The Ten Commandments occur in the context of two other "Tens." They are preceded by the "Ten Plagues" of Egypt, through which the LORD God delivers Israel from Egyptian bondage. They are followed by the "Ten Rebellions" of the Children of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. On the tenth and last rebellion of the wilderness experience, the people appear to have reached their limit:
According to your word, I have pardoned them. Nevertheless, as I live, the whole earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD...for all the people who have seen my glory and my signs that I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested me these ten times and have not listened to my voice, will not see the land that I swore to their fathers; all those who have despised me will not see it (Numbers 14:20-23).
Just as Pharoah was given ten opportunities to change his heart so this generation of Israelites is given ten opportunities to change their collective hearts and comply with the LORD's will. Both fail to comply and are judged by God. Given this pattern of "ten strikes and your out" it should not be surprising that the Ten Commandments are the basis by which Israel herself is judged as a nation:
And it will be that if you attentively listen to the voice of the LORD your God, to guard and to do all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth, and all these blessings will come upon you and overtake you because you listened to the voice of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 28:1-2).
Moses then lists the "blessings" and "curses" that will befall the people depending on their adherence to the covenant enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Just as Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden for disobedience and just as Cain was exiled for his disobedience, the people of Israel will be exiled from the Promised Land for disobeying these commands. The Ten Commandments are at the heart of their covenant with God, foundational to their social contract with one another.
Biblical scholar David Noel Freedman makes the further argument that the primary history of Israel (Genesis-Kings) is built around these Ten Commandments (minus the "do not covet" which cannot be depicted), so that when the final command is broken in Kings, the covenant is exhausted and the people are punished with exile. (See The Nine Commandments)
In part two of this post, we will explore the Commandments in terms of what they tell us about Israel's relationship with God, but before we do let us briefly consider the significance of the number 10. Why does God deal with his people in terms of tens? Some suggest it is a memory device based on an anatomical reality - each of us has ten fingers. The rationale is that once you have counted all of your fingers you have exhausted your chances. Another possibility is that it would be a short national existence if there were not ten chances. There is yet another, which speaks more directly to the character of God. Ten displays patience. God is patient so that even his jealousy is exercised in merciful terms - "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandeth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Deut 5:9-10). In other words, God is not a balanced personality. He has a bias toward mercy. He has a bias toward patience.