The Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
The Ten Commandments are great contributors to the theology of work. They describe the essential requirements of Israel’s covenant with God and are the core principles that govern the nation and the work of its people. Moses’ exposition begins with the most memorable statement of the book, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). As Jesus pointed out centuries later, this is the greatest commandment of the entire Bible. Then Jesus added a quotation from Leviticus 19:18, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-40). Although the “second” greatest commandment is not stated explicitly in Deuteronomy, we will see that the Ten Commandments do indeed point us to love of both God and neighbor.
The passage is virtually identical to Exodus 20:1-17—grammatical variations aside—except for some differences in the fourth (keeping the Sabbath), fifth (honoring mother and father), and tenth (coveting) commandments. Intriguingly, the variations in these commandments specifically address work. We will repeat the commentary from Exodus and Work here, with additions exploring the variations between the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts.
The first commandment reminds us that everything in the Torah flows from the love we have for God, which is a response to the love he has for us. This love was demonstrated by God’s deliverance of Israel “out of the house of slavery” in Egypt (Deut. 5:6). Nothing else in life should concern us more than our desire to love and be loved by God. If we do have some other concern stronger to us than our love for God, it is not so much that we are breaking God’s rules, but that we are not really in relationship with God. The other concern—be it money, power, security, recognition, sex, or anything else—has become our god. This false god will have its own commandments at odds with God’s, and we will inevitably violate the Torah as we comply with this god’s requirements. Observing the Ten Commandments is conceivable only for those who start by worshipping no other god than the Lord.
In the realm of work, this means that we are not to let work or its requirements and fruits displace God as our most important concern in life. “Never allow anyone or anything to threaten God’s central place in your life,” as David Gill puts it.
Because many people work primarily to make money, an inordinate desire for money is probably the most common work-related danger to the first commandment. Jesus warned of exactly this danger: “No one can serve two masters….You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). But almost anything related to work can become twisted in our desires to the point that it interferes with our love for God. How many careers come to a tragic end because the means to accomplish things for the love of God—such as political power, financial sustainability, commitment to the job, status among peers, or superior performance—become ends in themselves? When, for example, recognition on the job becomes more important than character on the job, is this not a sign that reputation is displacing the love of God as the ultimate concern?
The second commandment raises the issue of idolatry. Idols are gods of our own creation, gods that we feel will give us what we want. In ancient times, idolatry often took the form of worshiping physical objects. But the issue is really one of trust and devotion. On what do we ultimately pin our hope of well-being and success? Anything that is not capable of fulfilling our hope—that is, anything other than God—is an idol, whether or not it is a physical object. The story of a family forging an idol with the intent to manipulate God, and the disastrous personal, social and economic consequences that follow, are memorably told in Judges 17-21.
In the world of work, it is common to speak of money, fame, and power as potential idols, and rightly so. They are not idols, per se, and in fact may be necessary for us to accomplish our roles in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. Yet when we imagine that by achieving them our safety and prosperity will be secured, we have begun to fall into idolatry. Idolatry begins when we place our trust and hope in these things more than in God. The same may occur with virtually every other element of success, including preparation, hard work, creativity, risk, wealth and other resources, and even chance. Are we able to recognize when we begin to idolize these things? By God’s grace, we can overcome the temptation to worship them in God’s place.
The third commandment literally prohibits God’s people from making “wrongful use” of the name of God. This need not be restricted to the name “YHWH” (Deut. 5:11), but includes “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and so forth. But what is wrongful use? It includes, of course, disrespectful use in cursing, slandering, and blaspheming. But more significantly, it includes falsely attributing human designs to God. This prohibits us from claiming God’s authority for our own actions and decisions. Regrettably, some Christians seem to believe that following God at work consists primarily of speaking for God on the basis of their individual understanding, rather than working respectfully with others or taking responsibility for their actions. “It is God’s will that…,” or “God is punishing you for…,” are dangerous things to say, and almost never valid when spoken by an individual without the discernment of the community of faith (1 Thess. 5:20-21). In this light, perhaps the traditional Jewish reticence to utter even the English translation “God”—let alone the divine name itself—demonstrates a wisdom Christians often lack. If we were a little more careful about bandying the word God about, perhaps we would be more judicious in claiming to know God’s will, especially as it applies to other people.
The third commandment also reminds us that respecting human names is important to God. The Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3), while warning us that if you call another person “you fool,” then “you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22). Keeping this in mind, we shouldn’t make wrongful use of other people’s names or call them by disrespectful epithets. We use people’s names wrongfully when we use them to curse, humiliate, oppress, exclude, and defraud. We use people’s names well when we use them to encourage, thank, create solidarity, and welcome. Simply to learn and say someone’s name is a blessing, especially if he or she is often treated as nameless, invisible, or insignificant. Do you know the name of the person who empties your trash can, answers your customer service call, or drives your bus? People’s names are not the very name of the Lord, but they are the names of those made in his image.
The issue of the Sabbath is complex, not only in the books of Deuteronomy and Exodus and the Old Testament, but also in Christian theology and practice. The precise applicability of the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath, to Gentile believers has been a matter of debate since New Testament times (Rom. 14:5-6). Nonetheless, the general principle of the Sabbath applies directly to the matter of work.
The first part of the fourth commandment calls for ceasing labor one day in seven. On the one hand, this was an incomparable gift to the people of Israel. No other ancient people had the privilege of resting one day in seven. On the other hand, it required an extraordinary trust in God’s provision. Six days of work had to be enough to plant crops, gather the harvest, carry water, spin cloth, and draw sustenance from creation. While Israel rested one day every week, the encircling nations continued to forge swords, feather arrows, and train soldiers. Israel had to trust God not to let a day of rest lead to economic and military catastrophe.
Making Time Off Predictable and Required
Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"
We face the same issue of trust in God’s provision today. If we heed God’s commandment to observe God’s own cycle of work and rest, will we be able to compete in the modern economy? Does it take seven days of work to hold a job (or two or three jobs), clean the house, prepare the meals, mow the lawn, wash the car, pay the bills, finish the school work, and shop for the clothes, or can we trust God to provide for us even if we take a day off during the course of every week? Can we take time to worship God, to pray, and to gather with others for study and encouragement, and if we do, will it make us more or less productive overall? The fourth commandment does not explain how God will make it all work out for us. It simply tells us to rest one day every seven.
Christians, with some significant exceptions, have usually moved the day of rest to the Lord's Day (Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection), but the essence of the Sabbath is not choosing one particular day of the week over another (Rom. 14:5-6). The polarity that actually undergirds the Sabbath is work and rest. Both work and rest are included in the fourth commandment. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Deut. 5:13). The six days of work are as much a part of the commandment as the one day of rest. Although many Christians are in danger of allowing work to squeeze the time set aside for rest, others are in danger of the opposite—of shirking work and trying to live a life of leisure and dissipation. This is even worse than neglecting the Sabbath, for “whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). What we need are times and places for both work and rest, which together are good for us, our family, workers, and guests. This may or may not include twenty-four continuous hours of rest falling on Sunday (or Saturday). The proportions may change due to temporary necessities or the changing needs of the seasons of life.
If overwork is our main danger, then we need to find a way to honor the fourth commandment without instituting a false, new legalism pitting the spiritual (worship on Sunday) against the secular (work on Monday through Saturday). If avoiding work is our danger, we need to learn how to find joy and meaning in working as a service to God and our neighbors (Eph. 4:28).
Of the few variations between the two versions of the Ten Commandments, the majority occur as additions to the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy. First, the list of those you cannot force to work on the Sabbath is expanded to include “your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock” (Deut. 5:14a). Second, a reason is given why you cannot force slaves to work on the Sabbath: “So that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 5:14b-15a). Finally, a reminder is added that your ability to rest securely in the midst of military and economic competition from other nations is a gift from God, who protects Israel “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15b).
An important distinction between the two texts on this commandment is their grounding in creation and redemption, respectively. In Exodus, the Sabbath is rooted in the six days of creation followed by a day of rest (Gen. 1:3-2:3). Deuteronomy adds the element of God’s redemption. “The Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Bringing the two together, we see that the foundations for keeping the sabbath are both the way God made us and the way he redeems us.
Dinnertime Sabbath at Bandwidth.com
Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications company based in North Carolina, has a policy that everyone should leave work by 6 pm in order to spend dinner time with the people they love. If necessary, people may work from home after 8 pm or so, but workers are expected not to work or communicate with one another between 6 and 8. Co-founder Henry Kaestner says the biblical Sabbath is an inspiration for the policy, not because of its religious particularity, but because it gives everyone time for rest and relationship.
Kaestner doesn’t claim the policy would work everywhere, but says it has been embraced by workers at Bandwidth.com regardless of religious affiliation.
Henry Kaestner, panel discussion at Movement Day, New York City, October 10, 2013.
These additions highlight God’s concern for those who work under the authority of others. Not only must you rest, those who work for you—slaves, other Israelites, even animals—must be given rest. When you “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” it reminds you not to take your own rest as a special privilege, but to bring rest to others just as the Lord brought it to you. It does not matter what religion they follow or what they may choose to do with the time. They are workers, and God directs us to provide rest for those who work. We may be accustomed to thinking about keeping the Sabbath in order to rest ourselves, but how much thought do we give to resting those who work to serve us? Many people work at hours that interfere with their relationships, sleep rhythms, and social opportunities in order to make life more convenient for others.
The so-called “blue laws” that once protected people—or prevented people, depending on your point of view—from working at all hours have disappeared from most developed countries. Undoubtedly this has opened many new opportunities for workers and the people they serve. But is this always something we should participate in? When we shop late at night, golf on Sunday morning, or watch sporting events that continue past midnight, do we consider how it may affect those working at these times? Perhaps our actions help create a work opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise exist. On the other hand, perhaps we simply require someone to work at a miserable time who otherwise would have worked at a convenient hour.
The fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is well known for being closed on Sundays. It is often assumed this is because of founder Truett Cathy’s particular interpretation of the fourth commandment. But according to the company’s website, “His decision was as much practical as spiritual. He believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” Of course, reading the fourth commandment as a way to care for the people who work for you is a particular interpretation, just not a sectarian or legalistic one. The issue is complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But we do have choices as consumers and (in some cases) as employers that affect the hours and conditions of other people’s rest and work.
The fifth commandment says that we must respect the most basic authority among human beings, that of parents for children. To put it another way, parenting children is among the most important kinds of work there are in the world, and it both deserves and requires the greatest respect. There are many ways to honor—or dishonor—your father and mother. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees wanted to restrict this to speaking well of them. But Jesus pointed out that obeying this commandment requires working to provide for your parents (Mark 7:9-13). We honor people by working for their good.
For many people, good relationships with parents are one of the joys of life. Loving service to them is a delight and obeying this commandment is easy. But we are put to the test by this commandment when we find it burdensome to work on behalf of our parents. We may have been ill-treated or neglected by them. They may be controlling and meddlesome. Being around them may undermine our sense of self, our commitment to our spouses (including our responsibilities under the third commandment), even our relationship with God. Even if we have good relationships with our parents, there may come a time when caring for them is a major burden simply because of the time and work it takes. If aging or dementia begins to rob them of their memory, capabilities, and good nature, caring for them can become a deep sorrow.
Yet the fifth commandment comes with a promise: “that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 5:16). Through proper honor of parents, children learn proper respect in every other kind of relationship, including those in their future workplaces. Obeying this command enables us to live long and do well because developing proper relationships of respect and authority is essential to individual success and social order.
Because this is a command to work for the benefit of parents, it is inherently a workplace command. The place of work may be where we earn money to support them, or it may be in the place where we assist them in the tasks of daily life. Both are work. When we take a job because it allows us to live near them, or send money to them, or make use of the values and gifts they developed in us, or accomplish things they taught us are important, we are honoring them. When we limit our careers so that we can be present with them, clean and cook for them, bathe and embrace them, take them to the places they love, or diminish their fears, we are honoring them.
Parents therefore have the duty to be worthy of trust, respect, and obedience. Raising children is a form of work, and no workplace requires higher standards of trustworthiness, compassion, justice, and fairness. As the Apostle Paul put it, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Only by God’s grace could anyone hope to serve adequately as a parent, another indication that worship of God and obedience to his ways underlies all of Deuteronomy.
In our workplaces, we can help other people fulfill the fifth commandment, as well as obey it ourselves. We can remember that employees, customers, co-workers, bosses, suppliers, and others also have families, and then adjust our expectations to support them in honoring their families. When others share or complain about their struggles with parents, we can listen to them compassionately, support them practically (say, by offering to take a shift so they can be with their parents), or perhaps offer a godly perspective for them to consider. For example, if a career-focused colleague reveals a family crisis, we have a chance both to pray for the family and to suggest that the colleague think about rebalancing time between career and family.
Sadly, the sixth commandment has an all-too-practical application in the modern workplace, where 10 percent of all job-related fatalities (in the United States) are homicides. However, admonishing readers of this article, “Don’t murder anyone at work,” isn’t likely to change this statistic much.
But murder isn’t the only form of workplace violence, just the most extreme. A more practical course arises when we remember that Jesus said even anger is a violation of the sixth commandment (Matt. 5:21-22). As Paul noted, we may not be able to prevent the feeling of anger, but we can learn how to cope with our anger. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). The most significant implication of the sixth commandment for work then may be, “If you get angry at work, get help in anger management.” Many employers, churches, state and local governments, and nonprofit organizations offer classes and counseling in anger management. Availing yourself of these may be a highly effective way of obeying the sixth commandment.
Murder is the intentional killing of a person, but the case law that stems from the sixth commandment shows that we also have the duty to prevent unintended deaths. A particularly graphic case is when an ox (a work animal) gores a man or woman to death (Exod. 21:28-29). If the event was predictable, the ox’s owner is to be treated as a murderer. In other words, owners/managers are responsible for ensuring workplace safety within reason. This principle is well established in law in most countries, and workplace safety is the subject of significant government policing, industry self-regulation, and organizational policy and practice. Yet workplaces of all kinds continue to require or allow workers to work in needlessly unsafe conditions. Christians who have any role in setting the conditions of work, supervising workers, or modeling workplace practices are reminded by the sixth commandment that safe working conditions are among their highest responsibilities in the world of work.
The workplace is one of the most common settings for adultery, not necessarily because adultery occurs in the workplace itself, but because it arises from the conditions of work and relationships with co-workers. The first application to the workplace, then, is literal. Married people should not have sex with people other than their spouses at, in, or because of their work. Some professions such as prostitution and pornography almost always violate this commandment, as they almost always require sex between people married to others. But any kind of work that erodes the bonds of marriage infringes the seventh commandment. There are many ways this can occur. Work may encourage strong emotional bonds among co-workers without adequately supporting their commitments to their spouses, as can happen in hospitals, entrepreneurial ventures, academic institutions and churches, among other places. Working conditions may bring people into close physical contact for extended periods or fail to encourage reasonable limits to off-hour encounters, as could happen on extended field assignments. Work may subject people to sexual harassment and pressure to have sex with those holding power over them. Work may inflate people’s egos or expose them to adulation, as could occur with celebrities, star athletes, business titans, high-ranking government officials, and the super-rich. Work may demand so much time away—physically, mentally, or emotionally—that it frays the bond between spouses. All of these may pose dangers that Christians would do well to recognize and avoid, ameliorate, or guard against.
The eighth commandment is another that takes work as its primary subject. Stealing is a violation of proper work because it dispossesses the victim of the fruits of his or her labor. It is also a violation of the commandment to labor six days a week, since in most cases stealing is intended as a shortcut around honest labor, which shows again the interrelation of the Ten Commandments. So we may take it as the word of God that we are not to steal from those we work for, with, or among.
The very idea that there is such a thing as “stealing” implies the existence of property and property rights. There are only three ways to acquire things—by making them ourselves, by the voluntary exchange of goods and services with others (trade or gifts), or by confiscation. Stealing is the most blatant form of confiscation, when someone grabs what belongs to another and runs away. But confiscation also occurs on a larger, more sophisticated scale, as when a corporation defrauds customers or a government imposes ruinous taxation on its citizens. Such institutions lack respect for property rights. This is not the place to explore what constitutes fair versus monopolistic commerce or legitimate versus excessive taxation. But the eighth commandment tells us that no society can thrive when property rights are violated with impunity by individuals, criminal gangs, businesses, or governments.
In practical terms, this means that stealing occurs in many forms besides robbing someone. Any time we acquire something of value from its rightful owner without consent, we are engaging in theft. Misappropriating resources or funds for personal use is stealing. Using deception to make sales, gain market share, or raise prices is stealing because the deception means that whatever the buyer consents to is not the actual situation. (See the section on “Puffery/Exaggeration” in Truth and Deception at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this topic.) Likewise, profiting by taking advantage of people’s fears, vulnerabilities, powerlessness, or desperation is a form of stealing because their consent is not truly voluntary. Violating patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property laws is stealing because it deprives the owner of the ability to profit from their creation under the terms of civil law.
Respect for the property and rights of others means that we don’t take what is theirs or meddle in their affairs. But it does not mean that we look out only for ourselves. Deuteronomy 22:1 states, “You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner.” Saying “It’s none of my business” is no excuse for callousness.
Regrettably, many jobs seem to include an element of taking advantage of others’ ignorance or lack of alternatives to force them into transactions they otherwise wouldn’t agree to. Companies, governments, individuals, unions, and other players may use their power to coerce others into unfair wages, prices, contract terms, working conditions, hours, or other factors. Although we may not rob banks, steal from our employers, or shoplift, we may very likely be participating in unfair or unethical practices that deprive others of what rights should be theirs. It can be difficult, even career limiting, to resist engaging in these practices, but we are called to do so nonetheless.
The ninth commandment honors the right to one’s own reputation. It finds pointed application in legal proceedings where what people say depicts reality and determines the course of lives. Judicial decisions and other legal processes wield great power. Manipulating them undercuts the ethical fabric of society and thus constitutes a serious offense. Walter Brueggemann says this commandment recognizes “that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.”
Although stated in courtroom language, the ninth commandment also applies to a broad range of situations that touch practically every aspect of life. We should never say or do anything that misrepresents someone else. Brueggemann again provides insight:
Politicians seek to destroy one another in negative campaigning; gossip columnists feed off calumny; and in Christian living rooms, reputations are tarnished or destroyed over cups of coffee served in fine china with dessert. These de facto courtrooms are conducted without due process of law. Accusations are made; hearsay allowed; slander, perjury, and libelous comments uttered without objection. No evidence, no defense. As Christians, we must refuse to participate in or to tolerate any conversation in which a person is being defamed or accused without the person being there to defend himself. It is wrong to pass along hearsay in any form, even as prayer requests or pastoral concerns. More than merely not participating, it is up to Christians to stop rumors and those who spread them in their tracks.
This further suggests that workplace gossip is a serious offense. Some of it pertains to personal, off-site matters, which is evil enough. But what about cases when an employee tarnishes the reputation of a co-worker? Can truth ever truly be spoken when the person being talked about is not there to speak for him or herself? And what about assessments of performance? What safeguards ought to be in place to ensure that reports are fair and accurate? On a large scale, the business of marketing and advertisement operates in the public space among organizations and individuals. In the interest of presenting one’s own products and services in the best possible light, to what extent may one point out the flaws and weaknesses of the competition without incorporating their perspective? Is it possible that the rights of “your neighbor” could include the rights of other companies? The scope of our global economy suggests this command may have wide application indeed.
The commandment specifically prohibits speaking falsely about another person, but it brings up the question of whether we must tell the truth in every kind of situation. Is issuing false or misleading financial statements a violation of the ninth commandment? How about exaggerated advertising claims, even if they do not falsely disparage competitors? What about assurances from management that mislead employees about impending layoffs? In a world where perception often counts for reality, the rhetoric of persuasion may care little for truth. But the divine origin of the ninth commandment reminds us that God cannot be fooled. At the same time, we recognize that deception is sometimes practiced, accepted, and even approved in the Scriptures. A complete theology of truth and deception draws on texts including, but not limited to, the ninth commandment. (See Truth & Deception at www.theologyofwork.org for a much fuller discussion of this topic, including whether the prohibition of “false witness against your neighbor” includes all forms of lying and deception.)
The tenth commandment prohibits coveting “anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Deut. 5:21). It is not wrong to notice the things that belong to our neighbors, nor even to desire to obtain such things for ourselves legitimately. Coveting happens when someone sees the prosperity, achievements, or talents of another, and then resents it, or wants to take it, or wants to punish the successful person. It is the harm to another person, “your neighbor”—not the desire to have something—that is prohibited.
We can either take inspiration from the success of others or we can covet. The first attitude provokes hard work and prudence. The second attitude causes laziness, generates excuses for failure, and provokes acts of confiscation. We will never succeed if we convince ourselves that life is a zero-sum game and that we are somehow harmed when other people do well. We will never do great things if, instead of working hard, we fantasize that other people’s achievements are our own. Here again, the ultimate grounding of this commandment is the command to worship God alone. If God is the focus of our worship, desire for him displaces all unholy, covetous desire for anything else, including that which belongs to our neighbors. As the Apostle Paul put it, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil. 4:11).
Deuteronomy adds the words “or field” to Exodus’s list of your neighbor's things you are not to covet. As in the other additions to the Ten Commandments’ in Deuteronomy, this one draws attention to the workplace. Fields are workplaces, and to covet a field is to covet the productive resources another person has.
Envy and acquisitiveness are indeed especially dangerous at work where status, pay, and power are routine factors in our relationships with people we spend a lot of time with. We may have many good reasons to desire achievement, advancement, or reward at work. But envy isn’t one of them. Nor is working obsessively out of envy for the social standing it may enable.
In particular, we face temptation at work to falsely inflate our accomplishments at the expense of others. The antidote is simple, although hard to do at times. Make it a consistent practice to recognize the accomplishments of others and give them all the credit they deserve. If we can learn to rejoice in—or at least acknowledge—others’ successes, we cut off the lifeblood of envy and covetousness at work. Even better, if we can learn how to work so that our success goes hand in hand with others’ success, covetousness is replaced by collaboration and envy by unity.
Leith Anderson, former pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, says, “As the senior pastor, it’s as if I have an unlimited supply of coins in my pocket. Whenever I give credit to a staff member for a good idea, praise a volunteer’s work, or thank someone, it’s like I’m slipping a coin from my pocket into theirs. That’s my job as the leader, to slip coins from my pocket to others’ pockets, to build up the appreciation other people have for them.”