Ten Tidbits About the Ten Commandments

1. Although commonly referred to as the “Ten Commandments,” in the Hebrew Bible itself they are not so called; rather, they are referred to as the “ten words/sayings” (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4). Thus a better designation perhaps is that derived from the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint (LXX), from the 3rd or 2ndcentury B.C.E: the “Decalogue.”  The word “Decalogue” comes into English via French and Old Latin from the Greek, deka meaning “ten,” and logos (pl. logoi), meaning “word, saying.” There are at least two versions of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible: Exod 20:2–17 and Deut 5:6–21.

2. In Exod 20:5, which grammatically probably should be connected with v. 3, Israel learns that it is not to bow down to other gods or to “serve” them, that is, to worship them by performing sacrifices to them (Exod 3:12; 4:23; 13:5; Deut 7:16; 12:2, 30). Note that this command presupposes that other gods do exist, but demands that they not be worshiped, a view scholars have termed monolatry. Israel’s polytheistic neighbors might worship a plurality of gods, but YHWH, the God who delivered Israel from Egypt, demands radical allegiance to him alone (cf. Exod 34:14).

3. Exod 20:7 declares that one should not use the name of Israel’s God, YHWH, improperly. In its ancient context this most likely refers to using YHWH’s name improperly in cultic and judicial settings, that is, for illicit magical purposes, divination, and in false oaths that the swearer does not intend to fulfill or in which he or she is lying. Additionally, prophets spoke in the name of YHWH, often introducing their prophecy with the formula “Thus says YHWH.” This injunction also may wish to limit those who might pretend to prophesy in YHWH’s name falsely (cf. the serious penalty for doing so in Deut 18:20–22; see also Jer 28). [cf. also number 7 below]

4. In Exod 20:8–11 the reason given to keep the Sabbath day holy recalls the first creation account in Genesis 1:1–2:4a where, following six days of labor, God rests. Thus some scholars refer to this version of the Decalogue as the Priestly Decalogue. By contrast, in Deut 5:12–15, Moses’ ostensible repetition of the instruction received at Sinai/Horeb to the second Israelite generation, the rationale for this socio-religious practice is Israel’s slavery in, and Exodus from, Egypt.

5. YHWH commands that one honor their parents. Other Biblical texts indicate that this means not to hit, insult, disgrace, or misuse the property of one’s parents (Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9; Deut 27:16; Prov 30:17). It also means taking care of one’s parents when they reach old age and/or become infirm. In its ancient context the promise associated with this commandment (and note: this is the only statement in the Decalogue with an explicit promise associated with it) does not mean that each person who honors their parents necessarily will live long lives, but that Israel as a nation will long endure upon the land that YHWH will give them if they keep this commandment (cf. Deut 5:29, 33; 6:2–3).

6. The KJV translates Exod 20:13 as “thou shalt not kill,” which is a misleading translation of the Hebrew. The crime referred to is anti-social murder; it is not a total prohibition on killing regardless of circumstances.

7. The commandment not to bear false witness in its original context does not refer to lying in general, but rather to swearing false oaths in a judicial setting, including bringing false accusations against others or testifying falsely (cf. the penalty for false oaths in Deut 19:15–21). [cf. also number 3 above]

8. Exod 20:17 is an injunction not to “covet” one’s neighbor’s household, specifying in particular a neighbor’s wife, slaves, and livestock. This commandment begins the movement from legislating concrete behaviors to legislating internal thoughts and feelings, the kinds of thoughts or emotions that would lead one to break the preceding commandments. The Hebrew verb for “covet” though is more active in sense than its English translation suggests, and probably refers to actively scheming and devising ways to acquire a neighbor’s assets.

9. Exod 20:17 places a man’s wife as first in the category of a man’s household property, followed by slaves, cattle, livestock, and other property. Deut 5:21, however, gives the command not to covet a man’s wife before the command not to covet a neighbor’s house(hold), and then follows with the neighbor’s house(hold), livestock, and other property. This seems to accord with Deuteronomy’s more egalitarian impulse. (Note though that both Exodus and Deuteronomy address their audience with the second person masculine singular pronoun.)

10. In its wider literary setting, Exod 20:1 presents the Decalogue as an unmediated public revelation to all Israel assembled at Sinai, regardless of gender, race, and class. Thus, in its literary setting this is the only part of the law that Israel heard directly from God. Following the second description of the divine theophany in Exod 20:18–21, the text states that the people were afraid and requested Moses’ mediation. Thereafter the law is delivered to the people via Moses as prophetic intermediary. The fact that Exodus highlights the Decalogue in this way, by having it be the only thing that God spoke directly to Israel without intermediary, emphasizes the importance of these statements in Israel’s burgeoning self-conception as the people of God.



Brettler, Marc Z. How to Read the Jewish Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Weinfeld, Moshe. “The Uniqueness of the Decalogue and Its Place in Jewish Tradition.” Pages 1–44 in The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition. Edited by Ben-Zion. Segal and Gershon Levi. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990.

  • http://prolusionsix.wordpress.com DLewis

    Great stuff as always, TYD.

  • g.wesley

    Super, TYD.

    How might you productively respond to someone who wants to point to the decalogue as evidence that the gospel and God do not change?

    On the flip side, to what extent do you think the adaptation of the decalogue over time might be used to lobby for change today, if at all?

  • Bojangles

    Non biblical studies scholar here. I love (lurking at) this blog.

    I’m sure this question is just a small drop in an ocean of faith/scholarship tensions which you all are probably well adjusted to, but I’m having trouble understanding why I should take this text as authoritative, given that it arises out of a world view totally foreign and apparently naive compared to a more modern understanding and the modern church in particular.

    Specifically, much of what I read in the Old Testament strikes me as tribal mythology not more or less credible than the mythology of other cultures (including the ones condemned in the decalogue). How do you guys deal with this? “Divinity can and must be understood within the cultural assumptions at hand”? “God moves in mysterious ways”? “Religion is purely a social construct anyway, so this isn’t surprising”? “The Bible is a simply an anthology of ways that humans have thought about divinity throughout time”? Or are there ways of reading these old texts that still leave them with some authoritative teeth? Is the decision to grant the text authority simply that—an arbitrary decision?

    These difficulties seem especially perplexing for Mormons since much of Joseph Smith’s theology seems built on a rather naive understanding of the Bible (literal Adam and Eve, etc.)

    I ask this question in all sincerity as a wavering Mormon who acknowledges the sublime spiritual power of much of Mormon scripture, but also has just enough knowledge to be very confused.

  • mogget

    Hi Bojangles,

    I think more of the FPR gang might appear later to respond, so I’m just the first. Let me begin by telling you that while we are, in a sense, “adjusted” to the tension between faith and scholarship, what that means for most of us is that we are comfortable with sometimes being uncomfortable, if that makes sense. Now, speaking for myself, what that means is that when I am uncomfortable I don’t make radical changes based on that sense of discomfort. And I do derive support in this from the FPR community, which can be important at times, so find some friends with whom you can share. Speaking also for myself, I am very wary of folks who claim to have all the answers, or permanent answers, or whatever. I just need enough of an answer to take the next step, so to speak.

    The “approved solution” to the question of a text’s authority is usually something to the effect that a text has authority to the extent that a community, in our case, the church, so privileges it. If you decided to belong to the church, then you have decided in some fashion to follow it’s reading of the text. In reality, I think I accord any text the authority I deem appropriate. Ideally, our reading of a particular passage is “checked and balanced” by what we read in other authoritative sources, what we learn in conversation with others, public teaching on the matter, prayer, and our own life experiences including our cultural and historical situation. One thing that I think is essential is the standard Christian position that a disciple must filter everything, including the OT, through the double love command: God and neighbor. This, I think, makes scripture a richer resource for right living.

    As for Joseph Smith’s readings of the OT… They are anchored in his time and place, of course, so perhaps they appear naive now. Do not worry; your readings will appear naive and ill-founded in 200 years, as well!


    Frankly, I don’t worry too much about how JS read scripture. What counts is how I read scripture, and my relationship with God, which works itself out through service to others. And you can do quite a bit for other people without ever having to care about how JS read Genesis.



  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.


    Mogs addressed some of the bigger questions and I agree with her on those. I, like you, am not a bible-scholar. I just want to address something you referenced twice:

    ” but I’m having trouble understanding why I should take this text as authoritative”

    Later you say:

    “Or are there ways of reading these old texts that still leave them with some authoritative teeth? Is the decision to grant the text authority simply that—an arbitrary decision?”

    What do you mean by authoritative?

    For me, I do not view scripture as having authoritative quality. Instead, they are meant to cultivate a relationship with God. That relationship is the essence of faith. So scripture is about that relationship. It is not an instruction manual. It is not a rule book.

    But, aren’t the 10 commandments…ummmm….10 sayings….rules or instructions. Sure, there are some does and don’ts there. They are very good rules to live by. However, we do not need the 10 commandments to know that murder and stealing are bad. Instead, the message of the 10 commandments (for me) is that God communicates with us. He has a relationship with us. As part of that relationship, he also wants us to treat each other will love and respect.

    I will leave it there for now. Thanks for following us here at FPR.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/author/theyellowdart/ The Yellow Dart


    Thank you for stopping by and participating here at FPR! I think your questions are very important to consider, and I would bet that if you have them, there are other silent readers of FPR who probably do as well. So thank you for speaking up and getting an important conversation going!

    I do not claim to have all the definitive answers by any means, but I have thought a lot about the issues you raise. So as to not unnecessarily repeat things I have said elsewhere, let me provide you with this link to a post I specifically wrote about how LDS Christians can begin to think about reading and using the Bible as authoritative Scripture: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2011/09/on-biblical-scripture/

    I think it is also important to remember that the issues of personal experience, interpretation, and hermeneutics are key in reading and using the LDS Standard Works as Scripture. I wrote a post that touches on some of these issues vis-a-vis the specific question of whether LDS women could/should hold the priesthood here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2010/12/scriptural-authority-normativity-and-hermeneutics-women-and-the-priesthood/

    Another post on the same topics as those just mentioned in the previous paragraph, using Isaiah 7:14 as a case study, can be found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2011/01/isaiah-714-and-scriptural-hermeneutics/ . The comments on this thread are particularly good too, as I recall, so check them out.

    Finally, I have introduced a series about reading the Scriptures from a Canonical perspective here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2012/03/understanding-the-scriptures-and-apostasy-theologically-from-a-canonical-perspective-part-1/ . I intend to write more about this at a future date; but this approach is specifically concerned with reading the Bible (and by extension other religiously authoritative texts) theologically as Scripture.

    Thank you again for stopping by. I appreciate your comments and questions, and I hope that as you think about these issues that you will continue to dialogue with us here at FPR.

    Also, thank you DLewis, Mogget, and Chris H. for your advice, perspectives, and participation.

    Best wishes,


  • g.wesley


    If you haven’t already, you might find some more food for this kind of thought in the book Mormons and the Bible, by P.Barlow, due any time in reprint 20 year aniv. ed., with updating intro/forward.

  • http://timesandseasons.org Ben S

    Hey Mr Bo. Good questions, which I think are related but ultimately separate. 1) How determinative are Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the Old Testament? 2) What are we to make of the presence of culture and mythology in the Old Testament?
    Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, have been wrestling productively with question 2 and how it bleeds over into question 1 (mutatis mutandis, e.g. for Paul, Luther, etc.) These would include Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which I can’t recommend highly enough; has a blog), Kenton Sparks (God’s Word in Human Form), and John Walton (indirectly through several works, including The Lost World of Genesis One), and Michael Heiser (also has a blog+podcast). My own thoughts have been influenced by these folks.
    As for question 1, all prophets are encultured, which means they tend to share the worldview and assumptions of their culture, and whatever inspiration they receive will inevitably be encoded and enmeshed in it. That applies to Joseph Smith as much as it does to Paul, Isaiah, or Moses. I don’t think acknowledging that either commits us to an ultra-literal/historical view or, on the other hand, gives us carte blanche to dismiss this or that as “merely” cultural, but it does put me on the road to grasping the issue better.
    I’ve written about some of these authors and their ideas, as well as myth in the Old Testament and enclutured prophets here (may have to go back through the archives a bit) and here.

  • Bojangles

    Fantastic responses, guys. Thanks for the help!


    I loved your definition of “adjusted” in the context of Biblical studies. That’s illuminating and helpful for me.

    I’ve run across the “approved solution” before, and it’s dissatisfying to me, primarily because in response to the question of why one takes a text as authoritative, it answers with a sociological description instead of a robust justification (the kind of justification that would compel a reasonable informed party to accept the text as authoritative, the kind of justification that would impel proselytizing). The “approved solution” also seems to founder when one realizes that the community takes the text as authoritative largely because it misunderstands the text. For example, most LDS believe in the doctrine of the fall because they believe that Adam and Eve existed as real people and that they disobeyed the command of God. One could go on with examples, drawing from precisely the points of tension between informed scholarship and community doctrine. So it doesn’t work for me to respond to scholarly difficulties by clinging to the original doctrine of the community on the grounds that I’m a part of the community, while the community still believes it because they’re unaware of the problem. Does this make sense?

    Anyway, it seems that you, in reality, “accord the text the authority [you] deem appropriate,” so I gather you share some of my misgivings about the “approved solution.” I still, however, struggle with a sense that the “checks and balances” you lay out are backed by a naive understanding of the text. That is, LDS leaders are largely unaware (I presume) of the difficulties in Biblical scholarship, and while we believe them to be inspired, they can be (and have demonstrably been) wrong in their interpretations. But I do love your invocation of the “double-love command” as a hermeneutical filter.

    Chris H:

    “What do you mean by authoritative?” Great question, and one I’d do well to clarify for myself. As I think about it, I can’t think of a definition relevant to spirituality that would exclude Old Testament texts. So good point. And I like your view of scripture as being about that relationship with God. My trouble is that I’m not sure how to conceive of God in light of the fact that ancient Israelites had an ever-shifting pantheon disturbingly reminiscent of Greek mythology, making it hard for me to take their conceptions of God (who we agree we’re trying to access through the Old Testament text) seriously. Can you help me see how the book of Exodus informs your conception of God, besides our awareness that people in ancient times had some strange ideas about Him?


    Thanks for those links. I haven’t read through them yet, but they look like they’ll be fruitful. I’ll check them out.


    I’ve heard people rave about that book, and given your recommendation I’ll be sure to check it out. Thanks for the tip.

    Ben S:

    Thanks for the numerous recommendations and links. Your brief description of encultured prophets is helpful, and though I’ve got further questions on that, I’ll save them until after I’ve read through some of your linked blog posts.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/ Chris H.

    “Can you help me see how the book of Exodus informs your conception of God, besides our awareness that people in ancient times had some strange ideas about Him?”

    Ah, yes. My approach to the Old Testament…and scripture is inform by my study of ancient greek thought. I primarily study modern and contemporary thought, but I am required to have an understanding of the ancients to teach and also to more fully appreciate and comprehend the moderns.

    Did the ancient Israelites has strange ideas about God. Well, I tend to think that all ideas about diety are strange in some way. If we appreciate it as an ancient text, we can also appreciate the thought and experiences that they had.

    As a liberal, it was long easy for me to just dismiss the ancients. However, when I decided to study them with a more open mind, I found that there was much to be found. This is also how I view the OT. Be careful not to confuse the actual content of the OT with how some people use it…even demagogue it.

    My approach is generally to read the OT as Greek Tragedy. Much more fun.