New American Bible (Revised Edition)
The Ten Commandments.[a] 1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 (A)I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,(B) out of the house of slavery. 3 You shall not have other gods beside me.[b] 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol(C) or a likeness of anything[c] in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; 5 you shall not bow down before them or serve them.(D) For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation[d]; 6 but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.Read full chapter
The precise numbering and division of these precepts into “ten commandments” is somewhat uncertain. Traditionally among Catholics and Lutherans vv. 1–6 are considered as only one commandment, and v. 17 as two. The Anglican, Greek Orthodox, and Reformed churches count vv. 1–6 as two, and v. 17 as one. Cf. Dt 5:6–21. The traditional designation as “ten” is not found here but in 34:28 (and also Dt 4:13 and 10:4), where these precepts are alluded to literally as “the ten words.” That they were originally written on two tablets appears in Ex 32:15–16; 34:28–29; Dt 4:13; 10:2–4.
The present form of the commands is a product of a long development, as is clear from the fact that the individual precepts vary considerably in length and from the slightly different formulation of Dt 5:6–21 (see especially vv. 12–15 and 21). Indeed they represent a mature formulation of a traditional morality. Why this specific selection of commands should be set apart is not entirely clear. None of them is unique in the Old Testament and all of the laws which follow are also from God and equally binding on the Israelites. Even so, this collection represents a privileged expression of God’s moral demands on Israel and is here set apart from the others as a direct, unmediated communication of God to the Israelites and the basis of the covenant being concluded on Sinai.
Beside me: this commandment is traditionally understood as an outright denial of the existence of other gods except the God of Israel; however, in the context of the more general prohibitions in vv. 4–5, v. 3 is, more precisely, God’s demand for Israel’s exclusive worship and allegiance.
The Hebrew phrase underlying the translation “beside me” is, nonetheless, problematic and has been variously translated, e.g., “except me,” “in addition to me,” “in preference to me,” “in defiance of me,” and “in front of me” or “before my face.” The latter translation, with its concrete, spatial nuances, has suggested to some that the prohibition once sought to exclude from the Lord’s sanctuary the cult images or idols of other gods, such as the asherah, or stylized sacred tree of life, associated with the Canaanite goddess Asherah (34:13). Over the course of time, as vv. 4–5 suggest, the original scope of v. 3 was expanded.
- 20:4 Or a likeness of anything: compare this formulation to that found in Dt 5:8, which understands this phrase and the following phrases as specifications of the prohibited idol (Hebrew pesel), which usually refers to an image that is carved or hewn rather than cast.
- 20:5 Jealous: demanding exclusive allegiance. Inflicting punishment…the third and fourth generation: the intended emphasis is on God’s mercy by the contrast between punishment and mercy (“to the thousandth generation”—v. 6). Other Old Testament texts repudiate the idea of punishment devolving on later generations (cf. Dt 24:16; Jer 31:29–30; Ez 18:2–4). Yet it is known that later generations may suffer the punishing effects of sins of earlier generations, but not the guilt.