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What Are the Ten Commandments?

This week’s question comes from Rick E. in Canada. He asks simply, “What are the Ten Commandments?”

The quick answer is that they are the ten laws given through Moses that form the basis for the whole of the Jewish law. According to the scriptures, Moses received these commandments written on a pair of stone tablets from God. In an unfortunate fit of rage, Moses later destroyed these tablets, but God graciously rewrote them and in time they were placed into the ark of the covenant for safe keeping. The commandments, which are found in Exodus 20 and repeated in Deuteronomy 5, include: (1) Have no gods before the Lord God; (2) Make no idols or engraved images; (3) Do not misuse the name of God; (4) Observe the Sabbath day; (5) Honor your parents; (6) Do not murder; (7) Do not commit adultery; (8) Do not steal; (9) Do not bear false witness; (10) Do not covet. 

Somehow, however, I believe Rick is probably wanting to know a bit more about the commandments than simply this. So, let’s look at what we know about the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments were known in the ancient Greek world as the Decalogue. The word Decalogue is Greek for “ten words.” The commandments were originally written in Hebrew, which is an inflected language, as is Greek. This means that each word has a root and prefixes and suffixes are affixed to the word to add to its meaning. Take for instance, the word “run.” In either Hebrew or Greek a prefix could be added to the word to make it mean “he ran.” Further, a suffix could also be added to make the word mean “he ran to her.” The implication, according to many scholars, is that the Decalogue may originally have been exactly ten words, no more and no less (the best we could do in English is about 20 words—no idols, honor parents, don’t steal, and so on).

The order of the commandments, in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, suggests a scheme of sorts. Jewish theologians have virtually always grouped the Commandments in two groups of five each. Their assumption is based on a balanced arrangement upon the two stone tablets. John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, suggested that the first three commandments, which have to do with honoring God, were placed on one tablet, while the rest, which have to do with human-to-human relationships were placed on the second tablet. This particular ordering was popular with Christians since it supports Jesus’ reduction of all commandments into two (love God, love others).

The importance of the Ten Commandments to the Judeo-Christian world cannot be overstated. Jesus himself cited them as the backbone of the faith. In Luke 18.18-20 we read of a man who asked Jesus what he had to do to have eternal life. Jesus answered, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” In more contemporary society they have been cited as the first codification of law, which they almost certainly weren’t; nonetheless, they have served as the underpinning for much of Western civilization and its law for thousands of years. They have been posted on courthouse walls and school room bulletin boards worldwide.

And yet, many theologians and scholars argue that these commandments have no authority upon Christians, since they were given as part of the Jewish law. Indeed, Paul suggests rather pointedly that Christians are not required to obey the third commandment of keeping the Sabbath day (Galatians 4.8-11; Colossians 2.16). On the other hand, the other nine commandments would be kept by default when Christians keep the two Great Commandments Jesus cited (Matthew 22.37-40).

Whether or not Christians are required to keep the Ten Commandments as a point of law is, in most cases, an irrelevant argument. The fact is, these laws have so permeated our culture that even our coins bear the evidence of honoring God (that with a government that denounces any integration of church/religion and state). Few argue with the necessity of these laws for a civilized world to exist—right up to and including the necessity for a day off to recover each week. In these days of uncertainty, it might be a good thing to pull them out of our books and begin to live them in our lives. In any event, it wouldn’t hurt.

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