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There is a variation in how John 14:15 is translated:

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments." ESV

“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." NASB

“If you love me, keep my commands." NIV

"If ye love me, keep my commandments." KJV

Some render it as declarative while others imperative. That variation indicates a significant difference in how one relates to Jesus' commandments. I believe this has been addressed in previous questions.

My question goes back to the Ten Commandments. Can they also be interpreted as declarative as well as imperative?

I found one author who thought so:

I looked closely at the Hebrew original of the Decalogue, examining the grammatical forms that are used in each one of the Ten Commandments. To my surprise, I found that the eight commandments that begin with "Thou shalt not" can, according to Hebrew grammar, be translated either as negative commands (prohibitions) or as emphatic promises. In harmony with the grammatical sentence structure one can translate these commandments thus: "I promise you, you will not have any other gods before Me! . . . You will not make for yourself any carved image. . . . You will not take the name of the Lord your God in vain . . ." "I promise you that you will not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, covet." Even the fourth and fifth commandments, which are not framed in the negative—"Remember the Sabbath . . ." "Honor your father and mother . . ."—do not use the imperative, which is the normal way of giving a positive command in biblical Hebrew. Rather, they use the infinitive absolute, which in Hebrew often indicates an intensive promise. God is saying, in effect, "I promise you, you will remember the Sabbath. You will honor your father and mother!" And so each of the commandments can be translated either as a command or a promise. - Richard M. Davidson, The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture and History, p. 164

Can those with expertise in Hebrew confirm or deny this? Thanks.

Edit: I changed my question to allow for a dual interpretation.

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  • Murder, adultery, cursing parents, and gathering sticks on the sabbath were all punishable by death. I would call such commands imperative myself. And the rest. My conscience certainly thinks they are. Which agrees with Paul's experiences regarding coveting in Romans 7. The commandment 'slew' him. When the commandment came, sin revived and I died, says he.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 26 '20 at 10:18
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    I agree. I edited my OP to allow for a dual interpretation, which is what I really had in mind. I don’t think it’s possible to argue that the 10C are not imperative at all.
    – asg
    Jul 26 '20 at 16:30
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To answer the first part of the OP, the most accurate rendition of the Greek is definitely the ESV and NASB - this includes the verb - Future Indicative Active - 2nd Person Plural. Note that this is NOT imperative but simply indicative.

The second part of the question is more complex and open to diverse opinions. First, I would not go quite as far as Davidson. In most of the commandments as recorded in Ex 20, the verb is about as simple as it can get -it is a Qal Imperfect second person masculine singular. This is the simplest form of the verb.

The translation of these commands then becomes:

  • V3 - You shall have no other gods ...
  • V4 - You shall not make ...
  • V7 - You shall not take ...
  • V13 - You shall not murder
  • V14 - You shall not commit adultery
  • V15 - You shall not steal
  • V16 - You shall not bear false witness
  • V17 - You shall not covet

The exception is the Sabbath commandment (Qal infinitive absolute by the pointing), and the respect commandment (Piel - Imperative - masculine singular).

In English as well as Hebrew, "You shall not" could be understood as either:

  • A Command; eg, "You shall not go outside until the rain stops!"
  • A statement of fact; eg, "You shall not be cold in the desert heat."

I assume that this latter sense is the sense in which Davidson intends his "promise" language, which, I believe is going a bit too far (grammatically speaking). I would be happy to accept a dual understanding of a mixture if command and statement of fact, but not much more.

The statement of fact could be understood as flowing from the opening statements in the commandments which remind the people (and us) how much we owe God for our salvation. When this is singularly born in mind then the commandments can be understood as statements of fact, something like:

"If you recall that I was the one who brought you out of Egypt in a most spectacular way with many miracles, then you will not waste you time with other gods." (Dottard's extreme paraphrase)

Otherwise, they can be quite happily understood as commands.

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    Robert Young translates of the tree of knowledge of good and evil 'Thou dost not eat of it.' A statement of fact, as you say. (It is not food. It will kill you. Thou dost not eat of it.)
    – Nigel J
    Jul 26 '20 at 10:23
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    @NigelJ - That is a possible translation for Gen 3:1 as it is the same verb form: Qal imperfect. The subtle difference in each case must be decided on the basis of the surrounding context. On that basis, Young's translation is more of a stretch than the commandments because in the case of Gen 3 there is no basis for a statement of fact there. The interesting part is V4 that has the same verb form when the serpent says, "you ... will not die."
    – Dottard
    Jul 26 '20 at 11:15
  • @Dottard I imagine it would be impossible to interpret V4 as an imperative since the death was the result of eating the fruit, not a choice for Eve to make.
    – asg
    Jul 26 '20 at 16:38
  • @asg - I agree - that is why each verb must decided on a case by case basis.
    – Dottard
    Jul 26 '20 at 21:06
  • FYI: a few years ago I wrote The Ten Freedoms, an interpretation of the Ten Commandments as promises rather than as commands. I'm not claiming that this is how they were originally intended, but it is interesting to look at them from that perspective. E.g. if you follow God's way of life, you'll never experience hatred, so "you shall not kill" is a promise of freedom, not an onerous restriction. Apr 12 at 2:53
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I really wonder – if your quotation is correct – how a scholar like R. M. Davidson is able to say that (the bold is mine) “Even the fourth and fifth commandments, which are not framed in the negative—'Remember the Sabbath . . .’ ‘Honor your father and mother . . .’—do not use the imperative, which is the normal way of giving a positive command in biblical Hebrew. Rather, they use the infinitive absolute, which in Hebrew often indicates an intensive promise.’

Technically, the ‘commandment’ about the Sabbath (Exo 20:8-11) starts with a verbal form that, according the Masoretes (as they expressed in their diacritical system), is an infinitive absolute. But we must not forget that this is a medieval grammatical interpretation of these Hebrew text data, not an original Hebrew grammar law, necessarily. Before the Masoretes the verbal form we see in Exo 20:8 - זכור – was considered a static (past) participle of the verb ‘to forget’, simply. Anyway, without the Masoretes’ points this form doesn’t point to an ‘infinitive absolute’ structure.

The real and original ‘infinitive absolute’ verbal structure – that we see until today in the Hebrew text of the Scriptures - included a kind of duplication of the verbal form, as we may see a lot of instances in the TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible). A classical example of this clear and not interpretable grammar structure is found in Gen 2:16-17, where we find two ‘infinitive absolute’ forms: the first, linked to the verb ‘to eat’ (v. 16 [תאכל אכל]), and the other, linked with the verb ‘to die’ (v. 17 [תמות מות]).

More could be said about the meaning of this Hebrew peculiar structure. A lot of researches demonstrate that the meaning of this original ‘infinitive absolute’ is not linked with an ‘intensive promise’ – as Davidson states – but with the certainty (from the speaker/writer viewpoint) of the action/condition expressed by the verb.

Moreover, as regards the ‘commandment’ about the honour owing to the parents, there isn’t a shred of evidence of an ‘infinitive absolute’, even if we take into an account the Masoretes’ diacritical system. In fact, the verbal form we see in Exo 20:12 - כַּבֵּ֥ד – is parsed (for an example that you may consult, if you want, in BibleHub.com) as ‘Piel, Imperative, Masculine, Singular’. Where we see here the ‘infinitive absolute’ claimed by Davidson? Moreover, we see how the 'imperative' is present (according the orthodox Hebrew grammar).

Another important factor to consider: if the ’10 commandments’ were simple laws, along with the sanctions on the inevitable transgressors, what – we ask - were the sanctions for who transgress the ‘commandment’ about ‘honoring’ the parents, in his heart? For an example, an Israelite could be able to hate his parents without visible proof of that. In these cases, how the judges of Israel did can apply the sanction provided by the Law?

Again, what about the ‘commandment’ regarding ‘not to covet the wife of your neighbour’? Also in this case, an Israelite man could be able to covet – in his heart – a wife of another Israelite, without be punished by the judges.

So, the ’10 commandments’ were beyond the simplistic equation ‘Do not do this… if no you will punished so…’ (except those that are framed in a positive way). As I stated in other answers, the ’10 commandments’ weren’t so much a simple laws as guidelines, a set of basic and absolute moral and spiritual principles.

And this conclusion is in full agreement with the original meaning of the Hebrew term (dbrim). This term – differently by amri (as in Gen 49:21, drawing up with an archaic form of Hebrew) – has inside it the meaning of ‘a set of words that is useful to impart a direction, a guidance’.

To close my post, what is the answer to your question (“Can they [the ’10 commandments’] also be interpreted as declarative rather than imperative?”)?

They are declarative principles, guidelines to direct Israelite people in any every-day life circumstances.

I hope this information will be useful for you.

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  • Thanks. Your reply is very useful. I only wish I could choose more than one official answer.
    – asg
    Jul 26 '20 at 16:39
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According to Pratico and Van Pelt,1

15.9 Negation of the Imperfect: The Particles לֹא and אַל

  1. Like the Perfect, the Imperfect is also negated with לֹא... In addition to the use of the negative particle to simply negate the verb, there is a special use of לֹא before an Imperfect. In the Ten Commandments (Decalogue), the combination of לֹא plus the Imperfect is used for an absolute or permanent prohibition.
  1. The negative particle אַל is also used with an Imperfect verb to express an immediate, specific, and non-durative prohibition. In other words, prohibitions with לֹא are permanent and absolute; prohibitions with אַל are immediate and specific.

Furthermore,2

18.5 Negation of the Imperative. To produce a negative command, Hebrew does not negate an Imperative form. Prohibitions (negative commands) are expressed with the negative particles לֹא and אַל with the Imperfect (see 15.9).

Footnotes

        1 Pratico and Van Pelt, § 15.9, p. 170–171
        2 id., § 18.5, p. 211


References

Pratico, Gary D.; Van Pelt, Miles V. Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

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  • Sorry, but that went way over my head. Can you expound on how that applies to the Decalogue? Thanks.
    – asg
    Jul 27 '20 at 0:47
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I will add my take on John 14:15 too. This is a logical conditional statement or prediction, not a command. The verb “if you should love me” is in the subjunctive. The verb for “keep” is in future tense.

I would translate it: “If you should love me, you can tell because you will be keeping my commandments.”

There is no imperative (command). It is causal and conditional. It is similar to the take in James 2:17, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

It is pointing out the fruits of love or how following the commandments is also love.

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  • I just want to confirm that in your understanding of Greek grammar, there is no imperative in John 14:15?
    – asg
    Oct 26 '20 at 4:40
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    That is correct. He is discussing an uncertain hypothetical situation, not commanding behavior. Basically saying “if you find yourself loving me...”
    – Gus L.
    Oct 26 '20 at 6:48

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