Deuteronomy 5:17-18 &; Exodus 20:13-14: Murder and Adultery

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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           The Deuteronomy Decalogue is a re-working of the Decalogue given at Mt. Sinai.  Deuteronomy 5 is used as a reminder of what God’s commands are for His covenant people as they are about to take possession of the Promise Land.  In order to live in the land, they must live on God’s terms.  Both of these passages have the exact same wording.  It is in the form of a command: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery.”  These two commands are often just taken at face value, which they should be.  However, it often keeps us from exploring the possibilities of its full implications.

            The Deuteronomy Decalogue is a new covenant between God and the people, not their forefathers.  As such, the commandments are given to each new generation as a renewal of the covenant relationship between God and that community, which explains some of the additional commentary accompanying Deuteronomy’s Decalogue.  This Decalogue is also a call for the people to remember what disobedience and infidelity caused to happen to the wilderness generation.  Furthermore, the covenant of Moab is not mediated through Moses but given directly to the people by God.  The Spirit of the Law remains the same; however, it is re-constituted for each new generation.


Terrence Freheim suggests the meaning of kill in the Exodus passage: “Any act of violence against an individual out of hatred, anger, malice, deceit, or for personal gain, in whatever circumstances and by whatever method, that might result in death (even if killing was not the intention) (233).  However, it can also extend to accidental death.  Incidentally, the word “rasah” used as “murder” in the Hebrew, is never used to mean “war.”

To say the very least, this term remains vague and flexible.  Perhaps there are good reasons for the meaning to be so vague… to allow further consideration of what is appropriate or inappropriate.  Set laws tend to be circumnavigated or explained away by our reasoning.  However, such a vague description should give us pause to think about the far reaching implications of violence toward another person.  There are no exceptions made for nationality, gender, or age.  Life is valuable.

The first command that God gives to humanity is to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28, 9:1).  This was the original intention for creation.  The first major episode after humanity is kicked out of the Garden is the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain becomes jealous of Abel and kills him.  Later in Genesis, Lamech kills a young man.  The sinfulness of humanity seems to easily exhibit itself through acts of violence.  Furthermore, the Israelites find themselves under a Pharaoh who tries to destroy them.  He essentially orders genocide… which is thwarted by Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives.  Pharaoh and Egypt had tried to act against God’s original intention for creation.  The result is their destruction while Israel is delivered from bondage.

There is a practical aspect to the command to not commit murder.  Murder will only deteriorate into further violence, which makes the cities of refuge absolutely amazing.  In addition, the Israelites were to be a nation apart from the other nations.  They were not to be the type of people that did not respect life.  Having been delivered from Egypt, the Hebrews were to embody a new politic in the Promise Land.

Terrence Fretheim suggests, to kill someone is to take the place of God.  It is to take life into our own hands.  Life belongs to God, as well as, judgment.  “’Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.”  Taking a life should be a last resort and never out of a sense of retaliation or other such motive of the heart.  “This corresponds to Jesus’ own usage in Matt. 5:21-26; he extends the commandment beyond physical violence to include verbal abuse and other manifestations of anger.  Above all, he expresses the concern that reconciliation among those estranged from one another be given a high priority, even above religious practice” (234).

The motivations of the heart are definitely in sight within this passage.  We see this early in the Pentateuch with stories of Cain and Lamech who both murder due to revenge or hatred.  Pharaoh orders the murder of boys due to his insatiable appetite for power.  Interestingly enough, this command is not simply a negative command (“do not”).  Rather, it has a positive command as its reciprocal: “Do those things that bring life, not take it.”  We should also look at other forms of death that may occur besides the merely physical.  Would it be any better to not kill a man but crush his spirit?  Jesus’ interpretation does not seem to think so!

It seems that God values all of creation (we are part of that creation).  As such, it seems necessary that we value those very systems which God has put in place to allow us to live.  War not only immediately harms humans… it can extend to the earth and future generations.  Violence tends to be an endless cycle that degenerates into greater violence.  It does not solve the problem, as Cain found out, it multiplies the problem and only invites further retaliation in the future.  And, in the case of Pharaoh, violence tends to rebound on the heads of those who are violent.


            Again, we see in this particular command a warning against our motivations.  It does not explicitly mean sexual relations.  After all, God did command humanity to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Rather, this command is concerned with fidelity.  This is especially seen in the ways that adultery becomes synonymous with unfaithfulness to God, as seen in the book of Hosea.  Sexual relations are appropriate only in the context of a committed, loving relationship between a man and a woman.  The restrictions of the commandment is placed upon both male and females (although males are only considered guilty if the female is betrothed or married).  Within our contemporary context, the biblical mandate would be seen to apply to all men and women.

Once again, as Terrence Fretheim claims, the purpose of the command is to protect and promote God’s agenda found in creation.  It is the protection of the covenantal relationship between God, man, and woman.  Even though sexual acts are not the primary point, they cannot be extrapolated from this command.  Faithfulness and fidelity in a relationship (marriage) are inextricably linked to sexual purity.  We may once again say that this is not simply a negative command (“do not”).  Instead, there is no prohibition against fidelity in our relationships!

God created man a woman to be united in faithfulness.  Genesis 2:24 states, “  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”  God calls His people to live in faithfulness because that is His character and nature.  Not to mention, the fertility cults were going to be a major temptation as God’s people enter the Promise Land to take possession of it.

These cults practiced sex to procure a blessing from the gods.  This was a twisted use of God’s blessing and gift: marriage.  Numerous times in the Old Testament, God condemns the Israelites for being an adulterous people because they worship the Baals and Asherahs.  They become like Gomer, prostituting themselves to foreign gods, despite God’s faithfulness.  The marriage relationship is a reflection of the covenantal God and Creator.

Jesus, again, takes the commandment another step further by not relegating it simply to action.  In fact, Jesus states that “to look at a woman lustfully is to have committed adultery with her in your heart.”  The New Testament has a great sense that whatever we dwell upon with our minds, we tend to act out in our lives.  This explains why Jesus does not focus solely on the action of murder or adultery, but the mindset or motivation of the heart.  That does not mean that Jesus neglects the action or that it is simply a “spiritual” command.  Rather, we live out of what we dwell upon.  If we are murderous, it is possibly due to the fact that we are hateful.  If we are adulterous, it is derivative of a lustful mindset and heart.

Again, we must look at both of these commands as ensuring the protection of God’s creative purposes.  They are there to promote life and well-being of individuals and communities.  Not to mention, these commands are designed to protect the imago Dei in which we were created.  We are to live in fidelity and with regard to God.  In other words, these commands are there to shape a community that is a reflection of the very character and nature of God.  He is a God that is life-giving and faithful.  Thus, he calls us to be that type of community, re-presenting Him back into the world.

Works Cited

Fretheim, Terence E.. Exodus (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991.

Miller, Patrick D.. Deuteronomy (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: J. Knox Press, 1991.


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