Ten Commandments

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The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue are a list of religious and moral imperatives that feature prominently in Judaism and Christianity. The name decalogue is derived from the Greek name δέκα λόγοι found in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Aseret Hadibrot, "The Ten Utterances".


The ten commandments are found, in three similar versions, (at Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21) in the Torah (five books of Moses), which is the first part of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Jews and Christians have historically believed that these rules were dictated to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. (Muslims do not recognize the validity of the Ten Commandments as such.)

According to the Biblical records, it represents the solemn utterances of God on Mt. Sinai, directly revealed by God to Moses and the people of Israel in the third month after their deliverance from Egypt, amid wonderful manifestations of divine power marked by thunder and lightning and thick smoke (Ex. xix.). As such, God wrote these words upon two tablets of stone — "tables of testimony" (Ex. xxiv. 12, xxxi. 18, xxxii. 16) or "tables of the covenant" (Deut. ix. 9, 11, 15) — and gave them to Moses. After seeing that the Israelites had gone astray during his absence, Moses, carried away by righteous indignation, broke the tables (Ex. xxxii. 19); God subsequently commanded Moses to hew two other tables like the first (Ex. xxxiv. 1), whereon to rewrite them again (Ex. xxxiv. 1). According to another passage (Ex. xxxiv. 27, 28), Moses was bidden to rewrite, and did rewrite, the Commandments himself; but in Deut. iv. 13, v. 18, ix. 10, x. 24, God appears as the writer. This second set, broughtdown from Mt. Sinai by Moses (Ex. xxxiv. 29), was placed in the Ark (Ex. xxv. 16, 21; xl. 20), hence designated as the "Ark of the Testimony" (Ex. xxv. 22; Num. iv. 5; compare also I Kings viii. 9).

While Jews, Catholics and Protestants all agree that the Bible lists the ten commandments in chapter 20 of the book of Exodus, that passage contains more than ten imperative statements.

In the King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 20 reads as follows:

20:1 And God spake all these words, saying,
20:2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
20:4 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:
20:5 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;
20:6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
20:7 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.
20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
20:9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
20:10 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:
20:11 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.
20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
20:13 Thou shalt not kill.
20:14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
20:15 Thou shalt not steal.
20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
20:17 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.

Although the King James version of the Ten Commandments is the most well-known in the English-speaking world, some have criticized the version as archaic (e.g. "thou shalt" instead of "do not") and, at places, inaccurate (e.g. "Thou shalt not kill" instead of "do not murder").

Different groups have divided the commandments in different ways. For instance, Protestants separate the first six verses into two different commands (one being "no other gods" and the other being "no graven images"), while Catholics see all six verses as part of the same command prohibiting the worship of pagan gods. To the Jews, the initial reference to Egyptian bondage it is important enough to Jews that it forms a separate commandment. Catholics separate the two kinds of coveting (i.e. of goods and of the flesh), while Protestants and Jews group them together.

A very similar, but not identical, list of commandments is in Deuteronomy 5:1-22. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy can be found reference to each of the commandments and the consequences for not following them as a part of Hebrew Law. In Matthew 19 and elsewhere, Jesus refers to the commandments, but condenses them into two general commands.

Jewish understanding of the Ten Commandments

Popular belief holds that these are "the commandments" of the Hebrew Bible, but in fact the Hebrew Bible has some 600 commandments. (An early and well known Jewish tradition records that there are precisely 613 commandments). However, the Jewish tradition does recognize the ten commandments as the ideological basis for the rest of them.

Judaism understands the Ten commandments in the following way:

  1. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt..." - This commandment is to believe in the existence of God.
  2. "You shall have no other gods besides Me...Do not make a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavnes above..." - This commandement is a prohibition to believe in or worship any other deities, gods, or spirits. It is also a prohibition against objects like crucifixes, and any forms of paintings or artistic representations of God.
  3. "You shalt not swear falsely by the name of the Lord..." - This commandement is to never take the name of God in a vain oath. Note that in Exodus 20, the Hebrew Bible reads "in a vain oath" (לא תשא את שם ה' לשוא), while in Deuteronomy it reads "in a false oath" (לא תשא שם ה' לשקר).
  4. "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy"
  5. "Honor your father and your mother..." - This commandment is an interesting development when compared to other laws of the Ancient East (e.g. Code of Hammurabi) that do not call for equal respect of the father and the mother.
  6. "You shall not murder" - The Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between murdering and killing, and explicitly notes that murder is always a heinous sin, while killing is sometimes necessary, and in these cases just in the eyes of God. Thus, Jews take offense at translations which state "Thou shall not kill", which Jews hold to be immoral. Many Protestant and most Catholic Christians hold that this verse forbids abortion; Judaism disagrees.
  7. "You shall not commit adultery"
  8. "You shall not steal" (sometimes interpreted as kidnapping, since there are other injunctions against stealing property in the Bible).
  9. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor"
  10. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house..." Note that in Exodus 20, the Hebrew Bible reads "... neighbour's house, ... neighbour's wife, nor his manservant..." etc. (note the wife comes after the house, among the household belongings), while Deuteronomy 5, "thy neighbour's wife, ... thy neighbour's house, his field" etc. This change in the position of the wife is thought to be indicative of the social rise of women between the writing-down of the two versions.

Catholic and Orthodox Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments

Catholic and Orthodox Christians understand the Ten commandments in the following way:

(Deuteronomy, RSV)

The first three commandments govern the relationship between God and humans.
  1. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. - The text of what Catholics recognize as the first commandment precedes and follows the "no graven images" warning with a prohibition against worshipping false gods. Some Protestants have claimed that the Catholic version of the ten commandments intentionally conceals the biblical prohibition of idolatry. But the Bible includes numerous references to carved images of angels, trees, and animals (Exodus 25:18-21; Numbers 21:8-9; 1 Kings 6:23-28l 1 Kings 6:29ff; Ezekiel 41:17-25) that were associated with worship of God. Catholics and Protestants alike erect nativity scenes or use felt cut-outs to aid their Sunday-school instruction. (While not all Catholics have a particularly strong devotion to icons or other religious artifacts, Catholic teaching distinguishes between veneration -- which is paying honor to God through contemplation of objects such as paintings and statues, and adoration -- which is properly given to God alone.)
  2. "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain." - The moral lesson here involves more than simply a prohibition of swearing; it also prohibits the misappropriation of religious language in order to commit a crime, to participate in occult practices, or blaspheming against places or people that are holy to God.
  3. "Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day." - By healing the sick on the sabbath, Jesus supported the idea that performing works of charity would be an appropriate way of keeping the sabbath holy. Restaurant and entertainment workers must work on Sundays in order to provide traditional leisure activities.

    The next group of commandments govern public relationships between people.

  4. "Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the LORD your God gives you." - This commandment emphasizes the family as part of God's design, as well as an extended metaphor that God uses for his relationship with his creation.
  5. "You shall not kill." - Since respect for life includes an obligation to respect one's own life and the lives of people under one's protection, it is legitimate to use force -- even fatal force -- against the threats of an agressor who cannot be stopped any other way. While Catholic teaching recognizes the right of states to execute criminals when necessary to preserve the safety of citizens, the Church argues that other methods of protecting society (incarceration, rehabiliation) are increasingly available in the modern world; thus, there are now few if any cases that really necessitate capital punishment.
  6. "Neither shall you commit adultery." - For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament; unlike most Catholic sacraments, which are performed by a priest, in marriage, the husband and wife convey sanctifying graces upon each other. Adultery is the breaking of this holy bond, and is thus a sacrilege.
  7. "Neither shall you steal."
  8. "Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor."

    These last two commandments govern private thoughts.

  9. "Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife"
  10. "and you shall not desire your neighbor's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.'

Protestant Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments

There are many different denominations of Protestantism, and it is impossible to generalise in a way that covers them all. But many Protestant Christians understand the Ten Commandments in the following way:

  • The First Commandment
Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.

This Commandment prohibits polytheism. It establishes the theological proposition that there is but one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. The worship or veneration of, or prayer to, any lesser or created being is forbidden.

  • The Second Commandment
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: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them. . .

As the First Commandment prohibits polytheism, the Second Commandment also prohibits the closely related concepts of idolatry, fetishism, and animism.

First, it means what it says: we are not permitted to perform any act of worship, veneration, or prayer to any image, fetish, or relic.

As the First Commandment establishes God's unique status, this one establishes His sovereignty and His Lordship over creation. To attempt to "consecrate" some object, to make it holy, to endow it with special religious virtue, to give it mana, to claim it has the power to work miracles, to suggest that God is somehow present in it in a way that is not present elsewhere --- all of these sins pretend to call God from His heaven and subject Him to human manipulation, in a way that denies His almightiness, His sovereignty, and the supremacy of His Will.

The First and Second Commandments, read together, defend the absolute abstraction and otherness of God, call us to worship in Spirit and in truth, rather than with worldly pomp and vainglory, and underline the inadequacy and distortion in any attempts to make Him accessible to human weakness.

  • The Third Commandment
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain. . .

Some Protestants read this Commandment as forbidding any and all oaths, including judicial oaths and oaths of allegiance to a government, noting that human weakness cannot foretell whether such oaths will in fact be vain.

  • The Fourth Commandment
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

The Protestant understanding of this Commandment is not dissimilar to the Roman Catholic perspective stated above. Many Protestants are increasingly concerned that the values of the marketplace do not dominate entirely, and deprive people of leisure and energy needed for worship, for the creation of civilised culture. The setting of time apart from and free from the demands of commerce is one of the foundations of a decent human society.

There is an increasing amount of Christians that feel this commandment is to be taken literally. That we are to keep the 7th day as Sabbath as commanded by God as early as creation as it commemorates creation. Some of these groups include the 7th Day Baptist, The 7th Day Adventist, and more and more small or home churches. In European countries such as Russia and Romania you find more of the churches that keep the 7th day.

  • The Fifth Commandment
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

The Protestant understanding of this Commandment is not dissimilar the Roman Catholic perspective stated above. Protestants have also observed that this Commandment is the only Commandment that promises a reward for obedience.

  • The Sixth Commandment
Thou shalt not kill.

Many Protestants broaden this Commandment with Jesus' observation in the Sermon on the Mount that those who think wrathful thoughts about their neighbour are guilty of murder in their hearts. Most Protestants view the Ten Commandments as providing the basic structure for the Sermon on the Mount, and read the Sermon as a commentary on the Commandments.

  • The Seventh Commandment
Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Protestants typically do not recognise marriage as a sacrament. They also often broaden this commandment with Jesus' observation that those who think lustful thoughts about their neighbour are guilty of adultery in their hearts.

  • The Eighth Commandment
Thou shalt not steal.

This one is fairly self-explanatory. Many Protestants believe that property rights are an important foundation of civilisation. This Commandment is read as the source of God's warrant for their establishment.

  • The Ninth Commandment
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

A general prohibition against the repetition of any harmful falsehood.

  • The Tenth Commandment
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.

A general prohibition against covetousness and greed.

Muslim understanding of the Ten Commandments

Muslims accept the prophets Moses and Jesus but they do not regard the Bible itself as inerrant. Where they feel the Bible "wanders"--due to both priestly and scribal error--they believe that the Koran is the "straight path" leading back to the original Abrahamic faith.

From the Koran:

"Say, Come, I will recite what God has made a sacred duty for you:

Ascribe nothing as equal with Him;

Be good to your parents;

Kill not your children on a plea of want--We provide sustenance for you and for them;

Approach not lewd behavior whether open or in secret,

Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, that you may learn wisdom.

And approach not the property of the orphan, except to improve it, until he attains the age of maturity.

Give full measure and weight, in justice--No burden do We place on any soul but that which it can bear.

And if you give your word, do it justice, even if a near relative is concerned; and fulfill your obligations before God. Thus does He command you, that you may remember.

Verily, this is My straight Path: follow it, and do not follow other paths which will separate you from His Path. Thus does He command you, that you may be righteous."

Koran 6.151-53

Other Faiths

To view comparable commandments in other faiths (Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, etc.), visit Andrew Wilson's "World Scripture" page on Divine Law: http://www.unification.org/ucbooks/WorldScr/WS-02-03.htm


Sabbath day

For many Christians, Sunday is a special day of worship, in observance of the Easter Sunday fulfillment of the new covenant of Jesus. For Jews, this Christian practice of worshipping on the first day of the week is seen as an explicit rejection of the commandment to keep the seventh day holy.

For other Christians this commandment is to be taken literally. They keep Saturday as the Sabbath as they believe God commanded as early as creation, as it commemorates creation. These sabattarians claim that the seventh day Sabbath was kept by all Christian groups until the 2nd and 3rd century, by most until the 4th and 5th century, and by many after that but gradually adopted Sunday as the day of worship.

Others reject this belief system, noting that the choice of one day or another as the "seventh" in a repeating cycle is inevitably arbitrary; for most people, the week begins on Monday in any case. So long as one day of seven is kept as a sabbath, the principle has been kept. They point to evidence of Sunday worship within the New Testament, and to historical evidence in the second century.

See main article: Sabbath


Christianity holds that the essential element of the commandment not to make "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above" is "and bow down and worship it". As a result, many Christian buildings and services feature images, some feature statues, and in some Orthodox services, icons are venerated. For most Christians, this practice is understood as fulfilling the observance of this commandment, as the images are not being worshipped. In addition, Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that the incarnation of Jesus Christ makes it permissible to venerate icons, and even necessary in order to preserve the truth of the Incarnation. For Jews (and some Protestants as well) this practice is seen as an explicit rejection of the commandment. Very few Christians oppose the making of any images at all, but some groups have been critical of the use others make of images in worship. (See iconoclasm.) In particular, the Orthodox have criticized the Roman Catholic use of decorative statues, Roman Catholics have criticized the Orthodox veneration of icons, some Protestant groups have criticized the use of stained-glass windows by many other denominations, and Jehovah's Witnesses criticize the use of all of the above, as well as the use of a cross. No Christian groups forbids the use of images in secular life (as Islam does).

Public monuments in the USA

There is an ongoing dispute in the United States concerning the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property. Certain conservative religious groups, alarmed by the banning of officially-sanctioned prayer from public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court, feel the need to protect their right to express their religious beliefs in public life. As a result they have successfully lobbied many state and local governments to display the ten commandments in public buildings. As seen above, any attempt to post the "Ten Commandments" on a public building necessarily takes a sectarian stance; Protestants and Roman Catholics number the commandments differently.

Secularist liberals oppose this, arguing that it is violating the separation of church and state. Conservative groups claim that the commandments are not necessarily religious, but represent the moral and legal foundation of society. Liberal groups counter that they are explicitly religious, and that statements of monotheism like "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" are unacceptable to many religious viewpoints, such as atheists or followers of polytheistic religions.

Many religious Jews oppose the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, as they feel it is wrong for public schools to teach their children Judaism. The argument is that if a Jewish parent wishes to teach their child to be a Jew (as most do), then this education should come from educated and practicing Jews, and not from non-Jews. This position is based on the demographic fact that the vast majority of public school teachers in the United States are not Jews; the same is true for the students. This same reasoning and position is also held by many believers in other religions. Many Christians have some concerns about this as well; for example, can Catholic parents count on Protestant or Orthodox teachers to tell their children their particular understanding of the commandments? Differences in the interpretation and translation of these commandments, as noted above, can sometimes be significant.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have launched lawsuits challenging the posting of the ten commandments in public buildings. Opponents of these displays include a number of religious groups, including some Christian denominations, both because they don't want government to be issuing religious doctrine, and because they feel strongly that the commandments are inherently religious. Many commentators see this issue as part of a wider kulturkampf (culture struggle) between liberal and conservative elements in American society.

See also: Roy Moore, Separation of church and state - United States of America