Ten Commandments

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TEN COMMANDMENTS . The Ten Commandments (or the Decalogue) appear twice in the Hebrew scriptures, at Exodus 20:117 and at Deuteronomy 5:621. There are differences between the two listings, but the order and the general contents are substantially identical. The commandments may be grouped as follows:

  • Commandments 13 : God's self-identification, followed by commandments against the worship of other gods, idolatry, and misuse of the divine name (Ex. 20:17, Dt. 5:611).
  • Commandments 45 : Positive commands to observe the Sabbath and to honor parents (Ex. 20:812, Dt. 5:1216).
  • Commandments 67 : Prohibitions of violent acts against neighbors, namely, killing and adultery (Ex. 20:1314, Dt. 5:1718).
  • Commandments 810 : Prohibitions of crimes against community life, namely, stealing, testifying falsely, and hankering after the life and goods of neighbors (Ex. 20:1517, Dt. 5:1921).

In the Jewish and Christian communities the order has occasionally varied, and the numbering has varied considerably, especially in the different Christian communions. Tables listing the various enumerations can be found in works by Harrelson (1980) and Nielsen (1968). The prologue with which the list opens, both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy, belongs to the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." In the oldest listing of the "Ten Words" (Ex. 34:28), the prologue may not have appeared, but it became attached to the list early in Israel's history, setting the demands of God into the context of divine grace and mercy.

The origin of the Ten Commandments is traditionally traced to Moses. There is no adequate reason to doubt the accuracy of the tradition, even though the present form of the Ten Commandments is considerably later than Moses' time. None of the individual commandments, which were probably originally brief, pithy prohibitions of actions ruled out in principle, requires a dating later than the time of Moses. The grouping of the ten may belong to the time when the tribes of Israel had settled in Canaan and maintained ties across tribal lines; some scholars would assign the collection to a later time, perhaps to the ninth century bce. The closest analogies to the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew scriptures appear in the curse ritual of Deuteronomy 27:1516 and in portions of the section of the Torah sometimes called the "Book of the Covenant" (Ex. 20:2323:33). See, for example, Exodus 21:1517, where short, categorial legal pronouncements appear.

The Ten Commandments are alluded to in a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures, in the Qumran literature, and in the New Testament, although they are rarely quoted exactly and do not appear at all in a complete listing outside of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The prologue is found in a number of places (Hos. 13:4, Ps. 81:10/11), and there are lists of some of the prohibitions in several places (Hos. 4:2, Mk. 10:1722 and parallels). But the fundamental outlook of the Ten Commandments is characteristic for the Jewish and Christian communities through the centuries. God will not have the divine name and selfhood profaned, for the Creator remains free and sovereign over against the creation. God demands rest from labor as well as labor, and he will not tolerate the mistreatment of elderly parents by adult children. God claims authority over human life and demands respect for life on the part of all. God will not permit the violation of the extended life of human beings in their social and institutional relations.

The Ten Commandments became a fixed part of Christian catechetical practice and worship. Less prominent in Islam, they are implicit in much that Muammad taught. In the course of Christian history they have frequently contributed to narrowness of vision and legalism. Yet it seems likely that they have contributed much more by way of positive guidance to the community. Negatively put categorical statements of this sort provide moral orientation of the community, the defining characteristics of a people, showing what is simply not allowed. The Ten Commandments require positive statements of what idolatry means, what murder is, how the Sabbath is to be observed, and the like. They constitute not so much a constriction of human freedom as an invitation to the community to claim its proper freedom within the confines of what would be ruinous for it.

See Also

Israelite Law, overview article; Israelite Religion.


Greenberg, Moshe. "Decalogue." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 5. Jerusalem, 1971.

Harrelson, Walter. The Ten Commandments and Human Rights. Philadelphia, 1980.

Nielsen, Eduard. The Ten Commandments in New Perspective. Naperville, Ill., 1968.

Stamm, J. J., with M. E. Andrew. The Ten Commandments in Recent Research. 2d ed. Naperville, Ill., 1967.

Walter Harrelson (1987)