Ten Insights about the Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments are among the best-known, and most poorly understood, biblical texts. They appear first in in Exodus 20, Parashat Yitro, and are repeated in Deuteronomy 5, Parashat Va’etchanan. A careful look at them highlights certain problems and offers a clear window into the value of historical-critical biblical scholarship.
Here are ten misconceptions about the Ten Commandments:
1. These should be called the Ten Commandments.
The Hebrew term עשרת הדברים, popularly known as “the Ten Commandments,” appears three times: Exodus 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4, and is more accurately translated “The Ten Sayings,” which is reflected in the more preferable English term Decalogue, from Greek “deca logoi,” i.e., “Ten Sayings.”
Rejecting the translation “commandment” is not a matter of pedantry. The opening phrase אנכי י־הוה אלהיך “I am YHWH your God” is formulated as an utterance, not a commandment.
2. This is the original Decalogue.
Strikingly, the term עשרת הדברים “The Ten Sayings” is absent from Exodus 20! The term is first used in Exodus 34:28, after a set of (ten) laws in vv. 10-26, and many scholars believe that this was the original or earliest Decalogue, which is often named “the Cultic Decalogue,” since it largely deals with cultic or ritual matters.
3. We know how to get to the number ten.
Exodus 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4 all give ten as the number of sayings. But contrary to many of the artistic depictions, the Bible does not contain Roman numerals that elucidate how to divide into ten the various sayings, which are more than ten. This is done by combining various sayings together, and/or by seeing “I am YHWH your God” as introductory, and not counting among the ten. Even Jewish tradition does not offer a single definitive way of doing this.
4. We know the order of the sayings in the Decalogue.
Two passages in the Bible, in which prophets are accusing Israel of misbehavior, contain the Decalogue’s short two-word sayings beginning with לא, “you shall not,” in different orders from each other, and a different order from the Torah.
|Hosea (4:2)||Jeremiah (7:9)|
|[False] swearing, dishonesty, and murder, and theft and adultery are rife; Crime follows upon crime!||Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced,|
|אָלֹ֣ה וְכַחֵ֔שׁ וְרָצֹ֥חַ וְגָנֹ֖ב וְנָאֹ֑ף פָּרָ֕צוּ וְדָמִ֥ים בְּדָמִ֖ים נָגָֽעוּ||הֲגָנֹ֤ב׀ רָצֹ֙חַ֙ וְֽנָאֹ֗ף וְהִשָּׁבֵ֥עַ לַשֶּׁ֖קֶר וְקַטֵּ֣ר לַבָּ֑עַל וְהָלֹ֗ךְ אַחֲרֵ֛י אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם:|
Indeed, much ancient evidence suggests that these short commandments were known in a variety of different orders (see e.g. the Nash Papyrus, the best manuscripts of the LXX which have adultery before murder, an order also found in Luke 18:20, Romans 13:9 and Philo).
5. The Decalogue was written on tablets that were rounded on the top.
This is a late artistic tradition, imported into Judaism from Christian art, based on the form of the Roman diptych. Not all Christian art adopted this convention; Michaelangelo’s Moses (created 1513-15) shows Moses with two rectangular tablets. This is certainly how they would have been imagined in antiquity; at least this is how they appear in the Dura Europos synagogue, and how the rabbis seem to have imagined them (b. Baba Batra 14a; Exodus Rabbah 28:1) – despite the many synagogues that (under Christian influence) include depictions of rounded tablets.
Additionally, it is surprising that artistic representations show writing on only one side of the tablets, while Exodus 32:15 explicitly states that it was written on both front and back.
6. Each tablet of the Decalogue contained five sayings.
Although fifteen biblical texts speak of two tablets, none clarifies what was written on each. Nothing in the biblical text suggests that each tablet contained five sayings, and some scholars have suggested that since the tablets functioned to seal a ברית (berit), covenant, like ancient near Eastern treaties, two complete copies were made: one for the overlord or suzerain, the other for the vassal or subservient power. Thus, it is quite possible that the Bible is imagining that each of the two tablets contained the text of the entire Decalogue.
7. The Decalogue is law.
Laws typically contain punishments; these are strikingly absent in the Decalogue, though much of later Jewish tradition assumed, with little evidence, that violation of the norms of the Decalogue are all punished by death. This is nowhere stated in the Bible. Indeed, it is best to understand these statements as admonitions, not as laws.
8. Stealing refers to kidnapping.
This is the view of the rabbis (see Mekhilta of R. Ishmael and b. Sanhedrin 86a) and is supported by some modern critical scholars (e.g. Albrecht Alt). It is largely based on the notion that violation of most of the other sayings in the Decalogue is viewed elsewhere in the Bible as a capital offense, so this must be the case here as well, so stealing here must refer to the case of Exodus 21:16, of stealing a person, which is a punishable by death. But nothing indicates that all of the sayings refer to capital cases; this is especially unlikely with the final case(s) concerning coveting.
9. We know “the” text of the Decalogue.
The Decalogue texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy differ in many points, small and large. This is explained in a variety of ways in Jewish tradition, most famously with the idea that שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד, “both [versions] were spoken simultaneously [by God].”
Academic scholars suggest that the versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy reflect variant redactions of an older collection. The one in Exodus went through Priestly editing, and thus reflects the Priestly creation story ending with Shabbat in Genesis 2:1-4a; the Deuteronomy version underwent Deuteronomic editing, and thus offers the exodus as the reason for Shabbat observance, since this is a main theme of Deuteronomy. Thus, most scholars believe that both the Exodus and Deuteronomy version reflect changes over time to a much shorter original Decalogue, although no unanimity has been attained about that more original text.
10. The text of the Decalogue is internally consistent.
Jewish tradition (b. Makkot 24a; b. Horayot 8a) typically explains the change in reference to God in the first person in Exodus 20:2-6 (e.g. “I am YHWH your God,” “my commandments”) to third person in the remainder of the Decalogue (e.g. “the commandments of YHWH your God” “For in six days YHWH made” “the land that YHWH your God”) by suggesting that God only spoke the beginning of the Decalogue directly to Israel, while the rest was conveyed by Moses, who spoke of God in the third person. (This assumes that Exodus 20:18-21, which describes the people’s plea that God cease speaking directly to them, describes events transpiring in the middle of the Decalogue.) Academic scholars, however, believe that this difference reflects different texts or traditions that have been combined.
Scholars have also pointed out that Exodus 20:4 intervenes between vv. 3 and 5, and is thus secondary. Verse 5 refers to להם “them”, which is the logical grammatical continuation of v. 3 אלהים אחרים “other gods” in the plural, while v. 4 refers to פסל “a sculpted image” in the singular.
The Decalogue is presented in Exodus 20:1 and Deuteronomy 5:4 as the unmediated words of God spoken to all Israel on Mount Sinai/Horeb. It is striking, however, that Exodus and Deuteronomy do not agree on the precise content of this revelation. I would have imagined that such an important speech would have been preserved exactly, word for word, with no deviations. But this is not so.
Perhaps we can adduce a קל וחומר, “an a fortiori argument” from the minor to the major, from this case example. If the Decalogue—presumed to be divine revelation by God to all Israel— was not preserved exactly, but is now found in the Torah in two versions, with significant differences, is it not then surprising that other biblical texts appear in doublets (and triplets), reflecting changes that transpired over time?
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 1, 2015
January 16, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
Essays on Related Topics: