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Focus On 10 Commandments

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Current Feature: The Ten Commandments in American Life

The Ten Commandments in American Life

Marc Zvi Brettler

The Ten Commandments have been in the news for the last few years, as the courts attempt to decide their place in public life. In 2005 the Supreme Court allowed a large Ten Commandments monument to stand near the Texas State Capital in Austin (see Van Orden v. Perry).1 In McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, McCreary County was ordered to remove its framed Ten Commandments from its courthouse.2 In the Supreme Court’s most recent session, in Pleasant Grove City, UT, et al. v. Summum, it rejected a demand to place the Seven Aphorisms of Summum in a park in Utah that already contained a Ten Commandments monument.3 On July 31, 2001, Roy Moore, the former Alabama chief justice, placed a two-and-a-half ton Ten Commandments monument in the central rotunda of the Alabama Capitol, and claimed, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded . . . . May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.” 4 The monument was later removed, and Moore was impeached. Additional cases are likely to emerge in coming years. The issue has become symbolic of the separation of Church and State as expressed in the Constitution’s establishment clause. A group called “The Ten Commandments Commission—A Judeo Christian Initiative for a Better Tomorrow” 5 has been pushing for a congressional bill that supports the importance of the Ten Commandments and an annual Ten Commandments Weekend.6

Biblical scholars have been following these developments with great interest. Based on scholarly understanding of biblical text, there are a handful of reasons, examined in this article, that make the public display of Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) monuments problematic.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles, an international nonprofit organization,7 erected many Ten Commandments monuments after discussions with Cecil B. DeMille, the director of the movie “The Ten Commandments.” Both the movie and many artistic depictions of the Ten Commandments illustrate two tablets with rounded tops and five commandments on each tablet. Six biblical texts speak of “two stone tablets,” but they offer no additional information about size or shape. The tradition that they are semiround on the top, as seen in monuments and some famous paintings (Rembrandt’s Moses), is a medieval Christian tradition, based on the shape of the Roman diptych, which was unknown in the ancient Near East. Not all artists accepted this tradition—Michelangelo’s famous Moses shows two rectangular tablets, which is likely more accurate historically.

No biblical tradition states that the commandments were split evenly, five and five. In fact, the late Moshe Weinfeld, a biblical scholar who taught for many years at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has suggested that the two tablets each contained the entire text of the Decalogue. He argues that the Ten Commandments are related to covenants and the ancient Near Eastern treaties on which they were based. These covenants were typically copied in duplicate, with identical, complete copies going to the vassal and the overlord, which suggests that the Ten Commandments could have been written in a similar manner. Oddly, it seems that no representation of the Ten Commandments follows what is explicitly said in Exodus 32:15: “tablets inscribed on both their surfaces: they were inscribed on the one side and on the other.” 8 Many ancient documents were written this way to conserve writing material. Thus, in a variety of ways, modern public depictions of the Decalogue are quite inaccurate.

Another issue with Ten Commandments monuments is that they contain the text of the Decalogue as found in Exodus 20, although it also appears in the Hebrew Bible in Deuteronomy 5. The two versions are different. For example, Exodus states:

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

while Deuteronomy reads:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

These differences, both of which claim divine authority, are not trivial. Both of the versions claim to be divine revelation. Exodus opens in chapter 20: “God spoke all these words, saying.” Deuteronomy 5 similarly states, “Face to face the LORD spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.”

To complicate the matter further, the translation above was from the standard Hebrew text of Exodus. But the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek text and likely translated from a slightly different Hebrew text, is a bit different; for example, it has a different order for the murder, adultery, and theft commandments. The Samaritan community’s Bible also has a different Ten Commandments and includes a commandment to worship God on Mount Gerizim, in the city of Shechem. Choosing a particular text for the Ten Commandments means enfranchising a particular religious community and its traditions at the expense of others.

The most significant complication of defining which ten are authoritative is that the term “Ten Commandments” does not appear in Exodus 20, but only in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4. It also is found in Exodus 34:28, right after a set of laws that have some similarity to what we call the Ten Commandments but are also different from them. Thus, leaving aside differences between Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and the differences between ancient translations and versions and the standard Hebrew text, biblical scholars are not even sure whether the term “Ten Commandments” refers to what is written in Exodus 20, Exodus 34, or Deuteronomy 5.

The translation used in most Ten Commandment monuments is from the King James Version of 1611, sometimes with slightly updated language; this raises the issue of how unclear words in the Hebrew should be rendered. It renders what is typically called the seventh commandment as “Thou shalt not kill,” and some use this verse to argue that the Bible opposes capital punishment. But the Bible elsewhere suggests that capital punishment is legitimate in certain cases (Ex 21:15–17: “He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. He who kidnaps a man—whether he has sold him or is still holding him—shall be put to death. He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.”), and allows killing during war. Furthermore, the Hebrew says lo’ tirtzach, which means “Do not commit murder,” or do not engage in unsanctioned killing. The use of the King James Version on the monuments supports one particular interpretive tradition of lo’ tirtzach, which is not historically accurate.

Most monuments list the Ten Commandments preceded by anachronistic Roman numerals before each commandment, but numbers are lacking in the Hebrew, which in the Exodus 20 version contains as many as thirteen statements:

  1. 1. I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage
  2. 2. You shall have no other gods besides Me.
  3. 3. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.
  4. 4. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
  5. 5. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.
  6. 6. Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
  7. 7. Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the LORD your God is assigning to you.
  8. 8. You shall not murder.
  9. 9. You shall not commit adultery.
  10. 10. You shall not steal.
  11. 11. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  12. 12. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  13. 13. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

There is no obvious way to reduce these thirteen to ten. Any reduction would involve either saying that number 1 is an introduction and does not count, and/or combining several related statements into a single commandment (for example, 12 and 13). Different religious traditions have done this in different ways, and there is no consensus position—thus, not all people would agree on what the seventh commandment is. Judaism’s position changed over time, and now considers, in contrast to most branches of Christianity, “I the LORD” as the first commandment.

Most monuments have written on top, in big block letters: “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.” This too raises problems. Several times in the Bible these are called in Hebrew ’aseret hadevarim, “the ten words” or “sayings,” but never the Hebrew equivalent of “the ten commandments.” This wording difference is significant: “I the LORD” is a saying but not a commandment. Those who insist on writing The Ten Commandments support the Christian position that “I the LORD” is an introduction, and “You shall have no other gods” begins the first commandment, rather than the Jewish position, that the first saying is “I the LORD.” In other words, the title “The Ten Commandments” supports a particular religious position.

An overarching issue that scholars have with Ten Commandments displays is that the Decalogue is not presented anywhere in the Bible as a universal system of ethics, incumbent upon all of humanity. It is very clearly presented as an Israelite document—it speaks of a God who brought “you” out of Egypt. Some of its commandments, such as observing the sabbath, are nowhere else in the Bible suggested to be universal in scope. In fact, it is addressed to upper-class property owners (note that in the sabbath law, the addressees own cattle and slaves), and its final saying about coveting addresses males only. But setting it up in public spaces suggests that it is everyone’s document and all must heed it. The classical rabbis were well aware of this and discussed what they called the Seven Noahide laws—laws that all children of Noah, namely all humanity, must observe.9 There is some overlap between these laws and the Decalogue, but they are not identical. Thus, even from a biblical and from a postbiblical traditional Jewish perspective, the Decalogue is not a set of ethical principles that all must follow.

The tenets of the Decalogue are very appealing, and they could certainly help create a better society, but there are issues with displaying it publicly, especially in or near courthouses. Some of these issues, including the shape of the tablets, could be addressed. The text of Exodus and Deuteronomy could be carved out in Hebrew, so we need not worry about translation issues or the priority of Exodus over Deuteronomy or vice versa. However, while solving one issue, another would be created as most Americans would not be able to read or understand it in Hebrew. Other issues, however, go to the very heart of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By choosing a particular translation for the Decalogue and by deciding how the sayings should be divided into ten, one form of religion is being fostered at the expense of others. Furthermore, a document that is presented as particularistic should not be displayed in such a manner that suggests that it is universal.

The Decalogue is fascinating for many reasons. People continue to wonder about its origin, its original text, and how it attained such a prominent place in the Bible as the only text publicly proclaimed to all Israel. Yet careful study of the Decalogue indicates that it is not presented as a universal ethical code. For all of these reasons, and others not examined here, public displays of the Ten Commandments are problematic indeed.


1 http://origin.www.supremecourtus.gov/qp/03-01500qp.pdf
2 http://origin.www.supremecourtus.gov/qp/03-01693qp.pdf
3 http://origin.www.supremecourtus.gov/qp/07-00665qp.pdf
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Moore
5 http://www.tencommandmentsday.com/
6 http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=hr110-598
7 http://www.foe.com/about-us/ten-commandments.aspx
8 Translations generally follow the new Jewish Publication Tanakh translation.
9 See the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a; see http://www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Issues/Jews_and_Non-Jews/Legal_Issues/Noahide_Laws.shtml


  • Aaron, David H. Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue. New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
  • Clines, David J. A. “The Ten Commandments, Reading from Left to Right.” In Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 205; Gender, Culture, Theory, 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995, 26–45.
  • Fishbane, Michael. Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985, esp. 341–50.
  • Levinson, Bernard M. Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008, 72–84.
  • Nelson, Richard D. Deuteronomy. OTL, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002, 74–84.
  • Nielson, Eduard. The Ten Commandments in New Perspective. SBT27. Naperville, Ill: Allenson, 1968.
  • Propp, Exodus 19–40. William, H. C. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2006, 166–81.
  • Segal, Ben-Zion, ed. The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985.
  • Stamm, Johann Jakob, and Maurice Edward Andres. The Ten Commandments in Recent Research. SBT22. Naperville, Ill: Allenson, 1967.
  • Weinfled, Moshe, Deuteronomy 1–11. AB. New York: Doubleday, 1991, 242–319.

Related Content

Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

Exodus 20 [KJV]
Exodus 20 [TANAKH]
Exodus 32:15 [TANAKH]
Deuteronomy 5 [TANAKH]

Subject Entries and Commentary

Ten Commandments
Law in the Old Testament
Noahide laws
Oxford University Press

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