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Ten Commandments

Ten Commandments (עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים, LXX οἱ δέκα λόγοι, the ten words). The term is used in Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4, and the commandments are recorded in Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The alternative title “decalogue” anglicizes the LXX term, which is a literal rendering of the Hebrew.

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 (Exod 20:11; Deut 5:14c, 15) which draw out different lessons from the basic injunction, and the smaller variations in the tenth commandment.

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” (Exod 20:6), as in John 14:15.

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 Old Testament, 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 (Matt 22:37-40).

Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic church puts three commandments on the first table, seven on the second.

Reformed Church

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 Christian Ethics gives the following division:

  • No other gods.

  • No image of God.

  • No dishonoring of God’s name.

  • No desecration of God’s day.

  • No dishonoring of God’s representatives (parents).
  • No taking away of a neighbor’s life.

  • No taking away of his wife—his home—his dearest good.

  • No taking away of his goods.

  • No taking away of his good name.

  • No coveting of his good or his goods.
  • Jewish

    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 (Ex 32:15) would seem to weaken the force of the argument for an equal division. Moreover, the first pentad, in the present text of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is more than four times as long as the second.


    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 (Mt 22:34-40).


    Love of God (commandments 1-4)

    No other gods

    (Exod 20:2, 3; Deut 5:6, 7). The command, indeed the series, rests on a statement about the Lord: who He is, whose He is, and what He has done. “I (am)” precedes and underlies “You shall”; all is for His sake (cf. “You shall be holy to me; for I...am holy,” Lev 20:26).

    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” (Exod 20:23).

    This is the fundamental commandment of the ten, the central issue between God and Israel in the Old Testament. The devil tempted even the Lord at this point (Matt 4:8-10).

    No idols

    (Exod 20:4-6; Deut 5:8-10). The concern of this command is the worship of God not as imagined but as revealed. Cf. John 4:24: “in spirit and truth”; not by the aesthetic or intellectual appeal of the manmade, but in response to the Spirit and Word of God. Deuteronomy 4 (esp. vv. 12, 15ff.) stresses the invisibility of God; Isaiah 40:18ff.; 44:9ff. expose the farcical side of idolatry.

    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. Exodus 25:18ff., 31ff. makes clear.

    God’s name

    (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11). To “take (up) the name...in vain” (lit., “for worthlessness,” i.e., for no good purpose) is to use it irresponsibly, whether in worship (cf. Ps 50:16; Isa 29:13), in common speech (cf. Matt 5:34) or in an attempt to wield power (cf. Acts 19:13ff.).

    The warning, “the Lord will not hold him guiltless” (Exod 20:7), may suggest a primary context of perjury (i.e. a false oath may gain you earthly acquittal, but not heavenly); but the ninth commandment partly covers this, and the first four are chiefly concerned with the wider issue of the relationship of God and man.

    God’s day

    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. Exod 16:22ff.); it adds the phrase “as the Lord your God commanded you”; and it ends on the theme of slavery (14c, 15) as against that of the Creation (Exod 20:11). See also II, above.

    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

    Deuteronomy 5:16 adds two corroborative phrases and the New Testament quotes the command in several contexts: e.g. Matthew 19:19; Ephesians 6:2f. Our Lord could override its customary expression (cf. Luke 9:59ff.), but He countenanced no pretext for evading it (Matt 15:4ff.; cf. 1 Tim 5:4, 8).

    No murder

    (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17). The Hebrew verb (רָצַח, H8357) makes “murder” (ASV) a more accurate rendering than “kill”; a fact corroborated by the context of Exodus and Deuteronomy, which commands the killing of animals and at times (judicially or in war) of men. The penalty for murder as against manslaughter (Num 35:22ff.), was death; it was not reducible to any lesser sentence (Num 35:31). This penalty was already in force before the Sinaitic law, in the decrees to Noah (Gen 9:6).

    Our Lord applied the commandment to those who indulge in anger, insults and quarrels (Matt 5:21-26), and pointed out the spiritual kinship of the murderer to the devil, “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). 1 John 3:15 brands as a murderer “any one who hates his brother.”

    No adultery

    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. Deut 22:28, 29 with vv. 22-27), the Old Testament strongly denounces all extramarital sexual intercourse, condemning the male offender even more strongly than the female (cf. Hos 4:14, Hebrew or RSV). Nor does it allow intercourse between the betrothed: the foundation ordinance of marriage authorizes it only after the break with the parental home (Gen 2:24) which distinguishes marriage from betrothal.

    Jesus showed that the commandment could be violated by thought as well as act (Matt 5:27f.), and even under cover of legality through the divorce of a faithful partner (Matt 5:31ff.; Mark 10:11f.).

    No stealing

    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 (Eph 4:28). It is a classic example of love filling the law to overflowing.

    No false witness

    (Exod 20:16; Deut 5:20). The context is the law court. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 adds the safeguards of requiring a minimum of two witnesses for a criminal charge, and of making a false witness liable to the penalty to which he exposed the accused.

    The trial of Naboth (cf. 1 Kings 21:13, 14) and that of Trial of Christ|Christ (cf. Matt 26:59-61) demonstrate how much can hang on this commandment, and how little a legal safeguard will avail where conscience fails. Ephesians 4:15f., 25 expounds truthfulness in its only effective setting: the mutual love of which all the manward commandments are partial expositions.

    No coveting

    (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21). Other commands (the first and fifth) have concerned inner attitudes, but none as explicitly as this. Paul cites it in Romans 7:7ff. as opening his eyes to a sinfulness which he would not else have recognized.

    The saying is cited in Romans 7:7 and 13:9 simply as “You shall not covet.” This seems to comprise the commandment proper, and the list of objects gives its application. The list varies in order and content between Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21, the latter opening with “your neighbor’s wife” and including later “his field.”

    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 (Exod 19:4; 20:2), based on the patriarchal covenant (2:24) and directed toward making her uniquely His possession, a priestly and holy people (19:5f.). Fulfillment of such a calling presupposes conformity to His will (19:5), and this divine will was summarized in the Decalogue and expounded in the accompanying law. To Yahweh, so revealed, Israel pledged her obedience in the covenant described in Exodus 24:3-11.

    This law, as Galatians 3:17 states, was not given to annul the covenant with Abraham, but to nurture its recipients in the knowledge of God, and of themselves as transgressors, escorting them toward Christ, who is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (3:19) and the ground of our justification (3:24).

    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" (Mt 22:37-40; compare De 6:5; Le 19:18). With love such as is here described in the heart, man cannot trespass against God or his fellow-men. At the close of His ministry, on the night of the betrayal, Jesus gave to His followers a third commandment, not different from the two on which the whole Law hangs, but an extension of the second great commandment upward into a higher realm of self-sacrifice (Joh 13:34 f; 15:12 f,17; compare Eph 5:2; Ga 6:10; 1Joh 3:14-18). "Thou shalt love" is the first word and the last in the teaching of our Lord. His teaching is positive rather than negative, and so simple that a child can understand it. For the Christian, the Decalogue is no longer the highest summary of human duty. He must ever read it with sincere respect as one of the great monuments of the love of God in the moral and religious education of mankind; but it has given place to the higher teaching of the Son of God, all that was permanently valuable in the Ten Commandments having been taken up into the teaching of our Lord and His apostles.

    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. Mark 7:19b; Gal 5:2; Heb 10:18), and the administrative details of the Old Testament are not carried over into the New Covenant.

    The position is summed up in the New Covenant promise, “I will put my law within them, and...write it upon their hearts” (Jer 31:33), together with the words of Paul in Romans 8:4 “...that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Cf. Romans 13:8-10.)

    The Ten Commandments as a "Yoke of Slavery?"

    Should the Code really to be viewed as “a yoke of slavery” (Gal.5.1) or as a wise provision that God graciously made for his people? Undeniably in the course of the centuries rabbinic traditionalism perverted Torah into a grievous legalism; undeniably, too, the Law as a whole had a pedagogic function, revealing as it did—and still does—man’s need of Jesus Christ (Rom.7.7; Gal.3.24). Yet the primary purpose of the Ten Words was to enable the Israelites, as the Lord’s redeemed and peculiar treasure, to enter into a life of joyful fellowship with their Redeemer.

    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 Exod.20.2 and Deut.4.32-Deut.4.40 show that Israel’s Savior was Israel’s Legislator. This Law, then, was designed to bring the Lord’s saving deed to its fulfillment by creating a holy community, a community reflecting his own nature, a community in which he could dwell and by which he could be magnified (Lev.11.44; Lev.20.8). Hence, used lawfully (1Tim.1.8), this Code, which guided life rather than gave it, was a source of blessing (Ps.19.8-Ps.19.9; Ps.119.54).

    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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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 20 and Deuteronomy 5 to 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.
    3. 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 Canaan|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 Mount Ebal (Deut 27:13ff.).
    4. 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.

    5. 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:
      1. the preamble introducing the king and his titles (cf. Exod 20:1, 2a),
      2. the historical prologue emphasizing benefits conferred (cf. 20:2b),
      3. the stipulations (cf. 20:3-17),
      4. provision for the treaty’s deposit in the Temple and its periodic public reading (cf. 25:16; Deut 31:9-13),
      5. a list of gods as witnesses (the Old Testament naturally lacks this),
      6. 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 Exodus 21-23.”

      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.

    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. Goethe advanced the view that Ex 34:10-28 originally contained a second decalogue.
    9. Wellhausen (Code of Hammurabi, 331 f) reconstructs this so-called decalogue as follows:

    10. Thou shalt worship no other god (Ex 34:14).

    11. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods (Ex 34:17).

    12. The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep (Ex 34:18 a).

    13. Every firstling is mine (Ex 34:19 a).

    14. Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks (Ex 34:22 a).

    15. And the feast of ingathering at the year’s end (Ex 34:22c).

    16. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread (Ex 34:25 a).

    17. The fat of my feast shall not remain all night until the morning (23:18b; compare 34:25b).

    18. The best of the first-fruits of thy ground shalt thou bring to the house of Yahweh thy God (Ex 34:26 a).

    19. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk (Ex 34:26).
    20. 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 Ex 34:27 f, in its present form, means to affirm that Moses was commanded to write the precepts contained in the section immediately preceding. The Ten Commandments, as the foundation of the covenant, were written by Yahweh Himself on the two tablets of stone (Ex 31:18; 32:15 f; 34:28).


    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 Ex 34:14-26. Moreover, the law of the Sabbath (34:21), which is certainly appropriate amid the ritual ordinances of Ex 34, must be omitted altogether, in order to reduce the precepts to ten; also the command in 34:23 has to be deleted. It is interesting to observe that the prohibition of molten gods (34:17), even according to radical critics, is found in the earliest body of Israelite laws. There is no sufficient reason for denying that the 2nd commandment was promulgated in the days of Moses. Yahweh’s requirements have always been in advance of the practice of His people.

    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.


  • R. H. Charles, The Decalogue, 1923.

  • G. Vos, Biblical Theology, 1954, pp. 145-59.

  • Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain, 1963.

  • M. G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 1975.

  • J. Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain (1954).

  • R.S. Wallace, The Ten Commandments (1965).

  • J.J. Stamm, The Ten Commandments in Recent Research (1967).

  • E. Nielsen, The Ten Commandments in New Perspective (1968).

  • Oehler, Old Testament Theology, I, 267 ff.

  • Dillmann, Exodus-Leviticus, 200-219.

  • Kuenen, Origin and Composition of the Hexateuch, 244.

  • Wellhausen, Code of Hammurabi, 331 f.

  • Rothstein, Das Bundesbuch.

  • Baenstch, Das Bundesbuch.

  • Meissaner, Der Dekalog.

  • Driver, "Deuteronomy," ICC.

  • Addis, Documents of the Hexateuch, I, 136 ff.

  • R. W. Dale, The Ten Commandments.

  • G. D. Boardman, University Lectures on the Ten Commandments (Philadelphia, 1889).

  • J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1885), 2ff., 392-425, 439.

  • S. Mowinckel, le Décalogue (1927).

  • A. Alt, Die Ursprünge des Israelitischen Rechts (1934) = KS I (1959), 278-332 = Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (1966), 81-132.

  • H. H. Rowley, “Moses and the Decalogue,” BJRL XXXIV (1951-1952), 81-118 = Men of God (1963), 1-36.

  • G. E. Mendenhall, BA XVII (1954), 26-46, 50-76 = Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (1955).

  • C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (1957).

  • J. Murray, Principles of Conduct (1957).

  • D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (1963).

  • M. G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King (1963).

  • A. S. Kapelrud, “Some Recent Points of View on the Time and Origin of the Decalogue,” ST XVIII (1964), 81-90.

  • E. Gerstenberger, “Covenant and Commandment,” JBL LXXXIV (1965), 38-51.

  • R. S. Wallace, The Ten Commandments (1965).

  • J. J. Stamm and M. E. Andrew, The Ten Commandments in Recent Research (1967).