Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews are convinced that while they do not know much about their religion, they do know about the “Ten Commandments.” This is not true, as the following examples show:[1]

  1. 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. We do not know when or why the erroneous title for this document was invented.
  2. There are two versions of the Decalogue in the Bible. One is in Exodus 20:1-17 and one in Deuteronomy 5:4-21. There are a couple of dozen differences between the two version in the wording, spelling, and Deuteronomy has some additional words.
  3. Many people consider the first sentence beginning “I am the Lord your God” to be 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.[2]
  4. There are different opinions among Jews how to divide the ten statements. The Masorites combined what many 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 Decalogue 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 many Jews.
  5. The first (or second) command states the one should not have “any other gods (elohim acheirim) before me.” It does not say, do not worship idols. Many scholars take the wording literally and are convinced that the early Israelites believed in the existence of many gods, and the Decalogue is mandating that the Israelites many not worship or seek help from the other gods, only y-h-v-h, who, as indicated in the first paragraph, took the Israelites out of Egypt.
  6. This first or second statement can be divided into more than a single mandate: (1) Serve 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.
  7. Another difficulty with the Decalogue is how to interpret the prohibitions. For example, one statement says that we may make no image of items on earth, in heaven, or in the water. Yet, contrary to this explicit prohibition in the Decalogue, ancient Jews had images in their synagogues and the rabbis allowed making and owning pictures and statutes.
  8. Similarly, another command states “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet shortly after the giving of the Decalogue, the Israelites were commanded to kill the Midianites who seduced many Israelites to worship idols. Additionally, this command seems to prohibit self-defense and may even forbid killing animals for food.
  9. One command states in Exodus “Do not take the name of God in vain,” but in Deuteronomy is states “Do not utter the name falsely.” Which is the true command? Many people go so far as not to even write the word “God,” but write instead “G-d.” Yet when they speak, they say “God.” Is not writing the word God what the Decalogue commands? Is saying “God” a violation of the Decalogue?
  10. Similarly, Exodus states that one should “remember” the Sabbath day to keep it holy. It does not state how the day should be remembered. In Deuteronomy, the command is changed to “observe,” without saying how one should do so. Is “remember” or “observe” the true command?
  11. Still another difficulty: in the last statement (or last two, according to the Masorites)[3] about coveting what does not belong to us, does this prohibit mental desires, or only the improper taking of another person’s object? Coveting in Hebrew and English means desiring, wanting something that belongs to another person. It is part of human nature of most people to desire the splendor that others have. How can this natural reaction be proscribed? The rabbinical interpretation is that it disallows adultery and theft. even though this is contrary to what is stated, because coveting is a mental process.[4]

These “difficulties” show that many Decalogue commands should not be taken literally, but must be understood as interpreted in the oral tradition.


[1] Several times this number could be cited.

[2] Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah considered this introductory statement as a command to seek to “know about God” by studying what God created, the laws of nature. The King James translation of the Bible does not consider the introductory statement as a command.

[3] The ninth is coveting the neighbors’ house and wife. The tenth is coveting his servants, animals and all his other possessions.

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