The Ten-ish Commandments

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Despite their iconic status in Christian and Jewish theology, it is unlikely that even the most Bible-literate person you encounter could easily and accurately name all ten of the commandments from chapter 20 in the Old Testament book of Exodus. Bring up your computer’s notepad and try it yourself before looking at the source below. [1]

You shouldn’t be too discouraged, though, if you can’t get the list right. If Moses had an explicitly-numbered list, it did not survive, and the common modern Biblical versification annotates the list in sixteen verses. To make it messier, Wikipedia lists seven different historical numbering schemes from different religious traditions. [2]

Importantly, the Hebrew Talmud, which you might assume would be the closest to the original source or intent, differs from the enumerations used by most Christians. The primary issue has to do with how you parse the beginning language around worshiping one God, which then necessarily impacts how you divvy up the later list of “thou shalt not covets” in order to come up with an even ten.

As one of the great early texts focusing on deontology (duties, rules and exceptions – see this earlier post on the subject) the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, spends many of its thousands of pages parsing these commandments from Exodus, as well as the other commandments of the Torah, in a hair-splitting exercise mostly centered on defining acceptable and unacceptable exceptions to these rules. Like the United States IRS tax code, it is the exceptions, and not the rules themselves, that fill the majority of the pages.

Nevertheless, the Ten Commandments conceptually continue to hold a great deal of sway in American conservative legal and religious circles, being seen as a foundational source of the American legal system, even though that link is, at best, very indirect (and many Constitutional scholars would say, minimal to non-existent). The commandments themselves open as many questions as they provide answers, such as:

  • Is a man’s wife on an equal legal footing as his donkey (verse 17)? In the originating culture, the answer might well have been “Yes.” Women were, in may ways, the chattel of their fathers and husbands. Adultery was a property crime more than a sexual one.
  • Is slavery wrong (again, verse 17)? In the originating culture, the answer would clearly have been “No.” Let’s not be naive about what the King James Version translates as “manservant” and “maidservant.” Those were slaves.
  • Why is “coveting” prohibited in great detail (again, verse 17), and lying is prohibited (verse 16), while offenses like rape are never mentioned?
  • And what is “coveting” anyway? By most definitions, it is simply the excessive desire to possess something “owned” by another person. It does not mean “taking” that possession. In its common usage, coveting is at the heart of modern brand marketing, and likely explains why you have acquired many of your own possessions.
  • If killing is prohibited (verse 13), why have there been so many exceptions to the rule allowed over the centuries? Or if the word is better translated as “murder,” as some scholars assert, then the commandment is a simple tautology: “Do not kill those whom you should not lawfully kill.”
  • What did “adultery” mean (verse 14) in a culture where the patriarchs had many wives and “concubines”? And again, let’s not be naive about what “concubine” means. They were sex slaves without status rather than the negotiated-for property that wives were.

In the vectors defined in this series of reflection on ethics that you are reading, the Ten Commandments are clearly in the rule deontology camp (defining a duty to follow the rules), with an added weight (or threat) of “because God says so!” And so, in an upcoming post we will need to deal with a widely-held ethical model (even today) called “Divine Command” ethics that has historically put the teeth into these rules.

If you are of a literalist bent in how you read and interpret the Bible, I recognize that I may have caused offense in my more dispassionate look at this classic scripture passage. But according to Orthodox Judaism, there are 613 total “commandments” in the Torah, so this is only a small fraction. Go ahead and see how many you can name.

The “God says so!” elevation of the Ten Commandments by American Christians is likely as much a function of their exposure in the movies, primarily in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic film starring Charlton Heston. Clearly the obsession of putting them on display in the public square did not start until then. Much of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in the New Testament book of Matthew, chapters 5 and 6, is about turning the rule-based ethic of the Old Testament over to an “others-based” ethic, focused on your relationship with the “other person,” sometimes in rather harsh words, for instance:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council…” [3]

We don’t do that ethic particularly well either, but a future post will get to that.


  1. Exodus 20:1-17. (Also below. Don’t cheat, now!)
  2. Ten Commandments. (Wikipedia)
  3. Matthew 5:21-22

Exodus 20: 1-17

  • 1 And God spake all these words, saying,
  • 2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
  • 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  • 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  • 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
  • 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  • 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  • 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  • 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
  • 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
  • 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  • 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
  • 13 Thou shalt not kill.
  • 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • 15 Thou shalt not steal.
  • 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  • 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

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