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Miracles are essential to the historic Christian faith. If Jesus Christ was not God incarnate, and if Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave, then the Christian faith as we know it from history and the Scriptures would not—could not—be true (see Rm 10:9–10). It is, then, easy to see why enemies of the Christian faith direct many of their attacks against these two miracles of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection in particular and against the possibility of miracles in general.
What one believes about the possibility of miracles comes from that person’s worldview. On the question of miracles the critical worldview distinction is between naturalism and supernaturalism. For a naturalist, the universe is analogous to a closed box. Everything that happens inside the box is caused by, or is explicable in terms of, other things that exist within the box. Nothing (including God) exists outside the box; therefore, nothing outside the box we call the universe or nature can have any causal effect within the box. To quote the famous naturalist Carl Sagan, the cosmos is all that is or ever has been or ever will be. The major reason, then, why naturalists do not believe in miracles is because their worldview prevents them from believing.
If a naturalist suddenly begins to consider the possibility that miracles are really possible, he has begun to move away from naturalism and toward a different worldview. Any person with a naturalistic worldview could not consistently believe in miracles. No arguments on behalf of the miraculous can possibly succeed with such a person. The proper way to address the unbelief of such a person is to begin by challenging his naturalism.
The worldview of Christian theism affirms the existence of a personal God who transcends nature, who exists “outside the box.” Christian supernaturalism denies the eternity of nature. God created the world freely and ex nihilo (out of nothing). The universe is contingent in the sense that it would not have begun to exist without God’s creative act and it could not continue to exist without God’s sustaining activity. The very laws of the cosmos that naturalists believe make miracles impossible were created by this God. Indeed one of naturalism’s major problems is explaining how mindless forces could give rise to minds, knowledge, and sound reasoning.
7:22 The Bible suggests it was human cunning, not miraculous powers, by which the Egyptian magicians turned the water from the Nile into blood. The same Hebrew expression, “by their flames,” occurs here as the explanation for what they performed (see note on 7:9–10).
8:7 See note on 7:9–10.
8:26–27 The Bible never says that Moses tried to deceive Pharaoh in requesting permission to leave Egypt in order to conduct a sacrifice. Apparently, on three occasions (vv. 26–27; 10:9, 25–26) the Lord told Moses to make relatively minor requests of Pharaoh—all of which would be turned down—to show the extent of his hardness of heart (see note on 5:1).
9:6 How did God kill all the Egyptians’ livestock? See note on 7:20–21.
If all the Egyptians’ livestock were killed in the plague, where did the livestock come from that later died in the hailstorm (vv. 19–25)? The Bible doesn’t explain this; however, two possibilities exist. The first assumption is that the word “all” should be taken literally. In that case the livestock later killed in the hailstorm were imported from farther up the Nile river, perhaps from Cush; or that in the interval between the plagues the Egyptians had acquired some of the Israelites’ flocks. Alternatively, the word “all” in v. 6 might be used here in a restrictive sense to mean “all that were in a particular area,” or “all who were afflicted,” or perhaps simply “the great majority.”
9:7 For a discussion of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, see note on 4:21.
9:9 How could furnace ash create boils? It is not necessary to assume that the outbreak of boils was caused directly by contact with the ash; the Lord could have inflicted the boils independently of the dust when Moses acted in obedience to His command. As with many of the other miracles, God may have acted through nature, perhaps through a bacterium or virus, or beyond the realm of the natural, to accomplish His purposes.
9:25 For a discussion of how the Egyptians could have flocks even after a plague killed their livestock, see note on 9:6.
10:1 For a discussion of the Lord’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see note on 4:21.
10:19 For a discussion of what is meant by “Red Sea,” see note on 14:16.
11:3 Self-praise is condemned in Scripture (Pr 27:2), yet Moses, traditionally viewed as the author of the Pentateuch or first five books of the Bible, appears to praise himself here. Such complimentary statements about Moses appear also in Nm 12:3 and Dt 34:10–12. The Pentateuch, however, has been subjected to a process of transmission, even in an oral stage, and it is by no means certain that Moses himself inserted these words. It is possible that they come from the same editor who provided the account of Moses’ death (Dt 34:5–12). The inspired scriptures came into being when “moved by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God” (2 Pt 1:21), but all their names may not be known to us. Still, even if Moses wrote these self-complimentary words, they are not so much an attempt to glorify himself as they are a declaration of the degree of respect the Israelites and their leader had gained among the Egyptians.
11:10 For a discussion of the Lord’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see note on 4:21.
12:3–7 Was the Passover animal supposed to be slain at the sanctuary, or at home? According to Dt 16:1–7, the only permissible place to sacrifice the lamb or goat was at the place where the Lord would choose to put His name—that is, at Jerusalem; it was forbidden to slay the animal at a person’s home. But of course this requirement was not applicable to the Israelites while they were still slaves in Egypt. The instructions provided in Ex 12:7 applied specifically to the first Passover, and perhaps also the Passovers that were celebrated prior to the construction of the temple in the days of Solomon.
12:5 This passage appears to contradict Dt 16:2 regarding which animals may be used for the Passover sacrifice. The instruction of Dt 16:2 allows animals of the herd—that is, cattle or oxen—as well as lambs or goats from the flock. But a careful reading suggests that these two passages are addressing different issues. Exodus 12:5 deals with the animal that is to be eaten as part of the Passover meal, on the first night of an eight-day celebration that included both the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. On the other hand, Dt 16:2–8 mentions the kinds of sacrificial animals that were to be used for different purposes throughout the festival period. The guidelines of Dt 16:2 are spelled out in greater detail in Nm 28:16–31, which specifies that bulls, sheep, and goats were to be sacrificed on each of the days of this lengthy celebration.
12:7 It was the people’s obedience to God that saved them, not the blood on the doorpost. Those who obeyed the Lord’s instruction to place the blood of an unblemished male lamb or goat on the doorposts of their home were spared. By doing so, they demonstrated that they were placing their trust in a sacrificial death prescribed by God for their salvation. Since the days of the apostles, Christians have seen in this event a foreshadowing of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, “our Passover” (1 Co 5:7), whose blood spares us from the coming wrath of God (Rm 5:9).
12:12 For a discussion of what animals the Egyptians would have had left for the Lord to kill, see note on 9:6.
12:13 God knows all things (1 Jn 3:20) and did not need to make an inspection tour through the land, noting the blood on each doorpost to discern who was obedient to Him. The blood was the “distinguishing mark,” a sign for the benefit of the Israelites that confirmed their obedience to God and His promise of salvation. The phrase “when I see the blood” is used figuratively to indicate the Lord’s knowledge of those who trust Him. The expression looks ahead to God’s response to those who, having entered into the death of Christ (Rm 6:3–7), are protected by His blood from the wrath of God’s judgment.
12:31 If the exodus occurred as the Bible describes it, why does it receive no mention in Egyptian records? The probable answer is that the official Egyptian records were written by government functionaries not to provide an objective recording of historical events, but in order to support the existing political and religious powers of their day. Egyptian annals glorify the accomplishments of the Pharaohs and reinforce the prevailing Egyptian religious convictions. Any set of events that cast Egyptian gods and their Pharaoh (who was himself considered a god) in a bad light would hardly be mentioned in an official Egyptian document.
How Can We Explain Bible Difficulties and the Existence of Hundreds of Thousands of Scribal Errors in Our Manuscripts?
12:35 Some have suggested that Moses’ scheme to gain Israel’s freedom was to mislead Pharaoh and the Egyptians into thinking Israel would make only a brief pilgrimage into the wilderness, temporarily “borrowing” others’ possessions, while his secret intent was a permanent departure. The Bible’s narrative does not support this view. Far from a secret departure, Israel was publicly forced by the Egyptian government to leave the land for good, and the general Egyptian population supported Pharaoh’s decision (vv. 31–33). For a discussion of Israel “stealing” from the Egyptians, see note on 3:22.
12:37 How could the Israelites have become so numerous during their years in Egypt? The Bible seems to claim that the 75 males of Jacob’s family had increased to more than 600,000 males age 20 and older in Moses’ time (603,550 at the time of the first censuses taken at Mount Sinai—see 38:26; Nm 1:46). This has struck many scholars as impossible, especially if one accepts that Jacob was Moses’ great-great-grandfather.
Two considerations make plausible this rapid growth from 75 to 600,000 males. First, Ex 1:7 states that “the Israelites were fruitful, increased rapidly, multiplied, and became extremely numerous so that the land was filled with them.” Furthermore, 1:9–12 suggests that the Israelites’ dramatic population increase was the primary factor in Egypt’s decision to oppress them. The Bible clearly affirms that the Israelites experienced explosive growth in population once they arrived in Egypt.
Second, the evidence in both the OT and NT suggests that 215 years elapsed between Jacob’s entry into Egypt and the exodus (see note on 12:40). It is mathematically possible for Jacob’s twelve sons to have produced a nation with a population of more than 600,000 males in slightly more than two centuries. During this period from five to eight generations of Israelites could have lived, depending on the family line. Moses’ line was five—Levi, Kohath, Amram, Moses, Gershom and Eliezer (see 6:16–20; 1 Ch 6:1–3); Joshua’s was apparently eight—Joseph, Ephraim, Shuthelah, Laadan, Ammihud, Elishama, Nun, Joshua (see 1 Ch 7:20–27). The number of sons produced by each family would vary, depending on how many generations were involved. For 8,600 Kohathite males to have been alive at the time of the exodus (see Nm 3:28) would have required each family to produce as average of seven sons; the 40,500 adult males in Joshua’s tribe at the time of the exodus narrative (see Nm 2:19) would require four to five sons per family. While such large families might be considered unusual, the numbers are consistent with the claims of Ex 1. It is worth noting that many individuals in the Bible were said to have produced more than seven sons—Abraham had eight (Gn 25:1–2, 9), Jacob had 12 (Ex 1:1–5), Jair and Ibzan had 30 (Jdg 10:4; 12:9), Abdon had 40 (Jdg 12:14), Ahab had 70 (2 Kg 10:1), and Gideon had 71 (Jdg 9:56).
12:40 How much time did the Israelites spend in Egypt? The Hebrew text used as the basis for English translations of this verse states literally that “the dwelling of the sons of Israel which they dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.” The Samaritan Pentateuch, on the other hand, states that the Israelites spent 215 years in Egypt. The difference in numbers may not be a true contradiction, but the result of different ways of computing Israel’s time in Egypt. The Samaritan Pentateuch, following a very old tradition that is reflected in the NT (see Gl 3:17), probably arrived at the figure 215 by starting with the number 430 and then factoring in certain events associated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By taking into account the number of years between Abraham’s visit to Egypt and the birth of Isaac (25 years, see Gn 12:4; 21:5), Isaac’s age when Jacob was born (60 years, Gn 25:26), and Jacob’s age at the time he entered Egypt (130 years, Gn 47:9), the editors of that version concluded that Jacob’s descendants spent 215 years in the land.
The Septuagint likewise clarifies the number 430 but does so in a different way. It expands the reading found in the Hebrew text, stating that “the dwelling of the sons of Israel, and of their fathers, which they dwelt in the land of Canaan, and in the land of Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years” (italics added).
The NT provides conclusive evidence that the chronological clarifications in the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint are accurate. In Gl 3:17 the apostle Paul noted that the Law was given to Israel 430 years after God’s covenantal promise had been delivered to Abraham. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 2:15:2) accepted this number, as did many significant voices in Christian history prior to the twentieth century (e.g., Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Bishop James Ussher). When the NT evidence is considered together with that of the OT, it seems clear that 430 years elapsed from the time of Israel’s first entrance into Egypt, and that the reckoning began with Abraham’s dealings with Pharaoh (Gn 12:10–20).
12:43, 48 Although the OT requires non-Jews adopting the faith of Israel to be circumcised, the NT discourages the practice (1 Co 7:18; Gl 5:2). The prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time when God would make a new covenant that would replace the one He made with Israel at Mount Sinai (Jr 31:31). Jesus Christ brought that new covenant into being through His sacrificial death on the cross (Heb 9:15). Through Christ a new relationship exists between God and humanity (2 Co 5:17; Gl 6:15), one that does not require men to be circumcised (see Acts 15:1–21).
13:12–16 Offering every firstborn male animal from their flocks required financial sacrifice on the part of the Israelites, yet the Lord required it. God is interested in more than his people’s material prosperity; He also wants them to develop their values, character, and spiritual life. As each succeeding generation of Israelites gave its firstborn males to God, they would in some way recreate the exodus event. They would be reminded of the seriousness of sin; whenever they ate the meat of the animal, they would be reminded of the sacrificial meal eaten by their forefathers on the night of the exodus. By sparing their own firstborn sons through the death of a sacrificial animal, in obedience to the Lord’s command, they would experience the lifesaving grace of God in a deep and unforgettable way. Unlike the Canaanites, who gave firstborn sons and daughters to their gods by killing them (Lv 18:21), the Israelites were to let their children live (Dt 18:10). They were to pay a redemption price for each child redeemed. The males of the tribe of Levi were then to serve as lifelong substitutes for the redeemed sons (Nm 3:12).
13:18 For a discussion of what is meant by “Red Sea,” see note on 14:16.
13:21–22 According to Nm 10:29–31, Moses asked Hobab, son of his father-in-law Reuel (see note on Ex 3:1), to assist the Israelites during their time in the desert. As a local resident Hobab knew that area well, and his insights would be invaluable to the Israelites. His role, however, was only supportive. God would guide the covenant people to the promised land through the pillars of cloud and fire.
Was the pillar of smoke and fire simply the result of an altar fire being burnt by the priests? The Bible does not indicate the physical origin, if any, of the cloud or fire. However, it emphatically claims that throughout the exodus events the cloud was inhabited by God (v. 21) and possessed lifelike qualities. When Israel was threatened by the Egyptians the cloud moved between the Israelites and their enemies, expanding and spreading so as to hide the Israelites (14:19). Whenever Moses entered the sacred tent the cloud would descend and stand at the door (Nm 12:5). It could also come down and rise up again to execute judgment (Nm 12:5–10). These characteristics suggest that the cloud had supernatural origin and control. Even if a natural explanation could be found for it, the Bible makes it clear that this cloud was supernatural, in that God controlled it and His presence resided in it.
14:4 For a discussion of the Lord’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see note on 4:21.
14:9 For a discussion of how the Egyptians could have horses even after a plague killed their livestock, see note on 9:6.
14:16 Did the Israelites pass through a marsh—a “sea of reeds”—and not the Red Sea? Many scholars have accepted this suggestion, but a full consideration of the biblical evidence leads to the conclusion that Israel escaped the armies of Pharaoh by passing through a large and dangerous body of water. The biblical text states that the waters were deep (Is 63:13), but that God split them and made them stand “like a wall” (Ps 78:13) on either side of the fleeing Israelites (Ex 14:22, 29). When the waters returned to their original position they covered the Egyptians’ chariots, horses, and soldiers (v. 27; 15:1; Dt 11:4; Jos 24:7; Ne 9:11; Ps 78:53), thereby killing all the enemy (Ex 14:27–28, 30; Ps 106:11). In the NT, Stephen, the apostle Paul, and the writer of Hebrews referred to the body of water as a sea (Acts 7:36; 1 Co 10:1; Heb 11:29).
Commentators have noted that the Hebrew phrase yam suph, traditionally translated as “Red Sea,” can also mean “sea of reed.” While that translation is possible, the OT always employs this phrase to refer to a deep body of water east of Egypt and adjacent to the Sinai Peninsula. In 1 Kg 9:26–28 Solomon is said to have built a fleet of trading ships that sailed on the Red Sea to the land of Ophir. Both the NT and the Septuagint translate yam suph as “Red Sea” (see Acts 7:36; Heb 11:29) and not “sea of reeds,” or a marsh.
14:21 How could a dry path be created through the middle of the Red Sea? God performed a miracle, using, at least in part, the forces of nature. The biblical writer mentions the role of wind in this event, but that does not preclude the possibility that God used other aspects of nature of which we have no knowledge. The suggestion that a tsunami was responsible for the temporary displacement of water in the Red Sea area is interesting, but does not account for the description of a “wall” of water on either side of the fleeing Israelites (vv. 22, 29). Possibly God augmented the forces of nature with supernatural activity to create a safe passage for Israel through the body of water.
14:25 Some scholars have suggested that most of the exodus narrative is fabricated, though it may contain kernels of historical truth. They reject the Bible’s claim that the Red Sea actually parted, but accept the possibility that Egyptian chariots became mired in the muddy marshlands in pursuit of escaping Asiatic slaves, allowing them to escape.
Certainly the Bible indicates that the Egyptians had trouble with their chariots, but this is not portrayed as the primary reason the Israelites’ escape succeeded. Nine different books in the Bible (Ex, Dt, Jos, Ps, Is, Ac, 1 Co, Heb) explicitly affirm, or clearly assume, that the Red Sea split apart, saving Israel but destroying their pursuers. Any approach to the Bible that selectively rejects the straightforward narrative in Exodus in order to produce a naturalistic explanation of events will create more problems than it solves. Such an approach requires one to assume that the writers of eight other books in the Bible got it wrong. It reflects unwarranted pride, crediting modern readers of the Bible with a better grasp of biblical events than those who witnessed and wrote about those events.
15:3 Is God a “man of war” or the God of peace (Rm 15:33) and love (2 Co 13:11–14; 1 Jn 4:8, 16)? According to the Bible, He is all of these. Just as human beings, made in the image of God (Gn 1:26–27), are capable of participating in war yet also of working for peace, so God can and does do the same. As the God of perfect justice (Gn 18:25; Ps 145:17), He will not let evil behavior go unpunished. When appropriate, He acts decisively against wrongdoers. God’s acts that put an end to the activities of the wicked are expressions of His perfect love for both them and their victims. His acts of judgment bring about a greater peace.
15:11 Some have suggested that the OT teaches henotheism (the worship of only one God, though many exist) rather than monotheism (the worship of the only God who exists). Certainly the writer knew that people worshiped many different gods (12:12; 23:13, 32), but that is not to say he believed these other gods actually existed.
To the contrary, one of the great teachings in the Bible is that there is one, and only one, God (Dt 6:4; Mal 2:10; 1 Co 8:5–6; Gl 4:8; Eph 4:6), who is the creator of the entire universe (Gn 1:1; Jn 1:3; Rm 11:36; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2). At the same time, the Bible teaches that God created spiritual beings, and that people are inclined to worship them (Col 2:18; Rv 19:10). These God-created spirit beings possess superhuman powers (2 Kg 19:35) and can appear impressive (Jdg 13:6, 20; Acts 12:7; 2 Co 11:14). Among the created beings in the spiritual order are those who now live in rebellion against God (2 Pt 2:4). It is possible for people to believe they are worshiping a god while worshiping a powerful demonic being instead (2 Co 11:14; Col 2:18).
Some people may treat an object manufactured by a craftsman as though it were a god (Is 44:9–19; 45:20). But such objects are obviously not God, and are infinitely inferior to the true God, who stands without peer in the spiritual realm. All worship of created things is prohibited in the Bible (see Ex 20:4–5; Lv 26:1; Dt 4:15–19; 5:8).
15:20 If women are supposed to be silent and not teach or have authority over men in churches (1 Co 14:34–35; 1 Tm 2:11–12), why was Miriam a prophetess? Apart from the fact that Miriam lived before there were churches, being a prophetess is not the same as being the pastor of a church. A prophet or prophetess is simply one who receives a message from God and passes it along to others. Though some women—as well as some men—were false prophets (Neh 6:14; Ezk 13:17; Rev 2:20), others were genuine spokespersons for God (Jdg 4:4; 2 Kg 22:14; Is 8:3; Lk 2:36; Acts 21:9). Women acting as prophets is part of God’s plan (Jl 2:28), and the apostle Paul assumed that women would perform this act in church services (1 Co 11:5).
16:16 In the wilderness the Israelites apparently lived in both tents and booths. Many of them probably did not have tents when they first left Egypt, and so had to sleep in temporary structures they fashioned from available materials (Lv 23:42–43). However, they would have made tents for themselves as soon as possible after departing from Egypt.
16:31 The Bible compares the taste of manna with both honey and oil (Nm 11:8). Its flavor was evidently reminiscent of both substances. The comparisons suggest that manna, like many of today’s common foods, contained both fats and sugars. Which flavor predominated may have depended on how it was prepared.
17:5–6 Providing enough water in a desert to quench the thirst of a group of more than 600,000 men, besides women and children, was a miracle of the highest order, all the more impressive considering that Israel spent 40 years in the desert. Moses’ striking of the rock was not what produced the water, but rather God standing with Moses at the rock (v. 6).
17:14 If God blotted out the remembrance of Amalek, why do we still know about them? Even the inclusion of this verse in the Bible ensures that Amalek would never be forgotten. It is clear that the phrase “blot out the memory” in this context means “to remove any concern that Amalek would pose a threat to another nation.” That promise was fulfilled during the days of King David (1 Sm 30:16–17).
18:5 For the name of Moses’ father-in-law, see note on 3:1.
19:1–2 The meeting in chapter 18 between Moses and his father-in-law Reuel took place at “the mountain of God,” which is elsewhere understood to be Mount Horeb/Sinai. Yet it is not until 19:1–2 that Israel is said to arrive at that location. Probably this section of the book of Exodus is an instance of materials being arranged thematically rather than chronologically. While events are usually told according to the order in which they occurred, sometimes it suits the writer’s purpose to join materials together according to topic instead. Other biblical writers certainly did this, as can be seen in the arrangement of narratives and prophecies in the book of Jeremiah and in Matthew’s presentation of the life of Jesus. The writer wanted to connect the events associated with God’s giving of the Law, so he told the important but unrelated account of Moses’ meeting with his father-in-law first.
19:2 Although scholars do not agree on the location of Mount Sinai, this is no reason to conclude that the events said to have taken place there never occurred. While the Bible records the names of many places where the Israelites stayed in the desert following their exodus from Egypt, those places are notoriously hard to identify. They camped only in tents or temporary huts during their years in the wilderness, and there is no record that they built roads or permanent structures or prepared fields for agricultural purposes. The mention of an oasis with twelve springs (15:27), while helpful, does not provide definitive information about which route the Israelites took to reach Mount Sinai. Thus scholars have suggested various sites in the northern, central, and southern portions of the Sinai Desert, as well as at least one site in western Saudi Arabia.
19:11, 18 Was the Law given at Mount Sinai, or Mount Horeb (Dt 4:10–13)? Horeb and Sinai are two names for the same location. Early in the book of Exodus the Lord appeared to Moses at Horeb and promised him that the Israelites would worship God on that mountain (3:1–12). That promise was fulfilled in chapter 19 when Israel came to Mount Sinai. Perhaps Horeb and Sinai were names given to the same site by different people groups. Numerous other locations mentioned in the Bible were known by more than one name (cp. Gn 28:19; 31:47; Jos 15:9, 10, 13, 25, 49, 54, 60).
19:22 Since God had not yet established a priesthood for Israel (see 28:1), the priests mentioned here were probably those who would later become the Levitical priests. The priestly role of offering sacrifice was not limited to men specifically set apart as priests. Cain and Abel. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all acted as priests during their days. Israelites living after the time of Jacob may also have acted as priests on behalf of their families. Moses had previously told Pharaoh the Israelites were commanded to offer sacrifices (5:3; 8:27; 10:25), indicating that he knew some of his countrymen were authorized to perform priestly rituals at that time. Such action would be permissible until the family line of Levi, especially the line of Aaron, was officially designated for priestly service (28:1; Nm 3:6).
20:1–23:33 The list of prohibited acts in these chapters is the primary and most complete list of sins, but not the only one. Other lists of a similar nature are found in the law of Moses (see also Lv 18:1–19:37; Dt 27:15–26). Though the lists differ, all are expressions of the same presuppositions: people must love the one true God with all their being, and their neighbor as themselves (Mk 12:29–31). Any act that fails to express these demands is a sin.
20:1–17 God and Moses perceived obedience to the laws, not as a way of or precondition to salvation, but as the grateful response of those who had already been saved. God did not reveal the law to the Israelites in Egypt and then tell them that as soon as they had measured up to this standard He would rescue them. On the contrary, by grace alone, through faith they crossed the Red Sea to freedom. All that was required was belief in God’s promise that He would hold up the walls of water on either side and see them safely through to the other shore.
The Decalogue begins, not with the first commandment, but with a preamble: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery” (v. 2; Dt 5:6). Obedience to the Decalogue or any other law has never been intended as the way of salvation but as the appropriate response to salvation already received.
20:3 For a discussion of what the Bible teaches about the existence of other gods, see note on 15:11.
20:4 This command (see Dt 4:23; 27:15) prohibited Israel from shaping images of anything that might become an object of worship. Israel was to make no physical representations of the Lord, or of any other being the nations around them might worship. Israel was to destroy any such objects made by others (Ex 23:24; 34:13; Dt 7:5; 12:3). The prohibition of images for worship did not ban artistic expression, nor prevent the production of elegant adornments used in the worship of the Lord such as the cherubim (25:18–20). The Lord created people with artistic skills which He intended them to use in representing the beauty of the world He created (e.g., Bezalel, Ex 31:1–11; 36:1–2). When He gave instructions to Moses for building the tabernacle, He commanded the Israelites to make beautiful objects of gold and silver, and ornate clothing using the finest materials available. But God expects people to worship the Creator, not His creation (see Rm 1:18–26).
20:5 Although this verse seems to say that God punishes children for the sins of their parents, that is not the case. God does not condemn children because of their parents’ misbehavior (see Dt 24:16; Ezk 18:20). However, children suffer the consequences of their parents’ sinful choices. A parent’s adultery, substance abuse, manipulation or other dysfunctional behavior establishes a pattern that children model as they mature. The result can be a repetition of their parents’ emotional brokenness leading to conflict, divorce, poverty or other conditions that make their children’s, and even their grandchildren’s, lives difficult.
In this verse God suggests that one reason we should obey Him is for the sake of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Like ripples spreading across a pool of calm water, our actions have consequences for generations to come. We can create waves of difficulty or blessing (v. 6), according to the choices we make.
The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 96–115.