Monday, April 20, 2009

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are a list of religious and moral imperatives that according to religious tradition as recorded in the Bible, were written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of two stone tablets. They feature prominently in Judaism and Christianity.

The phrase "Ten Commandments" generally refers to the very similar passages in Exodus 20:2­17 and Deuteronomy 5:6­21. Some distinguish between this "Ethical Decalogue" and a series of ten commandments in Exodus 34 that are labelled the "Ritual Decalogue". This article mainly deals with the former.

The Ten Commandments were the specific terms, or 'words of the covenant' that were written on the Tables of Stone at My Sinai: "He wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments."


Some historians believe that the Ten Commandments originated from ancient Egyptian religion, and postulate that the Biblical Jews borrowed the concept after their Exodus from Egypt. Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead (the Papyrus of Ani) includes a list of things to which a man must swear in order to enter the afterlife. These sworn statements bear a remarkable resemblance to the Ten Commandments in their nature and their phrasing. These statements include "not have I defiled the wife of man," "not have I committed murder," "not have I committed theft," "not have I lied," "not have I cursed god," "not have I borne false witness," and "not have I abandoned my parents." The Book of the Dead has additional requirements, and, of course, doesn't require worship of YHWH.

Written in Stone

According to the Bible, God inscribed the Ten Commandments into stone: "God said to Moses, 'Come up to Me, to the mountain, and remain there. I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and the commandment that I have written for [the people's] instruction.'" (Exodus 24:12) also referred to as "tables of testimony" (Exodus 24:12, 31:18, 32:16) or "tables of the covenant" (Deuteronomy 9verses 9, 11, 15), which he gave to Moses.

Traditional Jewish sources (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, de-ba-Hodesh 5) discuss the placement of the ten commandments on two tablets. According to Rabbi Hanina ben Gamaliel, five commandments were engraved on the first tablet and five on the other, whereas the Sages contended that ten were written on each.

While most Jewish and Christian depictions follow the first understanding, modern scholarship favors the latter, comparing it to treaty rite in the Ancient Near East, in the sense of tablets of covenant.

Diplomatic treaties, such as that between Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusilis III, circa 1270 B.C.E, were duplicated on stone with a copy for each party, and the subordinate party would place their copy of the pact in the main temple to his god, in oath to the king (cf. Ezekiel 17:11-19). In a pact between a nation and its God, then, the Israelites placed both copies in their temple.

Exodus 32:15 records that the tablets "were written on both their sides."

The Talmud (tractate Shabbat 104a) explains that there were miracles involved with the carving on the tablets. One was that the carving went the full thickness of the tablets.

The letter samec in the Hebrew alphabet looks similar to the letter "O" in the English alphabet. The stone in the center part of the letter should have fallen out, as it was not connected to the rest of the tablet, but it did not; it miraculously remained in place. Secondly, the writing was miraculously legible from both the front and the back, even though logic would dictate that something carved through and through would show the writing in mirror image on the back.

Texts of the Ten Commandments

    1. I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

    2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

    3. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything 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.

    4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

    5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long.

    6. Thou shalt not kill.

    7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

    8. Thou shalt not steal.

    9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

    10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's.

Religious groups have divided the commandments in different ways. For instance, Catholics and Lutherans see the first six verses as part of the same command prohibiting the worship of pagan gods, while Protestants (except Lutherans) separate all six verses into two different commands (one being "no other gods" and the other being "no graven images"). The initial reference to Egyptian bondage is important enough to Jews that it forms a separate commandment. Catholics and Lutherans separate the two kinds of coveting (namely, of goods and of the flesh), while Protestants (but not Lutherans) and Jews group them together.

A very similar, but not completely identical, list of commandments is found in Deuteronomy 5:1-22. Reference to each of the commandments and the consequences for not following them as a part of Hebrew Law are found throughout this book. In the New Testament book of Matthew 19 and elsewhere, Jesus refers to the commandments, but condenses them into two general commands: love God (Shema) and love other people (Ethic of reciprocity) (Matthew 22.34-40).

Although the Ten Commandments in the Douay Rheims Bible and King James Version of the Bible are the most well-known in the English-speaking world, they do not conform to modern common English, using "Thou shalt not kill" instead of "You shall not kill."

Jewish Understanding

Popular belief holds that these are "the commandments" of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the Torah has 613 commandments. The Jewish tradition does, however, recognize these "ten commandments" as the ideological basis for the rest of the commandments (see below). According to the Medieval Sefer ha-Chinuch, the first five statements concern the relationship between God and human beings, while the second five statements concern the relationship between human beings. Rabbinic literature holds that the Ten Statements contain 14 or 15 distinct instructions.

Modern Adaptations

Many of the Ten Commandments continue in the form of modern laws such as "thou shalt not kill" (modern society severely punishes the crime of murder), "thou shalt not commit adultery" (modern society allows a divorce on this grounds) and "thou shalt not steal" (modern society punishes theft as a crime).

The Bible chapter that contains the Ten Commandments (Exodus XX) follows the recitation of the Commandments with a complete set of legal rules, which are based on the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" legal philosophy of Hammurabi's Code.

The first four Commandments are not related to justice per se but are purely religious statements. But others represent basic principles of justice which have been adhered to by society since they were first published. For some societies, the Commandments were a turning point where essential points such as "thou shalt not kill" or "commit adultery" were accepted as law; behavior that was from that point on formally and officially condemned. The Bible makes it quite clear that to transgress the Commandments was punishable: "the soul that sinneth, it shall die", "sin is the transgression of the law" and "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments".

While other faiths do not generally recognize the Ten Commandments in their unity, many of them (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, etc.) have comparable laws or principles. The Roman tradition was the Twelve Tables.

More on the Ten Commandments

The 10 Commandments are another engima, who purpose and very existence have been passed down through the millennia, allowing souls to believe in a god who would seek balance and light in our human experiment, yet by the very nature of our creation, duality, could never be achieved. The tablets allegedly have been placed in the Ark of the Covenant another engima which sends people questing for a truth about creation - buried for all time in a cave or temple [symbology for mind]. It's all about the quest and the questions. Reality is myth, math and metaphor. Think Outside the Box to find the real meaning behind the lessons of history in the alchemy of time and consciousness.