The Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue) set out the requirements of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, the commands most fundamental to life with God and in society under God.
They stand in both Exodus and Deuteronomy before all the detailed laws, at Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21, and unlike all the other laws they are spoken directly by YHWH to the people. In Deuteronomy they are quoted in Moses’ speech recalling the meeting with YHWH at Horeb, but there are slight differences from the text in Exodus, especially in the Sabbath commandment. In Deuteronomy Moses states that in speaking these words YHWH was making a covenant with Israel. In Exodus this only becomes clear when the covenant is made in chapter 24.
They are already called ‘the ten words’ (or sentences) in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4, and probably in Exodus 34:28. But it is not quite clear how the 16 verses are to be divided up into ‘ten commandments,’ and different religious traditions make the division in different ways. For this reason, in what follows the commandments will not be referred to by number, but the verse numbers of the Exodus text will be given.
Contents and interpretation
Basic to the text are vv. 2-6, in which YHWH speaks in the first person to state his claim on Israel and to demand absolute loyalty: no other gods, no images. In vv. 7-11 the text switches to refer to YHWH in the third person, and warns against the desecration of two things that are holy to YHWH: his name, by using it improperly, and his special day, by working on it. The largest difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions comes in the Sabbath commandment. In Exodus (20:11) the text harks back to Genesis 2:1-3 in the first creation account. In keeping the Sabbath, Israelites will be following a pattern set by God himself in creation. The version in Deuteronomy (5:15) makes it instead a commemoration of deliverance from the incessant labour of slaves in Egypt, and commends the weekly rest as a blessing to one’s own slaves.
The remaining commandments deal with the individual’s conduct in society. They protect basic aspects of life: the authority of parents and the security of life itself, marriage and inheritance, and property. It should be understood that in origin these and all the commandments make sense in the context of a society built on the patriarchal extended family, and may need interpreting in a slightly different sense to be applied in present-day society: for example, ‘adultery’ in the Bible refers to sex between a married woman and a man who is not her husband, and not also the other way round; likewise the commandment against coveting forbids coveting ‘your neighbour’s wife’: the addressee is assumed to be male.
This text brings together commandments of different types and styles: especially notable is the switch between first-person and third-person references to YHWH. It also exists in two somewhat different versions. These facts suggest that it has a history. Much of the language of the text, in Exodus as well as Deuteronomy, is Deuteronomistic: such phrases as ‘out of the house of slaves,’ ‘other gods,’ ‘bow down and worship,’ ‘the alien who is within your gates’ are characteristic of Deuteronomy. But the reason given for the Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:11 is based on the priestly account of creation.
Some scholars believe the Decalogue to be the most ancient part of Old Testament law, while others suggest that in both its present forms it is later than Deuteronomy. Many scholars believe it was composed from earlier texts as a concise statement of the demands of the covenant, at a time when the metaphor of covenant was being developed as the appropriate definition of the relationship between YHWH and Israel. Apart from 20:11, the Exodus version shows signs of being more original, but it has probably been edited by a priestly writer, or someone who knew the priestly writings, who may have placed it in its present position.
This does not exclude the possibility that behind the present Deuteronomistic composition there lies an older commandment series foregrounding the demand for the exclusive worship of YHWH. Psalm 81:9-10 is very like the introduction and first commandment of the Decalogue, but without Deuteronomistic language; v. 5 in the same psalm suggests an origin in northern Israel.
In Judaism the tendency has been to regard all the commandments of the Torah (traditionally 613) as of equal weight, but Christian teachers have usually given special significance to the Ten Commandments, at the same time as making it clear that Christians are not obliged to observe the Mosaic law in general. (Even then, the commandments against images and to observe the Sabbath have often been treated differently.) This tendency can already be observed in the New Testament: the moral commandments of the Decalogue are quoted by Jesus in Mark 10:19, etc., and Paul does the same in Romans 13:8-10.
The doctrine became established in Christianity that the moral law should be observed although the ceremonial and civil laws were not binding, and usually in the Middle Ages and the Reformation the moral law was identified with the Ten Commandments. They were made the basis of Protestant catechisms alongside the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and were seen as embodying ‘natural law.’ Calvin and his successors derive all morality from them by taking the root principle of each commandment and applying the rule that if something is prohibited the opposite is commanded, and vice versa: thus ‘you shall not murder’ implies that you should make every effort to preserve and defend life.
In recent times a struggle has taken place in the US between some people attempting to have the Ten Commandments inscribed in public places as the basis of life in society and legal authorities defending the secular constitution of the Union.
Baker, David L. The Decalogue: Living as the People of God. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2017.
Childs, Brevard S. Pages 385-439 in Exodus: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1974.
Markl, Dominik, ed. The Decalogue and its Cultural Influence. Hebrew Bible Monographs 58. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.
Miller, Patrick D. The Ten Commandments. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009.