The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is a series of divine commands recorded in two locations of the Hebrew Bible: Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:7–21. The first occasion reports the establishing of a covenant between the Lord God and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai in which Moses acts as mediator between God and people; the second occasion is the eve of entry into the land promised to Israel, after a 40-year period spent in the wilderness of Sinai. In the first instance the commands are spoken by God and then recorded on two stone tablets (Exod 31:18; Deut 4:13). The second occasion anticipates the beginning of Israel’s existence as a people in which the commandments are reaffirmed by Moses prior to his death and subsequently written down (Deut 31:9, 24). The twofold historical setting—the unique form of preservation—together with the assertion that these commandments represent the conditions of Israel’s existence as the unique people of the Lord God (Deut 29:1; 32:44–47) serve to emphasize their uniqueness. They present a summary of the laws, regulations, and admonitions that are more fully elaborated in the books of Exodus to Numbers and that regulate the covenant between Israel and the Lord God. In addition to these two literary locations, another set of regulations of the covenant between Israel and the Lord God is written down on stone tablets that replaced those destroyed by Moses (Exod 32:19; 34:1). The commands recorded on these tablets relate more directly to the practice of worship and are focused on 13 basic rules.

Overall the Decalogue, the title of which means “10 words” (see Deut 4:13), provides a summary guide to the larger body of religious and ethical instruction contained in the Pentateuch, a feature which has been widely recognized in the history of its interpretation. Its requirements underlie the teaching of the Old Testament prophets and sages; they are subsequently recognized as a central feature of Jewish life by Jesus and the Christian New Testament writers generally (see Mark 12:28–29).

There is evidence elsewhere in the Old Testament of the formulation of easily memorized lists of religious and ethical duties incumbent on members of the community of Israel (and later Jews). Such lists would have been formed and used in family circles and are also evident in responses used in worship (so especially Pss 15; 24:3–6). The specific commands incorporated in them would undoubtedly have been revised and added to over a period of time. The restriction to a total of ten of the most important obligations indicates a concern to maintain a maximum range of coverage within the limits of brevity, chosen for special emphasis and educational simplicity. Evidence of the existence of lists of this nature (cf. especially Hos 4:1–2; Ps 15:2–5), together with the fact that the two biblical accounts of the revelation of the Decalogue are not verbally identical, has encouraged several scholars to search for a more original earlier form of the present Decalogue. However, this procedure can only be speculative, and many of the proposals put forward presuppose significant changes in the impact of individual commandments. In this connection there is no reason to believe that all ten commands were originally set out as prohibitions that offered a simple way of lending dramatic impact to the conduct under review but were clearly inadequate where more positive rules of behavior were desirable (e.g., respect for parents).

Among both Jews and Christians the educational value and usefulness of a short “code of conduct” that could easily be memorized has been fully recognized and explored. It combines religious loyalty with moral responsibility and, by affirming that this derives from a covenant mediated between the Lord God and Israel (Exod 19:1—20:19), presents a high ideal for human society. The two most significant comparable ideals are those of “natural law” and “human rights,” with both of which the Decalogue has been closely linked (see especially Harrelson, 1989).

The Contents of the Decalogue.

The numbering of the commandments as ten words has resulted in some differences of interpretation. Christian Protestant (both Lutheran and Reformed) tradition takes the prohibition of the worship of “other gods” as the first commandment and the prohibition of images as the second. Jewish and some earlier Christian traditions interpret the introductory prologue (“I am the Lord your God…”) as a separate commandment and regard the rejection of “other gods” and the prohibition of the use of images as together constituting a single commandment. Overall the commandments are neither uniform in style nor of equal length; the text of the two instances where they are recorded in the Bible are not verbally identical, most notably in regard to observance of the sabbath day. In spite of these minor variations, the contents of the Decalogue may be briefly summarized as follows:

  • First commandment: You shall have no other gods.
  • Second commandment: You shall make no image of God.
  • Third commandment: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of God.
  • Fourth commandment: Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.
  • Fifth commandment: Honor your father and your mother.
  • Sixth commandment: You shall not kill.
  • Seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.
  • Eighth commandment: You shall not steal.
  • Ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness.
  • Tenth commandment: You shall not covet.

A comparison of the translations of the text in the major English versions of the Bible (especially the KJV and NRSV) reveals the difficulties felt by translators in giving precise renderings to define the conduct that is under review. The social context of the world of ancient Israel was different from that of more modern times, and the Decalogue presupposes limitations in the administration of law, which more modern practice has sought to overcome. This was especially important where the conduct concerned could involve the death of a person or lead to capital punishment. Overall close analysis of these rulings shows that they presuppose not only a less developed legal administration than is expected in a modern society but also a less complex economic structure than is usual in a modern society.

The three commandments that are set out as positive rulings can be closely related to rules prohibiting particular misdemeanors (e.g., striking or cursing parents as a way of dishonoring them [Exod 21:15, 17]) so that the wider significance of the positive formulation becomes readily apparent. Considerable difficulty has been felt by translators in regard to the sixth commandment prohibiting killing. Quite evidently acts of deliberate murder are outlawed, but much of the distinctive force of the command appears directed toward the outlawing of vengeance killing, which could claim public tolerance. It certainly implies the highest regard for the protection of all human life and thereby reveals an underlying concern over the imposition of capital punishment and for the protection of slaves. These were undoubtedly the most vulnerable citizens, with little practical access to the protection of the law (see the legislative rulings protecting a slave in Exod 21:20–21 and the child of a pregnant woman in Exod 21:22–25). Similarly, responsibility for the action of dangerous domestic animals had to be dealt with in the wider context of experience (Exod 21:28–32). In such cases considerable care had to be exercised in establishing the level of personal responsibility before any punishment could be imposed.

In recognizing the social context presupposed by the Decalogue, it is necessary to consider the inevitable limitation implied in the opening prologue (“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”), which restricts its application to Israelite (and later Jewish) citizens who identified themselves in this manner. By its adoption into Christian religious and ethical teaching as a form of natural law, this restriction has been almost entirely discounted. Comparison with contemporary legislation in the Old Testament shows that the experience of ethnic, gender, and social divisions needed to be taken into account in a number of significant rulings (cf. Exod 22:21–24; 23:9). These are not incorporated in the Decalogue, highlighting the extent to which it embodies a remarkably inclusive series of rulings relevant to human society. In this regard its anticipation of later formulations of ideals of natural law and human rights is commendable.

The Decalogue and the Law Codes of the Ancient Near East.

The rise of more complex forms of civilized society in the ancient Near East during the third millennium B.C.E. led to the composition of lists, or “codes,” of laws. The most famous of these is that ascribed to the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi (d. ca. 1750 B.C.E.), but similar developments took place in Assyria. These lists of laws became progressively more complex, citing particular cases and the punishments to be administered. Similar lists of case law of this nature are evident from the Old Testament, notably in Exodus 20:22—23:19, usually described as “the book of the covenant.” Comparisons between these ancient compilations of laws and the Decalogue are revealing since it is obvious that in many instances the situations dealt with overlap.

Questions arise, therefore, as to whether the Decalogue represents a different kind of legal tradition, possibly resulting from the kinship structures of clans and tribes, rather than the more elaborate urban context in which authority was placed in the hands of the elders of towns. However, such a conclusion is unnecessary when the complementary nature of the two forms of legal direction is recognized. The Decalogue is primarily an educational aid, rather than a different kind of law from that recorded in the long lists of rulings arrived at in particular cases. Its compilation was intended to teach the values and responsibilities of adult social life to every member of the community, in contrast to the law codes, which were intended to assist those responsible for the administration of law. These were the male adult communities of towns and villages who received guidance from senior figures chosen to assist in dealing with disputes. They were responsible for ensuring that justice was done when disputes arose or when criminal acts were committed or suspected (cf. Deut 1:9–18). The examples included in such lists of laws established precedents and illustrated fundamental principles of justice.

This difference between the Decalogue and these lists of case laws sheds important light on the former. The Decalogue not only overlaps with areas for which specific punishments are prescribed but recognizes that difficulties could arise in applying them to particular situations. There was a need to ensure fairness and compassionate treatment, establishing the principle of punishing those who were guilty but protecting those who were innocent or wrongly accused. This accounts for several distinctive features of the Decalogue: the importance attached to integrity in the swearing of oaths and the prohibition of false, or unsubstantiated, testimony (cf. the third and ninth commandments); the concern to honor and protect parents and not simply to avoid abusing them; and most instructively, the prohibition of coveting in the tenth commandment. As an attitude of mind, no specific punishment could be prescribed for coveting since it was not subject to proof. Historically, this unexpected characteristic has made the tenth commandment a subject of debate, with attempts to strengthen its seriousness as a moral offense (see Jas 4:1–2 and its later inclusion among the early Christian list of “seven deadly sins”). It belongs properly among the commandments as a prohibition against the nurturing of an attitude that was likely to lead to harm. Similar problems have arisen, for both Jews and Christians, over the observance of the sabbath as a day of rest, where attempts to impose legal punishments have resulted in public alarm and resentment (see especially the severity of the punishment in Num 15:32–36 and Neh 13:15–22) or the difficulty where the aims of worship of God and enjoyment of leisure have been in conflict.

Overall, the areas of conduct under review in the Decalogue are further illuminated by a close study of particular laws, especially those set out in Exodus 20:22—23:19 and Deuteronomy 12:1—26:19, for which it serves as an introduction. Besides focusing attention on the importance of respect for law and justice and the avoidance of criminal behavior, it displays a positive concern for the general well-being of Israel as a community and ensures that no members, even slaves, are excluded from its provisions. The difficulties that have been felt in regard to the most appropriate translation of several of the commandments are considerably reduced when its relationship to the legal administration of ancient Israel is taken into account. That there were inevitable limitations in the implementation of legal procedures was frankly acknowledged. The Decalogue recognizes the importance of personal integrity in the swearing of oaths and the submission of evidence before a court and aims strongly at the nurturing of a responsible attitude toward God, parents, and the wider community generally. The undefined character of its prohibition of killing was certainly intended to protect all human life, even in respect of slaves, where violence and abuse could easily go unpunished.

Viewed in the light of its context in the Pentateuch, the Decalogue can be seen to supplement the more specific situations addressed in Israel’s criminal legislation. Systems of law provided an imperfect means for maintaining good social order and could be undermined by corrupt and subversive behavior. By promoting conduct that upheld respect for God (“you shall have no other gods”), for human life (“you shall commit no unlawful killing”), for human health (observe a day of rest), for marriage and social order (no adultery), and for the protection of another person’s property (no stealing or coveting), the Decalogue reflects an ideal of “the good life.” In a society where slavery was commonplace it extended certain basic rights to the lowest members of the community, conferring privileges on slaves and protecting them from life-threatening abuse. Overall, it seeks to promote the well-being of the whole community by conferring certain basic rights on every single member, irrespective of gender and status.

Time of Origin.

The literary setting in Deuteronomy (5:1–5; 6:1–3) links the Decalogue explicitly to the idea of a covenant between the Lord God and Israel (Deut 4:13). In addition to this covenant terminology, the close relationship between the commandments of the Decalogue and the sequence of themes and legislation in Deuteronomy 12:1—26:19 indicates that from a literary perspective the Decalogue belongs within the context of the religious and political ideology of the book of Deuteronomy. It shares several distinctive features that are central to this biblical book, especially with its emphasis on individual responsibility, its concern for education (“remembering”), and its psychological emphasis on the nurturing of right attitudes (compassion for the poor, Deut 15:11; empathy with slaves, Deut 15:15).

Scholars assign this literature to the period of extensive literary activity in the ancient kingdom of Judah that took place between 650 and 500 B.C.E., when Jerusalem fell under strong Mesopotamian influence (Assyria and Babylonia). These international relationships resulted in severe military defeats for the kingdom of Judah and led to the collapse of the earlier, monarchic sociopolitical order introduced by David and Solomon. The bringing forward of the revelation of the Decalogue to the inauguration of Israel’s covenant with God on Mount Sinai (Exod 20:2–17) was introduced later when the comprehensive account of Israel’s origins was woven into one continuous story after the collapse of the first kingdom. This outlined the story of Israel’s origins in Egypt and presented the Torah (law = instruction) as a “charter for the people” under the leadership of Moses before a monarchy was introduced. The report that the Decalogue was written on two stone tablets that were subsequently destroyed (Exod 31:18; 32:19) lends emphasis to its authority, as does the stipulation that a written record of the entire law was to be placed in Israel’s central sanctuary beside “the ark of the covenant” (Deut 31:26).

Form and Content.

From its being incorporated twice into the story of Israel’s origins the Decalogue summarizes and declares the manner of life appropriate to Israel from its beginning as a people who had been denied their freedom and rescued from a life of slavery in Egypt. It presupposes the leadership of Moses and the Exodus as its point of entry into the world of nations. Its assumption of unique authority therefore carries further assumptions about the events to which this revelation is ascribed. Israel is a people who have been freed from slavery and who must remember their obligation to value freedom and to respect the way of life that only personal freedom makes possible. The exceptional emphasis on the divine circumstances of the Decalogue’s disclosure is further reflected in its unusual literary form. It is a direct address of God to each individual member of the community (“face to face,” Deut 5:4). This directness is reinforced by the use of the singular form of address.

However, neither the historical events on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1—34:35) nor those that occurred in the plains of Moab (Deut 29:1—30:20) can be taken to indicate the time of origin of each of its individual provisions. These are religious and moral demands that were evidently of considerable antiquity and which can no longer be traced separately. As a short, easily memorized list they bring together a wide range of behavioral issues governing religious, family, and commercial life. In this way, as a summary of religious and ethical conduct, the Decalogue combines into a single charter a range of primary duties commensurate with its central place in biblical teaching.

It expresses in a short, carefully chosen, literary unit an outline prescription for a religiously based order of life appropriate to a disciplined and responsible social order. Although it is anchored in a narrowly defined period of a national historical past, its major impact upon the development of human society, in both rural and urban settings, is a direct consequence of its widespread applicability. It promotes a civilized moral order with strong underlying assumptions regarding the value of every human life, the necessity of personal integrity, and the building of trust in human relationships. It fully accepts the right of private ownership of property and claims that observance of its demands will result in long life, prosperity, and the well-being of the whole community (Deut 6:3). This claim can be readily linked to more modern ethical issues relating to ideals of the quality of life, the value (and limitations) of systems of law, and the importance of education in the development of life and the pursuit of human happiness. In this respect its underlying religious assumptions, when combined with a monotheistic claim for the oneness of God, are fully in line with its claim to express a form of “natural law.”

In line with its biblical setting the Decalogue has enjoyed a major role in Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. Its adoption in Christianity is evident from earliest New Testament times, but it has been most dramatically influential in the rise of Western European civilization in the wake of the continental Reformation of the sixteenth century. Most especially Martin Luther’s adoption of it as a primary basis for a Christian catechism has explored extensively its value as a summary of a way of life that promotes human welfare. Noteworthy in view of its Old Testament origin is the recognition accorded to it in Christian tradition that it represents a foundation for the well-being of all human society. For many centuries it has been displayed in churches, incorporated verbatim into Christian liturgy and prayer books, and taught as a fundamental summary of Christian conduct.

The Theological Significance of the Decalogue.

Until recent times the influence exercised by the Decalogue in Jewish and Christian tradition has been immense. It has been widely acclaimed as the foundation document of biblical moral teaching and used as such with universal applicability. Nevertheless, it has not been without problems. Some of these concern uncertainties in the exact requirements of its demands, and others are rooted in the circumstances and legal provisions of its origin in biblical times. These can be divided between the first four, which relate directly to responsibilities toward God, and the following six, which concern social obligations.

Some of the problems have arisen as a direct consequence of the extensive and uncritical use of the Decalogue as the sole basis for Christian moral teaching, making it a convenient target for criticism, when a wider criticism of the role of religion and the authority of the Christian church in a secular society is intended. Since the twentieth century its assumption that wives formed a part of household property (notably in the tenth commandment) has made it a target for feminist criticism on account of its underlying assumption of patriarchal dominance and control.

Its prologue affirms its applicability to a people in covenant with the God of Sinai (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6), which falls short of the universality that is claimed for it in Christian tradition. The widened horizons of world history, the growth of global Christianity, and the recognition of the great variety of human cultural diversity have raised further questions about its suitability as a summary of natural law that is applicable to all human societies. More particularly, its links with an early and imperfect system of legal administration have drawn fresh attention to areas that call for much closer definition than are included in its provisions; e.g., adultery, theft, false testimony, coveting. Nevertheless, as a biblical expression of a short “good conduct charter” it aims for a high ideal of human behavior and respect for a trusting and responsible way of life.

The Social and Ethical Background of the Decalogue.

Quite evidently the moral issues covered by the Decalogue were not unique to ancient Israel since many of the subjects affected are extensively reflected in older ancient Mesopotamian law codes and ancient Egyptian ethical instruction. What is most striking in the Decalogue is the concern to cover the widest possible range of conduct, both religious and personal, within the compass of a list of ten short injunctions. The first four deal with specifically religious issues, while the following six commandments concern family and social life. There is no reason to presume that this division is related to the ascription to two stone tablets. The broad aim of covering a maximum range of activities in which individual decision making and responsibility was required is evident. Conduct affecting legal disputes is covered in both the eighth and tenth commandments, which uphold the right to private property; this is also true of the third commandment (“wrongful use of the divine name”), which relates to the taking of oaths. The inclusion in it of an element of warning about divine punishment for abuse reflects the problems of proving this and of repudiating religious eccentricities. Certainly, the list of themes dealt with could easily have been made longer but has been restricted to meet the requirements of educational convenience. Those included were evidently chosen on account of their relevance to particular problems of everyday social life and the urgency of the need to uphold trust and integrity in the community. Such integrity was threatened by the inherent limitations of systems of legislation in which only rudimentary laws of evidence were available; the protection of life, property, and trustworthy testimony were of paramount importance.

[See also DEUTERONOMY; ETHICS, BIBLICAL; EXODUS; IDOLS AND IDOLATRY; and TORAH.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Braaten, Carl E., and Christopher R. Seitz. I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005.
  • Harrelson, Walter J. The Ten Commandments and Human Rights. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989.
  • Lehmann, Paul L. The Decalogue and Human Future: The Meaning of the Commandments for Making and Keeping Human Life Human. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995.
  • Lochman, Jan. Signs of Freedom: The Ten Commandments and Christian Ethics. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982.
  • Miller, Patrick D. The Ten Commandments: Interpretation for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2009. This is a particularly useful survey of the meaning of the Decalogue, both in its historical setting and in its interpretation in Reformed Christian theology.
  • Nielsen, E. The Ten Commandments in New Perspective. Studies in Biblical Theology: Second Series 7. London: SCM, 1968.
  • Olson, Dennis. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
  • Patrick, Dale. Old Testament Law. Atlanta: John Knox, 1985.
  • Phillips, Anthony. Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law: A New Approach to the Decalogue. Oxford: Blackwell, 1970.
  • Phillips, Anthony. God B.C. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Phillips, Anthony. Essays on Biblical Law. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 344. London: Sheffield Academic Press/Continuum, 2002.
  • Rowley, H. H. “Moses and the Decalogue.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 34 (1951–1952): 81–118. Reprinted with revisions in Men of God: Studies in Old Testament History and Prophecy (London and Edinburgh: T. Nelson & Sons, 1963), pp. 1–36.
  • Stamm, Johann Jakob, and Maurice Edward Andrew. The Ten Commandments in Recent Research. Studies in Biblical Theology: Second Series 2. London: SCM, 1967.

Ron Clements