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.