Also called the Decalogue (“the ten words”; see Exod. 34.28), the Ten Commandments comprise a short list of religious and ethical demands laid by the Deity on the people of ancient Israel and are of continuing authority for the religious Jewish community and the Christian community. They appear in two places in the Bible (Exod. 20.1–17 and Deut. 5.6–21) and are alluded to or quoted in part in several places in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.
The commandments prohibit the worship of any God other than Israel's God, held to be the true God of the other nations as well (See Monotheism). They rule out the making of images of the Deity in any plastic form (See Graven Image; Idols); the misuse of the divine Name and the power associated with it; and they require observance of the Sabbath day and the honoring of one's parents (especially in view are the elderly parents of adults, not the parents of young children). They also prohibit murder, adultery, stealing, false testimony (not primarily the telling of untruths in general), and the coveting of the life and goods of others.
The enumeration of the commandments varies among the religious communities. Worshiping other Gods and making images of the Deity are placed together in a number of religious communities (Jewish, Roman Catholic, Lutheran), while Reformed and Orthodox Christian communities treat these as the first two commandments. For the Jewish community, the first commandment is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” while the ninth and tenth commandments for Roman Catholic and Lutheran communions are the two prohibitions of coveting: the household (commandment 9) and the remainder of the list in Exod. 20.17 (commandment 10). The contents of the Ten Commandments are, however, the same for all of the religious communities, despite the differences in their enumeration. The differences between the contents of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are quite small, reflecting changes over time in the way in which the commandments were understood and applied.
The commandments are of enormous value and influence—on the community of Israel, within the Christian community, and throughout the entire world today. The commandments fall into four groups. The first three, the commandments demanding the worship of God alone, against image‐making, and against the use of God's name to do harm, are commandments stressing God's exclusive claim over the lives of the people. God will brook no rivalry; as Israel's savior, God demands a commitment that preserves the people from divided loyalties, protects them from supposing that anything in the whole of creation could adequately represent the Deity, the Creator of all, and also protects persons from the religious community's misuse of divine power to serve its own ends.
The next two commandments, calling for observing every seventh day as a day of rest and for honoring parents even when they might no longer be of significant economic value within the community, are special institutions for the protection of basic realities in society—human need for rest from labor as well as for labor and the preservation of human dignity against any kind of exploitation.
The next three commandments focus especially on the life of the individual or the family in the larger community. They insist on the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage and of sexual life, and the necessity to maintain a community in which the extension of the self into one's property is recognized and respected.
The last two commandments are more social and public, calling for speaking the truth before the courts or the community's elders and for living a life not distorted or corrupted by the lust for other persons' goods or lives.
Moses is identified as the great lawgiver in ancient Israel. The Ten Commandments are understood by the community to have been handed down from God through Moses. It is clear, however, that the legal materials of the Hebrew Bible have developed over centuries, reflected changes in religious understanding and practice, and incorporated those changed perspectives into the legal heritage assigned to Moses and to Moses' God.
The substance of the Ten Commandments probably does originate in the work and discernments of Moses. The unique understanding of idolatry reflected in the Ten Commandments, and the requirement that one day in seven be characterized by an absolute break with the other days—by cessation from normal pursuits for a full day—these are without precedent in the ancient Near Eastern world. Other commandments are not unique, but this tenfold collection of short, primarily negative, statements is unique. It stems from a person of extraordinary religious discernment—and Moses was such a person.
The Ten Commandments probably had a place in family life, as a means by which the young were introduced to the fundamental requirements of the covenant between God and people. They also had a place in public religious life and in the great festivals when the bond between people and God was regularly reaffirmed and confirmed (See Feasts and Festivals).
The Ten Commandments were of great value as summations of the demands of God, easily remembered by reference to the ten fingers of the hand. As negative statements, they helped shape the community's recognition of those kinds of conduct that simply ruined life in community and so could not be allowed. They were not intended to be legalistic in character or in effect; they were to ward off conduct from the community that could be its ruin. Positive law must develop in association with these pithy, negatively put demands. Rather than such “dos and don'ts” encouraging oppressive control of a society by its leaders, they are a summons to a life freed to enjoy existence in community.
See also Neighbor.