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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 2 - Sacred Texts 


The Ten Commandments

Probably no religious declaration has exerted a greater influence than the Ten Commandments. God Himself is represented as delivering the commandments to Moses in a dramatic scene, amidst fire, smoke, and thunder on Mount Sinai, while the Israelites, whom Moses recently had led out of captivity in Egypt, wait below in the desert. The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are restated in Deuteronomy 5, as spoken to the Israelites by the aged Moses. Here, after forty years of wandering in the desert, Moses reminds a new generation of Israelites that the covenant God made with their fathers, who were present at the original enunciation of this code of behavior, is a covenant made also with them and all who will come after them. Excerpts from the individual Commandments according to Exodus 20 in the King James Version follow below.

    1. I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (verse 2)
    2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, or any likeness of any thing 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 . . . . (verse 3-6)
    3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain . . . . (verse 7)
    4. Remember the sabbath day . . . . (verses 8-11)
    5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land . . . . (verse 12)
    6. Thou shalt not kill. (verse 13)
    7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. (verse 13)
    8. Thou shalt not steal. (verse 13)
    9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. (verse 13)
    10. Thou shalt not covet . . . . (verse 13)

The Ten Commandments generally are portrayed in two tablets, each with five commandments. (The Roman Catholic version puts three on one tablet and seven on the other.) A visual depiction of what the tablets might have looked like may be found in most Jewish synagogues, generally above the holy ark which contains the Scrolls of the Torah. Dividing the commandments equally invites a comparison between the two groups, and many interpretations of the relationships within and between those groups are possible. While the first five are long and detailed, the latter five are short, possibly indicating the revolutionary character of the first group. Since this group contained the new conception of monotheism, elucidation became necessary, while the latter five simply delineate rules and regulations recognized as essential by any society.

The Israelite religion not only stressed monotheism, but also added the principle of God as "one," an indivisible unity and not a combination of parts. The first commandment mentions the Israelites' exodus from Egypt--from slavery to freedom--thus adding the aspect of God's sovereignty in history. The use of the singular "your God" establishes a direct relationship to each and every individual of Israel, for all generations. The second commandment emphasizes that this God has no physical form. The third commandment shifts from the prohibited visual depiction of God to the forbidden verbal use of His name. The fourth commandment remains unique in its demand that man observe a day of rest as testimony to the story of Creation and God as the sole Creator. Therefore, by working for six days and renewing himself physically and spiritually on the seventh, man imitates the act of God creating the universe in six days and resting on the seventh.

The Sabbath commandment, which affected Christianity and Islam and thus shaped the social history of the entire western world, left its most indelible impression on the life and history of the Jewish people. The Sabbath served as one of the most important factors in unifying the Jewish people throughout the centuries.

The fifth commandment to honor one's parents, while seemingly a social commandment (since a harmonious home provides the nuclear unit for the growth and development of society), was nevertheless placed in the first category to convey the idea that parents should be considered as important as God. We might say, then, that the fifth commandment serves as a bridge to the next grouping of commandments which have a different focus.

Reverence for God on the first tablet is matched by respect for human beings on the second tablet. The first of this group protects the sanctity of human life. "Thou shall not kill" refers to murder--an unlawful killing--but not to capital punishment meted out by courts of law.

"Thou shalt not commit adultery" addresses the sacred nature of marital life. Chastity in familial relationships is one of the basic elements of a pure society envisioned by the Bible. Therefore, the principle of honoring one's parents is supplemented by the charge to husband and wife to protect the sanctity of family life.

The commandment "Thou shalt not steal" deals with both the thievery of people (that is, kidnapping) and possessions. This commandment protects the freedom of the individual and private property rights, and no earthly power may deprive anyone of those basic rights. The next prohibition, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," discusses not only testimony in a court of law but also includes all forms of deceitful misrepresentations.

While versions of the latter four commandments may be found in other legal and ethical expressions common throughout the ancient world, the last, "Thou shalt not covet," is unique. Since passions often lead to criminal acts, the scriptures sought to train human beings to control their feelings. Fully recognizing the power of desire, the Bible teaches that "he who rules over his spirit [is a greater hero] than he that takes a city" (Prov 16:32), an idea echoed by the Jewish Sages who observe: "Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions" (Sayings of the Fathers IV:I).

Questions for Discussion

  1. The 18th chapter of Exodus portrays Moses as exhausting himself while he sits from morning to evening, settling personal disputes that have arisen among the Israelites. His father-in-law suggests that Moses appoint a group of able men who cannot be bribed to act as judges, instead of taking responsibility for so many difficult decisions entirely by himself. Why should this scene be the prologue to the giving of the Ten Commandments?
  2. What do the second and third commandments tell us about the cultic practices of the other societies of the Ancient Near East?
  3. The first commandment seems more like a statement than a commandment. Explain why it is essential for this commandment to be the first element of this list.
  4. Only the fifth commandment promises a reward for following its requirements. What connection can you see between the promise and the commandment?
  5. Contrast the Judaic conception of God and the responsibilities that human beings owed to this God with the religious ideas of the other ancient cultures that you have been studying.