Exodus 20:1–17: A Translation With Notes (Part 3)

Exodus 20:1–17: A Translation With Notes (Part 3)

Exodus 20:1–17: A Translation With Notes (Part 3) 1024 683 Andrew Hicks

For a note about the philosophy and thought behind the translation please see the comments in my previous post.

The 10 Words1Though these special words are often referred to as the “10 Commandments” they are neither numbered nor called commandments in the text itself. They are only ever called “words” (Hebrew haddᵉḇārim) in Exodus 20. They are called “10 words” elsewhere in scripture (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4) though modern translations sadly distort this by translating it as “10 commandments” and including a footnote explaining that the Hebrew does not actually say “commandments,” but “words.” I have decided to title this translation of Exodus 20:1-17 as “the 10 words” though the text here does not indicate 10 nor number them as such because though it does not explicitly state it here it is assumed that this is in fact the original scriptural location of those 10 words. Scholars tend to use the term “Decalogue” instead which just means “10 words.”

And God spoke all these words,2The organization of the 10 words is debated amongst various religious groups. Catholics/Lutherans, Protestants, and Jews all number the words slightly differently. This translation organizes the words according to the typical protestant understanding. For a breakdown of the various views see my blog post “The 12 Commandments.

“I am Yahweh3Most English translations use “LORD” (all capital letters) to represent the divine name. This is based on Jewish tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of the divine name. The Hebrew construction is not certain, but the best reconstruction of the pronunciation is Yahweh. This translation will follow that assumption. The benefits of doing so are many, but the most important immediate benefit for this translation is a better appreciation of the fact that this is God’s name and not a title. Hence phrases like “the LORD your God” make more sense and sound less redundant. your God who brought you from the land of Mizraim4In other words “Egypt.” The Hebrew here is transliterated to preserve some of the original flavor. Ancient Jews would not have known a term like “Egypt.”, from the house of slaves.5The structure here intends to show that this first part is a prologue of sorts to the ten words. This is in keeping with protestant tradition for the numbering of the words. Jewish tradition would take this sentence to be the actual first word. Catholic and Lutheran tradition would take this to be part of the first word in conjunction with the following two sentences. For more on the different numbering of the words see my blog post “The 12 Commandments.”

You shall not have any other gods6Strictly speaking, the early Israelites were not monotheists, but either henotheists or monolatrous. Henotheism is the belief in and worship of One god as one’s or one’s nation’s own without the denial that others can worship a different god or gods. Monolatry is the recognition of the existence of many gods, but the consistent and ardent worship of only one. This is indicated in the Hebrew where the particle [ꜥal] is here translated as “above.” That is, though the Israelites may believe in the existence of more gods than just Yahweh they are not to conceive of any of those other gods as being higher on the divine food chain nor having more power than Yahweh. One could argue then that despite the Catholic and Jewish numbering of the words that this is distinctly the first word in separation from the prohibition against bowing before idols because it is prohibiting certain conceptions of Yahweh. The next word then would be the prohibition against bowing before idols because it takes the logical next step building on the first commandment and prohibits certain actions of worship apart from Yahweh. above me.7Robert Alter mentions in a footnote for his translation of the Hebrew Bible that the literal meaning of this Hebrew phrase [ꜥal-pānāya] is more like “upon my face” than “beside/above me.” He notes that Abraham ibn Ezra observes that this same Hebrew idiom is used in Genesis 11:28 where it says “Haran dies in the lifetime of [ꜥal-pᵉnē] Terah his father.” Thus as Alter notes based on Abraham ibn Ezra’s observation the sense is that God’s lifetime is eternal and thus to have any other gods alongside of him is to infringe on his space and lifetime obtrusively. In other words, Yahweh is (“I will be who I will be” – Ex. 3:14) and therefore there is no place that any so-called god could exist that would not be in Yahweh’s presence and thus an insult to his person.

You shall not make for yourselves an idol; not in the form of anything that is in the heavens8The Hebrew [baššāmayim] is plural as it often is when describing the “heavens.” This is perhaps in part due to the so-called plural of complexity which posits that the heavens are by nature a complex reality and thus would be too constricted by being called simply “heaven” (singular). above, nor of anything in the land below, nor of anything in the waters below the land. You shall not bow down to them nor shall you work for them because I am Yahweh your God  – a jealous  god – counting a sin of those who hate me, of fathers against sons against thirds against fourths. And making9In usual translation this verb is translated as something like “show,” but the Hebrew root [ꜥśh] is the same as the word used above to describe “making” idols. There is a fundamental choice here then: we can make for ourselves idols or we can be the recipients of a profound loving which God makes upon us. The imagery is unmistakably sexual in overtone. profound love10The Hebrew [ḥeseḏ] is notorious for escaping a precise translation equivalent into English. Various proposals have been made (lovingkindness, steadfast love, loyal love, covenantal love, et al), but I chose to go for a more idiomatic translation in order to pair with the verb “make” so that the implication is still overtly sexual. In other words to keep the idea of “making love” intact with innuendo, but adding the adjective “profound” as a descriptor to indicate some of the extravagant flavor of this particular kind of love. to those who love me and tend11The only other occurrence of this verb in the Torah prior to this passage is in Genesis 2:15 where the adam is placed in the garden to till it and to tend it. Apparently, one tends to the commands of Yahweh as one would tend to a garden. This metaphor is fundamentally one of the natural and horticultural realm. This is connection is often lost in translations, but I have attempted to preserve somewhat of a connection to this Genesis passage by my translation. my commandments to the thousandth.

You shall not carry12The usual translation of this word is very unfortunate. Typically it is translated as “you shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain.” This is traced back primarily to the King James Version. The usual interpretation of this then is, “don’t say the phrase ‘oh my God!’ But this is misleading because the verb is not about speaking, but it is primarily about bearing or carrying. It is directly analogous to they way the High Priest of Israel would bear or carry (same Hebrew word) the names of the 12 tribes on his breast plate (see Exodus 28:29). The sense then is not one of merely or only using the name of God flippantly in speech, but to misuse the name of God for any purpose. Further, God’s name is NOT God. God’s name is Yahweh. Which means that the phrase “Oh my God” is not technically taking the name of God in vain! the name of Yahweh your God to emptiness13This is often translated as “in vain.” I have chosen, however, to do something different with my translation. The Hebrew is used in a variety of contexts that express the full spectrum of futility: deceit and lies (Deut. 5:20; Isaiah 59:4), false visions (Lam. 2:14), vanity (Mal. 3:14, Psalm 127:1), and idleness (Sir. 37:11). So it seemed to me best to convey this by means of a word that might more forcefully convey the intensity of it. because Yahweh will not acquit the one who carries his name into emptiness.

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