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The Ten Commandments Aren't As Straightforward As They Seem

The Ten Commandments are a list of religious rules revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, as described in the biblical books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Allegedly written on two tablets by God himself, the Ten Commandments include the following directives: You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not worship a carved image, you shall not take the name of God in vain, keep the Sabbath day holy, honor your father and mother, do not slay, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, and do not covet your neighbor's belongings. 

Although not widely used in the Christian tradition until the 13th century, the Ten Commandments are now considered emblematic of the morality - and relationship with God - that its believers strive for. Despite their significance in religious tradition, however, the Ten Commandments are far from straightforward. 

Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Christian Orthodox, Islamic - these and more traditions all address the Ten Commandments, and assign a different meaning to Moses's list of laws based on their own interpretation. Beyond the variances in description, the Ten Commandments are also plagued by translation issues, interesting additions, different forms, and divergent uses. The common perception of what the Ten Commandments are and what they mean derives from incomplete information that doesn't address the many facets of this complicated list of laws.

  • Photo: Rembrandt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There Are Actually Two Complete And Different Sets Of The Ten Commandments In The Old Testament

    While the interpretation of the Ten Commandments varies across religions, the Old Testament alone contains two complete and different sets of the Ten Commandments in a single book of the Bible. In Exodus 20:1-17, readers find the commonly known list of ten principles, which is later closely repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. A second list of principles, however, exists just a few chapters later, in Exodus 34:11-26. 

    While the laws in Exodus 20 represent the well-known Ten Commandments, the principles in Exodus 34 focus largely on the rituals of the time. God commands his followers to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, to sacrifice the first fruits of their crops, and to follow many other specific traditions of the day that vary significantly from the commands of Exodus 20. 

    Many scholars consider the second list of principles to reflect more original, ritualistic laws. After the Exodus 34 verses, the phrase "Ten Words" appears for the first time, and God commands Moses to write down the words as part of a covenant God created with his people. While modern-day Christians generally consider the words of Exodus 20 to be the "real" commandments, the confusing language suggests that the Ten Words could be either the laws of Exodus 20 or the laws of Exodus 34, depending on the interpretation.

  • Photo: Domenico di Pace Beccafumi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Phrase 'Ten Commandments' Does Not Actually Appear In The Bible

    Although God's list of rules are commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments, this name does not actually appear in the Bible. In fact, the original Hebrew label is "Ten Words," a phrase derived from the Greek term "decalogue." 

    Over time, the language surrounding Moses's laws adjusted slightly to give us the commonly known Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy, Moses declares that the Ten Words were commanded, and Jesus later refers to these laws as the "commandments" in the New Testament.

    While calling them the Ten Commandments is a logical leap, the term itself does not appear in the Bible. 

  • Photo: Providence Lithograph Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Although Traditions Agree On The Number 10, The Way In Which The Commandments Are Counted Differs Across Religions

    Although commonly known as the Ten Commandments, the first mention of the rules in Exodus 20 doesn't assign them a number. They're referred to as the Ten Words in Exodus 34, though these rules differ from the original laws of Exodus 20. They're again referred to as the Ten Words in Deuteronomy 5, where they generally match up with the Exodus 20 laws. 

    As if all that wasn't confusing enough, the commandments are also not labeled by number in the Bible. Instead, the rules are listed together, without separation to indicate which commandments go together. Therefore, the numbering is left to individual religions.

    While each faith agrees that there are 10 principles, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants all count them differently. Each religion uses the commandments readily in their teachings, but their lists look very different from one another.

  • In Jewish Tradition, The First Two And Last Two Commandments Are Combined

    In Jewish tradition, the first two and last two commandments are combined. Therefore, the first Jewish commandment is "I am your God, and you shall not have any other gods before me." The last commandment is "You will not covet your neighbor's household and you will not covet your neighbor's wife."

    In other traditions, these verses may be separated into different rules, but the Jewish tradition combines them.