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Word Study: Commandment (Mitzvah)

By Renée Griffith Grantham | Posted In Studying the Bible

Did you know there are more than ten commandments?

While many people are familiar with the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew word for “commandment,” mitzvah, is used throughout the Old Testament for all the laws God gave His people. In the books of the Law—the Torah, or first five books of the Bible—there are actually 613 statements that the Jews identified as this kind of command from God!

You may have heard the phrase Bar Mitzvah, which refers to a Jewish celebration to mark Jewish boys’ entry into adulthood and full religious responsibility on their thirteenth birthday. Bar Mitzvah means “son of the commandment,” and for girls, Bat Miztvah means “daughter of the commandment.” During this celebratory ceremony on or near their thirteenth birthday, they read aloud from the Torah and demonstrate their understanding of the laws and of their obligation to keep them.

Rather than look at each mitzvah, let’s look at some general Old Testament principles that will help us understand this word.

God’s commandments include moral guidelines, true in every culture, time and place.

Think of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3–17): they tell us how to relate to God and to others. They reflect God’s heart for humanity and because He does not change, the principles behind these moral guidelines do not change.

God’s commandments also include specific laws He gave to the new nation of Israel.

Imagine that your people group has just received freedom after over four hundred years of slavery, and you are going to rebuild your cultural identity in a foreign land. You would set up parameters, wouldn’t you? Much of the Bible’s first five books contain laws specific to the Israelites that distinguished them from surrounding people groups. Jesus explained in Matthew 5:17–20 that He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and Christians are not required to follow these specific guidelines today.

God’s commandments are not rules that take away our fun.

In fact, many of the commandments encourage us to be active when we might want to be passive. Here are some examples:

Do not take advantage of foreigners, widows, or orphans. (Exodus 22:21–24)
If you lend money to someone in need, don’t charge interest. (Exodus 22:25)
Be openhanded and freely lend the poor whatever they need; don’t be hardhearted or tightfisted toward the poor. (Deuteronomy 15:7–8)
“This is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” (Isaiah 58:6–7)

God’s commandments are not forced.

God gives commandments and follows them by explaining what will happen when they’re followed and what will happen when they’re disregarded. It is always the individual’s choice. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses recaps the commands of God and says, “This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach. . . . Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. . . . . Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” (Deuteronomy 30:11, 19)
Some of Moses’ last words in the Bible about God’s commandments explain how to keep them: “You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life.” (Deuteronomy 30:20)