep the order and peace, while still building a sense of community. In these five commandments, it was easy for the Israelites to see the immediate benefits of their obedience. As for the commandments spoken of earlier in the paper (the first five), their usefulness was not as instantaneously apparent or explicit. There was no question that this third group of commandments was a necessity.


The Ten Commandments can be, and still are, used by people to form a strong nation. The evidence can be seen in United States history. The United States is a strong nation founded on the principles of the Ten Commandments. Other nations may change some of the information but the basic concepts remain the same. The Ten Commandments provided the framework that formed the Israelites into a separate (holy) people, forming unity in the fact that everyone must obey those laws. The Ten Commandments were not demands, established by a tyrant, to further oppress the Israelites, as the Egyptians had done. The laws provide accountability and discipline for the Israelites, making them stronger and furthering unity in their community. The purpose of the Ten Commandments was not to overload an already weak and oppressed people with regulations and decrees. The purpose of the Ten Commandments was, and still is, to create a self-sufficient, strong, intelligent, unified people, an example of Godís power to the rest of the world.


After reading both Exodus and this mini-lecture:

1.  Compare and contrast the society of the Israelites with those of our prior readings, such as the Iliad, The Funeral Speech, Euthyphro, and Sappho?

2.  When comparing American society with that of the Israelites, what are some of the rituals, ceremonies, traditions (ex. holidays) that Americans practice? What is their purpose in our society? **Feel free to also make this comparison with other cultures with which you are familiar**

Note: Rolanda Findlay is a McNair Fellow in the Intellectual Heritage Program for the summer of 2002.