The Ten Commandments

This page was created by Dr. Jan Garrett.

The interpretation given below is based on Martin Noth, 1962. Exodus: A Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 152- 53, 162-66. (Translated from the German, Das zweite Buch Mose, Exodus).

My Short Version

Click on individual commands to see the explanation.

And God spoke all these words, saying . . .

(1) You shall worship no other gods.

(2) You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything . . . ; you shall not bow down to them or serve them . . .

(3) You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God . . .

(4) Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. (Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord; you and your children and your servants shall not do any work [among other things, give your servants a break] . . . )

(5) Honor your father and your mother [that is, look after them in their old age]. . . [Addressed to adult children]

(6) You shall not commit murder or manslaughter.

(7) You [wives and betrothed women] shall not commit adultery.

(8) You shall not enslave [another free Israelite].

(9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

(10) You shall not make a wrongful attempt to acquire your neighbor's possessions, including his servants, his animals, or his wife.

The text of the commandments below is taken from Noth 1962, 152-53:

And God spoke all these words, saying

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

(1) You shall have no other gods before me.

Commentary: At first it seems that this commandment merely gives God priority among the gods, that it implicitly endorses polytheism. However, Noth 1962:162 asserts that "before me" refers to the "religious sphere," i.e., before or in the presence of me [God]. Thus, if Noth is right, this commandment endorses monotheism.

(2a) You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Commentary: Noth 1962:162-63 explains that since image-making is thought to give the maker control over what the image represents, this prohibition is designed to block an attempt to gain control over God or whatever properly falls in his domain.

(2b) You shall not bow down to them or serve them (for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments).

Commentary: Noth, 163, says that the explanation of the basic prohibition of serving idols is probably a later addition to the original list. He observes that the idea of punishing great- grandchildren for the sins of their great-grandfathers raises issues of divine fairness ignored by the explanation.

(3) You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain (for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain).

Commentary: The name of something is like an image of it. It can be misused. This prohibition permits use of the divine name for praise of God and calling on him for help but misuse must be guarded against (Noth 1962: 163).

(4) Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. (Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates . . . )

Commentary: "Remember" means "do not overlook." The explanation was probably added later (Noth 1962: 164). Since the explanation prohibits Sabbath labor on the part of one's servants as well as oneself, it may have served to guarantee a work break for persons likely to be exploited.

(5) Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives us.

Commentary: The commandment originally pertained to adult children, who had the obligation to look after their aged parents (Noth: 164). Apparently, kids then did not dare to treat their parents rudely.

(6) You shall not kill.

Commentary: "Kill" or "doing to death" refers roughly to what we would call murder or manslaughter. Other Hebrew words were used to refer to imposition of the death penalty after a proper trial and killing of enemies in war (Noth, 165). This is not an endorsement of pacifism or abolition of the death penalty. (If these are correct moral positions, one will have to find reasons for them elsewhere.)

(7) You shall not commit adultery.

Commentary: Originally, this referred to the conduct of wives and women who are betrothed, not to their male counterparts. (Feminists understandably see a problem of a double standard here.)

(8) You shall not steal.

Commentary: The term normally translated as "steal" probably originally referred to enslaving another free Israelite, whether for one's own purposes or for sale to others as in the Genesis story of Joseph (Noth, 166). For the prohibition of stealing in our sense, see the tenth commandment below.

(9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Commentary: This commandment has relatively obvious meaning. It prohibits false witness in legal trials. "Neighbor" refers to one with whom one lives or comes into contact in the conditions of daily life (Noth, 166).

(10) You shall not covet your neighbor's house (you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's).

Commentary: To the modern reader this commandment seems odd because, unlike the other commandments, it seems to refer to internal psychological states, i.e. desires. Yet, as Noth explains (166) the Hebrew term rendered "covet" refers not only to the emotion of coveting but also "the attempt to attach something to oneself illegally." "House" may refer collectively to a person's external possessions. If this is correct, then what I have parenthesized here may be a secondary level added as an explanation of the basic commandment, which means: You shall not try to wrongfully acquire your what belongs to your neighbor.