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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Ten Commandments

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1. The traditional history of the Decalogue . The ‘ten words’ were, according to Exodus 20:1-26 , proclaimed vocally by God on Mt. Sinai, and written by Him on two stones, and given to Moses ( Exodus 24:12; Exodus 31:13; Exodus 32:15-16; cf. Deuteronomy 5:22; Deuteronomy 9:10-11 ). When these were broken by Moses on his descent from the mount ( Exodus 32:19 , Deuteronomy 9:17 ), he was commanded to prepare two fresh stones like the first, on which God re-wrote the ‘ten words’ ( Exodus 34:4; Exodus 34:28 , Deuteronomy 10:2; Deuteronomy 10:4 ). This is clearly the meaning of Ex. as the text now stands. But many critics think that Exodus 10:28 b originally referred not to the ‘ten words’ of Exodus 20:1-26 , but to the laws of Exodus 34:11-26 , and that these laws were J [Note: Jahwist.] ’s version of the Decalogue. It must suffice to say here that if, as on the whole seems likely, Exodus 34:28 b refers to our Decalogue, we must distinguish the command to write the covenant laws in Exodus 34:27 , and the words ‘he wrote’ in Exodus 34:28 b, in which case the subject of the latter will be God, as required by Exodus 34:1 . The two stones were immediately placed in the ark, which had been prepared by Moses specially for that purpose ( Deuteronomy 10:1-5 [probably based on JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ]). There they were believed to have permanently remained ( 1 Kings 8:9 , Deuteronomy 10:5 ) until the ark was, according to Rabbinical tradition, hidden by Jeremiah, when Jerusalem was finally taken by Nehuchadrezzar.

2. The documentary history of the Decalogue . A comparison of the Decalogue in Exodus 20:1-26 with that of Deuteronomy 5:1-33 renders it probable that both are later recensions of a much shorter original. The phrases peculiar to Deuteronomy 5:1-33 are in most cases obviously characteristic of D [Note: Deuteronomist.] , and must be regarded as later expansions. Such are ‘as the Lord thy God commanded thee’ in the 4th and 5th ‘word,’ and ‘that it may go well with thee’ in the 5th. In the last commandment the first two clauses are transposed, and a more appropriate word (‘desire’) is used for coveting a neighbour’s wife. Here evidently we have also a later correction. Curiously enough Exodus 20:1-26 , while thus generally more primitive than Deut., shows signs of an even later recension. The reason for keeping the Sabbath, God’s rest after creation, is clearly based on Genesis 2:1-3 , which belongs to the post-exilic Priestly Code (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ). The question is further complicated by the fact that several phrases in what is common to Exodus 20:1-26 and Deut. are of a distinctly Deuteronomic character, as ‘that is within thy gates’ in the 4th commandment, ‘that thy days may be long’ ‘upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’ in the 5th. We see, then, that the Decalogue of Ex. is in all probability the result of a double revision (a Deuteronomic and a Priestly) of a much more simple original. It has been suggested that originally all the commandments consisted of a single clause, and that the name ‘word’ could be more naturally applied to such. In favour of this view, beyond what has been already said, it is argued that this short form would he more suitable for inscription on stone.

3. How were the ‘ten words’ divided ? The question turns on the beginning and the end of the Decalogue. Are what we know as the First and Second, and again what we know as the Tenth, one or two commandments? The arrangement which treats the First and Second as one, and the Tenth as two, is that of the Massoretic Hebrew text both in Ex. and Dt., and was that of the whole Western Church from the time of St. Augustine to the Reformation, and is still that of the Roman and Lutheran Churches. Moreover, it may seem to have some support from the Deuteronomic version of the Tenth Commandment. Our present arrangement, however, is that of the early Jewish and early Christian Churches, and seems on the whole more probable in itself. A wife, being regarded as a chattel, would naturally come under the general prohibition against coveting a neighbour’s goods. If, as already suggested, the original form of the commandment was a single clause, it would have run, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house’ (see 8 (x.)).

4. The contents of each table . If, as suggested, the original commandments were single clauses, it is most natural to suppose that they were evenly divided between the two tables five in each. This view is adopted without hesitation by Philo, and it is not contradicted by our Lord’s division of the Law into the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour. It would be difficult to class parents in the category of neighbour, whereas the reverence due to them was by the ancients regarded as a specially sacred obligation, and was included, by both Greeks and Romans at any rate, under the notion of piety.

5. Order of the Decalogue . The Hebrew texts of Exodus 20:1-26 and Deuteronomy 5:1-33 agree in the order murder, adultery, theft as the subjects of the 6th, 7th, and 8th Commandments. The LXX [Note: Septuagint.] (best MSS) in Ex. have the order adultery, theft, murder; in Dt. adultery, murder, theft. This last is borne out by Romans 13:9 and by Philo, and may possibly have been original.

6. Mosaic origin of the Decalogue . The chief difficulty arises out of the Second Commandment. There can be little doubt that from primitive times the Israelites were monolatrous, worshipping J″ [Note: Jahweh.] as their national God. But it is argued that this does not appear to have prevented them from recognizing to some extent inferior divine beings, such as those represented by teraphim , or even from representing their God under visible symbols. Thus in Judges 17:3 we find Micah making an image of Jahweh, without any disapproval by the writer. David himself had teraphim in his house ( 1 Samuel 19:13-16 ); Isaiah speaks of a pillar as a natural and suitable symbol of worship ( Isaiah 19:19 ); Hosea classes pillar, ephod, and teraphim with sacrifices as means of worship, of which Israel would be deprived for a while as a punishment ( Hosea 3:4 ). The frequent condemnation of ashçroth (sacred tree-images, AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘groves’) suggests that they too were common features of Semitic worship, and not confined to the worship of heathen gods. But it may reasonably be doubted whether these religious symbols were always regarded as themselves objects of worship, though tending to become so. Again, it may well have been the case that under the deteriorating Influences of surrounding Semitic worship, the people, without generally worshipping heathen gods, failed to reach the high ideal of their traditional religion and worship. We may fairly say, then, that the Decalogue in its earliest form, if not actually Mosaic, represents in all probability the earliest religious tradition of Israel.

7. Object of the Decalogue . Looking from a Christian point of view, we are apt to regard the Decalogue as at any rate an incomplete code of religion and morality. More probably the ‘ten words’ should be regarded as a few easily remembered rules necessary for a half-civilized agricultural people, who owed allegiance to a national God, and were required to live at peace with each other. They stand evidently in close relation to the Book of the Covenant ( Exodus 21:1-36; Exodus 22:1-31; Exodus 23:1-33 ), of which they may be regarded as either a summary or the kernel. With one exception (the Fifth, see below, 8 (v.)) they are, like most rules given to children, of a negative character ‘thou shalt not,’ etc.

8. Interpretation of the Decalogue . There are a few obscure phrases, or other matters which call for comment.

(i.) ‘before me’ may mean either ‘in my presence,’ condemning the eclectic worship of many gods, or ‘in preference to me.’ Neither interpretation would necessarily exclude the belief that other gods were suitable objects of worship for other peoples (cf. Judges 11:24 ).

(ii.) ‘the water under the earth.’ The Israelites conceived of the sea as extending under the whole land (hence the springs). This, being in their view the larger part, might be used to express the whole. Fish and other marine animals are, of course, intended.

‘unto thousands,’ better ‘a thousand generations,’ as in RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] . The punishment by God of children for the faults of parents was felt to be a moral difficulty, and was denied by Ezekiel (ch. 18). Similar action by judicial authorities was forbidden by Deut. (Deuteronomy 24:16; cf. 2 Kings 14:6 ). But the words show that if evil actions influence for evil the descendants of the evil-doer either by heredity or by imitation, the influence of good actions for good is far more potent.

(iii.) ‘Thou … in vain,’ i.e. ‘for falsehood.’ This may mean ‘Thou shalt not perjure thyself’ or ‘Thou shalt not swear and then not keep thy oath.’ The latter seems to be the current Jewish interpretation (see Matthew 5:33 ). Philo takes it in both senses.

(iv.) ‘within thy gates,’ i.e. ‘thy cities’ (see 2 ).

‘for in six days,’ etc. We find in OT three distinct reasons for the observance of the Sabbath. (1) The oldest is that of the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 23:12 , ‘that thine ox and thine ass may have rest, and the son of thine handmaid and the stranger may be refreshed.’ In Exodus 20:1-26 and Deuteronomy 5:1-33 the rest of the domestic animals and servants appears as part of the injunction itself. (2) In Deuteronomy 5:1-33 there is added as a secondary purpose, ‘that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou’; whereas the chief purpose of the observaoce is as a commemoration of the Exodus. (3) Exodus 20:1-26 , revised after the Exile at or after the time that the Priestly Code was published, bases the observance on the Sabbatical rest of God after the Creation ( Genesis 2:1-3 P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ).

(v.) ‘Honour thy Father,’ etc. It is not improbable that this commandment has been modified in form, and was originally negative like all the rest, and referred like them to a prohibited action rather than to a correct feeling, as, very possibly,’ Thou shalt not smite,’ etc. (cf. Exodus 21:15; Exodus 21:17 ). At a later time such an outrage would have been hardly contemplated, and would naturally have given way to the present commandment. The word ‘honour’ seems, according to current Jewish teaching (see Lightfoot on Matthew 15:5 ), to have specially included feeding and clothing, and Christ assumes rather than inculcates as new this application of the commandment. The Rabbinical teachers had encouraged men in evading a recognized law by their quibbles.

(x.) ‘Thou shalt not … house.’ Deut. transposes the first two clauses, and reads ‘desire’ with wife. The teaching of Exodus 20:1-26 is, beyond question, relatively the earliest. The wife was originally regarded as one of the chattels, though undoubtedly the most important chattel, of the house, or general establishment.

On the Decalogue in the NT see art. Law (in nt).

F. H. Woods.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ten Commandments'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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