Although many people can list some if not all of the rules commonly known as the ‘Ten Commandments’, it may come as a surprise to many non-Christians – and perhaps even to a fair few Christians – that nowhere in the Bible does a definitive list of ‘the Ten Commandments’ actually appear. Actually, that’s not true: there is a list named the ‘ten commandments’ found in the Old Testament, but it’s completely different from the list of rules we known by that name.
Confused? Let’s take a closer look at the Ten Commandments, how they came to be, and what they mean. But first, before we come to the analysis, a brief summary of the background to them.
The Ten Commandments: summary
This is the list of Ten Commandments, as they are usually given (the translation used below is the King James Version of 1611):
I am the LORD thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
As we discuss below, there is some disagreement between believers of various sects and religions concerning how these commandments should be broken up. However, the Ten Commandments essentially state: worship the Jewish/Christian God alone; don’t make any graven images of God; don’t take the name of God in vain; observe the Sabbath; honour your parents; don’t kill; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t perjure yourself; and don’t covet other people’s possessions (including, um, their wives). In other words, as well as not stealing, you shouldn’t even think how nice it would be to own what isn’t yours.
So, we might summarise the canonical list of Ten Commandments as an establishment (or reminder) of God’s authority and the importance of worshipping Him and no other. Indeed, false idols, too, are forbidden, as is using the Lord’s name without due reverence. Once we have learned to respect God’s authority, other forms of respect follow: deference to one’s parents, respecting others’ property, respecting life, and respecting the sanctity of marriage. Of course, there are instances in the Bible where all of these things are treated with less than respect, but the moral meaning of the Ten Commandments is fairly clear.
The Ten Commandments: analysis
As Kristin Swenson points out in her endlessly informative A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, there are in fact three biblical versions of the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21, and Leviticus chapter 19. The first two of these are the ones we tend to know, and are clearly where the list now known as the ‘Ten Commandments’ was derived from.
However, the Leviticus commandments are more numerous, including prohibition against making fun of those who are physically disabled (19:14 reads ‘Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind’) and the famous rule about not wearing two different fabrics together (19:19 reads ‘thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee’). There are many more than ten commandments in the Leviticus chapter, but even the versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy aren’t numbered as a clear list of ten. As Swenson observes, it is ‘religious tradition’ that is responsible for our talking of ‘the Ten Commandments’. Nor are they even called ‘commandments’: the word used in most English translations of the original Hebrew text is ‘words’, hence the alternative name for the Ten Commandments: the Decalogue.
But confusingly, although the sections of the Bible which gave us the list now known as the Ten Commandments don’t call them ‘commandments’ or number them as ten, another passage from the Old Testament contains a list of instructions called ‘the ten commandments’, which have nothing to do with the list we now know. Exodus 34:28 reads: ‘And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.’
What were these ‘ten commandments’? They include a range of decrees, including more practical guidance: ‘Thou shalt make thee no molten gods’ (34:17); ‘the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck’ (34:20); and ‘Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning’ (34:25).
But if we return to the list of Ten Commands provided in the summary above, there are some curious things to note about the numbering. Swenson is helpful here, telling us that whilst Judaism considers ‘I am the LORD thy God’ to be the first commandment, Christians tend to view it as a preface to the first commandment (the one about having no other gods before Yahweh). But even within Christianity, there is some disagreement about how the first few commandments should proceed. Roman Catholics, for instance, tend to regard ‘no other gods’ and ‘no graven images’ as part of the same commandment, since there is, indeed, some overlap. Protestants, meanwhile, begin the list at ‘no other gods’ but then have ‘no graven images’ as the second commandment.
And even when it comes to keeping the Sabbath holy, there is some divergence of interpretation: Exodus states that followers should remember the Sabbath, while Deuteronomy has the slightly different keep or preserve in place of remember. And whilst it’s commonly assumed that the reason for preserving (or remembering) the Sabbath is because God rested on the seventh day of Creation, only the Exodus version says as much (20:11: ‘For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it’).
Indeed, Deuteronomy gives a quite different reason from Exodus: oddly enough, the reason, the exodus. It states (5:15): ‘And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.’
Of course, what both versions have in common is the injunction to keep the Sabbath holy, the implication being that man shall not toil on that day. But which day the ‘Sabbath’ refers to has itself depended on whether you’re a Jew or a Christian: the Sabbath is traditionally regarded as Saturday in Judaism, but on Sunday in Christianity.
Image: Philip De Vere collection, via Wikimedia Commons.