The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments, revered by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, appear twice in the Torah: at Ex 20:217 and at Deut 5:621. All Jews, Catholics, and Protestants follow the entire text of God’s two presentations of his Ten Commandments for us.

“Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” Deut 31:26.

The Basics

God calls them, in the Torah’s original Hebrew, aseret ha-devarim Ex 34:28Deut 4:13Deut 10:4. The rabbinic texts call them aseret ha-divrot. Both Hebrew words devarim and divrot come from the Hebrew root spelled dalet-beit raish, “word” or “speak.” In Greek they are deka logoi, from which comes the English word “Decalogue.”

St. John’s Gospel specifically identifies the word logos with Rabbi Yeshua. Its original Greek begins, En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, kai theos en ho logos. Literally, “In the-beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and God was the word.” Most translations put it: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” Jn 1:1.

St. John also identifies the logos specifically as Rabbi Yeshua. Again in his original Greek, Kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskenosen en hemin. Literally, “And the word flesh became and took-up-residence among us.” Most translations put it: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” Jn 1:14.

The English name Decalogue appears in the Septuagint as the Greek phrase deka logoi at Ex 34:28 and Deut 10:4.

The Torah refers on several occasions to “tablets of stone” Ex 24:1231:1832:151634:1Deut 4:135:2210:1, but never says how many commandments were on each tablet.

Summary of the Torah

The rabbis regard all of the Torah‘s 613 mitzvot as equally sacred and binding because man, with his limited understanding, has no way of knowing which God considers the most important. Mishna tractate Pirke Abot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) tells us, “Be as meticulous in performing a ‘minor’ mitzvah as with a ‘major’ mitzvah, because we do not know which God considers the most important.”

God did not call the Decalogue aseret ha-mitzvot, the Ten Commandments. The rabbis understand each of the ten divrot as a group of mitzvot. In our time we can think of each divra as a folder into which various mitzvah files are stored.

For example, the mitzvah to cease work on the Sabbath comes within the category of keeping holy the Sabbath day. The mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur also falls into that category since every holiday is in some sense a Sabbath.

Similarly, the mitzvah to not stand idly by while a person’s life is in danger obviously comes under “You shall not kill.” Less obviously, The rabbis also place the mitzvah against causing anyone to be embarrassed also under “You shall not kill” because embarrassment causes blood to be drained from the face, thereby shedding blood.

Rabbi Yeshua taught that the two great commandments are the summary of all 613 mitzvot Mt 22:3740, so it makes sense that his Church would use the Ten Commandments to teach her flock how to live the Shma in day-to-day life.

Jews, Catholics, Protestants

Jews

The rabbis teach that the first five commandments concern our relationship to God, and were written on the right tablet:

Love God

  1. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.
  2. You shall have no other gods before me.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
  4. You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.

The rabbis teach also that the second five commandments concern our relationship to one another, and were written on the left tablet:

Love One Another

  1. You shall not murder.
  2. You shall not commit adultery.
  3. You shall not steal.
  4. You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  5. You shall not covet.

Catholics

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people Jer 31:3133.

§ 2067 The Ten Commandments state what is required in the love of God and love of neighbor. The first three concern love of God, and the other seven love of neighbor.

The Catholic Church, following Rabbi Yeshua, teaches that the right tablet contained the three commandments that concern our relationship to God:

Love God

  1. You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  3. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

And that the left tablet contained the seven commandments that concern our relationship to one another:

Love One Another

  1. Honor your father and your mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  6. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  7. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

In the light of Rabbi Yeshua’s public revelation, St. Augustine saw the prohibition against idolatry as part of the larger precept to adore one God, and him alone, making the first two (Jewish) commandments into one.

St. Augustine then divided the final precept against concupiscence into two parts, using the sequence in Deuteronomy rather than Exodus, to reflect Rabbi Yeshua’s emphasis on interior holiness: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” Mt 23:27. St. Augustine’s division also reflected Rabbi Yeshua’s emphasis on interior purity by recognizing lust and envy as separate capital sins.

Because St. Augustine used the sequence in Deuteronomy, Deut 5:621 which places coveting the neighbor’s wife ahead of his property, Catholics quoting from the Ten Commandments traditionally use the Scripture citations in Deuteronomy rather than those in Exodus:

§ 2066 “The division and numbering of the Commandments have varied in the course of history. The present catechism follows the division of the Commandments established by St. Augustine, which has become traditional in the Catholic Church. It is also that of the Lutheran confessions. The Greek Fathers worked out a slightly different division, which is found in the Orthodox Churches and Reformed communities.”

Catholic Reverence for the Ten Commandments

How does the Church understand the Ten Commandments today? Pope Benedict XVI declares, “As we have seen, [the Decalogue given on Mount Sinai] is by no means abolished by the Sermon on the Mount, nor is it reduced to an ‘old law,’ but it is simply developed further in a way that allows its full depth and grandeur to shine forth in all its purity.”

On the same page the Holy Father went even further. “The Decalogue is not, as we have seen, some burden imposed upon man from the outside. It is a revelation of the essence of God himself—to the extent that we are capable of receiving it—and hence it is an exegesis of the truth of our being.”

Matthew Levering summarizes St. Thomas Aquinas by observing that, “The Mosaic Law is ordered to one end: communion or ‘friendship’ with God.” Levering, for St. Thomas, adds, “The Mosaic Law, in a real sense … is still observed by Christians.” Levering continues, “Aquinas’s account of salvation is built around the idea that Christians, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, share in the redemptive acts of their Head (Christ). Christians share, and all human beings potentially share, in Christ’s fulfillment of all aspects of the Mosaic Law.” “It is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” Rom 11:18.

Protestants

For a thousand years all Christians worldwide accepted St. Augustine’s enumeration. Then, during the 1500s, Protestants (except Lutherans) as part of their rejection of Church authority reverted to the Jewish way of counting the commandments. However, they tinkered with that too, using as their first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” Ex 20:3 which was the Jews second commandment.

The traditional Protestant count is:

Love God

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  3. You shall not make any graven image.

Love One Another

  1. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  2. Honor your father and your mother.
  3. You shall not kill.
  4. You shall not commit adultery.
  5. You shall not steal.
  6. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  7. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

“Teacher, what must I do . . .?” Mt 19:16

§ 2052 “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” To the young man who asked this question, Jesus answers first by invoking the necessity to recognize God as the “One there is who is good,” as the supreme Good and the source of all good. Then Jesus tells him: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” and he cites for his questioner the precepts that concern love of neighbor: “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” Finally Jesus sums up these commandments positively: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

§ 2053 To this first reply Jesus adds a second: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This reply does not do away with the first: following Jesus Christ involves keeping the Commandments. the Law has not been abolished, but rather man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfillment. In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ call to the rich young man to follow him, in the obedience of a disciple and in the observance of the Commandments, is joined to the call to poverty and chastity. The evangelical counsels are inseparable from the Commandments.

§ 2054 Jesus acknowledged the Ten Commandments, but he also showed the power of the Spirit at work in their letter. He preached a righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees as well as that of the Gentiles. He unfolded all the demands of the Commandments. “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill.’ . . . But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.”

§ 2055 When someone asks him, “Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” Jesus replies: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.” The Decalogue must be interpreted in light of this twofold yet single commandment of love, the fullness of the Law:

The commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

The Decalogue in Sacred Scripture

§ 2056 The word “Decalogue” means literally “ten words.” God revealed these “ten words” to his people on the holy mountain. They were written “with the finger of God,” unlike the other commandments written by Moses. They are pre-eminently the words of God. They are handed on to us in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Beginning with the Old Testament, the sacred books refer to the “ten words,” but it is in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ that their full meaning will be revealed.

§ 2057 The Decalogue must first be understood in the context of the Exodus, God’s great liberating event at the center of the Old Covenant. Whether formulated as negative commandments, prohibitions, or as positive precepts such as: “Honor your father and mother,” the “ten words” point out the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin. the Decalogue is a path of life:

If you love the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply.

This liberating power of the Decalogue appears, for example, in the commandment about the sabbath rest, directed also to foreigners and slaves:

You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

§ 2058 The “ten words” sum up and proclaim God’s law: “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. and he wrote them upon two tables of stone, and gave them to me.” For this reason these two tables are called “the Testimony.” In fact, they contain the terms of the covenant concluded between God and his people. These “tables of the Testimony” were to be deposited in “the ark.”

§ 2059 The “ten words” are pronounced by God in the midst of a theophany (“The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire.”). They belong to God’s revelation of himself and his glory. the gift of the Commandments is the gift of God himself and his holy will. In making his will known, God reveals himself to his people.

§ 2060 The gift of the commandments and of the Law is part of the covenant God sealed with his own. In Exodus, the revelation of the “ten words” is granted between the proposal of the covenant and its conclusion – after the people had committed themselves to “do” all that the Lord had said, and to “obey” it. The Decalogue is never handed on without first recalling the covenant (“The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.”).

§ 2061 The Commandments take on their full meaning within the covenant. According to Scripture, man’s moral life has all its meaning in and through the covenant. The first of the “ten words” recalls that God loved his people first:

Since there was a passing from the paradise of freedom to the slavery of this world, in punishment for sin, the first phrase of the Decalogue, the first word of God’s commandments, bears on freedom “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

§ 2062 The Commandments properly so-called come in the second place: they express the implications of belonging to God through the establishment of the covenant. Moral existence is a response to the Lord’s loving initiative. It is the acknowledgement and homage given to God and a worship of thanksgiving. It is cooperation with the plan God pursues in history.

§ 2063 The covenant and dialogue between God and man are also attested to by the fact that all the obligations are stated in the first person (“I am the Lord.”) and addressed by God to another personal subject (“you”). In all God’s commandments, the singular personal pronoun designates the recipient. God makes his will known to each person in particular, at the same time as he makes it known to the whole people:

The Lord prescribed love towards God and taught justice towards neighbor, so that man would be neither unjust, nor unworthy of God. Thus, through the Decalogue, God prepared man to become his friend and to live in harmony with his neighbor. The words of the Decalogue remain likewise for us Christians. Far from being abolished, they have received amplification and development from the fact of the coming of the Lord in the flesh.

The Decalogue in the Church’s Tradition

§ 2064 In fidelity to Scripture and in conformity with the example of Jesus, the tradition of the Church has acknowledged the primordial importance and significance of the Decalogue.

§ 2065 Ever since St. Augustine, the Ten Commandments have occupied a predominant place in the catechesis of baptismal candidates and the faithful. In the fifteenth century, the custom arose of expressing the commandments of the Decalogue in rhymed formulae, easy to memorize and in positive form. They are still in use today. the catechisms of the Church have often expounded Christian morality by following the order of the Ten Commandments.

§ 2066 The division and numbering of the Commandments have varied in the course of history. the present catechism follows the division of the Commandments established by St. Augustine, which has become traditional in the Catholic Church. It is also that of the Lutheran confessions. the Greek Fathers worked out a slightly different division, which is found in the Orthodox Churches and Reformed communities.

§ 2067 The Ten Commandments state what is required in the love of God and love of neighbor. The first three concern love of God, and the other seven love of neighbor.

As charity comprises the two commandments to which the Lord related the whole Law and the prophets, so the Ten Commandments were themselves given on two tablets. Three were written on one tablet and seven on the other.

§ 2068 The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; The Second Vatican Council confirms: “The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.”

The unity of the Decalogue

§ 2069 The Decalogue forms a coherent whole. Each “word” refers to each of the others and to all of them; they reciprocally condition one another. the two tables shed light on one another; they form an organic unity.

To transgress one commandment is to infringe all the others. One cannot honor another person without blessing God his Creator. One cannot adore God without loving all men, his creatures. the Decalogue brings man’s religious and social life into unity.

The Decalogue and the Natural law

§ 2070 The Ten Commandments belong to God’s revelation. At the same time they teach us the true humanity of man. They bring to light the essential duties, and therefore, indirectly, the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of the human person. the Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law:

From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue.

§ 2071 The commandments of the Decalogue, although accessible to reason alone, have been revealed. To attain a complete and certain understanding of the requirements of the natural law, sinful humanity needed this revelation:

A full explanation of the commandments of the Decalogue became necessary in the state of sin because the light of reason was obscured and the will had gone astray.

We know God’s commandments through the divine revelation proposed to us in the Church, and through the voice of moral conscience. the obligation of the Decalogue.

§ 2072 Since they express man’s fundamental duties towards God and towards his neighbor, the Ten Commandments reveal, in their primordial content, grave obligations. They are fundamentally immutable, and they oblige always and everywhere. No one can dispense from them. the Ten Commandments are engraved by God in the human heart.

§ 2073 Obedience to the Commandments also implies obligations in matter which is, in itself, light. Thus abusive language is forbidden by the fifth commandment, but would be a grave offense only as a result of circumstances or the offender’s intention. “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

§ 2074 Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, partake of his mysteries, and keep his commandments, the Savior himself comes to love, in us, his Father and his brethren, our Father and our brethren. His person becomes, through the Spirit, the living and interior rule of our activity. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”