Today's reading is Exodus 19-21 (read it in the KJV or NIV)
Today's passage covers the Israelites' agreement to be God's chosen people; God's descent onto Mount Sinai; the Ten Commandments; and laws governing servants, murder, theft, and injuries.
Today's passage contains one of the best-known extended portions of Biblical text, namely the ten commandments. (Ex. 20:2-17) The law codes of many Christian nations stem from these commandments. And, though most Christian nations are no longer theocracies, there are still advocates in the United States who wish to put these commandments on public buildings. It thus behoves us to take a few moments to examine the text of these commandments and examine their implications.
The first thing that is apparent from the text is that some of the commandments, especially those in the first five, are much longer than a single sentence. The later commandments are mostly quite short: "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13); "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Ex. 20:14); "Thou shalt not steal" (Ex. 20:15); "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Ex. 20:16) All of these commandments are straightforward and easily understood. Most adults understand the meaning of "steal," "kill," etc. They require little supplemental explanation. Even the last commandment, though slightly longer, is fairly straightforward: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, though shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." (Ex. 20:17) This last commandment simply has the feel of closing any loopholes a clever Israelite might try to come up with to circumvent the law. "Not coveting" is, again, fairly straightforward.
The first commandments, however, are less intuitive, and thus longer and more detailed. Let us take them in order.
The first commandment, depending on the religious tradition you subscribe to, is alternately Ex. 20 verse 2 (Jewish), verses 2-3 (Protestant), or verses 2-6 (Catholic and Lutheran). For the sake of argument, let us use the Protestant divisions. According to the KJV, the first commandment reads, "(2) I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (3) Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
This passage reminds us that the Israelites, though themselves monotheistic, were surrounded by polytheistic cultures. The Egyptians and most of the tribes of the area had many gods, collected into pantheons. So God first needs to establish which God he is: a god who is recognized by deeds, not by name. The Israelites at this point are only three months out of Egypt (Ex. 19:1), so they certainly remember the miracles they witnessed in the recent past. Moreover, once God has established who he is, he emphasizes that he is the chief god. It is interesting to read in verse three, "no other gods before me." God does not end the sentence with "no other gods," but goes on with the final two words. It is conceivable that the Israelites could worship other gods, so long as they remembered that God is the primary one. However, in later years, this commandment has been interpreted to mean that the Israelites must be monotheistic, with no other gods at all. This is partly explained by the second commandment.
The second commandment, according to Protestantism, is Ex. 20:4-6: "(4) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (5) Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; (6) And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." (KJV)
Let us leave aside the obvious conflict between punishing children for their father's sins while giving mercy to people who obey the commandments (what if the father hated God but the children loved him?). This commandment furthers the first, explaining the ways in which the Israelites must avoid worshipping other gods: no idol-worship for this people! Instead, they must not do as other, idol-worshiping people. To this day, Jews do not have any images in their synagogues.
The third commandment is shorter, expressed in Ex. 20:7: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." Straightforward, isn't it? Don't use the name of God, whatever it is, lightly. If you're going to worship a single deity as your ultimate God, the least you could do is show him the proper respect. This commandment led to many of the Shakespearean insults, however, such as "'swounds" (God's wounds, forrunner of our modern "zounds!"), "'sblood" (God's blood), "'sliver" (God's liver), and so on. And, of course, many people today routinely take the name of God in vain, at least in western, modernized countries.
The fourth commandment is again quite long, Ex. 20:8-11: "(8) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. (9) Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: (10) But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: (11) For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."
I suspect that at the time God gave these commandments to the Hebrews, the idea of a day of rest was foreign to the Middle Eastern world. Who ever heard of a day when not only the head of the household, but also the servants rested? What manner of foolishness was this? Isn't the purpose of servants to have someone to work while you, their owner, rested? No, not according to the fourth commandment. This commandment is so long because it deliberately must explain to the Hebrews that no one in the household may work, not even the servants. It also gives a justification for itself: if God could create the world in six days and rest on the seventh, surely you can as well.
Finally, the fifth commandment, in Ex. 20:12, is: "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee." Again, straightforward and short. There are further instructions in later chapters for how to treat parents; for example, Ex. 21:15 says that anyone who strikes their parent must be executed, and Ex. 21:17 explains that anyone who even curses their parents must be likewise executed. These laws might seem a little overboard. However, in this part of the ten commandments, the intention behind the law is easily understood.
Having examined all these commandments, there are certain people today who claim that we, as a modern society, could maintain a well-ordered community with only the latter five commandments (Ex. 20:13-17) which deal with man-to-man relationships, and ignore the first five (Ex. 20:2-12), which mostly deal with the relationship between man and God. Given that we are no longer living in a theocracy but a secular, multinational community, this argument makes a lot of sense. Personally, I would have no problem with the latter five commandments being placed on public buildings: they are admirable guidelines for human interactions. The first five, on the other hand, should be a matter of private religious observance.
Reference: the division of the commandments for various religious traditions was taken from a surprisingly informative wikipedia article.