Are the 10 Commandments really a moral code?
Everyone knows that God gave the Israelites the 10 Commandments. Some of you may even be able to list them from memory. But do a search for the phrase “10 commandments” in your Bible and you might be surprised to find that it actually never appears anywhere. (Your translation may supply a subheading at the beginning of these sections that says “The 10 Commandments,” but there is no such subheading in the original Hebrew.) And, for those who have memorized them, which list—of a possible three—is it that you’re reciting? Further, even if we agree on the list, how do you count them to arrive at 10?
The “10 Commandments” are listed in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 34. The first two lists (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) are virtually identical, with a few differences in wording and order. Exodus 34, however, seems to be a completely different (and less familiar) set of commandments.
The list in Exodus 20 is the one to which most people are referring when they cite the 10 Commandments, and it’s introduced in the text as follows: “And God spoke all these words, saying…”
While in Exodus 20 we’re not told how many of “these words” there are, Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:5 and Exodus 34:28 will tell us that there are 10 (in the Greek translation, “deka logous,” meaning “10 words,” and giving us the English “decalog”); but nowhere in the Hebrew will they be referred to as the “10 Commandments.”
But if we can agree that Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 give us a decalog, 10 “words”—and they are clearly more than suggestions, so “commandments” is an appropriate descriptor, even if one that the text doesn’t use specifically to refer to these “words” here—we next need to note that they are not actually enumerated in either place. How should we count them?
Although in agreement that there are indeed 10, Jews, Catholics and Protestants all count them differently. For example, while Jews consider the substance of both verses 2 and 3 as the first commandment, Christians take verse 2 as a preface to the actual first commandment in verse 3; but some Christians see this commandment as continuing through verse 6, while others agree with the Jewish tradition that the second commandment begins in verse 4. I’ve noted the differences in the chart below.
|Commandment||Jewish (Rabbinic)||Christian: Orthodox, Reformed||Christian: Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran|
|I am YHWH your God||1||preface||preface|
|There shall not be for you any other gods before my face||1||1||1|
|You will not make for yourself a statue or any other image||2||2||1|
|You will not raise the name YHWH for worthlessness||3||3||2|
|Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it||4||4||3|
|Honor your father and your mother||5||5||4|
|You will not murder||6||6||5|
|You will not commit adultery||7||7||6|
|You will not steal||8||8||7|
|You will not testify against your fellow as a lying witness||9||9||8|
|You will not covet your fellow’s household||10||10||9|
|You will not covet your fellow’s wife||10||10||10|
You might also notice in my chart that my wording differs from the more familiar “I am the LORD thy God … thou shalt have no other gods before me,” etc. While the King James Version dominates in modern Biblical quotations, its usage of English is 400 years out of date with ours; if we want to understand the Bible’s Hebrew in a way that makes sense to us today, we need to update our translation based on information we now have about Biblical Hebrew that wasn’t available in King James’s day.
I’ll get into the specifics of my translation below. As we go through them, we are trying to understand the commandments on two levels: first, the meaning of each individual rule; and second, the meaning of the whole. Taken together as a Decalog, what kind of document is this? Is it a religious text? Or a moral code? This question matters, because the anti-establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment has been invoked on both sides of the debate about the appropriateness of displaying the Bible’s 10 Commandments in government spaces and on public property. Even though the Bible is a religious document, proponents of such Decalog monuments in courthouses and schoolrooms argue that the 10 Commandments themselves are not necessarily religious, but represent rather the moral and legal foundations of society and the historical source of present-day law codes. This understanding of the commandments as universally applicable relies on common conceptions about their meaning, transmitted over thousands of years of Jewish and Christian interpretation. But what if, to paraphrase The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya, they do not mean what you think they mean? What if we read them as products of an ancient civilization, with a different language, culture, religion and form of government?
While it’s customary to begin at the beginning, and as such, to start our discussion of the commandments with the first one, I will defer that for the moment and skip right to what Jews and some Christians take as the second:
No images of anything! This commandment literally bans all art, apparently on the basis that images that could be construed as representing another god were not to be tolerated, let alone bowed down to or worshiped. The reason: YHWH is passionate (“jealous” or “zealous” work as translations for this word as well). Beyond the plain meaning of this prohibition, we are further reminded here of a fundamental Biblical principle: justice works down through the generations. Why obey this (or any) commandment? Because if you don’t, God may punish your great-grandchildren for your disobedience. A central aspect of the Decalog is corporate responsibility—over space and time. The community is responsible for enforcing God’s laws among themselves, not only because they want to continue to benefit from God’s commitment to the people in the present, but because their actions have consequences for the continuity of their lineages.
The third commandment is often understood as a prohibition against “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” i.e., uttering a cuss-phrase that includes the word “God” in it. This misunderstanding is based on two misreadings of this line. First, the name YHWH (probably pronounced Yahweh) is a name, that is, not the same as the title “God”—the two are not interchangeable in a world in which many gods were worshiped (see previous commandments), and each had his or her own name(s). The god who is dictating the commandments here is named YHWH; and this commandment underscores the idea that his name is sacred and should be invoked with great care. Second, rather than being about “swearing” as in cursing, this is about “swearing” as in oaths; that is, if you swear an oath that invokes the holy name, you had better keep it.
This one is interesting for a number of reasons. Other ancient cultures prescribed rest days, usually based on cycles of the moon, but the Israelites instituted the seven-day week that culminated with a mandatory rest day, independently of lunar cycles. In other words: we can thank ancient Israel for the invention of weekends. Here in Exodus 20, this commandment is tied to the creation narrative in Genesis 1. In Deuteronomy 5’s version of the Decalog, the reason for all members of a household to cease their labors on the seventh day is so that “your manservant and your maidservant will rest, like you” (Deuteronomy 5:14). As such, Deuteronomy frames commemoration of the Sabbath as an ethical directive based on Israel’s servitude in Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt … for this reason, YHWH your God has commanded you to make the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Although unusual in a list of laws, I don’t know any parent who would frown at this suggestion, or even at the idea of elevating it to the status of a divine commandment. Its position in the list also signals a transition from commandments concerned with God and ritual (the first four) to one that is focused on the human community (the final 6). As such, it is noteworthy that this earthly focus begins within familial hierarchy, and not at a tribal or a state level. One is commanded by God here to honor one’s parents—both of them—and nowhere in the list to honor any other human authority figures. The connection between honoring parents and lengthened days on the Promised Land is telling, as well, and speaks to the issue of community responsibility extending across time as well as space; just as the ban on graven images reminds the people that their actions have consequences for future generations, the present commandment extends this responsibility back to generations of the past. One honors one’s parents in life, but also in death, as ancestors would have been buried on the ancestral land that God will allocate to each tribe later in the narrative. In other words, “the land that YHWH, your God, is giving to you” is inalienable, ancestral land; the better you honor your parents in life and in death, the longer this land will remain in your family.
The second law pertaining to the human community is:
While at first glance this might seem to not require further explanation, the history of translation of this commandment necessitates it. Long understood to read “Thou shalt not kill,” this commandment has been invoked in debates about capital punishment, abortion, warfare, vegetarianism and euthanasia. However, like English, Biblical Hebrew has a variety of words to describe the act of taking a life; and, like English, it has a different word for “kill” than for “murder.” The Hebrew word for “murder” is used in this commandment and refers to the taking of a human life, forbidden here and elsewhere (e.g., Genesis 9:5–6) and subject to the death penalty only when committed with malicious intent; “kill” in English has a much broader range, and is an appropriate translation of different words in Hebrew—not of the one that is used here. “Thou shalt not kill” is simply a mistranslation. Murder is the only kind of killing that is forbidden in the Decalog.
Similar misunderstandings abound concerning the seventh (in this list; in Deuteronomy 5 it is the eighth) commandment:
In this case, it is not translation that is at issue, but rather the cultural context of ancient Israel versus that of the modern West. In our world, adultery is defined as sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. It is an equal opportunity crime, with one’s gender having no bearing on one’s culpability. The Biblical understanding of adultery, however, is gender-specific. In the ancient world, a married man could engage in sexual relations with wives, concubines and prostitutes; a married woman could only have sex with her husband. Thus, committing adultery for a man consisted of sleeping with a woman who was someone else’s wife; for a woman, adultery was defined as sex with someone other than her husband. The same law and definition is ubiquitous throughout the ancient world; the difference is that in Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite laws, the woman’s husband had the final say on punishment for the adulterous couple. In the Hebrew Bible, however, this authority is removed from the husband, as the prescribed consequence for both adulterers is death.
The eighth commandment (seventh in Deuteronomy 5) requires the least explanation:
This one actually means exactly what you might think: Don’t take things that don’t belong to you.
The ninth commandment also means what it says, but the context of its prohibition is often misunderstood:
Usually translated as an injunction against “bearing false witness,” people often interpret this one as forbidding humans to lie. A proper understanding of the terms used in the Hebrew, however, indicate that this is not the case—there is no law against lying! Rather, this commandment specifically prohibits testifying falsely, i.e., in court, where someone’s life may hang in the balance. Remember, there were no Bibles yet on which people could swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Instead, a directive from God in his top 10 was designed to provide incentive to testify truthfully.
The final commandment is a bit strange, when you think about it:
Rather than prohibit any kind of action, this one prohibits thoughts. What’s wrong with fantasizing about how great life would be if you only had your neighbor’s ox? The key to understanding why a ban on coveting is included in the Decalog is that doing so could lead to actions forbidden in the previous four commandments, thereby undermining the fabric of human community. Coveting people or property that do not belong to you might instigate activities like adultery, murder, theft and even bearing false witness—for the latter case, look at what happens when Ahab covets Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21!
Now that we’ve reconstructed the meaning of nine of the commandments based on what we know about ancient Israel and how the people were likely to have understood them, we can turn that same lens to understanding both the first commandment and the document as a whole, as we seek to answer the question of whether it is a “religious” statement or a more universally applicable “moral” one.
As evident in my chart, the first commandment tends to be understood as part or all of the following:
This statement at the beginning of Exodus 20 follows 19 chapters of in-depth exploration of YHWH as the name of the God of Israel and his deliverance of the people from Egypt. This begs the question of a need to restate the obvious here at the beginning of the Decalog. However, comparison with other ancient Near Eastern texts demonstrates that similar statements were common opening themes of a particular, well-known document: the suzerain-vassal treaty. These were covenants made between a conquering overlord (the suzerain) and a subject population (the vassal).
Understanding the genre helps us to contextualize and understand what is usually taken as the first commandment, which, it turns out, contains both a preface and a primary covenant stipulation.
The typical ancient suzerain-vassal treaty begins with an introduction of the suzerain, followed by a historical prologue in which the suzerain reminds the vassal of his beneficence toward them and why they owe him loyalty. This is what we have in the introduction and prologue to “these words” in Exodus 20:
These opening words of the treaty frame this covenant in political terms that indicate that God is the new king, or overlord, for the Israelites. These are followed by the primary stipulation in any suzerain-vassal covenant relationship—exclusive loyalty from the vassal to the suzerain:
A vassal cannot divide his loyalties between overlords but must be faithful to only one. This makes sense in terms of demands of vassalhood, such as sending troops to support the suzerain when he is at war. But in framing the covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel in terms of a suzerain-vassal treaty, exclusive loyalty to the conquering sovereign acquires a further dimension: exclusive worship of one god. In equating Israel’s god with the notion of a suzerain, covenant loyalty sets Israel on a path to monotheism.
In suzerainty treaties, secondary stipulations follow, which typically include the number of supporting troops and taxes that the suzerain expects his subjects to send. In the case of the Decalog, the secondary stipulations contain instead the basic ritual, ethical and communal ideals by which YHWH expects his people to govern themselves under his suzerainty.
The Decalog belongs firmly to the genre of political treaty, a staple text in a world of monarchies and expanding empires. But it is unique among other such ancient treaties, in that the suzerain dictating the terms is divine, and the vassal agreeing to abide by them is the people of Israel. Thus the covenant symbolized by the Decalog is the basis, not for imperial rule, but rather for a theocracy in which a god is conceived as the overlord, and the Israelites his subjects. And so, although moral and religious laws are included in the list, the overall document would have been understood as neither a moral code nor a religious text in the ancient world. Rather, it represented the rules by which a group of people agreed to abide in exchange for the overlordship of the god YHWH.
Shawna Dolansky is an Instructor in the program in Religion at the College of Humanities, Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. She coauthored the well-known The Bible Now (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) with Richard Friedman.
How the Serpent Became Satan by Shawna Dolansky
Should We Take Creation Stories in Genesis Literally?
Shawna Dolansky discusses this question in her Biblical Views column in BAR
Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone? by Richard Elliott Friedman
Did the Ancient Israelites Think Children Were People? by T. M. Lemos
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 14, 2017.
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