Ten Commandments

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The Ten Commandments are laws given by God (Yahweh) to the Jews via Moses in the Bible, and are considered the most important laws in Judaism and Christianity.

The Ten Commandments are given in Exodus 20:1-17 Bible-icon.png (KJV):

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [...]
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates [...]
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

They appear in virtually the same form in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 Bible-icon.png.


Differing versions

Catholics and Protestants use slightly different versions of the Ten Commandments, based partly on different methods of dividing up the verses in Deuteronomy. The Catholic version omits the prohibition against graven images — an obvious problem for the Roman Catholic church which is rife with shrines and statues. To make up for this, Catholics divide verse 21 into two commandments, thus separating the coveting of a wife from the coveting of farm animals. The Protestant versions of the Ten Commandments retain the prohibition against graven images, but it seems to be ignored since statues and other images have proliferated in their churches as well.

Another, substantially different version of the Ten Commandments appears in Exodus 34:12-26 Bible-icon.png:

  1. 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.

This latter version is believed by scholars to predate the other two. It is explicitly labelled as "the ten commandments" (in Exodus 34:28 Bible-icon.png), whereas the better known version is not.

Even Christ's version of the commandments is different. In three of the gospels, someone asks Jesus what the commandments are, and they receive three different answers, depending on which gospel is being read - but in all cases, only five or six commandments are given:

  • Matthew 19:17-19 Bible-icon.png: Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
  • Mark 10:19 Bible-icon.png: 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.
  • Luke 18:20 Bible-icon.png: Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.

The Ten Commandments in United States politics

The FOE ten commandments monument at the Texas state capitol building in Austin

Starting in 1954, the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE), with encouragement from movie director Cecil B. DeMille (director of the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments), began producing granite monuments displaying the Ten Commandments. Today, there are 145 such monuments documented in 34 states, plus one in Canada.

The monuments actually display eleven commandments, since they use elements of both the Catholic and Protestant versions. The commandments are not explicitly numbered on the monuments, but the second commandment is about graven images (as in the Protestant version), and the tenth and eleventh commandments treat the different versions of coveting separately (as in the Catholic version).


A common claim by those who believe that America is a Christian nation is that United States law is somehow based on the Ten Commandments. They point primarily to the laws such as "Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shalt not bear false witness," and "Thou shalt not steal" to claim that these are the basis for modern law.

In fact these sorts of laws have existed in societies throughout history, including societies which significantly predate the Old Testament. The Code of Hammurabi is a good example.

Most of the other commandments have marginal relevance to modern American law, or none at all.

  • No other gods before me: Violates the first amendment principle of freedom of religion.
  • No creation of idols: Not a law.
  • No taking the lord's name in vain: Violates freedom of speech.
  • Remember the Sabbath day: Despite the existence of so-called blue laws in many states, many consider these laws antiquated and increasingly irrelevant. Certainly there is no federal law demanding observation of the sabbath.
  • Honor thy father and mother: Generally considered a nice thing to do, but not a law.
  • Adultery: It is grounds for divorce and alimony, but it is not punished in any way to indicate that it is a real crime.
  • Coveting: Wanting things that you don't have is practically a way of life in America. In a capitalist system it is not only allowed but encouraged.

Promoters of the Ten Commandments are almost always cherry picking the Bible. In the chapter immediately following the Ten Commandments (Exodus 21 Bible-icon.png), God gives various instructions on how to properly conduct slavery, including the rules for selling one's own daughter as a sex slave. There is no obvious reason why God's instructions in Exodus 20 are moral and should be followed today, but not God's instructions in Exodus 21.

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