While it is probably unlikely that we would think of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) as an example of such divine self-revelation, there is more about God in that section of text than might meet the eye. This point was recently made by Andrew Wilson in a Christianity Today article (September 20, 2021). In the course of that article Wilson points out that the commandments do not actually begin with a commandment, but with the identity and nature Of God:
“[a] feature of the Ten Commandments that … frequently goes unnoticed, is the fact that there are ten theological affirmations—ten attributes of God, if you like—woven through them. If the text tells us who we should be, it also tells us who God is. Revelation sits alongside regulation.”
Or, to put it another way, beneath the rules there is revelation. The Ten Commandments actually introduce God as much as they outline his law. Wilson is correct in stressing that the commandments begin not with the rules but with the revelation “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…” (Exodus 20:2). It is only after this self-revelatory opening that we are told “You shall have no other gods before me” (vs. 3).
Likewise, the second commandment (from a Protestant perspective) not to make or worship images of God (vs. 4) is followed by a rationale that is longer than the commandment itself: “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vss. 5-6). There is clearly as much, if not more stress on the nature of God than the command itself in this case.
In the same way, the third and fourth commandments reveal God’s justice and love, and the fifth commandment stresses that he is a God of giving. Although some might argue the next five commandments do not mention God directly, this is to be expected when we remember that the first half of the ten commandments center on our relationship with God and the second half in our relations with others. In any case, we agree with Wilson’s assessment that the final five commandments also show a great deal about God, even if indirectly.
Our understanding of the Ten Commandments as providing self-revelation of God himself, as well as his laws, is strengthened by other facts not mentioned by Wilson, but which substantiate the point he makes. Perhaps most importantly, it is known that the format in which the Ten Commandments was given was that of contracts or treaties in the ancient biblical world. Such relationships were sealed by covenants that were formalized in a particular way. The dominant party – usually the great king making the treaty – first identified himself, then often enumerated what he had done to show his good intentions toward the other king or society. This was followed by a list of “stipulations” specifying what was expected on the part of those with whom the covenant was being made. There might also be a list of blessings or curses on the other party for keeping the covenant or failing to keep it. The Ten Commandments clearly fit into this kind of treaty covenant:
Identification: “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2).
Benefits: “Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt …” (Exodus 20:2).
Stipulations: “You shall have no other god but me …” (Exodus 20:3).
Blessings and Curses: (see Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28; etc.).
When we understand this background to the commands given at Sinai, we realize why, in addition to being Ten Commandments, they were also intended as “Ten Commitments” – a unique set of guidelines to a relationship with the God whose nature was revealed in those commandments (as explained in our free Cornerstone Bible Course unit on the Ten Commandments published May 5, 2021, and available here).