Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Or, another way to put it: Who are the commandments for? Who is being expected to obey these commandments?

For most Christians, the assumption is that these are universal moral laws: they are for everyone. The “you” in the Ten Commandments is “every person.”

This can make a lot of sense—with some of these commands. We read, “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” or “You shall not steal,” and it can make perfect sense to hear these as “You—every person—must not do these things.”

But other commandments complicate this assumption.

Take the commandment to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Exod 20:8-10).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? If you still think it’s “every person,” go back and read that last bit again.

Or, take the commandment not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? Or, more appropriately, who’s the “neighbour”?

James Tissot, Le magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)

The “you,” and the “neighbour,” in these commandments is not “every person.” It’s not a universal “you.” The “you” does not include wives, sons or daughters, male or female slaves, or resident foreigners. The “you” here has a wife, sons and daughters, and male and female slaves.

The “you” in these commandments is a man, not a woman or a child. The “you” is a free man, not a slave. The “you” is a property-owning free man, a free man with a “household,” not someone landless and without wealth.

I’ve pointed this out in different teaching contexts, and responses range from bemusement to confusion to shock to denial. Even with the text staring them in the face, some insist that the “you” in the Ten Commandments must be “every person.”

“That’s your interpretation,” they say.

“Read it again,” I say. “That’s the text.”

Now, my point in raising this in teaching contexts is not to deny that the Ten Commandments have any ongoing moral relevance. I believe they do.

Rather, my point is that there is no straight line between the text of Scripture and what it means for us today. We do need to interpret the text—we all do anyway, actually, whether we realize it or not—and if we want to interpret the text well we must grapple with the reality of Scripture’s ancient cultural contexts.

And a big part of this is grappling with the various forms of patriarchy that underlie every single book in our Bibles.

This is disconcerting for us, even disturbing. And it should be.

The Ten Commandments assume—and even support—a patriarchy centred on free men with households, including wives, children, slaves, and other property. This is a slaveholding society, a society which allowed not only bonded servitude to pay a debt but also chattel slavery of conquered foreigners (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). It’s a society in which women are, at least in some sense, the “property” of a man: their father, then their husband (Exod 20:17; Numbers 30; Deut 22:13-21).

This should be disturbing for us.

And it’s not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes—and often supports—a similar form of patriarchy centred on free men with households, including subject wives and owned slaves. “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, like Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’” (1 Pet 3:1-6). “Slaves, obey your masters in everything” (Col 3:22).

This should be disturbing for us.

But running right through the Bible, from Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a parallel thread highlighting God’s concern for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Actually, it’s even stronger than that: there is a thread running through the Bible that emphasizes God’s solidarity with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Even the Ten Commandments, which assume and support a slave-owning, patriarchal society, open with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The God of Israel is the God of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Any other “god” is not the true and living God, the Creator-of-All, the Redeemer-from-Slavery, the Sustainer-of-the-Oppressed.

Here’s a good way to see this biblical thread represented in a single passage. According to Luke’s Gospel, these are the words of Jesus in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

I say these are the words of Jesus through the Evangelist Luke (Luke 4:18-19), but this is Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2), and referencing the Year of Jubilee in the Law of Moses (Lev 25). From Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a thread through the Bible that highlights God’s concern for, even God’s solidarity with, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The poor in a world of shocking economic disparity. The incarcerated in a world of authoritarian violence against minorities. The disabled in an ableist world. The indigenous in a colonized world. The queer in a heteronormative world.

And women in a patriarchal world.

The “you” in the Ten Commandments is not “every person”; it is people with power, especially men with power, people who need a law to restrain the abuse of their power.

But God is decidedly on the side of the powerless. The God who is enthroned in the heavens comes down to the lowest of the lowly, and dwells with them, and takes up their cause, and overthrows the powerful who violate the powerless.

This is how God is revealed in the Law and the Prophets. And this is how God is revealed in Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to use to his advantage,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even execution on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)