This translation of the Hebrew expression ʽaseʹreth had·deva·rimʹ, found only in the Pentateuch, designates the ten basic laws of the Law covenant; commonly called the Ten Commandments. (Ex 34:28; De 4:13; 10:4) This special code of laws is also spoken of as the “Words” (De 5:22) and as “the words of the covenant.” (Ex 34:28) The Greek Septuagint (Ex 34:28; De 10:4) reads deʹka (ten) loʹgous (words), from which combination the word “Decalogue” is derived.
Source of Tablets. The Ten Words were first orally given at Mount Sinai by the angel of Jehovah. (Ex 20:1; 31:18; De 5:22; 9:10; Ac 7:38, 53; see also Ga 3:19; Heb 2:2.) Moses then ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Words in written form on two stone tablets, along with other commandments and instructions. During his extended 40-day stay, the people grew restless and made a molten calf to worship. Descending the mountain, Moses saw this spectacle of idolatry and threw down “the tablets [that] were the workmanship of God,” the very tablets upon which the Ten Words had been written, and shattered them.—Ex 24:12; 31:18–32:19; De 9:8-17; compare Lu 11:20.
Jehovah later told Moses: “Carve out for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I must write upon the tablets the words that appeared on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Ex 34:1-4) And so after another 40 days spent in the mountain, a duplicate copy of the Ten Words was obtained. These were kept by Moses in an ark of acacia wood. (De 10:1-5) The two tablets were called “the tablets of the covenant.” (De 9:9, 11, 15) Evidently this is why the gold-overlaid ark later made by Bezalel, in which the tablets were eventually kept, was called “the ark of the covenant.” (Jos 3:6, 11; 8:33; Jg 20:27; Heb 9:4) This legislation of the Ten Words was also called “the testimony” (Ex 25:16, 21; 40:20) and the “tablets of the Testimony” (Ex 31:18; 34:29), hence the expressions “the ark of the testimony” (Ex 25:22; Nu 4:5), and also “the tabernacle of the Testimony,” that is, the tent where the Ark was housed.—Ex 38:21.
Concerning the first set of tablets, it is stated that they not only were made by Jehovah but were also “written on by God’s finger,” evidently denoting God’s spirit. (Ex 31:18; De 4:13; 5:22; 9:10) Likewise, the second set of tablets, although carved out by Moses, were written upon by Jehovah. When, at Exodus 34:27, Moses was told, “Write down for yourself these words,” reference was not to the Ten Words themselves, but, rather, as on a previous occasion (Ex 24:3, 4), he was to write down some of the other details pertaining to the covenant regulations. Hence, the pronoun “he” in Exodus 34:28b refers to Jehovah when it says: “And he [Jehovah, not Moses] proceeded to write upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Words.” Verse 1 shows this to be so. Later, when recalling these events, Moses confirms that it was Jehovah who duplicated the tablets.—De 10:1-4.
Contents of the Commandments. By way of an introduction to these Ten Words is the forthright statement in the first person: “I am Jehovah your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” (Ex 20:2) This not only states who is speaking to whom but shows why the Decalogue was especially given to the Jews at that time. It was not given to Abraham.—De 5:2, 3.
The first commandment, “You must not have any other gods against my face,” put Jehovah first. (Ex 20:3) It involved his lofty office and unique position as God Almighty, the Most High, the Supreme Sovereign. This commandment indicated that the Israelites were not to have any other gods as rivals to Jehovah.
The second commandment was a natural follow-up of the first in that it forbade idolatry in any shape or form as an open affront to Jehovah’s glory and Personage. ‘You must not make a carved image or a form like anything in the heavens, on the earth, or in the waters under the earth, nor are you to bow down to or serve them.’ This prohibition is underscored with the declaration: “Because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Ex 20:4-6.
The third commandment, in its proper and logical sequence, declared: “You must not take up the name of Jehovah your God in a worthless way.” (Ex 20:7) This harmonizes with the prominence attached to Jehovah’s name throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (6,973 times in NW; see JEHOVAH [Importance of the Name]). Within just these few verses of the Ten Words (Ex 20:2-17), the name occurs eight times. The phrase “not take up” has the thought of “not pronounce” or “not lift up (carry).” To do this to God’s name in “a worthless way” would be to lift up that name to a falsehood, or “in vain.” The Israelites who were privileged to bear Jehovah’s name as his witnesses and who became apostate were in effect taking up and carrying about Jehovah’s name in a worthless way.—Isa 43:10; Eze 36:20, 21.
The fourth commandment stated: “Remembering the sabbath day to hold it sacred, you are to render service and you must do all your work six days. But the seventh day is a sabbath to Jehovah your God. You must not do any work, you nor your son nor your daughter, your slave man nor your slave girl nor your domestic animal nor your alien resident who is inside your gates.” (Ex 20:8-10) By their holding this day as holy to Jehovah, all, even the slaves and the domestic animals, would have the benefit of refreshing rest. The Sabbath day also provided opportunity to concentrate on spiritual matters without distraction.
The fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” may be viewed as linking together the first four, which define man’s duties toward God, and the remaining commandments, which set forth man’s obligations toward fellow creatures. For since parents serve as God’s representatives, by keeping the fifth command one is honoring and obeying both the Creator and those creatures upon whom God has conferred authority. This command was the only one of the ten with a promise attached: “in order that your days may prove long upon the ground that Jehovah your God is giving you.”—Ex 20:12; De 5:16; Eph 6:2, 3.
The next commandments in the code were stated very tersely: the sixth, “You must not murder”; the seventh, “You must not commit adultery”; the eighth, “You must not steal.” (Ex 20:13-15) This is the way these laws are listed in the Masoretic text—from laws dealing with crimes causing the greatest harm to one’s neighbor to the one causing the least, in that order. In some Greek manuscripts (Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Ambrosianus) the order is ‘murder, theft, adultery’; Philo (The Decalogue, XII, 51) has “adultery, murder, theft”; the Codex Vaticanus, ‘adultery, theft, murder.’ Going next from deeds to words, the ninth says: “You must not testify falsely as a witness against your fellowman.”—Ex 20:16.
The tenth commandment (Ex 20:17) was unique in that it forbade covetousness, that is, wrong desire for the property and possessions, including the wife, belonging to a fellowman. No human lawmakers originated such a law, for, indeed, there would be no way humanly possible of enforcing it. Jehovah, on the other hand, by this tenth commandment made each one directly accountable to Him as the one who sees and knows all the secret thoughts of a person’s heart.—1Sa 16:7; Pr 21:2; Jer 17:10.
Other Listings of These Laws. The above division of the Ten Words as found at Exodus 20:2-17 is a natural one. It is the same as given by Josephus, Jewish historian of the first century C.E. (Jewish Antiquities, III, 91, 92 [v, 5]), and by the Jewish philosopher Philo, also of the first century C.E., in The Decalogue (XII, 51). Others, however, including Augustine, combined the two laws against foreign gods and images (Ex 20:3-6; De 5:7-10) into one commandment, and then, in order to recover a tenth, divided Exodus 20:17 (De 5:21) into two commandments, thus making a ninth against coveting a man’s wife, and a tenth against coveting his house, and so forth. Augustine sought to support his theoretical division on the later parallel listing of the Decalogue at Deuteronomy 5:6-21, where two different Hebrew words in verse 21 are found (“Neither must you desire [form of Heb. cha·madhʹ] . . . Neither must you selfishly crave [form of Heb. ʼa·wahʹ]”), rather than on the earlier text in Exodus 20:17, where just the one verb (desire) occurs twice.
There are other minor differences in the wording between the parallel enumerations of the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but these in no way affect the force or the meaning of the laws. Whereas, in the former listing, the Ten Words are stated in formal legislative style, its later repetition is more narrative in form, for on the latter occasion Moses was merely rehearsing God’s commandment in the way of a reminder. The Ten Words also appear elsewhere in still other variations, for they were often quoted or cited along with other instructions by Bible writers of both the Hebrew and Christian Greek Scriptures.—Ex 31:14; 34:14, 17, 21; Le 19:3, 11, 12; De 4:15-19; 6:14, 15; Mt 5:27; 15:4; Lu 18:20; Ro 13:9; Eph 6:2, 3.
The Ten Words were God-given, hence comprise a perfect law code. When a man “versed in the Law” asked Jesus Christ, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”, Jesus quoted a command that, in effect, epitomized the first four (or possibly five) of the Ten Commandments, saying: “You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.” The rest of the Decalogue, Jesus then summed up in the few words of another command: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.”—Mt 22:35-40; De 6:5; Le 19:18.
Christians Not Under Decalogue. Jesus was born under the Law, and he kept it perfectly, finally giving up his life as a ransom for mankind. (Ga 4:4; 1Jo 2:2) Furthermore, by his death on the torture stake, he freed those under the Law (including the basic Ten Words or Commandments) “by becoming a curse instead” of them. His death provided for the ‘blotting out of the handwritten document,’ it being nailed to the torture stake.—Ga 3:13; Col 2:13, 14.
Nevertheless, a study of the Law with its Ten Words is essential for Christians, for it reveals God’s viewpoint of matters, and it had “a shadow of the good things to come,” of the reality that belongs to the Christ. (Heb 10:1; Col 2:17; Ga 6:2) Christians are “not without law toward God but under law toward Christ.” (1Co 9:21) But they are not condemned as sinners by that law, for the undeserved kindness of God through Christ provides forgiveness for their errors due to fleshly weakness.—Ro 3:23, 24.