Search the Site


The Ten Commandments

Rembrandt van Rijn

No ancient law collection is as well-known today as the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, thanks in part to American politics and cinema as well as, of course, the Bible. The Decalogue exhibits an unmatchable simplicity of expression, making it one of the most memorized passages in the Bible. It is also the most fought-over biblical passage in American civil culture. To display or not to display the Ten Commandments on government property remains a controversial issue in light of the establishment clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Is the Decalogue simply a list of prohibitions?

Popular versions of the Decalogue as found in souvenir shops and front yards are typically stripped-down versions of what is found in the Bible. Look at Exod 20:2-17 (or Deut 5:6-21—the Decalogue appears twice in similar but not identical versions) and you’ll find much more than a list of prohibitions or “thou shalt not” commands. Two of the “commandments” are cast positively (Exod 20:8, Exod 20:12). Whereas the simple form of the prohibition characterizes only the latter “commandments,” the first few are more complex.

Most abbreviated versions of the Decalogue omit the first verse (Exod 20:2) entirely, which is unfortunate as it features God’s self-introduction (“I am the LORD your God . . .”) followed by reference to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. More than an introduction, this opening verse provides the definitive setting for all the “commandments” that follow: the God who has delivered the Israelites from slavery will now deliver to them a set of laws, beginning with the Decalogue. This first verse sets forth the relationship between a liberating deity and a freed people, a relationship of covenant (see Exod 6:7). To omit this opening verse, as most popular versions do, is to rip the commandments from their natural context and to universalize them in a way that goes against their first words.

Several of the Decalogue’s commandments are part carrot, part stick. They feature a God who persuades: Honoring parents leads to a long life “in the land” (Exod 20:12). Israel’s God is described as a “jealous (others: ‘zealous’) God,” ready to punish or to show “steadfast love” (Exod 20:5). Sabbath observance in Exodus is grounded in God’s work of creation: six days of work and the seventh day for rest (Exod 20:9-11). The “Ten Commandments” are thus more than just commandments or ultimatums. They show God’s desire for a relationship and Israel’s choice in obedience. Indeed, the Bible refers to them not as “commandments” at all but more generally as “words” or “sayings” (Hebrew devarim; Exod 34:28, Deut 4:13, Deut 10:4). Hence, “Decalogue” is a more appropriate name than “Ten Commandments” (deca = ten, logos = word).

Are the Ten Commandments the foundation of western civil law?

No, and for three reasons. The first is that the “commandments” in Exod 20:2-11 (the first three or four commandments, depending on the system of counting) have nothing to do with civil law. They are specifically religious. They prohibit worshiping other gods, manufacturing idols, and illicitly invoking “the name of the LORD” and require the observance of the Sabbath. The remaining “commandments” do deal with communal relations, from honoring parents to prohibiting theft. But because the first group of commandments sets the context for the second, we can see that the Decalogue as a whole, like the rest of the Hebrew Bible, recognizes no separation between “church and state,” that is, between the sacred and the secular. 

The second reason is that as foundational as it may seem, the Decalogue is not rigidly fixed in the Bible itself. Another version appears in Deut 5:6-21. Here Moses recounts the giving of the law to a new generation. Moses’s retelling, however, makes one significant revision: the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy makes no mention of God’s work of creation as found in the Exodus version. Instead, Deuteronomy grounds the Sabbath commandment in the experience of Israelite slavery in Egypt (Deut 5:15). The opportunity to rest is itself treated as an event of liberation, not only for the Israelites but also for their slaves and livestock (Deut 5:14).

The third reason is that the Decalogue is not the only law collection in the Hebrew Bible. Immediately following its presentation in Exod 20 is a collection of miscellaneous case laws, otherwise known as “the Book of the Covenant” (Exod 20:22–Exod 23:19; for the name, see Exod 24:7), which covers some of the same legal issues found in the Decalogue, and much more. Unlike the “commandments” of the Decalogue, which do not provide punishments and thus are not a law code at all, many of the case laws specify judgment or penalty, from corporal punishment to financial restitution. Finally, the replacement tablets given to Moses after breaking the first set contain a significantly different set of laws (Exod 34:1-28). So even within the Bible, the “Ten Commandments” were never quite set in stone!

  • William P. Brown

    William P. Brown is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary.