I have been intending for quite a while to add a few pages to my site about common mistakes and popular misconceptions. What finally prodded me to do this first page was the recent discovery that I had myself suffered from a misconception for the whole of my life – and I’m very far from being the only one. So here goes ...

The Ten Commandments are not what you think

Stephen Poley

Most people in Christian-oriented countries have heard of the ten commandments and, even if they can’t remember them all, would probably reckon to recognise them if they saw them. If asked what they were, many people would probably manage “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal”. Smart Alecs (well, smart Alices anyway) know that while you may not covet your neighbour’s wife, there is no prohibition on coveting your neighbour’s husband.

Perhaps you are mentally wincing at the ignorance of people nowadays and have already mentally filled in the blanks (thou shalt have no other gods before me; thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image; thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; and so on).

If so, you are wrong. Those are, contrary to popular opinion, not the biblical ten commandments!

Have I taken leave of my senses? Well, I don’t think so, no. I simply did what so few people do – I went and read the relevant bits of the bible. And I took advantage of modern technology to search the bible as well. I demonstrate below that these Supposed Ten Commandments (STCs) are not the ten commandments that the bible refers to.

Why aren’t they the Ten Commandments?

The phrase “ten commandments” occurs just three times in the bible. Two of these are in Deuteronomy: chapters 4 and 10 tell us that the ten commandments were written on two tablets of stone, but neither chapter says what the ten commandments actually were. The other reference to the ten commandments occurs in Exodus, and I will return to it shortly.

The STCs are given in two places: firstly in Exodus 20 and then, slightly reworded, in Deuteronomy 5. Neither chapter refers to them as the ten commandments! The former does not give them any title, while the latter defines them as the statutes and ordinances (or ‘statutes and judgments’ in the KJV). The statutes and ordinances are not the commandments, but something distinct. This is clear from several references in the bible, among them the previously mentioned Deuteronomy chapters 4 and 10.

The number of edicts is not even ten; it is not really clear where one ends and the next begins, but in Exodus 20 there are at least fourteen and arguably more. The last one is the rather precious “neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.” (Apparently Hebrew priests, like Scotsmen, were not in the habit of wearing undergarments.)

True, there is a brief interlude after verse 17. But this is due to a disturbance among the people, not due to God. When God resumes speaking, there is nothing whatever to suggest that his statements from verse 22 onwards are in any way different from, or less significant than, what he has been saying up until then. If verses 2-17 were to be part of “the N commandments”, then verses 22-26 must be as well.

So if these are not the ten commandments, what are? While I could perhaps answer that question very briefly, one really ought to first take a more detailed look at the book of Exodus.

A closer look at Exodus

The story of the ten commandments starts in chapter 19 where God arrives in a thunderstorm and Moses goes up the mountain for the first time. God tells Moses to keep the rest of the people away – Moses gets a monopoly on hearing what God has to say.

(Incidentally there is an oddity here which I can't resist mentioning, although it is not really relevant to this essay. In chapter 19 God also gives instructions to the priests. Only at this time there weren’t any priests – Aaron is appointed as first priest in Exodus chapter 40!)

In chapter 20, God gives the list of edicts of which the first few have become popularly known as the ten commandments (and which I call the Supposed Ten Commandments). As I said above, the number is not actually clear. The words “thou shalt” or an equivalent phrase occur 19 times in the chapter. The edicts are not given a name (such as “ten commandments”) and in fact the word “ten” does not occur in the chapter.

But this is just the start of what God has to say. In chapters 21 to 23 he goes on to give an enormous list of edicts, covering everything from the seduction of virgins to stealing sheep. Chapter 21 has several rules about the keeping of slaves, which was not forbidden at all, and 21:20-21 even says it is permitted to kill a slave. Stealing a slave however is punishable by death (21:16) as is cursing ones parents (21:17).

In Chapter 24 God says he will give Moses tablets of stone “with the law and the commandment”. Then he embarks on an immensely long description of the requirements for the ark of the tabernacle and the clothes of the future priests, which fills chapters 25 to 30 inclusive.

In Chapter 31 God reiterates the importance of keeping the sabbath and says that anyone who works on a Saturday shall be put to death. To make sure the point gets across, he then says it again. And then he gives Moses the tablets of stone, the “tables of the testimony”.

In Chapter 32 Moses finally brings the tablets of stone down the mountain, written on both sides.

But what was actually on the tablets? It is not at all clear. If it is everything that God has said since Moses first went up the mountain, the tablets must be the size of houses, which makes carrying them an interesting challenge. It could be everything said from the point that God first announced he would give Moses stone tablets, but that is still chapters 25-31 – an awful lot. It seems reasonable that only part of what has been said is inscribed on the tablets, but there is no indication what that part is. Certainly there is nothing whatsoever to suggest it is specifically the first 17 verses of chapter 20 (the STCs). But all in good time ...

Moses obviously takes great care of these God-given tablets of stone. Well – no, actually he doesn’t. When he sees what the Israelites have been up to while he was up on the mountain, he throws them down in irritation and breaks them. He then arranges a round of fratricide, in which three thousand men are killed, and for good measure God sends a plague upon the survivors.

A quiet interlude takes place in Chapter 33, where Moses makes friends with God again.

And then finally it happens: in Chapter 34 Moses cuts two new tablets of stone, goes up Mount Sinai, and God writes on them “the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.” And this time we are told what they are, and they are explicitly identified as the ten commandments.

Actually they are rather curious. They consist of eight of the rules from the middle of Chapter 23, rewritten in a different order, one rule from all the way back in Chapter 13, long before the Israelites got anywhere near Mount Sinai, and one completely new rule which hasn’t been mentioned before!

Nonetheless, Exodus Chapter 34 is the one and only place in the bible where the Ten Commandments are explicitly given.

The Real Ten Commandments

Here then are the Ten Commandments of the bible (according to the King James version).

Observe thou that which I command thee this day:
  1. behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves:
  2. For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.
  3. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
  4. The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.
  5. All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male. But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
  6. Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.
  7. And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end. Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.
  8. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.
  9. The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God.
  10. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.

And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

Why the confusion?

So why are so many people convinced that the ten commandments are to be found in Exodus 20?

Obviously part of the cause is that the ten commandments are – at least judged by modern standards – a rather bizarre anti-climax after the dramatic stories of Exodus 19-32.

One confusion factor is formed by Deuteronomy 5:22, which talks about “these words” (the STCs) being written on tablets of stone. This clearly conflicts with Exodus 34. Either Deuteronomy is in error, or it refers to yet another set of tablets, not mentioned in Exodus. Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that Exodus 34 contains the only set of edicts labelled as the “ten commandments”.

That Deuteronomy could simply be in error is made likely by the words immediately previous to the above: “These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more.” But according to Exodus 20-31, he certainly did add more, and it is all spelled out there in great detail.

Exodus is the original story. Deuteronomy is a later abridged version with some new material, and was considered the second giving of the law (the name Deuteronomy means “second law”). Did the author of Deuteronomy misread Exodus? Or did he in fact represent a different tradition, in which the STC’s were indeed the ten commandments? Possibly he did, but if so, he didn’t say so explicitly.

Another confusion factor is that the word “commandment” gets used rather a lot. For example Leviticus 27 is said to be “the commandments” – but not “the ten commandments”.

The New Testament muddies the waters further. Misreading and misquoting the Old Testament is not rare in the New. For example Mark 1:2-3 quotes a passage supposedly from Isaiah which does not actually occur there. Similarly Matthew 27:9 refers to a non-existent passage from Jeremiah, (something similar is in Zechariah and is probably what Matthew had in mind), while Matthew 2:23 and John 17:12 refer to supposed scriptural passages which do not exist anywhere in the Old Testament.

It seems to be in this spirit that Mark 10:19 quotes Jesus as saying: “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.” This summarises five of the edicts from Exodus 20, calling them commandments, and adds one – “defraud not” – which does not come from Exodus at all. Luke (18:20) ‘corrects’ this by dropping “defraud not”. Matthew (19:18) also drops “defraud not”, but instead adds “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, which also does not occur in Exodus.

It seems somewhat appropriate that the run-up to this – in Matthew, anyway – has: “ ‘if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments’. He saith unto him, ‘Which?’ ” A very good question.

Note also that Matthew 22 talks with great emphasis of the two commandments, neither of which comes from Exodus.

All in all, it seems that some people have put two and five together, and made ten. Nowhere does the New Testament mention, or list, ten commandments.

Sources and further reading

My sources for this essay are an electronic copy of the King James version of the bible and a paper copy of the Revised Standard version.

Since the original version of this essay I have also checked a Dutch-language version of the bible. Interestingly it contained some more occurrences of the phrase “ten commandments” (“tien geboden”) as the phrase “ark of the covenant” is rendered in a few places as “ark of the ten commandments”. However none of them has any material effect on the discussion above.

It seems extraordinary that hardly anyone has noticed that the ten commandments of the bible are not what most people think. Nonetheless I have found few articles addressing this. Even critical essays such as Commandments Five to Eleven by David E. Cortesi assume that the ten commandments are to be found in Exodus chapter 20.

The nearest I have found is the article WHAT Ten Commandments?! by Judith Hayes. If I recall correctly it was this article that first drew my attention to the fact that there was something funny going on here. But I think that even she has missed a few points.

Similarly the article Which Ten Commandments? by Cliff Walker and Jyoti Shankar draws attention to the commandments in Exodus 34. But they also miss the fact that they are the only ten commandments. However they have an interesting slant illustrating that various religious groups manage to read Exodus 20 differently, and extract different sets of ten commandments from it.

In any case neither the actual nor the supposed ten commandments form much of a basis for modern moral standards. It is distinctly odd that some passionate Christians claim that the (supposed) ten commandments are so important, when Christians systematically break the fourth of them (the third in the Catholic list): the injunction to keep the Sabbath – i.e. Saturday – holy. And few are interested in keeping the second either (which the Catholic list conveniently omits!) – the prohibition of graven images.

For an alternative, and historically more significant, set of ten commandments see Richard Carrier’s essay The Real Ten Commandments. And for an alternative modern set, far superior to anything you will find in Exodus, see The New Ten Commandments – A decalogue for the modern world