Ten Commandments (עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים, LXX οἱ δέκα λόγοι, the ten words). The term is used in
The Biblical account
Structure and general characteristics
The longer commands (1-5 and 10) should probably be analyzed as commands-plus-expositions. This is suggested not merely by the uneven pattern, but by the alternative endings to the sabbath command (
All the commands are negative, except the fourth and fifth, which are the last of the Godward and first of the manward clauses. Two are reinforced by warnings (2, 3) and one by a promise (5). All are spoken to the individual.
As to their demands on the person addressed, the first, fifth and tenth concern his inner commitment and attitudes, and the remainder safeguard the practical expression of them in the spheres of worship and society. There is no tension between the cultic and the ethical, for the demands of the latter follow hard on those of the former; nor between law and love, for both are specified together in the phrase, “those who love me and keep my commandments” (
Significance of two tablets
Traditionally the reference to “two tables” has been understood to refer to the fact that the Decalogue falls, as we have seen, into the two sections of our duty to God and our duty to man. It has been assumed that each of these sections was given a tablet to itself. This is intrinsically unlikely because it would put asunder what God has joined, making it appear as if the commandments Godward and the commandments manward are essentially separable.
We ought therefore to follow the line opened up by more recent knowledge of ancient covenant forms in which the stipulations of the covenant—the laws imposed by the covenant-lord—were written in duplicate. The covenant-lord retained one copy and deposited the other in the sanctuary of the god of the people on whom he was imposing his covenant. In the case of the Decalogue, Yahweh is both Covenant-Lord and also God of Israel. He, therefore, takes both copies into his care: the whole care, continuance, and maintenance of the covenant relationship rests with him.
How are the Ten Words to be numbered? W. S. Bruce helpfully clears away the complexities of this question by pointing out that the commandments were not numbered by Moses, and thus down the ages different schemes of arrangement have been found. In the one most commonly known among English-speaking communities “the preface is not made a commandment or part of one: but the first commandment simply forbids the worship of false deities, and the second prohibits the use of idols; while all the prohibitions of covetousness are included under the last command”The Ethics of the . , 1909, pp. 101-2)
This article groups the commands in two groups, numbers 1-4 and 5-10, oriented respectively Godward and manward, correspond to the two great commandments of love toward God and one’s neighbor, in which Jesus summed up the law and the prophets (
Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic church puts three commandments on the first table, seven on the second.
The Reformed church adheres to a four and six classification.
Josephus, however, gives the traditional five and five arrangement, the first table dealing, as he says, with piety, the second with probity. Taking Josephus as his guide, C. E. Luthardt in his History of gives the following division:
The Jews, from Philo to the present, divide the "ten words" into two groups of five each. As there were two tables, it would be natural to suppose that five commandments were recorded on each tablet, though the fact that the tablets had writing on both their sides (
Augustine supposed that there were three commandments on the first table and seven on the second. According to his method of numbering the commandments, this would put the command to honor parents at the head of the second table, as in the third method of grouping the ten words.
Calvin and other moderns
Calvin and many moderns assign four commandments to the first table and six to the second. This has the advantage of assigning all duties to God to the first table and all duties to men to the second. It also accords with our Lord’s reduction of the commandments to two (
Love of God (commandments 1-4)
No other gods
Literally, the prohibition runs “there shall not be to you...”; it possibly implies the reminder that these gods exist only in their worshipers’ minds. “Before me” means “in My presence,” as against “taking precedence over Me.” It means, not that this allegiance could ever be concealed, but that its very existence is an affront to the Lord. “Besides me” (mg.) conveys the substance of the command; cf. “with me” (
The command against making any likenesses belongs inseparably to the command not to bow down to them; it is not a general prohibition of representational art for ornament or instruction, as e.g.
The warning, “the Lord will not hold him guiltless” (
Exodus and Deuteronomy diverge in their wording of this command; hardly at all elsewhere. Deuteronomy opens with “Observe,” as against “Remember” (but the two words are virtually synonymous; both assume some prior knowledge of the day: cf.
See below for the relevance of this command to the Christian.
For a summary of critical speculation on the origin of the sabbath (e.g. as variously derived from the Babylonians, the Kenites, the Canaanites, the moon or the market) see J. J. Stamm and M. E. Andrew, The Ten Commandments, pp. 90-95.
Love of one’s neighbor (commandments 5-10)
Respect for parents
Our Lord applied the commandment to those who indulge in anger, insults and quarrels (
While adultery, with the wrong it directly inflicts on a third party, is reckoned a graver offense than fornication (for which some restitution could be made: cf.
Jesus showed that the commandment could be violated by thought as well as act (
The New Testament endorses the command, and characteristically goes further: the former thief is urged to honesty and hard work, but also to charitable giving (
No false witness
The trial of Naboth (cf.
The saying is cited in
Decalogue and covenant
The law was given in a setting of grace, in that Israel’s very presence at Sinai was due to God’s intervention (
This law, as
The Ten Commandments and the New Testament
Jesus and the Ten Commandments
Our Lord embraced the whole range of human obligation in two, or at most three, commands: (1) "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind"; (2) "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (
Relevance to Christianity
The New Testament frequently draws on the Decalogue for its moral teaching, whether by quotation or as a framework, and treats it as fulfilled, not abrogated, by love. By contrast, the Mosaic ritual laws are shown to be superseded (cf.
The position is summed up in the New Covenant promise, “I will put my law within them, and...write it upon their hearts” (
The Ten Commandments as a "Yoke of Slavery?"
Should the Code really to be viewed as “a yoke of slavery” (
This Code issued from God’s sovereign and saving relationship with his elect nation. It was imposed at his initiative and as the result of his covenantal activity. Passages like
The critical debate
Critical scholars chiefly look to the contents and form of the Decalogue, rather than its accompanying narrative, to establish its origin. The following are some of the main landmarks in the debate.
- J. Wellhausen, in the late 19th century, argued that the Decalogue could not have preceded the chief preexilic prophets, whose teachings it seemed to him to embody, and whom he reckoned to have been the pioneers in condemning idolatry. Israel’s initial unconcern on this point suggested to him the absence of any early law against it. This reasoning, together with the trend of Pentateuchal criticism, carried such weight that only a minority of critics in the generation after Wellhausen were prepared to ascribe the Decalogue substantially to Moses.
- In 1927 S. Mowinckel gave a new direction to the argument by locating the origin of the Decalogue in Israel’s long-standing cultic practice. While he attributed the Decalogue of
Exodus 20and Deuteronomy 5to the disciples of Isaiah, he visualized its ancient prototype in the “entry liturgy” which challenged the would-be worshiper at a sanctuary gate (cf., according to H. Gunkel, Pss 15:1ff.; 24:3-6), and saw its more direct ancestor in an opening proclamation at the Enthronement Festival which he had postulated in his Psalmenstudien. Subsequent critical debate has mostly accepted the link between decalogue and cult, while differing over its precise nature.
- In 1934 A. Alt classified the Pentateuchal laws by their forms of expression, distinguishing “casuistic” from “apodictic” laws. The former (mostly introduced by an “if” clause) were secular, and, in Alt’s view, drawn from Canaanite custom; the latter (often introduced by an imperative or a prohibition, exactly after the manner of the Ten Commandments) proclaimed Yahweh’s unconditional will, and were a uniquely Israelite phenomenon, stemming from the desert and the covenant. They tended to be grouped together, sometimes in tens or twelves, and their cultic use is illustrated by the ceremony at (
This analysis pointed to the pre-Canaanite stage which is the Biblical setting of the Decalogue; but Alt, like Mowinckel, considered our actual Decalogue a late specimen compared with other groups of commands in the Pentateuch.
- In 1954, G. E. Mendenhall drew attention to Hittite suzerainty treaties, whose structure and language seemed closely parallel to those of the Decalogue and other covenant passages (see Covenant (in the Old Testament)). In structure they consisted of:
- the preamble introducing the king and his titles (cf.
Exod 20:1, 2a),
- the historical prologue emphasizing benefits conferred (cf.
- the stipulations (cf.
- provision for the treaty’s deposit in the Temple and its periodic public reading (cf.
25:16; Deut 31:9-13),
- a list of gods as witnesses (the Old Testament naturally lacks this),
- curses and blessings (cf.
Deut 27:11ff.; ch. 28).
In language the Hittite stipulations were “a mixture of case law and apodictic law very similar to the mixture and found in the so-called ‘Covenant Code’ of
Mendenhall pointed out that this form of treaty was widely known in the ancient Near East in the time of Moses (the Hittite empire collapsed in 1200), and argued that the strong cohesion of the Israelite tribes could be due to a covenant bond of this sort between Yahweh as overlord, and the various tribes as His vassals, established through Moses on the basis of the Decalogue.
- the preamble introducing the king and his titles (cf.
- Covenants and cult have continued to be the main areas of subsequent discussion. D. J. McCarthy, for example, has argued at considerable length against the validity of using Hittite treaties to date the Sinai material, reckoning that the earliest Sinai tradition told of a ritual blood-bond rather than a contractual treaty, and that the Hittite treaty pattern probably survived the Hittite empire, to serve as a model for later Israelite thought on the covenant. E. Gerstenberger maintains that “treaty stipulation and commandment have little in common,” and derives the commands of the Decalogue not from covenant or cult but from the necessities of communal life: they were brought into the cult, but originated in the teaching given by fathers to sons, or by elders to the clan. A. S. Kapelrud also emphasizes their social character, but puts them into the historical context of the Exodus, arguing, first, that something like the Decalogue would be a necessary common basis if several tribes were to unite; and secondly, that their sense of deliverance and call by Yahweh made a covenant of allegiance, written in the form of a suzerainty treaty, a natural expression of their new status. It was the fruit, in his view, of reflection, and was concluded not at Sinai but in the course of a prolonged sojourn at Kadesh. H. H. Rowley puts a similar emphasis on the Exodus experience of the tribes delivered from Egypt, but argues unequivocally for the indispensable role of Moses as the mediator of such a covenant.
- From the days of Ewald to the present, some of the leading Old Testament scholars have held that originally all the commandments were brief and without the addition of any special reasons for their observance. According to this hypothesis, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and the 10th commandments were probably as follows: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image"; "Thou shalt not take the name of Yahweh thy God in vain"; "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy"; "Honor thy father and thy mother"; "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house." This early critical theory would account for the differences in the two recensions by supposing that the motives for keeping the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th commandments, as well as the expansion of the 10th, were additions made through the influence of the prophetic teaching. If accompanied by a full recognition of the divine origin of the ten words in the Mosaic era, this hypothesis might be acceptable to a thorough believer in revelation. Before acquiescing in the more radical theories of some recent scholars, such a believer will demand more cogent arguments than the critics have been able to bring forward. Thus when we are told that the Decalogue contains prohibitions that could not have been incorporated into a code before the days of Manasseh, we demand better proofs than the failure of Israel to live up to the high demands of the 2nd and the 10th commandments, or a certain theory of the evolution of the history that may commend itself to the mind of naturalistic critics. Yahweh was at work in the early history of Israel; and the great prophets of the 8th century, far from creating ethical monotheism, were reformers sent to demand that Israel should embody in daily life the teachings of the Torah.
- Goethe advanced the view that
Ex 34:10-28originally contained a second decalogue.
Wellhausen (, 331 f) reconstructs this so-called decalogue as follows:
- Thou shalt worship no other god (
- Thou shalt make thee no molten gods (
- The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep (
- Every firstling is mine (
- Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks (
- And the feast of ingathering at the year’s end (
- Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread (
- The fat of my feast shall not remain all night until the morning (23:18b; compare 34:25b).
- The best of the first-fruits of thy ground shalt thou bring to the house of Yahweh thy God (
- Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk (
Addis agrees with Wellhausen that even this simpler decalogue must be put long after the time of Moses (EB, 1051).
Now, it is evident that the narrative in
One possible conclusion
It is only by free critical handling of the narrative that it can be made to appear that Moses wrote on the two tables the supposed decalogue of
Another possible conclusion
This sample of divided opinions suggests that the contents of the Decalogue, taken alone, are inconclusive for its provenance. Nothing in it precludes (as some early critics considered) its transmission to Israel through Moses; but all our specific information is contained not in the commandments but in the surrounding narrative. As long as the two are studied apart, the debate is likely to continue indefinitely.