A Guide to Interpreting Lists

The Ten Commandments


The most popular list in all of the Bible is undoubtedly The Ten Commandments. It is the original Top Ten list. So popular is this list that one might have difficulty recalling the list without picturing Charlton Heston in his theatrical role as Moses. The issue before us is one of interpreting this list.

This is the second in a series of articles on A Guide to Interpreting Bible Lists (click on the link to read the first article). In the first article, I suggested that as a general principle the reader should attempt to interpret the list by placing the priority on the first item on the list. Let’s see if that helps us when reading The Ten Commandments. These commandments are recorded for us in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Here is the list taken from the ESV in Exodus 20.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image…
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…
  5. Honor your father and your mother…
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. Your shall not covet…

As you look at the list, you will discover that it is possible to interpret this list using the bunch method mentioned in the first article. The first four commandments all concern our relationship to God. The remaining six concern our relationship with our neighbor or fellow man. Some may even bunch the ten into two groups of five – the first half relate to God and parents as the one(s) who have authority over us. The second half relates to those who are our peers. Both of these interpretive methods shed insight as to how we relate with both God and man.

Now let’s turn to using the priority method of interpreting the list. If the Lord through Moses intended this list to begin with the first commandment being one of priority, then we would learn the importance of the first one. Plus we would learn better how to understand or keep numbers two through ten.

This means that the most important part of The Ten Commandments is to have no other gods before the Lord. Or we might say that the first commandment is summed up later in Deuteronomy.

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

–Deuteronomy 6:5

When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he likewise responded,

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

–Matthew 22:37-39

So the first commandment to have no other gods before the Lord or to love the Lord with our entire being is the commandment of priority. All of the others hinge upon that first one.

The first impacts the second in that if we have no other gods, we will not carve any images. When Israel built the golden calf in the wilderness, they were usurping the place of the true God by their actions.

The first impacts the third and fourth so that loving the Lord will lead us to having a proper view of his name and his day.

The first shapes the fifth by linking the way we treat our parents to how we worship the Lord.

Finally, the first commandment will lead us to treat our neighbors with love. We will refrain from murder, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting when we truly honor the Lord. That is the connection Jesus made when he listed loving our neighbor as the second greatest commandment.

Far too often, we focus on trying to modify our behavior to prevent us from violating commandments six through ten. But focusing on the first one as priority, the others will take care of themselves. For example, when a man or woman commits adultery, they have established their own lusts and physical bodies above an honor for the Lord. That hedonism is a replacement for genuine worship of the one God.

Likewise coveting occurs when our worship of God is deficient. That is worshiping mammon rather than the Lord.

The end result of this interpretive method is that we are left with a call to exalt the Lord as the one to whom our affections are directed. It frees us from simply trying to correct deficient behavior.

I hope that makes sense. Let me know if you have questions about this. We’ll continue this study at a later date by looking at some other lists in the Bible.