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The Ten Commandments

Updated on February 6, 2010

The Ten Commandments are the most terse, inclusive, and celebrated abridgment of a code of ethical conduct in all of mankind's written tradition. Judeo-Christian tradition believes them to have the highest possible authority for man because, as related in the Bible, they were revealed by God to Moses. They are often referred to as the Decalogue, a term that comes from Greek and means the "ten words." They are the basic moral component of God's covenant with Israel. Although they consist mainly of prohibitions, they have the widest positive implications for human responsibility toward God, other people, and things. The Christian law of love does not abrogate the Ten Commandments, but the Christian believes that faith in Christ gives an entirely new meaning to ethical conduct, based on a new relationship between him and God.

Versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The Ten Commandments appear in two different places in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). The phrasing is similar but not identical (see text of both versions given on page 470).

Very likely the additional words that embellish some of the commandments in both versions are accretions from the time when Exodus and Deuteronomy were written down, long after the actual revelation of the Decalogue. The versions often employed in teaching the commandments are paraphrases of the Biblical texts. The number ten, as well as the allocation into two "tables" of the law, does not appear clearly in either of the two listings of commandments, but both appear in other parts of Exodus and Deuteronomy (Exodus 24:12; 31:18; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4).

Most Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians enumerate the commandments differently from Roman Catholics and Lutherans. Mainly following the Exodus text and Palestinian and Greek tradition, they make the prohibition against "other gods" the first commandment, after the introductory words, "I am the Lord. . . ." The prohibition against idolatry forms the second commandment, reverence for the name of God the third, and keeping the Lord's day the fourth. The prohibition against "coveting," whether of a neighbor's wife or of his property, constitutes the tenth.

Lutherans and Roman Catholics follow the Deuteronomic version and the enumeration of St. Augustine and the Western Church. The prohibition against "other gods" and idolatry are combined to make the first commandment, reverence for the name of God is the second, and observance of the Lord's day is the third. The precept against coveting a neighbor's wife forms the ninth commandment, and that against coveting a neighbor's goods is the tenth.

Mosaic Origin

Some 19th and early 20th century Biblical scholars denied the traditional attribution of the Ten Commandments to Moses or the Mosaic era. They generally believed the concepts too advanced for that period and preferred a later date, such as the age of the prophets, in the 7th century B.C. More recent scholarship has tended to reinstate the tradition, since the prophets betray knowledge of the commandments, and since similar ethical codes existed in ancient times, though lacking the religious purity of the decalogue. The Mosaic origin can be upheld at least in the sense that the commandments transformed known ethical imperatives into the most solemn signs of a covenant, or treaty, between God and His people. The tradition concerning stone tablets is suggestive of a treaty, as is the writing "by the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18) and the mediation by Moses.

Ethical Precepts

The precept against having "other gods" and idols meant that no rival gods were permitted in opposition to the one true God. Idols and the use of the name of a god indicated some knowledge of the inner nature of the god, and hence some control over him. In the commandments of the first "table" (1 to 4) Israel was taught its obligation to obey and serve God, not to attempt to control Him or to coerce His favor. The commandment about the observance of the Lord's day has been important in the social life and thought of man; one day's rest out of seven for man and beast, and one day for public worship in the week. The precepts of the second "table" (5 to 10) demand respect for basic human rights and require social responsibility, both in outward act and inward desire. For example, the honoring of parents implies a whole ethic of family life, and includes the obligation of parents to command justly as well as that of children to obey. They also aim at the integrity and wholeness of God's people as a society.

The commandments are profoundly positive and enlarging. They give no warrant for legalistic religious interpretations. They are often cited in the New Testament (Matthew 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 8:20; Romans 13:9; James 2:11), and they are revered in common by Christians and Jews.


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