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Blog / The Ten Commandments Past and Present: An Interview with David L. Baker

The Ten Commandments Past and Present: An Interview with David L. Baker

David L. BakerThe Ten Commandments, or Decalogue (see below), have long been a pillar of Western law and culture. In more recent times they’ve become a point of controversy in the public square. What place do these “Ten Words” that God delivered at Sinai millennia ago have today?

Bible Gateway interviewed David L. Baker about his book, The Decalogue: Living as the People of God (IVP Academic, 2017).

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Explain what the Ten Commandments are.

David L. Baker: The Ten Commandments are basic principles for life, given by God to his people after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. They are recorded twice in the Old Testament, in Exodus 20:1-21 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22.

Why do you refer to the Ten Commandments as the Decalogue?

David L. Baker: The term ‘commandment’ sounds a bit legalistic. In fact, the Hebrew term is quite broad and a more precise translation would be ‘word’ or ‘thing.’ Because of this, scholars generally prefer the term Decalogue, which means ‘Ten Words’ or ‘Ten Things.’

What is the date of origin of the Decalogue?

David L. Baker: There are many different opinions, but I believe it comes from the early days of Israel’s life as a nation. This would be either the 15th or 13th century BC, depending on the date of the exodus from Egypt (a matter still debated by scholars).

Is there significance to the number “10” and why are there different ways of numbering them?

David L. Baker: No reason is given for the number “10”, and it may be simply a practical number for memorization since it fits the number of fingers on our hands. However, although we’re told elsewhere that there are ten commandments (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4), the text of the Decalogue itself is not divided into numbered sections. Because of this, several different ways of numbering have developed over the centuries.

The Ten Commandments

Exodus 20:1-17 (VOICE)

I. I am the Eternal your God. I led you out of Egypt and liberated you from lives of slavery and oppression. You are not to serve any other gods before Me.

II. You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. In fact, you are not to make an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the waters beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God. As for those who are not loyal to Me, their children will endure the consequences of their sins for three or four generations. But for those who love Me and keep My directives, their children will experience My loyal love for a thousand generations.

III. You are not to use My name for your own idle purposes, for the Eternal will punish anyone who treats His name as anything less than sacred.

IV. You and your family are to remember the Sabbath Day; set it apart, and keep it holy. You have six days to do all your work, but the seventh day is to be different; it is the Sabbath of the Eternal your God. Keep it holy by not doing any work—not you, your sons, your daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, or any outsiders living among you. For the Eternal made the heavens above, the earth below, the seas, and all the creatures in them in six days. Then, on the seventh day, He rested. That is why He blessed the Sabbath Day and made it sacred.

V. You are to honor your father and mother. If you do, you and your children will live long and well in the land the Eternal your God has promised to give you.

VI. You are not to murder.

VII. You are not to commit adultery.

VIII. You are not to take what is not yours.

IX. You are not to give false testimony against your neighbor.

X. You are not to covet what your neighbor has or set your heart on getting his house, his wife, his male or female servants, his ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

Also read in parallel the Ten Commandments as translated in the KJV, NIV, ESV, NLT, and CEB versions of the Bible on Bible Gateway.

What does it mean to divide the commandments into two groups?

David L. Baker: These principles for life concern two fundamental matters: our relationship with God and relationships with other human beings. Accordingly, there are two groups of commandments. The first four are about relating to God, while the last five are about relating to other people. I argue that the fifth (honoring parents) is also indirectly concerned with relating to God, since parents have a unique role as God’s representatives in giving us life.

Is the order of the commandments significant?

David L. Baker: Yes; in both groups the most important commandments come first. For example, the second group begins with the most serious offense against another human being (homicide), then moves on to progressively less serious offences (adultery, theft, perjury, coveting).

Why did the Decalogue come into being?

David L. Baker: The liberated slaves who left Egypt needed guidelines for their new life as a free nation. The Decalogue came into being to provide these guidelines, given to them by God as their ultimate ruler and Moses as their human leader. It was like a constitution for the people of God, beginning with the basis for Israel’s special relationship with God and listing her primary obligations in maintaining that relationship.

What are the three ways in which you explore and unpack each commandment in your book?

David L. Baker: First, I place each commandment in the context of other known laws at that point in history, especially the laws of the ancient Near East. Then I explore the meaning of the commandment in the context of the Old Testament, to see how it would have been understood and implemented by the people of God. Finally, I reflect on the relevance of the commandment today, for people who live in a very different context from those who first received these laws.

What’s the practical application today of keeping the Sabbath day holy?

David L. Baker: The word ‘holy’ is not used much today, but in everyday language it means ‘special’ or ‘set apart.’ In the Bible, this means two things. First, the Sabbath is a day for rest, while the other six days are for working (Gen. 2:2-3; Exod. 20:9-11; 31:15). Second, the Sabbath is set apart for worship, with a special focus on God (Exod. 31:13; 35:2; Lev. 23:3).

In practical terms, this means doing our work and other regular activities for six days, then making the seventh day special. Most Christians can take Sunday as their Sabbath, probably going to church and spending time with family and friends. Those who need to work on Sundays can take an alternative day of rest and use their initiative to focus on God in a special way. Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists will of course celebrate Sabbath on Saturday.

What did it mean to honor parents in ancient times and what does it mean today?

David L. Baker: Honoring parents in the ancient world was concerned with their dignity and support. Younger people were expected to respect the wisdom and experience of older people, especially their own parents, and to give practical care and support when needed.

In many traditional societies, the same principles still apply today and those who honor the old may expect to enjoy such honor themselves in due course. In contrast, modern Western society tends to glorify youth and dread old age. The fifth commandment may be a helpful corrective for younger people who are enthusiastic for innovation, not to act as though it’s easy to do better than one’s forebears or assume that new ideas are necessarily an improvement on old ones.

What did Jesus say about Old Testament law?

David L. Baker: One of Jesus’ most important statements concerns Old Testament law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matt. 5:17). He also summed up the law in two great commandments (Matt. 22:35-40): loving God (equals commandments 1–5) and loving our neighbor (equals commandments 6–10). Clearly Jesus valued Old Testament law highly and the same should be true for all who follow his teaching today.

What do you mean “it’s crucial to remember the distinction between salvation by obedience to the law and obedience to the law as a response to salvation”?

David L. Baker: Many people mistakenly think the Old Testament is a legalistic book that teaches we can be saved by obeying the law, while the New Testament teaches salvation by grace. This is a complete misunderstanding. In fact, the Old Testament teaches that people are saved by the grace of God. For example, the people of Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery because God had compassion on them (Exod. 1–19) and it was only afterwards that they were given the law as principles for their new life (Exod. 20–40). So, the laws are guidelines for living as the people of God, not requirements for becoming the people of God.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

David L. Baker: It’s a wonderful resource for reading the Bible and comparing different translations, freely available to all. I imagine it’s particularly valuable in places where printed Bibles are difficult or dangerous to obtain.

Bio: David L. Baker (PhD, University of Sheffield) is a lecturer in biblical studies at All Nations Christian College, Hertfordshire, England. He previously taught in Indonesia for over 20 years, with a special interest in the Old Testament. During that time, he was also involved in theological publishing, Bible translation, and church ministry. More recently he’s been deputy warden at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and Old Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College in Perth, Australia.

He’s the author of The Decalogue: Living as the People of God, Two Testaments, One Bible, and Tight Fists or Open Hands?: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law. He has also published articles in a variety of academic journals and several textbooks in Indonesian. His research interests include Deuteronomy, the Decalogue, the relationship between the Testaments, and wealth and poverty in the Old Testament.

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Filed under Books, Interviews, Old Testament