The Decalogue (lit. “Ten Words”) is often viewed as embodying some of the high values of the Western civilization. It appears in the Bible in two parallel but conflicting versions, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Yet, it is amazing to read what many people think the Ten Commandments say or include. Here below I wish to identify some of the most popular erroneous assumptions about this famous text:
1: Everyone agrees on the number of injunctions in the Decalogue. This is wrong because the text contains more than ten instructions formulated in the imperatives (that is, Do this…Do not do that). In order to arrive at “ten,” some injunctions need to be combined. In the Bible, ”ten” most likely represents a quorum (cf. “ten” judges in Ruth 4:2). Someone suggested that we have “ten” commandments, because we have “ten” fingers with which to count! Who knows?
2: Everyone agrees on the division of the Ten Commandments. This too is wrong, because the traditional Jewish division is different from the many Christian divisions. Thus, for example, whereas in the Jewish tradition the very first statement, “I am the Lord your God…” is considered as the first commandment, in many Christian traditions, this is viewed only as an introduction to the following commandment that reads, “You shall not have other gods…”
3: The meaning of the Ten Commandments is clear. This is also not true, because there is an ongoing scholarly dispute on the correct understanding of many of the injunctions. For example, it is not clear whether the original Hebrew meant, “You shall not kill” or “You shall not murder.”
4: The Ten Commandments are the essence of Judaism. This is not correct either, because, even though the Decalogue is considered important in Jewish lore, the Rabbis of old purposely removed them from the liturgy when “heretics” (early Christians?) claimed that only these commandments were revealed by God (BT Ber. 12a). Most Sephardic Jews do not even stand up when the Ten Commandments are recited. Many Reform Jews do.
5. The Decalogue represents ten “commandments.” This is not so clear. The word “commandment” (mitzvah) does not appear in the text. In the Bible they are simply called aseret ha-diberot, “ten words” (Deut. 10: 4; cf. Ex. 34: 28). The Rabbis referred to them as aseret ha-debarim (“ten words.”). In time, they were viewed as commandments because the term dibber became a technical term for divine speech (see, Jer. 5: 13). If God said them, they must be commandments!
6: Because many people assume the Decalogue is important in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they attribute to it injunctions that do not appear in the text, such as “You shall not lie,” or “Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” Sorry, these are not part of the Ten Commandments.
These major popular but misleading claims led to me to do an in-depth study of the Ten Commandments for many years, which culminates in the publication of my new book, And God Spoke These Words; the Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Press. Please check it out for other details to see how the Decalogue was interpreted historically and how it is applied to modern ethical situations. The link is:
Rifat Sonsino, PhD