The Ten Commandments.

Namely, the ones God spoke aloud from Mt. Sinai.

The Ten Commandments (Hebrew aserét ha-devarím/“ten words”) are the 10 commands the LORD spoke aloud to the Hebrew people from Mt. Sinai.

No, they’re not God’s only commands. When Jesus was asked about the most important, none of these commands made it into his top two. Mk 12.39-31 But they are the commands God considered important enough to tell everyone audibly.

A lot of Christians fetishize them. In the United States, we make monuments of them, and try to have them put in public places. Especially outside courtrooms. It’s debatable whether that’s legal, since governments aren’t supposed to promote one religion above all the others. Historically, Christians have got away with it by pressuring all the pagans to keep their mouths shut and let us have our way. Lately they haven’t been, so now we’re crying persecution. But that’s all I’m gonna say about that today.

In Christian schools, they’re on the wall of most classrooms. Christians are expected to know what they are. Though if you quizzed us, most of us would embarrass ourselves, ’cause we never memorized them. We couldn’t even find them in a bible if we wanted.

They’re actually in the bible twice: At Exodus 20.2-17 and Deuteronomy 5.8-21. The Exodus passage took place at Sinai, and Deuteronomy tells of when Moses repeated them to the Hebrews at Wadi al-Arabah, right before they entered Palestine. There are minor differences in the two lists, but big deal.

Strangely, though Christians make a big deal about ’em, many of us claim we don’t need to follow the Law in the Old Testament any longer, ’cause supposedly Jesus canceled it out with his death. Yet they’re nearly always willing to make an exception for the Ten Commandments: That part of the Law, we gotta follow. The rest can go by the wayside. (Well… okay, some of us will also keep the commands against homosexuality, ’cause if that command doesn’t count anymore, it’s gonna be hard to still call it “an abomination.” But the rest of the commands can go. Especially the ones banning pork. Love me some bacon.)

So, why are the Ten Commandments an exception? Usually ’cause we figure violating them is so obviously wrong, it doesn’t make sense to claim they don’t count. “Don’t murder”? Duh. “Don’t steal”? Of course. “Honor your parents”? I wish. “Don’t covet”? Well… um… er… okay, maybe once we redefine “covet” to mean “don’t want what you can’t have,” but make exceptions for everything we can have. Or buy.

Me, I’d remind you Jesus actually didn’t cancel out the Law. He still expects us to follow these commands. Mt 5.17-19 Not because the Law saves us (’cause it never saved anyone) but because this is how life in God’s kingdom works. Now that God’s saved and empowered us to do the right thing, Ep 2.8-10 the Ten Commandments are the right thing.

Numbering them.

In the Hebrew text, there are paragraph-marks at the end of each command. That’s why the Jews number them this way.

  1. The LORD is God. Ex 20.2, Dt 5.6
  2. No other gods. Ex 20.3-6, Dt 5.7-10
  3. No misusing God’s name. Ex 20.7, Dt 5.11
  4. Observe Sabbath. Ex 20.8-11, Dt 5.12-15
  5. Respect parents. Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16
  6. No murder. Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17
  7. No adultery. Ex 20.14, Dt 5.18
  8. No theft. Ex 20.15, Dt 5.19
  9. No perjury. Ex 20.16, Dt 5.20
  10. No coveting others’ stuff. Ex 20.17, Dt 5.21

There is a paragraph-mark in the middle of Deuteronomy 5.21, making “Don’t desire your fellow citizen’s woman” separate from the rest. But since it’s not in Exodus, Jews still consider ’em one command—and, as you’ll see, Catholics and Lutherans don’t.

Problem is, to your average Christian, “I’m your god, the LORDEx 20.2, Dt 5.6 doesn’t look like a command. It looks like a preamble: “I’m the LORD, here’s my commands.” So that’s how we’ve largely chosen to interpret it: As a preamble.

But Jews rightly recognize it’s a command—one which God repeats over and over again throughout the Law. If the LORD’s not God—if we don’t recognize or acknowledge him as such—the rest of the commands really become moot, because why even follow ’em? He’s not God.

So that’s why I go with the Jews’ numbering system. But I’ll give the other two systems a mention. There’s the Catholic and Lutheran order, which bunches no other gods and no idols, and divides coveting into two commands. And there’s the Protestant order, which divides no other gods and idols into two commands, and only has the one command for coveting. Hey, however you gotta juggle it so “I’m your god, the LORD” isn’t its own command anymore.

1. The LORD is God. 1. The LORD is God;
no other gods.
P. The LORD is God. Ex 20.2, Dt 5.6
2. No other gods. 1. No other gods. Ex 20.3, Dt 5.7
2. No idols. Ex 20.4-6, Dt 5.8-10
3. No misusing God’s name. 2. No misusing God’s name. 3. No misusing God’s name. Ex 20.7, Dt 5.11
4. Observe Sabbath. 3. Observe Sabbath. 4. Observe Sabbath. Ex 20.8-11, Dt 5.12-15
5. Respect parents. 4. Respect parents. 5. Respect parents. Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16
6. No murder. 5. No murder. 6. No murder. Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17
7. No adultery. 6. No adultery. 7. No adultery. Ex 20.14, Dt 5.18
8. No theft. 7. No theft. 8. No theft. Ex 20.15, Dt 5.19
9. No perjury. 8. No perjury. 9. No perjury. Ex 20.16, Dt 5.20
10. No coveting others’ stuff. 9. No coveting others’ wives. 10. No coveting others’ stuff. Ex 20.17, Dt 5.21
10. No coveting others’ stuff.

Anyway, it’s for this reason when you refer to “the fifth commandment,” be aware a Catholic and a Baptist are gonna think different things. When a Baptist says he broke the fifth commandment, he means he didn’t respect his parents. When a Catholic says the same thing, she means she shot her parents.

(Although, like I said earlier, more likely neither the Baptist nor Catholic will remember which one’s the fifth commandment, and both will think it means they cussed or something.)

1. The LORD is God.

Exodus 20.2 = Deuteronomy 5.6 KWL
“I’m your god, the LORD,
who took you out of Egypt’s land, out of the slaves’ house.”

Yep, these verses are exact matches. (No, not in the King James Version, Ex 20.2, Dt 5.6 KJV but that’s because the translators of each book didn’t compare notes. The verses do match in Hebrew though.)

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (also known as Moses Maimonides, or by his acronym RMBM, which Jews turn into “Rambam”) wrote a commentary on the Law called the Séfer ha-Michvót/“Book of Commands,” which sorted and listed all 613 commands. He considered this one the first of all, and the most important. (Jesus went with “Love the LORD your God.” Mk 12.30, Dt 6.5 I’m with Jesus, but I’m admittedly biased.)

Some folks mistakenly think this is a command about God’s existence—“You need to believe in God”—but nope, not even close. (If you don’t believe in God, you’re not gonna obey it anyway!) This is a command about which god is our God. The Hebrews weren’t to follow one of the Egyptian, Canaanite, Sumerian, or Philistine gods. They followed YHWH, the one true God, the LORD. As do we.

This command defines who the LORD is: He’s the god who took the Hebrews out of Egypt’s land, out of the slave’s house. No other god can claim to have done that, so no other god counts.

We Christians identify God as the Father of Christ Jesus, the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. Like the creeds say. And he is all those things. But he’s identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Ex 3.6 the LORD who rescued the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus’s apostles identified him as this God too. Ac 3.13 We don’t follow a different God; he’s this God. The same God. Our God is the God of Israel.

Yeah, there’ve been heretics who attempted to divorce the Creator from the Hebrews. Antisemites don’t want anything to do with Israel, don’t want their God to be the God of Israel, and often claim he’s a whole other god. (And claim, for various insane reasons, Jesus isn’t Jewish either. Even though “Christ” means Messiah, King of Israel.) Libertines and dispensationalists don’t just figure Jesus did away with the Law; sometimes they want the whole Old Testament taken out of their bibles. Either way, either group is foolish and wrong. The LORD is God. There is no other.

Yes, this is a command. Because it’s not an option. The Hebrews didn’t get to choose which god they were gonna follow. The LORD is their god, and banned all the other ones. (Hence the next command.) God chose and saved them, not vice-versa.

True, sometimes we try to choose other gods. Sometimes pagan gods; sometimes we worship money or power or no god at all (which really just means our own will becomes our god). But in the end, one way or another, everyone answers to the LORD. Ro 14.11

So every other command hangs on this one. ’Cause like I said, if you don’t believe the LORD is God, the other commands are moot. You won’t follow them. Thus we gotta start from here… and proceed to the other nine.

2. No other gods.

Exodus 20.3-6 = Deuteronomy 5.7-10 KWL
3=7 “For you, there mustn’t be any other gods in my presence.
4=8 Don’t manufacture any idol for yourself;
any form from the skies above, from the land below, from the water below the land.
5=9 Don’t bow down to them. Don’t serve them.
For I’m your LORD God: I’m El-Qanná/‘Possessive God.’
I have children suffer consequences for their parents’ evil
—and the grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—when they hate me.
6=10 But I show love to a thousand generations
when they love me and observe my commands.”

There are two minor differences between the two books’ rendering. Deuteronomy drops a ve/“and” in verse 8, and spells avót/“fathers” differently in verse 9. Otherwise identical, so I translated ’em identical.

The word elohím/“god” is a plural-sounding word, like our words “pants” or “scissors.” It can mean “god” or “gods,” and we interpret it as one or the other depending on context. Since akherím/“any other” is plural, elohím must also be plural: No other gods. (Not that there’s much difference between “no other gods” and “no other god.”)

Al-panáy/“in my presence” often gets translated “before me,” as in the KJV. I went with the more literal interpretation ’cause of what it signifies. “Before me,” in present-day English, implies we’re not to put other gods above the LORD—yet we can still have the other gods! We can worship both God and mammon!

But “in my presence”—and you know God’s presence is everywhere, right?—means we’re not to worship other gods at the same time as God. He’s not the god we serve most; he’s our only God. We don’t build our biggest shrines for the LORD, yet keep our separate little shrines to various favorite saints, or gods of other religions, or celebrities we revere, or whatever. God doesn’t share worship.

3. No misusing God’s name.

Exodus 20.7 = Deuteronomy 5.11 KWL
“Don’t swear by the name of your LORD God for no good reason.
For the LORD won’t free your obligation when you’ve used his name for no good reason.”


As I wrote elsewhere, taking the LORD’s name in vain does not mean we’re forbidden from using “God” or “Jesus Christ!” as an exclamation or profanity. I mean, we shouldn’t, ’cause that doesn’t honor him any, and offends devout people. But nope, doesn’t mean that.

Instead, this is about swearing oaths. If you swear to God, declare things in Christ’s name, or promise “as God is my witness,” these are not minor, trifling statements. God holds us to these promises. Like the command says, he “won’t free your obligation”—he expects us to live up to these promises, Nu 30.2 and keep ’em as holy as his name is.

4. Observe Sabbath.

Okay, this command isn’t identical in the different books.

Exodus 20.8-11 KWL
8 “Remember to separate the day of Sabbath.
9 Work six days, and do all your work. 10 The seventh day is Sabbath.
It’s for me, your LORD God. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
your sons, daughters, male slaves, female slaves, animals, or visitors at your gates.
11 For six days, I the LORD made the skies and the land, the sea and everything in it.
The seventh day, I stopped, so I the LORD blessed a day of Sabbath. I made it holy.”
Deuteronomy 5.12-15 KWL
12 “Keep separate the day of Sabbath, as your LORD God commanded you.
13 Work six days, and do all your work. 14 The seventh day is Sabbath.
It’s for your LORD God. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
your sons, daughters, slaves, ox, donkey, animals, or visitors at your gates.
Because your male and female slaves will rest like you:
15 Remember, you were a slave in Egypt’s territory.
Your LORD God got you out of there with his strong hand and extended arm.
This is why your LORD God commands you to do the day of Sabbath.”

I discuss Sabbath elsewhere. You notice the motives for Sabbath differ from Exodus to Deuteronomy: God said it was ’cause he rested on the seventh day, but Moses said it was ’cause the Hebrews used to be Egypt’s slaves (and probably needed a break, since the Egyptians probably never gave ’em one). We usually accept both reasons.

Sabbath comes from the word shabbát/“stop.” We’re to stop working every seventh day—or we burn out. God, recognizing this (’cause he made us, of course), put a moratorium on work every seven days: Stop. Rest. That goes for everyone. Your employees too.

5. Respect parents.

Exodus 20.12 KWL
“Respect your father and your mother.
Thus your days will be long in the land your LORD God gives you.”
Deuteronomy 5.16 KWL
“Respect your father and your mother, as your LORD God commanded you.
Thus your days will be long; thus good will come to you in the land your LORD God gives you.”

As Paul pointed out, this is the first command with a built-in offer, Ep 6.2 namely that if we respect our parents, our days will be long in the land God gives us. (Well, if we’re a Hebrew who was given the land of Palestine. If we’re gentile, we’ll just have to settle for long life.)

Yeah, most bibles translate Paul’s epangelía/“offer” as “promise,” and expect if we honor our parents we’re guaranteed long life. In a world full of suffering, nobody’s guaranteed any such thing. But all things being equal, those who honor their parents oughta live long, and prosper: Respecting our elders is one of those things which creates a stable society. Stable societies extend the life expectancy of those who live in them. So there y’go.

I should add: If a Hebrew was disrespectful of their parents, and stubborn and rebellious, God permitted the parents to have that kid hauled before the town elders, who’d sentence that kid to be stoned to death. Dt 21.18-21 Seriously. So if you didn’t honor your parents, your parents might shorten your life. Yikes.

6–9. No murder, adultery, theft, or perjury.

Exodus 20.13-16 = Deuteronomy 5.17-20 KWL
13=17 “Don’t murder.
14=18 Don’t adulter.
15=19 Don’t steal.
16=20 Don’t testify about your fellow with lies.”

Deuteronomy differs only that it starts verses 18–20 with “And.”

Naturally these are commands which also stabilize society. Banning murder means people shouldn’t have to constantly fend for their lives. Banning adultery means people shouldn’t have to worry about their spouses’ fidelity. Banning theft means people should be secure in their private property. And banning perjury means people should be secure in what others claim about them to authority figures.

I say “should” in each case because people don’t always follow these commands. People still murder, adulter, steal, and perjure themselves. And sometimes we come up with really complex social codes in order to justify it. In the past (and sometimes in the present), people used to formally murder one another by calling it “dueling”: It had rules and customs, so supposedly this made it okay for two angry people to murder one another and escape prosecution. Likewise the medieval rules of chivalry dictated when and how people could commit adultery; “finders keepers” and other social customs dictate when and how people could take one another’s property; and people justify lying all the time by insisting they’re only telling “white lies,” or that everybody in politics lies.

Hey, everybody looks for loopholes. But the LORD kept it simple—and kept these commands extremely simple. Two-word commands for the first three: Lo tirchákh. Lo tináf. Lo tignóv. And lest it’s unclear who not to perjure yourself against: Lo tahané ve-reákha ed šaqér.

10. No coveting others’ stuff.

Exodus 20.17 KWL
“Don’t desire your fellow’s house. Don’t desire your fellow’s woman.
Nor slave, nor maid, nor ox, nor donkey—anything of your fellow’s.”
Deuteronomy 5.21 KWL
“Don’t desire your fellow’s woman. Don’t desire your fellow’s house, nor field,
nor slave, nor maid, nor ox, nor donkey—anything of your fellow’s.”

In Deuteronomy Moses changed the order of things not to covet, starting with your fellow’s woman. Betcha over the 40 years of wandering the wilderness, that proved much more of an issue than coveting your fellow’s house.

The word covet has become a Christianese one, ’cause only Christians tend to say it anymore. Everyone else says “want” or “desire.” Same meaning. But Christians tend to think “covet” means we want something in a negative sense: We want it too much. Or too possessively. Or for any other wrong reason. But “covet” is just a synonym for desire—and you’ll notice the LORD actually didn’t forbid people from coveting. He only forbade people from wanting stuff which doesn’t rightly belong to them.

Bigger deal back then. Nowadays, if your neighbor has a really nice car, you can go to the auto dealer and buy the very same car for yourself. But in ancient times, if your neighbor had a really nice cart, you couldn’t always get a duplicate from the local carpenter. There was only that cart; wasn’t interchangeable. You know, like your neighbor’s spouse.

Like I said regarding theft, people should be secure in their private property. They shouldn’t have to worry about their neighbors swiping their stuff. They also shouldn’t have to worry about you constantly trying to get it from them: “I’ll give you a hundred bucks for that donkey. No? Okay, two hundred. Okay, four hundred.” And so on.

Or that you might try to entice your spouse away. Or your kids. Or your employees. Or anything of yours. ’Cause you’ve likely met people like that: People who are just waiting for a couple to break up, so they can swoop in and date one of them. Or people who can’t be bothered to go to the store and buy their own; they keep offering to buy your stuff. No impulse control.

It’s this lack of impulse control that’s the root of coveting what we can’t have. We have to control our desires, and deny ourselves the things we shouldn’t have. But we don’t; in fact some of us justify it by saying, “Well, God’s blessed me with the finances…” yet never bother to ask if God’s okay with what we do with those finances. (’Cause we suspect we won’t like the answer.)

Put ’em in your brain.

Memorize the Ten Commandments? Sure.

If not every single word in them, at least memorize the general idea behind each. (1) The LORD is God, (2) we have no others, (3) don’t misuse his name; (4) Sabbath; (5) respect parents; and don’t (6) murder, (7) adulter, (8) steal, (9) lie, or (10) covet what you can’t have. That’s easy to memorize, and when you have more time you can memorize specific wording.

Yes, there’ll be a test later. No, I won’t be giving it. Life will.

Once you work on the individual commands, meditate on the ideas behind them. Fr’instance, respecting your parents. How can we respect them? (What, as many Christians like to point out, if they’re not Christian?) What’s respect mean to them? What good does it do us to respect them? Can you think of practical examples? And so forth.

In so doing, you’ll find the Ten Commandments are actually rather easy to live by. (You’re likely living by them already!) They’re the very least we can do for God. So we may as well get them covered. If we can follow them, we’ll be more prepared for the more advanced commands God will eventually give us.

Oh, you didn’t know about the more advanced commands? Yep, they’re coming. Get ready. Practice with these.