The Ten Commandments are some of the most influential words in the entire Bible, and they've influenced thousands of years of Western thinking. Even in our day-to-day lives, the Ten Commandments resonate with how people think about right and wrong. As you go through them, think about how they relate to your life. We dare you.
God gives the people the Ten Commandments orally. Let's tackle them one by one.
Commandment One: We're Exclusive…or are we?
"You shall have no other gods before me." (20:3)
"Before" has also been translated as "besides." Naturally, this has provoked a lot of debate. "Before me" seems to imply that the worshipper can mess around with other gods as long as God is number one, but "besides me" implies an exclusive relationship. See how this can get tricky?
If this sounds like two lovers talking about their relationship, then you're on the right track. God often acts like a spurned lover, and there are a lot of complicated issues in this marriage. Bottom line: God is getting promoted.
Commandment Two: No Idols. Ever.
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form 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 worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." (20:4-6)
Back in the ancient world, idol worship of statues and other objects was very common. It's pretty natural to attach yourself to an object, if you think about it.
The main idea here is that these idols were contrary to the religious ideas of the writers. They believed that their God held something more intangible, more powerful than could be produced in a crude clay statue.
This doesn't mean that God doesn't appear to the Israelites physically. No one is saying "God is an idea, not a force." After all, God is saying this to the Israelites in person in smoke and fire.
What the Commandment does say is, "We're not going to engage in this particular form of physical worship anymore."
Commandment Three: Oaths, Swearwords, and Blasphemy
"You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name." (20:7)
This one is all about respect for God. For the ancients, it wasn't a ban on naughty words, but an attempt to elevate God's name and give it some cultural currency. In other words, the writers wanted to make sure that God's name had some panache behind it.
Think about The Godfather when Vito "swears on the souls of his grandchildren," or when Westley in ThePrincess Bride refuses to accept Inigo's word as a Spaniard because, "I've known too many Spaniards." Oaths means something and the writers here are just trying to give this stuff a punch.
Blasphemy isn't just a ban on swearwords, but a ban on using God's name flippantly.
Commandment Four: Chillaxin' on a Weekend
"Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it." (20:8-11)
When you think about it, this is a pretty good idea for society. Why shouldn't everyone just work all the time? We'd get way more done. Especially for the ancients, who had crops to worry about, this was a big deal.
Taking aside one day for higher concerns (like God) is a major breakthrough because it moves the ancient world from pure survival mode to a more cosmopolitan way of life. If you're thinking about the next place to find food all day, you definitely aren't thinking about man's condition in the universe.
Commandment Five: The One Parents Always Cite
"Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you." (20:12)
This one isn't just an attempt by parents to overcome their children. It's about setting up a society that works, and works well.
Here's the thing. You probably can't have a functional society that standardizes parental disrespect (unless you're George Orwell and this is 1984).
Commandment Six: Killing…or Murder?
NRSV: "You shall not murder." (20:13)
KJV: "Thou shalt not kill."(20:13)
"Murder" implies that you took another life for your own advantage. "Killing" might imply that there was a better reason—after all, Moses himself killed a man. This is nasty moral territory, folks.
Given that God himself authorized Israelites to kill Amalekites, it's reasonable to assume that this rule only applies to your community. War seems like an exemption, and God himself takes life. It's messy, but the writers probably left it that way intentionally.
Commandment Seven: No Adultery
"You shall not commit adultery." (20:14)
Remember, in ancient times, one man could have multiple wives, no problem. This isn't a romantic endorsement of marriage or anything. The writers are just trying to make sure that their society has rules.
What this passage is really saying is that a married woman cannot have sex with a man who is not her husband. Sorry, gals—that's just the way this world worked.
Commandment Eight: No Stealing
"You shall not steal." (20:15)
Seems pretty straightforward, right? But what about the Israelites "plundering" the Egyptians in 3:21-22? Wouldn't you say that counts as a kind of stealing?
Also, what about taking the land in Canaan that God himself said belonged to other people? God has made it clear from the beginning that he's giving the land of others to the Israelites. Is that stealing, or just ancient regional politics?
Yeah, it's complicated.
Commandment Nine: Testifying and Witnessing
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (20:16)
Basically, you could take this two ways. You could interpret in Law & Order style and say that this commandment only prohibits lying on the stand in a trial. So if you see something happen, you can't lie about it when asked by the man. Makes good social sense, right?
You could also take it as a complete ban on all lying. On a smaller scale, isn't lying bearing false witness? If you're not being truthful, then aren't you technically just a bad witness to life?
In both cases, here's another attempt to regulate society and create a functional system of laws. That's not to say that there were no laws before the Commandments, but this represents an attempt to get everything written down.
Commandment Ten: Hey Jealousy
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (20:17)
On one level, this seems like a good idea. Envy and jealousy produce crime, so why not just ban it?
A few historical goodies on this commandment. First, doesn't this seem like a way for people to deal with social inequalities? If everyone had an identical ox, why would you need to be envious of someone else's?
Second, check out how "wife" gets lumped in with all kinds of property. That's just the way it was. Slavery is also taken for granted. No surprise there, since it's all over the Bible.
Finally, did you notice that the images on this list are very pastoral? It's basically farm equipment and animals. Moses's is a very farming-oriented society. What would you put on today's list? iPads? Computers? Houses? Money?
And that's it. Those are your ten commandments.
But we're not done. Duh.
Think about these commandments in this way: If you're a city planner, would you put up a "No Smoking" sign in a place where people don't smoke? Of course not. We're not saying that the ancient world was anarchy before these commandments, but you wouldn't make rules unless you had good reason. Whoever wrote this stuff (God, Moses, the Biblical writers, or your grandmother) had a very certain idea in mind about how they wanted society to look.
When we think of this chapter in a literary framework, even more question pop up: How would these rules look if Moses had said them? How would they look if God wasn't cloaked in fire and smoke? The point is that context matters. If Dumbledore or Gandalf says something, we shut up and listen. There's some speculation that the writers of the Exodus story inserted these rules to make them seem like God said them—if that's the case, it's kind of a brilliant strategy.
If you want to dig into the archaeological, legal, and historical meat of these commandments, you'll find endless work on the subject. Most scholars agree that whoever wrote these commandments was heavily influenced by the world around them. Basically, the list boils down to Hittite influences to the north, Egyptian influences from the south, and Mesopotamian influences from the west. Hammurabi's Code looks an awful lot like the Ten Commandments, and Hittite treaties may have also been at work.
A quick dip back into the story: After God gives out the Commandments, the people freak out and tell Moses that he should be the one talking to God. They're too scared. We might be, too.