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The Audience of the Ten Commandments

When we think of who is included in the Decalogue, I think it’s important to think of the Decalogue, in many respects, as a gentleman’s agreement.  It’s addressed to men; the Hebrew form in which it’s written, is the masculine singular form.  It presumes a male who is a head of a household.  So it’s referring to protecting his person, his property, his wife; so that it’s very specifically written to men and men who have slaves, who own animals, who have extended property; so it’s clearly a privileged Israelite male.  So it’s a protection and a system of helping men of a certain economic level relate to one another in relative peace. 

They also are of a certain age; they would be old enough to have their own household because it’s thought that the law to honor your mother and father refers to older parents and not, it’s not addressed to a difficult teenager!  It’s addressed to adults about maintaining and supporting their own parents. 

So I think we need to be aware of the fact that the Ten Commandments is, in fact, addressed to a particular audience; and we might see principles that would serve the purposes of a society more generally; but it does refer to this one particular group, these men, Israelite men, who have households. 

So those who are excluded tend to be those who aren’t Israelite, who aren’t privileged enough to have a household and who aren’t male.  I think though, that looking at them now, it’s more accurate to say what is excluded, rather than the groups that are excluded because when I look at them, I am sorry that they don’t include any reference to social justice matters, about the concern for the poor, for those who are somehow disadvantaged in a societal system.  So that I think on the whole, we can say that they are addressed to a particular group and, by definition, that it means that some groups are excluded; and it does not refer in any way to the social justice tradition that we see in the prophets.  And that tradition is something that we very much need to take into account in today’s context.

  • Cheryl B. Anderson

    Cheryl B. Anderson is professor of the Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Earlier in her career, she was a practicing attorney with the federal government in Washington, D.C. Anderson is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church (Baltimore-Washington Conference). She is the author of Women, Ideology, and Violence (T&T Clark, 2004) and Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies (Oxford University Press, 2009). Her current research interests involve contextual and liberationist readings of Scripture in the age of HIV and AIDS.