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Cynthia Edenburg





The Origins of the Decalogue





APA e-journal

Cynthia Edenburg





The Origins of the Decalogue








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The Origins of the Decalogue

The Decalogue was not originally part of the Sinai theophany but was added later, both in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Its origins lie in wisdom literature.


The Origins of the Decalogue

A close-up of the Decalogue, Exodus 20, in a Torah scroll. Wikimedia

Myriads of generations of Jews and Christians from antiquity to the present view the Decalogue—a term deriving from the Greek deka logoi (Ten Words)—as an epitome of YHWH’s basic obligations, unbounded by either time or place.[1] It was held in such high esteem in Second Temple times that it was included within the daily recitation of the Shema (m. Tamid 5:1).[2] The Decalogue has long played a central part in Jewish iconography, with the image of the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments decorating Torah coverings, the Ark, and its curtain (parochet), thus symbolizing the Torah as a whole.[3]

Part of the reason the Decalogue is perceived as representing all of Torah legislation is because it is described as having been given at the Sinai/Horeb theophany.[4] Moreover, it is followed by the Covenant Collection in Exodus, and the Deuteronomic Law Collection in Deuteronomy,[5] leading readers to view the later collections as expanding upon its core themes.[6] Nevertheless, the Decalogue appears to be a later addition into both the Exodus and Deuteronomy narratives.

Adding the Decalogue into Exodus

Immediately before the Sinai theophany, YHWH explains to Moses that YHWH will speak to him, and the Israelites will hear:

שמות יט:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם...
Exod 19:9 And YHWH said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”…

The context stresses that the content of the message is unimportant—what is significant is that the Israelites see/hear that YHWH indeed speaks to Moses. YHWH further instructs Moses to prepare the people for this event:

שמות יט:יא וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי כִּי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִשִׁי יֵרֵד יְ־הוָה לְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם עַל הַר סִינָי.
Exod 19:11 Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day YHWH will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.

Here the emphasis is on how the Israelites will witness YHWH’s arrival on the mountain. In neither of these verses, does YHWH indicate that part of the event will be the revelation of laws to the people of Israel. And, indeed, when the day arrives, the text focuses its description on the impressive visual and auditory elements of the theophany:

שמות יט:טז וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה.
Exod 19:16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain and a blast of a shofar so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.

Moses then brings the people to the bottom of the mountain (v. 17), where they can see the fiery blaze up close, and witness Moses speaking with YHWH, who apparently answers him with the loud sound described as a shofar blast:

שמות יט:יח וְהַר סִינַי עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו יְ־הוָה בָּאֵשׁ וַיַּעַל עֲשָׁנוֹ כְּעֶשֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁן וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָהָר מְאֹד. יט:יט וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל.
Exod 19:18 Now all of Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because YHWH had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19:19 As the blast of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.

No Reaction to the Decalogue

Later in the story, after the Decalogue appears, we read:

שמות כ:יח{טו} וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק.
Exod 20:18{15} When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.

This continues the previous verses, detailing the people’s reaction to the fiery mountain and the loud noise—the Decalogue is not mentioned here. Indeed, their next comment makes no sense coming after the verbal revelation of the Decalogue:

כ:יט{טז} וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה וְאַל יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹהִים פֶּן נָמוּת.
20:19{16} And they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”

But didn’t YHWH just speak with them—revealing the Decalogue?

A Disconnected Text

In addition, the flow from the story of the theophany to the Decalogue’s introduction is notably choppy. In the verses leading up to the Decalogue, YHWH tells Moses to make sure to warn the people not to climb the mountain, and Moses goes down to deliver the message:

שמות יט:כה וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם. כ:א וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר.
Exod 19:25 So Moses went down to the people and told them. 20:1 And God spoke all these words, saying…

YHWH’s speech, introduced by 20:1, comes out of nowhere, since YHWH said nothing about an imminent revelation of laws. The Decalogue appears to have been spliced into its current context by a later editor. In the original story, God does not speak directly to the Israelites. Instead, YHWH appears on the mountain, and after the people see and hear this, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the laws of the Covenant Collection, which he will teach the Israelites.[7]

Adding the Decalogue into Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy tries to correct the contradictory presentation in Exodus by declaring that YHWH did speak to the people at Mount Horeb (Deuteronomy’s Sinai).

דברים ה:ב יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כָּרַת עִמָּנוּ בְּרִית בְּחֹרֵב... ה:ד פָּנִים בְּפָנִים דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.
Deut 5:2 Our God YHWH made a covenant with us at Horeb. 5:4 YHWH spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire.

And yet, Deuteronomy is inconsistent as well, for the very next verse, which introduces the Decalogue says that Moses hears YHWH’s message and communicates it to the people:

דברים ה:ה אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין יְ־הוָה וּבֵינֵיכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא לְהַגִּיד לָכֶם אֶת דְּבַר יְ־הוָה כִּי יְרֵאתֶם מִפְּנֵי הָאֵשׁ וְלֹא עֲלִיתֶם בָּהָר לֵאמֹר. ה:ו אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם...
Deut 5:5 At that time I (=Moses) was standing between YHWH and you to declare to you the word of YHWH, for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain, saying: 5:6 I, YHWH, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…

Moreover, the introduction of the Decalogue here—“you did not go up the mountain, saying, ‘I am YHWH…’”—is incoherent at best.[8]

Israel Heard the Decalogue, but Still Don’t Want to Hear YHWH

Following the revelation, the text reiterates that the Israelites heard the words of the Decalogue:

דברים ה:כב{יט} אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל כָּל קְהַלְכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הֶעָנָן וְהָעֲרָפֶל קוֹל גָּדוֹל וְלֹא יָסָף וַיִּכְתְּבֵם עַל שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים וַיִּתְּנֵם אֵלָי.
Deut 5:22{19} These words YHWH spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.

As in Exodus, the Israelites claim that they are afraid that they will die when they hear YHWH’s voice, but in Deuteronomy, since they just heard YHWH’s voice, the claim is (re-)phrased artificially, as not wanting to hear YHWH’s voice again (note the words in bold):

דברים ה:כה{כב} וְעַתָּה לָמָּה נָמוּת כִּי תֹאכְלֵנוּ הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת אִם יֹסְפִים אֲנַחְנוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶת קוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ עוֹד וָמָתְנוּ. ה:כו{כג} כִּי מִי כָל בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע קוֹל אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ כָּמֹנוּ וַיֶּחִי.
Deut 5:25{22} But now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of YHWH our God any longer, we shall die. 5:26{23} For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the fire, as we have, and lived?

YHWH Tells Moses “Everything” After the Theophany

The Israelites next ask Moses to tell them “everything” YHWH tells him, and they promise to follow it:

דברים ה:כז{כד} קְרַב אַתָּה וּשֲׁמָע אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאַתְּ תְּדַבֵּר אֵלֵינוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְנוּ וְעָשִׂינוּ.
Deut 5:27{24} Go near, you yourself, and hear all that YHWH our God will say. Then tell us everything that YHWH our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.’

This verse suggests that the Israelites have not heard the laws yet. This is supported by YHWH’s response, allowing them to return to their tents and telling Moses that all the laws will be communicated to him alone:

דברים ה:ל{כז} לֵךְ אֱמֹר לָהֶם שׁוּבוּ לָכֶם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶם. ה:לא{כח} וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תְּלַמְּדֵם וְעָשׂוּ בָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לָהֶם לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 5:30{27} ‘Go say to them, “Return to your tents.” 5:31{28} But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandments, the statutes and the ordinances, that you shall teach them, so that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’

Indeed, the opening verse of this chapter, which leads up to Moses teaching Israel the Deuteronomic laws, implies that he is only now telling them what he was told on Mount Horeb:

דברים ה:א וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם וּלְמַדְתֶּם אֹתָם וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם לַעֲשֹׂתָם.
Deut 5:1 Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully!

Deuteronomy’s introduction of the Horeb encounter set the stage for where only Moses received the Deuteronomy Law Collection, which he is about to teach the Israelites; this parallels Exodus 19, which served as an introduction to the Covenant Collection.[9] The idea that the Israelites themselves heard some laws at Horeb—namely the Decalogue—was added later, although this idea is better integrated in Deuteronomy than it is in Exodus, since this Deuteronomic author added the idea of the Israelites expressing fear about hearing YHWH again as opposed to hearing YHWH at all.

Is the Decalogue Divine Speech?

Deuteronomy presents the Decalogue as YHWH’s direct address to the Israelites, but the Decalogue’s self-presentation is inconsistent. YHWH speaks the first few sentences in the first person singular:

דברים ה:ו אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָיַ.... ה:ח לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם כִּי אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי. ה:ט וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי (מצותו) [מִצְו‍ֹתָי].
Deut 5:6 I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 5:7 you shall have no other gods before me5:9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, YHWH your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me 5:10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

But in the very next sentence, YHWH is referred to in the third person singular:

דברים ה:יא לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה יְ־הוָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא אֶת שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא.
Deut 5:11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Indeed, this shift in style was noticed by traditional commentators, leading to Rav Hamnuna (3rd/4th cent. C.E.) to suggest a compromise position, found in the Talmud (b. Makkot 23b–24a), that all Israel heard only the opening commandments.[10] Nothing in either the narrative or the presentation of the Decalogue itself, however, implies that YHWH was interrupted in the middle.

Instead, it would seem that, when later scribes decided to add the Decalogue into the story, they also composed (or heavily rewrote) the opening to make it fit with a narrative envisioning this text as the product of YHWH’s direct speech to Israel.

Prophetic Imperatives

We cannot reconstruct the precise, (more) original texts of the Decalogue with certainty, although some other biblical texts offer us clues.[11] For example, when Hosea accuses the people of Israel of being ungodly, we read:

הושע ד:א שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר יְ־הוָה בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי רִיב לַיהוָה עִם יוֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ כִּי אֵין אֱמֶת וְאֵין חֶסֶד וְאֵין דַּעַת אֱלֹהִים בָּאָרֶץ. ד:ב אָלֹה וְכַחֵשׁ וְרָצֹחַ וְגָנֹב וְנָאֹף פָּרָצוּ וְדָמִים בְּדָמִים נָגָעוּ.
Hos 4:1 Hear the word of YHWH, O people of Israel! For YHWH has a case against the inhabitants of this land, because there is no honesty and no goodness and no obedience to God in the land. 4:2 Swearing (falsely?), lying, and murder, and theft and adultery are rife; crime follows upon crime!

Similarly, when Jeremiah complains about wicked people using the sacrificial offerings to cover for their sinfulness, we read:

ירמיה ז:ט הֲגָנֹב רָצֹחַ וְנָאֹף וְהִשָּׁבֵעַ לַשֶּׁקֶר וְקַטֵּר לַבָּעַל וְהָלֹךְ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתֶּם. ז:י וּבָאתֶם וַעֲמַדְתֶּם לְפָנַי בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר נִקְרָא שְׁמִי עָלָיו וַאֲמַרְתֶּם נִצַּלְנוּ לְמַעַן עֲשׂוֹת אֵת כָּל הַתּוֹעֵבוֹת הָאֵלֶּה.
Jer 7:9 Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced, 7:10 and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, “We are safe”?—[Safe] to do all these abhorrent things!

These texts depict murder, adultery, and theft as cardinal sins.[12] They both also refer to swearing falsely, and Hosea adds lying. These may be connected to the prohibition found in the current form of the Decalogue against bearing false witness, and/or against using the name YHWH in a false oath.[13]

Many scholars concluded that the prophets were already familiar with the Decalogue and freely quoted from it.[14] But in these instances the prophets do not quote the prohibitions verbatim, but refer to a selection of basic infringements, some of which are also included in the Decalogue. If so, then the Decalogue might have originated as an independent catalogue of imperatives.

Erhard Blum of the University of Tübingen proposes that the Decalogue began as a short series of five prohibitives, comprising the name prohibition, murder, adultery, theft, and false witness.[15] The structure of the Decalogue, however, suggests a slightly different possibility.

Two Types of Rules

Commentators have long noted the distinction between the first group of passages, which deal with laws related to God, ending with the Shabbat law, and the second group of passages, beginning with honoring parents and ending with the admonition not to covet, which focus on the basic moral requirements that allow society to function.[16] (The text does not present itself as Ten Commandments, but has at least 11, perhaps 12, or even 13 if the introduction is counted, see appendix.) Nevertheless, it seems likely that the core of this text was once just the social requirements, and that the first half was added later.

The opening statement along with the first three prohibitives display a concentration of language that echoes the style of Deuteronomy, in contrast to the rest of the Decalogue.[17] Thus, it would seem that Deuteronomistic editors added at least this opening into the Pentateuch and perhaps the entire section of what we would now call religious law. If so, then the original list would have numbered seven social imperatives: the first is cast as a positive statement (“honor your parents”), and is followed by six prohibitives.

Not Laws but Wisdom

We often think about the Decalogue—or in this case, the nascent collection that develops into the Decalogue—as a set of laws.[18] Yet, the opening and closing details of this ancient list—“honor your father and mother” and “you shall not covet/desire”—suggests otherwise, since they involve states of mind and lack objective details to demonstrate that one has indeed dishonored a parent or coveted what properly belongs to another.[19] As such directives cannot be enforced, they cannot be properly defined as law.

For this reason, the German Bible scholar Erhard Gerstenberger has proposed that the Decalogue and other lists (catalogues) of proper behavior originated among scribes who studied and transmitted wisdom literature.[20] Catalogues and lists are at home in the education of scribes, who learned their trade by copying lists and categorizing terms and sayings,[21] and the imperative and the categorical formulation of the Decalogue may well derive from the form of wisdom instructions.[22]

A good parallel in Proverbs of such a prohibitive that was expanded into a longer wisdom saying is:

משלי כב:כב אַל תִּגְזָל דָּל כִּי דַל הוּא וְאַל תְּדַכֵּא עָנִי בַשָּׁעַר. כב:כג כִּי יְ־הוָה יָרִיב רִיבָם וְקָבַע אֶת קֹבְעֵיהֶם נָפֶשׁ.
Prov 22:22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor or crush the afflicted at the gate, 22:24 for YHWH pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.[23]

Here we have a wisdom text, built from a prohibitive with an explanation for why this is foolish behavior. In another context, “do not rob the poor” on its own could be understood as legislation. Indeed it is likely that statements like this in Proverbs were once terse prohibitives like what we find in the Decalogue, but they were expanded upon just as some of the commands in the Decalogue were clearly expanded upon, such as the detailed list of what shouldn’t be coveted, as well as the extensive and different rationales for Sabbath observance in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

Turning Wisdom Instructions into Revealed Law

The list of social imperatives, which stems from the literary traditions of wisdom scribes— and now comprises the second part of the Decalogue—probably circulated in scribal circles in a variety of forms before it became part of a “Decalogue.” The basic form of the Decalogue as we now know it came into being as scribes attempted to reinterpret the essence of the Sinai/Horeb revelations in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

They accomplished this by adding the YHWH commands now found at the beginning of the Decalogue to a list of moral instructions of universal validity, transforming it into a theological statement of principles for one group—Israel. The rules were now presented as a foundational agreement between Israel and their national god, established in the wilderness period.

The two-part form of the Decalogue, in which the universal rules for regulating society are introduced by particular rules that YHWH required of his followers wherever he was revered—even at great distance from his temples—helped establish a religious identity for Yahwistic minorities in the Diaspora.


Is This Set of Laws Really a Decalogue?

The story of the theophany in Exodus (chs. 19–20) does not give a name to the revealed set of laws. Later, after the Golden Calf episode, when Moses goes up the mountain again to write down YHWH’s words on tablets (Exod 34), we are told that these are “the Ten Words”:

שמות לד:כח ...וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל הַלֻּחֹת אֵת דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים.
Exod 34:28 …and he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Words.

In this context, however, the “Ten Words” likely refers to the so-called “Cultic Decalogue” which appears earlier in this same chapter (Exod 34:17–26).[24] Deuteronomy also gives us no name for this set of laws in its theophany account (ch. 5), although in the previous chapter we are told that what is written on the tablets is the Ten Words:

דברים ד:יג וַיַּגֵּד לָכֶם אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים וַיִּכְתְּבֵם עַל שְׁנֵי לֻחוֹת אֲבָנִים.
Deut 4:13 [YHWH] declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the Ten Words, and he wrote them on two stone tablets.

The term עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים “Ten Words” is used again later, when Moses describes the construction of ark:

דברים י:ד וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל הַלֻּחֹת כַּמִּכְתָּב הָרִאשׁוֹן אֵת עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֲלֵיכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ בְּיוֹם הַקָּהָל וַיִּתְּנֵם יְ־הוָה אֵלָי.
Deut 10:4 Then he wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the Ten Words that YHWH had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly, and YHWH gave them to me.

While Deuteronomy, at least as we have it now, does refer to Decalogue[25] as עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים the Ten Words, this description does not really fit, since the text contains more than ten words or sayings—eleven or twelve directives, depending on how one counts,[26] plus an introduction (below I use the wording from Exodus, but note some differences from Deuteronomy in brackets):

אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.


I, YHWH, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage:

לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי.


You shall have no other gods besides Me.

לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל תְּמוּנָה...


You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness…

לֹא תִשְׁתַּחְוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם...


You shall not bow down to them or serve them…

לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא...


You shall not swear falsely by the name of your God YHWH…

זָכוֹר [שָׁמוֹר] אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ...


Remember [Keep] the Shabbat day to make it holy…

כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ...


Honor your father and your mother…

לֹא תִּֿרְצָח


You shall not murder

לֹא תִּֿנְאָף


You shall not commit adultery

לֹא תִּֿגְנֹב


You shall not steal

לֹא תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר [שָּׁוְא]


You shall not bear lying [false] witness against your fellow

לֹא תַחְמֹד [תִתְאַוֶּה] בֵּית רֵעֶךָ[27]


You shall not covet [desire] your fellow’s house

לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ...


You shall not covet your fellow’s wife…

Deuteronomy’s name for this text is thus artificial, and its inclusion in Deuteronomy may have begun as a simple result of the scribes copying the term from Exodus without having a specific text in mind. Perhaps the Decalogue was added into Deuteronomy 5 to clarify what the mysterious “Ten Words” inscribed on the stone tablets were?


February 9, 2023


Last Updated

July 10, 2024


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Dr. Cynthia Edenburg taught at the Open University of Israel and Tel Aviv University. She received her Ph.D. in biblical studies from Tel Aviv University. Many of Edenburg’s publications focus on Deuteronomy, biblical historiography, and exegetical method. She is currently preparing a commentary on the Book of Joshua.