The 10 commandments.

No doubt you’ve heard of the 10 commandments, or as they tend to be stylized, “The Ten Commandments,” as if they’re a movie title. (Which they were, repeatedly; the one with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner is the best-known.) In Hebrew they’re called the עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים/aserét ha-devarím, “10 words,” or “10 lessons.” Specifically they’re the 10 commands the LORD spoke aloud to the Hebrew people from Sinai (or Horeb), a mountain somewhere on the west coast of the Arabian peninsula.

No, the 10 commandments aren’t the only commands God gave the Hebrews. Nor the first. Nor even the greatest: When Jesus was asked about the most important commands, he listed none of the 10 commandments. He listed two other ones: Love God and love your neighbor. Mk 12.29-31 Those Christians who have no idea the LORD gave about 613 commands in the Law—and that’s not even counting Jesus’s commands in the gospels—sometimes take Jesus’s top two commands, add ’em to the 10 commandments, and actually talk about “the 12 commandments.” Again, as if God only gave us the 12.

The 10 commandments are significant because they’re the ones God considers important enough to tell everyone audibly. And we get ’em twice in the bible: In Exodus 20 when the LORD declares them himself, and Deuteronomy 5 when Moses reminded the Hebrews of them.

Today I’ll give you Everett Fox’s translation. (He didn’t put the LORD’s words in red though; I do that.

Exodus 20.1-13 Schocken Bible
1 God spoke all these words,
saying:
2 I am YHWH your God,
who brought you out
from the land of Egypt, from a house of serfs.
 
You are not to have
any other gods
before my presence.
 
3 You are not to make yourself a carved-image
or any figure
that is in the heavens above,
that is on the earth beneath,
that is in the waters beneath the earth;
4 you are not to bow down to them
and you are not to serve them,
for I, YHWH your God,
am a zealous God,
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons,
to the third and the fourth [generation]
of those hating me,
5 but showing loyalty to the thousandth
of those loving me,
of those keeping my commandments.
 
6 You are not to take up
the name of YHWH your God for emptiness,
for YHWH will not clear anyone
who takes up his name for emptiness.
 
7 Be mindful
of the Sabbath day, to hallow it.
8 For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work,
9 but the seventh day
is Sabbath for YHWH your God:
you are not to make any work,
you, and your son, and your daughter,
your servant, and your maid, and your beast,
and your sojourner who is within your gates.
10 For in six days
YHWH made
the heavens and the earth,
the sea and all that is in it,
and he rested on the seventh day;
therefore YHWH gave the Sabbath day his blessing, and he hallowed it.
 
11 Honor
your father and your mother,
in order that your days may be prolonged
on the land that YHWH your God is giving you.
 
12 You are not to murder!
You are not to adulter!
You are not to steal!
You are not to testify
against your neighbor as a false witness!
 
13 You are not to desire
the house of your neighbor,
you are not to desire the wife of your neighbor,
or his servant, or his maid, or his ox, or his donkey,
or anything that is your neighbor’s!

And, because they’re important enough to be in the bible twice:

Deuteronomy 20.6-17 Schocken Bible
6 I am YHWH your God
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of serfs.
 
You are not to have other gods beside my presence.
7 You are not to make yourself a carved-image of any form
that is in the heavens above,
that is on the earth beneath,
that is in the waters beneath the earth.
8 You are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them,
for I, YHWH your God, am a zealous God,
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons
to the third and to the fourth [generation] of those that hate me,
9 but showing loyalty to thousands
of those that love me, of those that keep my commandments.
 
10 You are not to take up the name of YHWH your God for emptiness,
for YHWH will not clear him that takes up his name for emptiness!
11 Keep the day of Sabbath, by hallowing it,
as YHWH your God has commanded you.
12 For six days you are to serve and to make all your work;
13 but the seventh day
is Sabbath for YHWH your God—
you are not to make any work:
you, and your son, and your daughter,
and your servant, and your maid,
and your ox, and your donkey, and any of your beasts,
and your sojourner who is in your gates—
in order that your servant and your maid may rest as one-like-yourself.
14 You are to bear-in-mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt,
but YHWH your God took you out from there
with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm;
therefore YHWH your God commands you to observe the day of the Sabbath.
 
15 Honor your father and your mother,
as YHWH your God has commanded you,
in order that your days may be prolonged,
and in order that it may go-well with you
on the land that YHWH your God is giving you.
 
16 You are not to murder!
And you are not to adulter!
And you are not to steal!
And you are not to testify against your neighbor as a lying witness!
17 And you are not to desire the wife of your neighbor;
you are not to crave the house of your neighbor,
his field, or his servant, or his maid, his ox or his donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor!

The 10 commandments in popular culture.

In the United States, Christians fetishize the 10 commandments. We make monuments of ’em. We try to put them in public places; courtrooms in particular, ’cause they’re law. It’s debatable whether it’s legal to put them on public property, ’cause our Constitution prevents Congress from establishing one religion as the state religion. Historically, Christians have got away with it by pointing out the 10 commandments are hardly just a Christian thing; Jews have ’em in their bibles too. And, less kindly, by pressuring any resistant pagans to keep their mouths shut and just let us have our way. (Lately they haven’t been, so conservative Christians have been claiming this is persecution. But I’m not gonna discuss that today.)

In Christian schools, the 10 commandments are 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. Don’t even know where they are in the bible! They’re in the Moses stories somewhere… and we know that from the Moses movies, not from reading the scriptures.

As you can see from the big long quotes, they’re in the bible twice:

  1. The LORD declared them, out loud, to the Hebrews at Sinai. Ex 20.2-17 Scared the willies out of them, so they asked that God no longer speak to them out loud, lest it kill them. Ex 20.19
  2. Moses repeated them to the Hebrews at Wadi al-Arabah, right before they entered Canaan to conquer it. Dt 5.8-21

There are minor differences in the two lists, but big deal.

Strangely, though Christians make a big deal about ’em, a disturbing number of us claim we don’t need to follow Old Testament commands any longer ’cause supposedly Jesus canceled them with his death. Yet they’re nearly always willing to make an exception for the 10 commandments. That part of the Law, we gotta follow. (And, okay, the commands against homosexuality, ’cause it creeps ’em out.) The rest of the commands can go. Especially the ones banning pork. Love that bacon.

What makes the 10 commandments an exception? Tradition. Parents have emphasized them for so long; especially the “honor your parents” part. It’s in their interest to make sure their kids know God orders us to honor our parents.

Often it’s because violating them is so obviously wrong, it makes no sense to claim they no longer count. “Don’t murder” totally counts. “Don’t steal” too. “Don’t adulter” keeps the institution of marriage stable. “Don’t give false testimony” is also kinda necessary in our society.

But even so, we still don’t take some of these commands as seriously as we ought. “Don’t covet”: We still absolutely shouldn’t want what we can’t have, but our materialist society goes out of its way to tell us we can have pretty much everything we desire. “Honor Sabbath” likewise goes by the wayside, as people think the way they honor Sabbath is to go to church every Sunday morning… but Sunday afternoon is either for football or work.

I’d remind you Jesus actually didn’t cancel the Law. He totally expects us to continue to follow its moral commands, Mt 5.17-19 like the 10 commandments. Not because our salvation is at stake; obedience to the Law doesn’t save us and never did. It’s because the LORD’s commands are how life in God’s kingdom works. Once God saved the Hebrews from Egypt, how were they meant to live?—by his Law. And once God saves the rest of us from sin and death, how are we meant to live?—still by his Law, particularly Jesus’s interpretation of it.

The 10 commandments are the right way to live. Follow them, and you’re following Jesus.

Numbering them.

In the Hebrew text, there are paragraph-marks at the end of each command. That’s why 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’s an additional paragraph-mark in the middle of Deuteronomy 5.21, making “Don’t covet your neighbor’s woman” separate from the rest of that command. 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 YHWH your God,” Ex 20.2, Dt 5.6 doesn’t look like a command. It looks like a preamble. “I’m the LORD, and here are my commands.” So that’s how we’ve largely chosen to interpret it: As a preamble. But Jews rightly recognize it’s a command. It’s one God actually repeats again and again throughout his Law: “Do this. I’m the LORD.” Because if the LORD isn’t God—if we don’t recognize or acknowledge his sovereignty—why even follow his commands?

So whenever I teach on the 10 commandments, I go with the Jews’ numbering system, and remind people “I’m YHWH your God” is a command, is the first commandment. It’s foundational to the Law. (And the fact Jesus is YHWH is foundational to why we Christians gotta follow it. It’s Jesus’s Law.)

But I still oughta give a mention to the other two ways people number the 10 commandments. The other ways consider “I’m YHWH your God” a preamble to “No other gods and no idols.” The Catholic and Lutheran order splits “No coveting” and “No coveting your neighbor’s woman” into two, same as Deuteronomy. And the Protestant order (not that Lutherans aren’t definitely Protestant) splits “No other gods and no idols” into “No other gods” and “No idols,” and has just the one command for coveting.

VERSESJEWSCATHOLICS &
LUTHERANS
OTHER
PROTESTANTS
Ex 20.2, Dt 5.6 1. The LORD is God. 1. The LORD is God;
no other gods;
no idols.
0. The LORD is God.
Ex 20.3, Dt 5.7 2. No other gods;
no idols.
1. No other gods.
Ex 20.4-6, Dt 5.8-10 2. No idols.
Ex 20.7, Dt 5.11 3. Don’t misuse God’s name. 2. Don’t misuse God’s name. 3. Don’t misuse God’s name.
Ex 20.8-11, Dt 5.12-15 4. Sanctify Sabbath. 3. Sanctify Sabbath. 4. Sanctify Sabbath.
Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16 5. Honor parents. 4. Honor parents. 5. Honor parents.
Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17 6. Don’t murder. 5. Don’t murder. 6. Don’t murder.
Ex 20.14, Dt 5.18 7. Don’t adulter. 6. Don’t adulter. 7. Don’t adulter.
Ex 20.15, Dt 5.19 8. Don’t steal. 7. Don’t steal. 8. Don’t steal.
Ex 20.16, Dt 5.20 9. Don’t perjure. 8. Don’t perjure. 9. Don’t perjure.
Ex 20.17, Dt 5.21 10. Don’t covet. 9. Don’t covet stuff. 10. Don’t covet.
Ex 20.17, Dt 5.21 10. Don’t covet wives.

So when you refer to “the fifth commandment,” be aware a Baptist and a Catholic are gonna think entirely different things. When a Baptist says he broke the fifth commandment with his parents, he means he didn’t honor them. When a Catholic says she broke the fifth commandment with her parents, it means she murdered ’em. (And, I guess, didn’t honor ’em either.)

Although, like I pointed out earlier, most people don’t even know the commands as well as they ought, and when you say “fifth commandment” both the Baptist and Catholic might think it means they stole, or cussed, or something.

Put ’em in your brain!

Memorize the 10 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 “swear to God” and not mean it; (4) Sabbath; (5) respect parents; and don’t (6) murder, (7) adulter, (8) steal, (9) perjure, or (10) covet. That’s easy enough to memorize, and when you have more time you can memorize the specifics.

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 10 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 why not follow them? And if we can get the hang of the basics, we’ll be more prepared for the more advanced commands God eventually gives us.

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