What does the Ten Commandments really say?

Some Jewish philosophers and rabbis and non-Jews disagreed over what exactly the Bible was saying in the Ten Commandments. The philosopher Philo who lived during the beginning of the Common era is an example.

There are not ten commandments. The oft-used term “Ten Commandments” is incorrect. Scholars and clerics know there are more than ten commands in the Decalogue, although they differ as to how many there are. The correct term for the document, the one used by the Torah itself, is aseret hadibrot, “Ten Statements.” In Greek, “Decalogue” means the same. There are ten statements that contain between eleven and fifteen commands.

For example: The consensus is that the first sentence beginning “I am the Lord your God” is the first command even though no command is explicit in the words, and it appears as a separate command in picture of the two tablets in synagogues, but others, such as the Masorites, discussed below, are convinced it is not a command at all, but God being introduced to the Israelites. Also, what most people consider the second command can be divided into more than a single mandate: (1) Have no other gods except the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, (2) Make no image of God, (3) Make no image of anything on earth, the heaven, or in the water, (4) Do not bow down to them, and (5) Do not serve them.

There are even different opinions among Jews how to divide the ten statements. The Masorites combined what most Jews today consider the first two statements into one and divided the last into two. Masorites lived during the second half of the first millennia. They were the Jewish scholars who determined the correct wording of the Torah and, among much else, the spacing of Torah sentences and paragraphs. The term Masorites derives from the Hebrew masora, which means “tradition,” and they were so called because they established or continued the Torah traditions. Their spacing of the aseret hadibrot is the one found in the Torah scrolls used during the Torah reading in synagogues. Thus it is rather remarkable that their view of the spacing of the Decalogue, the one in the Torah scrolls, is not accepted by Jewry.

Another difficulty with the Decalogue is how to interpret the prohibitions. For example, the second statement says that we may make no image of items on earth, in heaven, or in the water. Yet, contrary to the explicit prohibition in the Decalogue, the rabbis allow making and owning pictures and statutes.

Still another difficulty: in the last statement (or last two, according to the Masorites) about coveting what does not belong to us, does this prohibit mental desires, or only the improper taking of another person’s object? The rabbinical interpretation is that it disallows theft even though this is contrary to what is stated because coveting is a mental process.[1]

The following are some of the many things that the philosopher Philo (20 BCE –50 CE) wrote about the Decalogue:[2]

  1. Philo accepted the current understanding of the Decalogue, not the teaching of the Masorites and divided the first statement into two and combined the last two. He called and treated the document as Ten Commandments even though there are clearly more than ten.
  2. Like Saadiah Gaon (882–942), Philo considered the commands as “generic rules, comprehending nearly all offenses.” In other words, one can see that any wrong committed by people can be subsumed under one of the general ten laws.[3]
  3. God did not “speak” the commands because God is not anthropomorphic; God does not have vocal cords allowing speech. God created a miraculous sound that spoke the commands.
  4. The Greek Septuagint translation had two distinct orders for the Decalogue, different than all other translations which parallel our Masoretic text. Our text is: You shall not murder…adultery…steal in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The Septuagint changes the order in Exodus to adultery…steal…murder, and in Deuteronomy to adultery…murder…steal. Philo accepted the Septuagint order.
  5. Philo states that the first four commands deal with relations between man and God. The fifth about honoring parents focuses on both honoring God and treating people properly. The remaining five are commands dealing with human relations. They begin with adultery (in the Septuagint and Philo order) because this according to them is the greatest of crimes.
  6. The first law (“I am the Lord”) “opposes the polytheistic doctrine, and teaches that the world is ruled by one sole governor.”
  7. The second, forbidding making idols, is “in order that the only true God might be honored in truth and simplicity.”[4] God does not need honor, but God desires to aid humans from going astray, to teach them to follow natural law.
  8. The third prohibits the wrongful use of God’s name. This restrains people from making unnecessary oaths.
  9. The fourth about the Sabbath obligates people to work during the other six days of the week and to use the seventh day to contemplate how to improve one’s self. It requires people to give rest to servants and even animals. It teaches that people should become self-reliant and not rely on servants and animals, servants should not despair of better times that lay ahead, and people should be sensitive to the needs and feelings of animals. Contrary to the Greek society in which he lived, Philo felt that slavery is an affront to God and humanity.
  10. The fifth requires honoring parents. This is both a human and divine-oriented command. People must learn how to reciprocate with service to those who have done them a service. The command teaches that we must reciprocate not only to parents, but to God, nature, and all people; to everything.
  11. Philo’s sixth law bars adultery. As previously noted, it is “the greatest of all violations of the law.” It has as its source the love of pleasure that enervates the body and destroys the chance for proper improvement. It affects three people and their families, the husband, the adulterer, and the wife and her children.
  12. The seventh in Philo’s order of Exodus 20 is murder, an act of sacrilege, for humans are godlike and are supposed to be civilized and act with reason. Murder robs a person of the sacred gift given by God, life.
  13. The eighth in his Exodus order is stealing. A thief is an enemy of the State and all that a State stands for. Stealing one object leads to other transgressions and develops habits that grow progressively worse.
  14. The ninth outlawing being a false witness can produce “every kind of terrible danger.” Such a person corrupts the truth, which is the most sacred treasure any of us can expect to own in life.
  15. Philo understands that the tenth, the prohibition against “covetousness,” bans improper desires, not deeds.[5] Covetous desires is the original passion from which all other mischiefs emanate. People need to learn to become obedient to the laws of moderation.

[1]    This raises the question: how does this command differ from the injunction against theft.

[2]    The source for the quotes is Torah from Alexandria, Philo as A Biblical Commentator, Exodus, by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, Kodesh Press, 2014.

[3]    Why did they consider the ten commands as ten categories? We do not know. It is possible that they thought since the Decalogue is described in the Torah as being promulgated in a miraculous manner, different than all other commands, it must have special significance.

[4]    This concept of worshiping God in a very simple manner stresses acting properly with fellow humans rather than pompous grandiose religious observances.

[5]    In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:50, Maimonides explains, like Philo, that people need to learn to control their desires. However, as a matter of halakha, “law,” Maimonides states (in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Geneivah 1:9) that the rabbis understood that it is the acts that the Torah forbids.

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