The Ten Commandments or laws are contained with the Decalogue that God proclaimed to Moses, as the representative of the Jewish people. The Ten Commandments are recorded in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.
I am the Lord thy God who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shall have no other gods before me. Thou shall not make unto thee any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous, God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall thou labor and do all thy work; But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shall not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor the maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it. Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God gave thee. Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not commit adultery. Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shall not covert thy neighbor’s house; nor thou shall not covert thy neighbor’s wife, no his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:2-17)
These Commandments were written or carved on stone tables that Moses carried down with him from Mount Sinai. When reaching the bottom Moses angrily smashed and broke the tablets when seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. Afterwards, again Moses climbed the mountain to speak with God and received the second set of tablets which were kept in the Ark of the Covenant.
As noted, two Biblical versions of the Ten Commandments are given. They are substantially and almost verbally identical, excepting that the reasons given for the observance of the fourth commandment are not the same. In Exodus 20, the reason is based on one’s obligation to God as the Creator of the world. Whereas in Deuteronomy 5, the reason assigned is one’s duty toward others and the memory of the bondage in Egypt. Some believe that Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy was the original, but when Moses reviewed it just before his departure from his people he changed it to Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God has commanded thee to add a fresh and fuller significance which the history of Israel suggested.
The Ten Commandments served a duel purpose as many contend; they form a covenant between God and his people, and serve as a moral law, or code, by which his people are to live by. However, it should be noted, to achieve the full observance of the Ten Commandments an elaborate system, known as Mosaic Law, was put into place. This Mosaic Law involved a vast legal system of Israel, civil, criminal, judicial, and ecclesiastical framed after the Decalogue. The Mosaic Law was to be a temporary experiment, while the Decalogue was to be permanent.
To many this permanency has been proven because throughout the centuries millions of people, especially the Israelites and Christians, have abided by the Decalogue, and still do. In the New Testament Christ held it to be a perfect code; when a young man asked him how to gain eternal life Christ quoted from the Decalogue and told the man to obey it and live it (Mark 10:19; Luke 18:18-20).
The author and authority of this law, the Decalogue, is clearly stated: “I am the Lord thy God who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” According to the Israelites and all those following them, it was their God who authored the law and established its authority. The law was not and could not be questioned or changed. For, to question the law would be to question their relationship with God, which was prohibited: Thou shall have no other gods before me. Thou shall not make unto thee any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous, God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. Therefore, neither could the law be changed, for it was and is believed to change the law would be to change the nature of Jehovah. This is held to be an impossibility because it is believed that God is; as he himself stated, I am. To those believers, there is no escape, only acceptance; I am…thou shall.
The majority of believers believe the Decalogue, a series of prohibitations, was given by God because the people to whom it was given deserved it due to their behavior; a belief still held by many. Some reason that if men were not inclined to worship something other than God, the first commandment would never have been necessary. This false worship by the Israelites was a transgression which needed reprimand. As Paul later put it, “The law was added because of transgressions.” The law takes on a negative form because, as the continuance of prominence belief states, it can only restrain the action; it can never promote positive virtue. Not being able to transform a sinful heart is the reason why religious, as well as statutory, laws are essentially negative.
The order and division of the Ten Commandments have been debated throughout the centuries. Various reasons were given for such divisions based on the particular thoughts or motives of the devotees and/or researchers. As original given the commandments were not numbered; and a common consensus is that the commandments pertaining to man’s duties to God were divided from the commandments concerning man’s duties toward his fellow man. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 962
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, Decalogue, pp. 256-257