BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Understanding Israel’s 10 Commandments

Are the 10 Commandments really a moral code?

moses-ten-commandments

“Thou shalt not kill!” The voice of God thunders across the mountain as Charlton Heston’s Moses watches the fiery finger of God etch the words onto the stone tablets of Israel’s foundational moral code. This iconic moment in cinema captures the awe and reverence given the 10 Commandments over the last 2,500 years. Photo: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.”

10-commandments-stone

A 10 Commandments stone tablet—believed by some to be the oldest stone copy of the 10 Commandments—was sold at an auction in November 2016 for $850,000. Photo: Courtesy Heritage Auctions/HA.com.

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.


In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

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?

inigo-montoya

The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya.

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:

“You will not make for yourself a statue or any image that is in the skies above or that is in the earth below or that is in the waters below the earth. You will not bow to them, and you will not serve them. Because I, YHWH, your God, am a passionate God, counting parents’ crime on children, on the third generation, and on the fourth generation of those who hate me; but practicing kindness to thousands for those who love me and keep my commandments.”

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.

“You will not bring up the name of YHWH, your God, for falseness, because YHWH will not make clean one who will bring up His name for falseness.”

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.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy. Six days you will labor and do all your work, and the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your God. You will not do any work: you and your son and your daughter, your servant and your maid and your animal and your stranger who is in your gates. Because for six days YHWH made the skies and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. On account of this, YHWH blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

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).

“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened on the land that YHWH, your God, is giving to you.”

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:

“You will not murder.”

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:

“You will not commit adultery.”

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:

“You will not steal.”

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:

“You will not testify against your neighbor as a lying witness.”

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:

“You will not covet your neighbor’s house. You will not covet your neighbor’s wife or his servant or his maid or his ox or his donkey or anything that your neighbor has.”

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:

“I am YHWH your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. There will not be for you other gods before my face.”

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:

(Introduction) I am YHWH, your God,
(Historical Prologue) who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.

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:

(Primary Stipulation) There will not be for you other gods before me (lit: “before my face”).

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.

BM-Esarhaddon-Humbaresh

Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty is an example of a suzerain-vassal treaty. In it, Neo-Assyrian king Esarhaddon (r. 681–669 B.C.E.) aims to secure royal succession and the loyalty of his vassals after his death. The treaty has been extensively studied as a major model for the book of Deuteronomy. The fragments seen here from Nimrud comprise a treaty between Esarhaddon and Humbaresh, the ruler of Nashshimarta in Media. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

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.


In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

shawna-dolanskyShawna 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.


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

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

Ten Commandments Dead Sea Scroll to Be Displayed in Israel

Sold! Earliest Surviving 10 Commandments Stone


This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 14, 2017.


 

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How the Serpent Became Satan

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Jun 6
Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?

By: Richard Elliott Friedman


35 Responses

  1. Truth says:

    God Hates Art and Statues? Only those who worship in barren halls make that assertion.

    God Commands The Creation of Sacred Images!

    People who oppose religious statuary forget about the many passages where the Lord commands the making of statues. For example: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold [i.e., two gold statues of angels]; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be” (Ex. 25:18–20).

    David gave Solomon the plan “for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All this he made clear by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all” (1 Chr. 28:18–19). David’s plan for the temple included statues of angels.

    Similarly Ezekiel 41:17–18 describes graven (carved) images in the idealized temple he was shown in a vision, for he writes, “On the walls round about in the inner room and [on] the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim.”
    The Religious Uses of Images

    During a plague of serpents sent to punish the Israelites during the exodus, God told Moses to “make [a statue of] a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num. 21:8–9).

    One had to look at the bronze statue of the serpent to be healed, which shows that statues could be used ritually, not merely as religious decorations.

  2. John says:

    The 10 commandments were part of the Mosaic Law which consisted of over 600 other laws, ALL of which had equal force and binding on the Israelite nation, no other nation was given that law. (Psalm 147:19,20; Deuteronomy 5:1-3)
    The law conclude with the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:19-24; Romans 10:4; Romans 6:14; Colossians 2:13-18; Ephesians 2:11-17)
    Although not under that law, Christians today can glean many fine principles from that law. As Galatians 5:13,14 and Romans 13:8-10 show that love is the overriding factor for Christians………love of God and love of neighbour.

  3. Krzysztof Ciuba says:

    O.k. Nothing mysterious. I suggest to remind the “author” of it (Dekalog) as the R source in order to see how a long time it had taken to understand that “YHWH liberated people” few centuries before this (Dekalog)writing down.When? 2nd century BC?

  4. kennethb115 says:

    We are commanded not to change any of the Holy writings given by God, Jesus nor the Holy Spirit. This world is surely coming to a sad ending for the majority of non believers. I pray that All may change their evil minds before it is to late. A firm believer in the Holy Bible. Kenneth Blevins.

  5. MichaelDooley says:

    And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Exodus 34:28
    And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. Deuteronomy 4:13
    And he wrote on the tables, according to the first writing, the ten commandments, which the Lord spake unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly: and the Lord gave them unto me. Deuteronomy 10:4
    I’m quite surprised that you would say the Bible never mentions 10 commandments when there are 3 very clear references to them right here? Explain please.
    Cheers
    Mike

  6. Den Hall says:

    Enjoyed Ms Dolansky. Thank you.

  7. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    @Eric

    Actually “Volkswagen” is correctly pronounced “Folks-Vah-Gen”. However it has been English/American-ized” as “Volks-wag-on”

    Also for German words “Y” is pronounced just like “Ö”.

  8. jay says:

    In modern English for many, many years, the name of YHVH is “God”, just a custom that ministers never discussed in my days of Sunday School in the 1950s and later. You must know this and what you have written is misleading! Therefore, expressing “G– damn…” takes the name of the “Lord” in vain. In some Jewish congregations “the Lord” is translated as HASHEM, meaning, “The Name” formed from SHEM (name) with the definite article.

  9. Elizabeth Kay Jennings says:

    Rather than looking at these statements by God, on the mountain with Moses, as “the Ten Commandments”, they should be thought of, and referred to, as the LAWS OF GOD!! He gave even more laws later on, through Moses. But these first ones were called Commandments because they were the WORDS of God, how He expected His people TO ACT. “I am the Lord thy God” and “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” cannot be explained to separate God from the many gods other cultures worshipped. It clearly means that there IS ONLY ONE GOD and it is YHWH, and has been emphasized over and over again throughout the bible. Reducing the Word of God to an academic manuscript to be broken down into different “explanations” or “theoretical understandings” reduces and imputes the divine messages contained within it. You either BELIEVE the Word, or you DON’T!! If you can deconstruct the passages, as Ms. Dolansky has done, and still believe in the TRUTH of the Word, then good for you! BUT, if this deconstructing causes you to doubt the TRUTH, or turn away from the divine and only GOD, AND His Son, Jesus Christ, then you have been LOST!! This kind of academic endeavor is a dangerous activity in my opinion, humble though it may be. I believe in the Word of God, and it’s Truth, His Son, and what God has said will happen at the end of our (humans) time on this earth. When academic theory creates a void in a person’s belief system, it leaves it open for Satan to take possession!!! I DO NOT BELIEVE OUR GOD WOULD APPROVE OF THIS KIND OF ACADEMIC TEACHING!!! We have enough of Satan’s influence in this world to fight now, and you’re just giving him an open door to capture more souls to take to hell with him. You are a brilliant academic, Ms. Dolansky — you should use your knowledge to influence people to COME TO CHRIST instead of creating situations that might turn people away from Him!! I haven’t read any other writings of yours, so I can only go by what I have just read. If you do, indeed, encourage people to come to God and Jesus to be forgiven, and assured of eternal life in heaven, that would change the opinion this article has created, and I would beg your pardon! Sincerely, I hope I do have the chance to beg your pardon, because, as a person of knowledge and immense influence, you are in the unique position of creating belief in God, and in the Truth of His Word, and of the Truth about Jesus. I pray you will use your influence and knowledge to do just that! In the love of Christ, I ask God’s blessings upon you!!

  10. Eric Schramm says:

    Well written article. Very informative. I just have one question. Pronouncing YHWH.

    I thought the W was from German translators who didn’t want us to pronounce the name correctly. They translated it two ways YHWH and JHVH, producing YaHWeh and JeHoVaH. In German, J sounds just like Y as in Yellow. V and W are also identical – the V sound. In German that car is pronounced Volks Vagon, not Volks Wagon. The correct pronunciation was supposedly YHVH, with whatever vowels you thought fit. What are your ideas?

  11. Alan Schuetz says:

    Actually, the literal words “Ten Commandments” (Heb. aseret ha-d’varim) IS written in Exodus 34:28 Deuteronomy 4:13,10:4:

    Exodus 34:28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. (NASB)

    Deuteronomy 4:13 So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. (NASB)

    Deuteronomy 10:4 He wrote on the tablets, like the former writing, the Ten Commandments which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. (NASB)

    So, once again, Shawna Dolansky FAILS as a “biblical scholar.” Honestly, does anyone fact check these articles? To see what Christ thought of the Pharisees, examine Matthew 23. Pharisaism became modern day rabbinic Judaism. Honestly, how can “I am Yahoah your God” be a commandment? It is a STATEMENT OF FACT of the Most High’s Name! [Note: The ”vav” in the Tetragrammaton is pronounced like the “o” in Torah, menorah, Eloah, and Yehoshu’a; the latter is Christ’s REAL Name].

    It is clear that for Gentiles, the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem is applicable; see Acts 15:1-35 concentrating on vv19-20 including abstaining from:

    1) things contaminated by idols,
    2) fornication,
    3) what is strangled, and
    4) blood.

    However, believing Gentiles in Christ (and all the Elohim including the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, seraphim, cherubim, archangels, angels, and the other Heavenly Hosts), are grafted into Israel; see Romans 11 concentrating on vv17-24. With the indwelling Holy Spirit sent on the Feast of Weeks 36 CE in circumcised hearts, believers will naturally be inclined to follow ALL of God’s commandments — including the Ten Commandments written in stone; see Galatians 4:4-6. Did not Abram/Abraham do the same? Did he have the Law of Moses?

    Shema Yisrael!

    #QuestionEverything

  12. John C. says:

    I would have liked to see more on the one in Exodus ch. 34; and which version you thought was the oldest.

  13. Stephen Funck says:

    Covet is claimed to concern thoughts. It is not desire, want, too broad. It is action, the enticement of servant, spouse, away. “He came to me, I did nothing wrong.” It is easy to see in inheritances. Mom signed the will. She gave me everything. Legally, I did not break God’s commandment to steal. Crooked lawyers – that is effective, slick, find ways to acquire property, foreclose, etc. Lobbyists help write regulations that are enforceable to their clients advantage. It is all legal. Being legal it is especially repugnant to a Righteous God.

  14. Ken says:

    Great article. Although some may have minor issues with some numbering in the chart, the overarching concept of preface/numbering is fascinating. As is the language and cultural context of some of the ten. This is one of those articles that I will remember, and try to memorize sections of, so I can discuss with others.

  15. Luis says:

    I’m trying to figure what Hebrew manuscript the author used in order to come to the conclusion that Deuteronomy 5 has a different order for the Commandments than has Exodus 20. In the BHS, the order of commandments is, in fact, identical. What am I missing?

  16. georgem155 says:

    The presupposition behind this article is “The Bible must be read as literature coming out of the culture of the day it was written.” In other words, literature is subject to one’s personal analysis of the culture at that time.” It therefore follows that the more accurate is one’s interpretation of the culture then one is more accurate about the meaning of its literature.

    This presupposition comes out of the “Critical Theory of Frankfurt” and the school of thought that nurtured Wescott of “Wescott and Hort” fame. It is designed to destroy the Bible as “objective and Divine truth.

  17. adamm32 says:

    The numeration in the column: Christians: Catholics, Anglican, Lutheran, is incorrect in regard to 1 and 2 and 9 and 10. Catholics distinguish wife coveting from property coveting – neighbor’s wife is 9 and neighbors property is 10, Protestants – Anglicans, Lutherans and Reformed, lump them together as 10 and make an extra one at the beginning.

  18. ntsau says:

    Interesting work by Shawna…
    As a Seventh-day Adventist, I’m particularly interested about the beginning and end of the Sabbath day. Clearly, God created the Sabbath in Genesis long before the Israelites came to being, and the author of the above article associates Sabbath keeping for the Israelites as remembrance of their servitude in Egypt, according to Deuteronomy.

    There is ongoing debate about whether the Jewish Sabbath – evening to evening – is the correct day of rest for the seventh-day Sabbath keepers or whether the Sabbath begins and ends at dawn as in Matt. 28:1.
    I wish the author could explain these further.

  19. sol says:

    An excellent article especially in the explanation of the original Hebrew words and their usage. Thank you!!

  20. John Hunt says:

    No “10 Commandments”? Wow! Don’t guess it ever occurred to the author to look for “Ten Commandments” instead (See Deuteronomy 10:4).

  21. GD says:

    Very informative, thank you very much 🙂

  22. Sabrina says:

    What about these ones?

    7. Three times a year your boys shall all appear before the Lord.
    8. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven.
    9. The sacrifice of the Passover shall not be left over till morning.
    10. Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

  23. Helen Spalding says:

    Excellent “down and dirty” guide to the original meaning.

    The Decalog makes an excellent guide for civil living among fellow humans. It’s both good morality as well as practical governance.

    @C – remember that the Decalog was given to ppl who came out of Egypt where natural phenomena were worshiped as deities. Solomon’s rule has a different context. Even so, part of him fell away with all those foreign wives. Furthermore, the Canaanites, Philistines, Assyrians, and Babylonians all had statuary dedicated to their deities. Israel and Judah both succumbed to following those and were Exiled for it. When YHWH started His People out, He started them out intentionally “different” fm the other ppl they would interact with over time. This injunction was to help them stay different, not to prohibit artistic expression.

  24. C Smale says:

    Not sure I can agree with your conclusion re “You will not make for yourself a statue or any image”. Of course we can make images so long as we don’t get the crazy idea that they suddenly have power and we should bow down to them.
    1 Kings 7:18 He made pomegranates in two rows encircling each network to decorate the capitals on top of the pillars. He did the same for each capital. 19 The capitals on top of the pillars in the portico were in the shape of lilies, four cubits high. There are more examples like this in the scriptures.
    Draw, paint, sculpt, use those gifts God gave you for our delight and His.

  25. Joseph says:

    She seems to have missed the point in not translating the commandments as conditional statements. They say ” IF you would have me as your God, you would want to go these things.” You should want to keep these commandments! Luther used the original Greek, Hebrew and Latin in his Bible whereas King James Version used the Latin Vulgate. Maybe Ms Dolansky isn’t familiar with Luther’s Bible. Hope this helps.

  26. Stephen Lusk says:

    Anglicans number the 10 as the Reformed and Orthodox do: see the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer, pages 143-144 and 165-66, or the 1979 US Book, pages 317-318 or 350 and 847-848. The Lutherans seem to be the only Protestant denomination that counts with the Church of Rome.

  27. James says:

    Outstanding article that should be required reading for all who seek the truth of the origins of what Christians would call the Old Testament. Thank you for your work!

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35 Responses

  1. Truth says:

    God Hates Art and Statues? Only those who worship in barren halls make that assertion.

    God Commands The Creation of Sacred Images!

    People who oppose religious statuary forget about the many passages where the Lord commands the making of statues. For example: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold [i.e., two gold statues of angels]; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be” (Ex. 25:18–20).

    David gave Solomon the plan “for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All this he made clear by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all” (1 Chr. 28:18–19). David’s plan for the temple included statues of angels.

    Similarly Ezekiel 41:17–18 describes graven (carved) images in the idealized temple he was shown in a vision, for he writes, “On the walls round about in the inner room and [on] the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim.”
    The Religious Uses of Images

    During a plague of serpents sent to punish the Israelites during the exodus, God told Moses to “make [a statue of] a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num. 21:8–9).

    One had to look at the bronze statue of the serpent to be healed, which shows that statues could be used ritually, not merely as religious decorations.

  2. John says:

    The 10 commandments were part of the Mosaic Law which consisted of over 600 other laws, ALL of which had equal force and binding on the Israelite nation, no other nation was given that law. (Psalm 147:19,20; Deuteronomy 5:1-3)
    The law conclude with the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:19-24; Romans 10:4; Romans 6:14; Colossians 2:13-18; Ephesians 2:11-17)
    Although not under that law, Christians today can glean many fine principles from that law. As Galatians 5:13,14 and Romans 13:8-10 show that love is the overriding factor for Christians………love of God and love of neighbour.

  3. Krzysztof Ciuba says:

    O.k. Nothing mysterious. I suggest to remind the “author” of it (Dekalog) as the R source in order to see how a long time it had taken to understand that “YHWH liberated people” few centuries before this (Dekalog)writing down.When? 2nd century BC?

  4. kennethb115 says:

    We are commanded not to change any of the Holy writings given by God, Jesus nor the Holy Spirit. This world is surely coming to a sad ending for the majority of non believers. I pray that All may change their evil minds before it is to late. A firm believer in the Holy Bible. Kenneth Blevins.

  5. MichaelDooley says:

    And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Exodus 34:28
    And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. Deuteronomy 4:13
    And he wrote on the tables, according to the first writing, the ten commandments, which the Lord spake unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly: and the Lord gave them unto me. Deuteronomy 10:4
    I’m quite surprised that you would say the Bible never mentions 10 commandments when there are 3 very clear references to them right here? Explain please.
    Cheers
    Mike

  6. Den Hall says:

    Enjoyed Ms Dolansky. Thank you.

  7. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    @Eric

    Actually “Volkswagen” is correctly pronounced “Folks-Vah-Gen”. However it has been English/American-ized” as “Volks-wag-on”

    Also for German words “Y” is pronounced just like “Ö”.

  8. jay says:

    In modern English for many, many years, the name of YHVH is “God”, just a custom that ministers never discussed in my days of Sunday School in the 1950s and later. You must know this and what you have written is misleading! Therefore, expressing “G– damn…” takes the name of the “Lord” in vain. In some Jewish congregations “the Lord” is translated as HASHEM, meaning, “The Name” formed from SHEM (name) with the definite article.

  9. Elizabeth Kay Jennings says:

    Rather than looking at these statements by God, on the mountain with Moses, as “the Ten Commandments”, they should be thought of, and referred to, as the LAWS OF GOD!! He gave even more laws later on, through Moses. But these first ones were called Commandments because they were the WORDS of God, how He expected His people TO ACT. “I am the Lord thy God” and “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” cannot be explained to separate God from the many gods other cultures worshipped. It clearly means that there IS ONLY ONE GOD and it is YHWH, and has been emphasized over and over again throughout the bible. Reducing the Word of God to an academic manuscript to be broken down into different “explanations” or “theoretical understandings” reduces and imputes the divine messages contained within it. You either BELIEVE the Word, or you DON’T!! If you can deconstruct the passages, as Ms. Dolansky has done, and still believe in the TRUTH of the Word, then good for you! BUT, if this deconstructing causes you to doubt the TRUTH, or turn away from the divine and only GOD, AND His Son, Jesus Christ, then you have been LOST!! This kind of academic endeavor is a dangerous activity in my opinion, humble though it may be. I believe in the Word of God, and it’s Truth, His Son, and what God has said will happen at the end of our (humans) time on this earth. When academic theory creates a void in a person’s belief system, it leaves it open for Satan to take possession!!! I DO NOT BELIEVE OUR GOD WOULD APPROVE OF THIS KIND OF ACADEMIC TEACHING!!! We have enough of Satan’s influence in this world to fight now, and you’re just giving him an open door to capture more souls to take to hell with him. You are a brilliant academic, Ms. Dolansky — you should use your knowledge to influence people to COME TO CHRIST instead of creating situations that might turn people away from Him!! I haven’t read any other writings of yours, so I can only go by what I have just read. If you do, indeed, encourage people to come to God and Jesus to be forgiven, and assured of eternal life in heaven, that would change the opinion this article has created, and I would beg your pardon! Sincerely, I hope I do have the chance to beg your pardon, because, as a person of knowledge and immense influence, you are in the unique position of creating belief in God, and in the Truth of His Word, and of the Truth about Jesus. I pray you will use your influence and knowledge to do just that! In the love of Christ, I ask God’s blessings upon you!!

  10. Eric Schramm says:

    Well written article. Very informative. I just have one question. Pronouncing YHWH.

    I thought the W was from German translators who didn’t want us to pronounce the name correctly. They translated it two ways YHWH and JHVH, producing YaHWeh and JeHoVaH. In German, J sounds just like Y as in Yellow. V and W are also identical – the V sound. In German that car is pronounced Volks Vagon, not Volks Wagon. The correct pronunciation was supposedly YHVH, with whatever vowels you thought fit. What are your ideas?

  11. Alan Schuetz says:

    Actually, the literal words “Ten Commandments” (Heb. aseret ha-d’varim) IS written in Exodus 34:28 Deuteronomy 4:13,10:4:

    Exodus 34:28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. (NASB)

    Deuteronomy 4:13 So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. (NASB)

    Deuteronomy 10:4 He wrote on the tablets, like the former writing, the Ten Commandments which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. (NASB)

    So, once again, Shawna Dolansky FAILS as a “biblical scholar.” Honestly, does anyone fact check these articles? To see what Christ thought of the Pharisees, examine Matthew 23. Pharisaism became modern day rabbinic Judaism. Honestly, how can “I am Yahoah your God” be a commandment? It is a STATEMENT OF FACT of the Most High’s Name! [Note: The ”vav” in the Tetragrammaton is pronounced like the “o” in Torah, menorah, Eloah, and Yehoshu’a; the latter is Christ’s REAL Name].

    It is clear that for Gentiles, the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem is applicable; see Acts 15:1-35 concentrating on vv19-20 including abstaining from:

    1) things contaminated by idols,
    2) fornication,
    3) what is strangled, and
    4) blood.

    However, believing Gentiles in Christ (and all the Elohim including the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, seraphim, cherubim, archangels, angels, and the other Heavenly Hosts), are grafted into Israel; see Romans 11 concentrating on vv17-24. With the indwelling Holy Spirit sent on the Feast of Weeks 36 CE in circumcised hearts, believers will naturally be inclined to follow ALL of God’s commandments — including the Ten Commandments written in stone; see Galatians 4:4-6. Did not Abram/Abraham do the same? Did he have the Law of Moses?

    Shema Yisrael!

    #QuestionEverything

  12. John C. says:

    I would have liked to see more on the one in Exodus ch. 34; and which version you thought was the oldest.

  13. Stephen Funck says:

    Covet is claimed to concern thoughts. It is not desire, want, too broad. It is action, the enticement of servant, spouse, away. “He came to me, I did nothing wrong.” It is easy to see in inheritances. Mom signed the will. She gave me everything. Legally, I did not break God’s commandment to steal. Crooked lawyers – that is effective, slick, find ways to acquire property, foreclose, etc. Lobbyists help write regulations that are enforceable to their clients advantage. It is all legal. Being legal it is especially repugnant to a Righteous God.

  14. Ken says:

    Great article. Although some may have minor issues with some numbering in the chart, the overarching concept of preface/numbering is fascinating. As is the language and cultural context of some of the ten. This is one of those articles that I will remember, and try to memorize sections of, so I can discuss with others.

  15. Luis says:

    I’m trying to figure what Hebrew manuscript the author used in order to come to the conclusion that Deuteronomy 5 has a different order for the Commandments than has Exodus 20. In the BHS, the order of commandments is, in fact, identical. What am I missing?

  16. georgem155 says:

    The presupposition behind this article is “The Bible must be read as literature coming out of the culture of the day it was written.” In other words, literature is subject to one’s personal analysis of the culture at that time.” It therefore follows that the more accurate is one’s interpretation of the culture then one is more accurate about the meaning of its literature.

    This presupposition comes out of the “Critical Theory of Frankfurt” and the school of thought that nurtured Wescott of “Wescott and Hort” fame. It is designed to destroy the Bible as “objective and Divine truth.

  17. adamm32 says:

    The numeration in the column: Christians: Catholics, Anglican, Lutheran, is incorrect in regard to 1 and 2 and 9 and 10. Catholics distinguish wife coveting from property coveting – neighbor’s wife is 9 and neighbors property is 10, Protestants – Anglicans, Lutherans and Reformed, lump them together as 10 and make an extra one at the beginning.

  18. ntsau says:

    Interesting work by Shawna…
    As a Seventh-day Adventist, I’m particularly interested about the beginning and end of the Sabbath day. Clearly, God created the Sabbath in Genesis long before the Israelites came to being, and the author of the above article associates Sabbath keeping for the Israelites as remembrance of their servitude in Egypt, according to Deuteronomy.

    There is ongoing debate about whether the Jewish Sabbath – evening to evening – is the correct day of rest for the seventh-day Sabbath keepers or whether the Sabbath begins and ends at dawn as in Matt. 28:1.
    I wish the author could explain these further.

  19. sol says:

    An excellent article especially in the explanation of the original Hebrew words and their usage. Thank you!!

  20. John Hunt says:

    No “10 Commandments”? Wow! Don’t guess it ever occurred to the author to look for “Ten Commandments” instead (See Deuteronomy 10:4).

  21. GD says:

    Very informative, thank you very much 🙂

  22. Sabrina says:

    What about these ones?

    7. Three times a year your boys shall all appear before the Lord.
    8. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven.
    9. The sacrifice of the Passover shall not be left over till morning.
    10. Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

  23. Helen Spalding says:

    Excellent “down and dirty” guide to the original meaning.

    The Decalog makes an excellent guide for civil living among fellow humans. It’s both good morality as well as practical governance.

    @C – remember that the Decalog was given to ppl who came out of Egypt where natural phenomena were worshiped as deities. Solomon’s rule has a different context. Even so, part of him fell away with all those foreign wives. Furthermore, the Canaanites, Philistines, Assyrians, and Babylonians all had statuary dedicated to their deities. Israel and Judah both succumbed to following those and were Exiled for it. When YHWH started His People out, He started them out intentionally “different” fm the other ppl they would interact with over time. This injunction was to help them stay different, not to prohibit artistic expression.

  24. C Smale says:

    Not sure I can agree with your conclusion re “You will not make for yourself a statue or any image”. Of course we can make images so long as we don’t get the crazy idea that they suddenly have power and we should bow down to them.
    1 Kings 7:18 He made pomegranates in two rows encircling each network to decorate the capitals on top of the pillars. He did the same for each capital. 19 The capitals on top of the pillars in the portico were in the shape of lilies, four cubits high. There are more examples like this in the scriptures.
    Draw, paint, sculpt, use those gifts God gave you for our delight and His.

  25. Joseph says:

    She seems to have missed the point in not translating the commandments as conditional statements. They say ” IF you would have me as your God, you would want to go these things.” You should want to keep these commandments! Luther used the original Greek, Hebrew and Latin in his Bible whereas King James Version used the Latin Vulgate. Maybe Ms Dolansky isn’t familiar with Luther’s Bible. Hope this helps.

  26. Stephen Lusk says:

    Anglicans number the 10 as the Reformed and Orthodox do: see the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer, pages 143-144 and 165-66, or the 1979 US Book, pages 317-318 or 350 and 847-848. The Lutherans seem to be the only Protestant denomination that counts with the Church of Rome.

  27. James says:

    Outstanding article that should be required reading for all who seek the truth of the origins of what Christians would call the Old Testament. Thank you for your work!

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