Ten Commandments, The




1. How Numbered

2. How Grouped

3. Original Form

4. Brief Exegetical Notes



In the Old Testament the Decalogue is uniformly referred to as "the ten words" (Ex 34:28 margin; De 4:13 margin; De 10:4 margin), or simply as "the words" spoken by Yahweh (Ex 20:1; 34:27; De 5:22; 10:2), or as "the words of the covenant" (Ex 34:28). In the New Testament they are called "commandments" (Mt 19:17; Eph 6:2), as with us in most Christian lands.

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I. The Ten Commandments an Israelite Code.

The "ten words" were spoken by Yahweh to the people whom He had but recently delivered from Egyptian bondage, and then led out into the wilderness, that He might teach them His laws. It was to Israel that the Decalogue was primarily addressed, and not to all mankind. Thus, the reason assigned for keeping the 5th commandment applies to the people who were on their way to the land which had been given to Abraham and his descendants (Ex 20:12); and the 4th commandment is enforced by reference to the servitude in Egypt (De 5:15). It is possible, then, that even in the Ten Commandments there are elements peculiar to the Mosaic system and which our Lord and His apostles may not make a part of faith and duty for Christians.

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.


Of the "ten words," seven were perhaps binding on the consciences of enlightened men prior to the days of Moses: murder, adultery, theft and false witness were already treated as crimes among the Babylonians and the Egyptians; and intelligent men knew that it was wrong to dishonor God by improper use of His name, or to show lack of respect to parents, or to covet the property of another. No doubt the sharp, ringing words in which these evils are forbidden in the Ten Commandments gave to Israel a clearer apprehension of the sins referred to than they had ever had before; and the manner in which they were grouped by the divine speaker brought into bold relief the chief elements of the moral law. But the first two prohibitions were novelties in the religious life of the world; for men worshipped many gods, and bowed down to images of every conceivable kind. The 2nd commandment was too high even for Israel to grasp at that early day; a few weeks later the people were dancing about the golden calf at the foot of Sinai. The observance of the Sabbath was probably unknown to other nations, though it may have been already known in the family of Abraham.

II. The Promulgation of the Decalogue.

The "ten words" were spoken by Yahweh Himself from the top of the mount under circumstances the most awe-inspiring. In the early morning there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a trumpet exceeding loud. It is no wonder that the people trembled as they faced the smoking and quaking mount, and listened to the high demands of a holy God. Their request that all future revelations should be made through Moses as the prophet mediator was quite natural. The promulgation of the Ten Commandments stands out as the most notable event in all the wilderness sojourn of Israel. There was no greater day in history before the coming of the Son of God into the world.

After a sojourn of 40 days in the mount, Moses came down with "the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God." At the foot of the mount, when Moses saw the golden calf and the dancing throng about it, he cast the tables out of his hands and broke them in pieces (Ex 31:18; 39:15-20). Through the intercession of Moses, the wrath of Yahweh was averted from Israel; and Yahweh invited Moses to ascend the mount with two new tablets, on which He would write the words that were on the first tables, which were broken. Moses was commanded to write the special precepts given by God during this interview; but the. Ten Commandments were written on the stone tablets by Yahweh Himself (Ex 34:1-4,27-29; De 10:1-5). These precious tablets were later deposited in the ark of the covenant (Ex 40:20). Thus in every way possible the Ten Commandments are exalted as the most precious and directly divine of all the precepts of the Mosaic revelation.

III. Analysis of the Decalogue with Brief Exegetical Notes.

That there were "ten words" is expressly stated (Ex 34:28; De 4:13; 10:4); but just how to delimit them one from another is a task which has not been found easy. For a full discussion of the various theories, see Dillmann, Exodus, 201-5, to whom we are indebted for much that is here set forth.

1. How Numbered:

(1) Josephus is the first witness for the division now common among Protestants (except Lutherans), namely, (a) foreign gods, (b) images, (c) name of God, (d) Sabbath, (e) parents, (f) murder, (g) adultery, (h) theft, (i) false witness, (j) coveting. Before him, Philo made the same arrangement, except that he followed the Septuagint in putting adultery before murder. This mode of counting was current with many of the church Fathers, and is now in use in the Greek Catholic church and with most Protestants.

(2) Augustine combined foreign gods and images (Ex 20:2-6) into one commandment and following the order of De 5:21 (Hebrew 18) made the 9th commandment a prohibition of the coveting of a neighbor's wife, while the 10th prohibits the coveting of his house and other property. Roman Catholics and Lutherans accept Augustine's mode of reckoning, except that they follow the order in Ex 20:17, so that the Ex 9:1-35th commandment forbids the coveting of a neighbor's house, while the Ex 10:1-29th includes his wife and all other property.

(3) A third mode of counting is that adopted by the Jews in the early Christian centuries, which became universal among them in the Middle Ages and so down to the present time. According to this scheme, the opening statement in Ex 20:2 is the "first word," Ex 20:3-6 the second (combining foreign gods with images), while the following eight commandments are as in the common Protestant arrangement.

The division of the prohibition of coveting into two commandments is fatal to the Augustinian scheme; and the reckoning of the initial statement in Ex 20:2 as one of the "ten words" seems equally fatal to the modern Jewish method of counting. The prohibition of images, which is introduced by the solemn formula, "Thou shalt not," is surely a different "word" from the command to worship no god other than Yahweh. Moreover, if nine of the "ten words" are commandments, it would seem reasonable to make the remaining "word" a commandment, if this can be done without violence to the subjectmatter. See Eerdmaus, The Expositor, July, 1909, 21 ff.

2. How Grouped:

(1) 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.

(2) 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.

(3) 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).

3. Original Form:

A comparison of the text of the Decalogue in De 5:1-33 with that in Ex 20:1-26 reveals a goodly number of differences, especially in the reasons assigned for the observance of the Ex 4:1-31th and Ex 5:1-23th commandments, and in the text of the Ex 10:1-29th commandment. A natural explanation of these differences is the fact that Dt employs the free-and-easy style of public discourse. The Ten Commandments are substantially the same in the two passages.

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 34:10-28 originally contained a second decalogue.

Wellhausen (Code of Hammurabi, 331 f) reconstructs this so-called decalogue as follows:

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

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

(3) The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep (Ex 34:1Ex 8:1-32a).

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

(5) Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks (Ex 34:2Ex 2:1-25a).

(6) And the feast of ingathering at the year's end (Ex 34:2Ex 2:1-25c).

(7) Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread (Ex 34:2Ex 5:1-23a).

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

(9) The best of the first-fruits of thy ground shalt thou bring to the house of Yahweh thy God (Ex 34:2Ex 6:1-30a).

(10) Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk (Ex 34:2Ex 6:1-30b).

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; Ex 34:28). 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 (Ex 34:21), which is certainly appropriate amid the ritual ordinances of Ex 34:1-35, must be omitted altogether, in order to reduce the precepts to ten; also the command in Ex 34:23 has to be deleted. It is interesting to observe that the prohibition of molten gods (Ex 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.

4. Brief Exegetical Notes:

(1) The 1st commandment prohibits the worship of any god other than Yahweh. If it be said that this precept inculcates monolatry and not monotheism, the reply is ready to hand that a consistent worship of only one God is, for a people surrounded by idolaters, the best possible approach to the conclusion that there is only one true God. The organs of revelation, whatever may have been the notions and practices of the mass of the Israelite people, always speak in words that harmonize with a strict monotheism.

(2) The 2nd commandment forbids the use of images in worship; even an image of Yahweh is not to be tolerated (compare Ex 32:5). Yahweh's mercy is greater than His wrath; while the iniquity of the fathers descends to the third and the fourth generation for those who hate Yahweh, His mercy overflows to thousands who love Him. It is doubtful whether the rendering `showing mercy to the thousandth generation' (Ex 20:6) can be successfully defended.

(3) Yahweh's name is sacred, as standing for His person; therefore it must be employed in no vain or false way. The commandment, no doubt, includes more than false swearing. Cursing, blasphemy and every profane use of Yahweh's name are forbidden.

(4) As the 1st commandment inculcates the unity of God and the 2nd His spirituality, so also the 3rd commandment guards His name against irreverent use and the 4th sets apart the seventh day as peculiarly His day, reserved for a Sabbath. Ex 20:11 emphasizes the religious aspect of the Sabbath, while De 5:14 lays stress on its humane aspect, and De 5:15 links it with the deliverance from bondage in Egypt.

(5) The transition from duties to God to duties to men is made naturally in the 5th commandment, which inculcates reverence for parents, to whom their children should look up with gratitude, as all men should toward the Divine Father.

(6) Human life is so precious and sacred that no man should dare to take it away by violence.

(7) The family life is safeguarded by the 7th commandment.

(8) The 8th commandment forbids theft in all its forms. It recognizes the right of personal ownership of property.

(9) The 9th commandment safeguards honor and good name among men. Slander, defamation, false testimony in court and kindred sins are included.

(10) The 10th commandment is the most searching of them all, for it forbids the inward longing, the covetous desire for what belongs to another. The presence of such a deeply spiritual command among the "ten words" shows that we have before us no mere code of laws defining crimes, but a body of ethical and spiritual precepts for the moral education of the people of Yahweh.

IV. Jesus and the Ten Commandments.

Our Lord, in the interview with the rich young ruler, gave a recapitulation of the commandments treating of duties to men (Mr 10:19; Mt 19:18 f; Lu 18:20). He quotes the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th commandments. The minor variations in the reports in the three Synoptic Gospels remind the student of the similar variations in Ex 20:1-26 and De 5:1-33. Already in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had quoted the 6th and 7th commandments, and then had gone on to show that anger is incipient murder, and that lust is adultery in the heart (Mt 5:27-32). He takes the words of the Decalogue and extends them into the realm of thought and feeling. He may have had in mind the 3rd commandment in His sharp prohibition of the Jewish habit of swearing by various things (Mt 5:33-37). As to the Sabbath, His teaching and example tended to lighten the onerous restrictions of the rabbis (Mr 2:23-28). Duty to parents He elevated above all supposed claims of vows and offerings (Mt 15:4-6). In further extension of the 8th commandment, Jesus said, "Do not defraud" (Mr 10:19); and in treating of the ethics of speech, Jesus not only condemns false witness, but also includes railing, blasphemy, and even an idle word (Mt 15:19; 12:31,36 f). In His affirmation that God is spirit (Joh 4:24), Jesus made the manufacture of images nothing but folly. All his ethical teaching might be said to be founded on the 10th commandment, which tracks sin to its lair in the mind and soul of man.

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; Joh 15:12 f,Joh 17:1-26; compare Eph 5:2; Ga 6:10; 1Jo 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.


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).

John Richard Sampey

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