What Are the Ten Commandments?

By:
Chris Martin
Perspective:
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The “Ten Commandments” are a collection of laws given by God, Yahweh, to Moses, on two stone tablets atop Mount Sinai in present-day Egypt. These ten commandments, or laws, play an important role in both Christianity and Judaism.

God called Moses to come alone to the top of Mount Sinai as an intermediary, or mediator, between God and his people. Exodus 19:20 says, “The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.” God came down to the top of the mountain, called Moses, and Moses had to go up to meet him. There, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments as the stipulations of the covenant, promise-based, relationship God was creating with his people, the people of Israel.

The Ten Commandments, as listed in Exodus 20:1-17, are these:

1. Do not worship any Gods before me. (Ex. 20:3)

The purpose of this commandment is to make clear upfront that Yahweh will not share his people with any other supposed deity. Polytheism, or the worship of multiple gods, was the most popular form of religion in the time that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai. Yahweh, the God of Moses and Israel, states at the beginning of the Ten Commandments that he will not accept worship from anyone who worships other gods in addition to himself. This was radically counter-cultural and set Yahweh apart from other gods worshiped by various peoples in the ancient Near East.

2. Do not make or worship any idols. (Ex. 20:4)

In addition to not being worshiped in addition to other purported “gods,” Yahweh is not interested in competing with or being represented by created objects. As polytheism was common in the ancient Near East at the time the Ten Commandments were given by God to His people, so was the worshiping of created objects either as gods themselves or as physical representations of spiritual deities. Yahweh wanted to make it clear that he did not have a physical form that could be embodied and worshiped as some crass, man-made object.

3. Do not take the name of the LORD Your God in vain. (Ex. 20:7)

Names are important to Yahweh. His name carries an immense weight, and God intentionally names (or re-names) His people. The commandment to not take the name of the Lord in vain is a commandment to give Yahweh’s name the respect and reverence it deserves. To take God’s name in vain is to invoke the name of God, or just the word “God,” in a way that is deceptive, irreverent, crass, or otherwise unbefitting of the holy, sovereign Ruler of the universe. Swearing in God’s name, making some sort of promise in reference to God, attempting to conjure some sort of magic or the like in God’s name, or simply implying that God endorses your evil, unrighteous action would all be some practical manifestations of “taking the name of the LORD Your God in vain.”

4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. (Ex. 20:8)

God set the tone for his people when created all that is in six days and rested on the seventh. His intent is that His people would imitate his rhythm of creation in their regular routines of their tending of His creation. Beyond imitating God in His work of creation, a significant reason to observe the Sabbath is to acknowledge our reliance on God and our need for rest. If our God rested following his forging of the heavens and the earth, how much more do we need to rest amid our tending of that earth?

5. Honor your father and mother. (Ex. 20:12)

This is the first in the list of the Ten Commandments that explicitly details how we are to relate to other people. God wants His people to give their parents the honor they are due. Though many parents avoid their parental responsibility through abandonment or laziness, the role of “parent” is an important one in human life and relationships. Children are commanded here to honor their parents not only because parents are an authority established by God in the life of a child, but because the family institution is vital to the flourishing of God’s people.

This is the only of the Ten Commandments that has a promise attached. Those who honor their father and mother will experience the presence and favor of God.

6. Do not murder. (Ex. 20:13)

This is the first of a series of quick prohibitions of behaviors that deny the humanity and dignity of other people. To murder someone is not only reprehensible in the eyes of the law, but it is also unjustifiable in the eyes of God because of the way it denies the image of God in the victim and gives the murderer a power over another person.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus will say that hating another person is just as good as murdering them, making clear that the law is about the orientation of one’s heart as much as it is about what one does with his hands.

7. Do not commit adultery. (Ex. 20:14)

To commit adultery, or have an intimate, sexual relationship with someone other than one’s spouse, breaks God’s design for love and marriage. The marriage relationship is one of the most sacred institutions set forth by God from the beginning of humanity. To undermine the marriage relationship is to sabotage one of the core pillars of creation and the human experience, on top of the way it disparages the image of God in another person.

Like He does with murder and hatred, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that adultery is as much of a matter of the heart as it is a matter of the body. To lust after someone who is not one’s spouse is akin to committing adultery, whether any sexual action is even taken.

8. Do not steal. (Ex. 20:15)

God establishes in the Ten Commandments that Israel is not to steal from anyone for, in part, quite practical reasons. Taking someone’s possessions is unjust and a society that has no law against stealing would be chaotic and short-lived. It is in the people of Israel’s best interest that they not be allowed to take one another’s possessions. God knows this and, wanting to protect his people from chaotic injustice, prohibits stealing among them.

“God made the universe and He knows how it works best.”

On a more spiritual level, God prohibits stealing because it is often the fruit of covetousness (the final of the Ten Commandments), and it encourages the idea that one’s possessions provide some kind of fulfillment. God wants his people to be content with Him and not try to find contentment or any kind of lasting joy in created things. Prohibiting stealing discourages attempts to collect trinkets and see them as lasting treasures.

9. Do not bear false witness. (Ex. 20:16)

The exact wording of the verse is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” acknowledging the victim of lying or formally bearing false witness is someone you know and perhaps care about more than a stranger. Like the previous three commandments against killing, breaking the sexual promises of marriage, and stealing, lying or “bearing false witness” has some pretty serious and obvious detrimental effects on other people. Whether giving false testimony in some sort of legal proceeding, as is implied in the “witness” language of the commandment, or simply lying to a friend about why you couldn’t get together for lunch on Friday, communicating untruth is against the justice and order God wants to establish in His creation.

10. Do not covet. (Ex. 20:17)

God’s command to not covet is the tenth and final of the Ten Commandments. The verse reads in full, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” The specifics that are listed (ox, donkey, etc.) aren’t the point—don’t think you can covet your neighbor’s car because that isn’t listed. The point is that we are not to desire any of the people or possessions that belong to others.

While the last few commandments have focused on actions we take with our bodies, this final commandment gets to the posture of the heart in a much more pointed way. A covetous heart often leads to murder, adultery, or stealing as an attempt by the offender to acquire what he or she wants but cannot have because it is possessed by someone else.

The Heart of God’s Rules

It is easy to see God as a sort of “cosmic killjoy” that gives out rules that make life less satisfying or less fulfilling. But God didn’t give Moses the Ten Commandments because He’s mean or because He wants to keep people from experiencing the fullness of the world He created.

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and all kinds of other commands throughout the Bible because He made the universe and He knows how it works best. God wants us to experience the fullness of life, and the Ten Commandments are one way that He shows us how the world is meant to work. God loves His creation. He doesn’t want to make us miserable, but lead us out of our misery to the goodness of life lived for Him.

For Further Reading:

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