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The Ten Commandments

Well I think I’d like to say about The Ten Commandments is clearly they’re important in the Bible and many people think they’re important.  They are important in the Bible.  They’re repeated twice in the Bible in Exod 20 and Deut 5.  So they’re repeated.  In both cases, they appear in the primary or pole position of the following legal material indicating their importance.  And at least in Exodus it’s clear that—well, in Deuteronomy as well—it’s clear that this is the unmediated words of God to all the people.  And the law that follows the Ten Commandments is mediated through Moses. But all Israel hears these Ten Commandments.

So they’re important, they’re repeated; they’re in primary position; and they’re unmediated.  But what’s intriguing about the Commandments that people may not know is in fact there are two versions.  And we might even expand that two to more depending on how we consider a text like Exod 34, which is also thought to relate to the Decalogue in some ways or offer an alternative Decalogue, one that’s more ritually based; and the later parts of Deuteronomy, which seemed to be keyed in some ways to the Ten Commandments.

So the fact that they’re important is clear, and part of that is their repetition.  But the repetition is significant because the repetition is not identical.  So in fact, Deut 5, repeats the Ten Commandments, but makes some interesting changes—a number of them in fact.  Some of them are rather noticeable even in English translation.  For instance, the motivation for the Sabbath commandment,  in Exod 20, the motivation to rest on the Sabbath is because the Lord rested on the seventh day from creation.

But in Deuteronomy 5, you rest because you were a slave in Egypt and you know what it’s like not to have rest.  And so you ought to rest and give rest to others.  So there’s differences between the Commandments.  So despite the importance of the Ten Commandments, the repetition shows in fact that they are not unchangeable.  In fact, they are something like constitutional law, which as we know in our society is amendable, that one must amend the Constitution periodically according to time and circumstance and so forth.  And that’s the way it is with the Ten Commandments too even in the Old Testament.

Further amendments seem to be found in the Deuteronomy in the way Chapter 6-11 take up the first commandment and the way Chapters 12-26 take up the whole of the Ten Commandments and add case law related to their implementation.  So yes, the Ten Commandments are quite important and they are constitutional in a way, foundational, but not foundational it should be said for a society like ours, a secular, democratic sort of society and its courts.  Instead, the Ten Commandments are thoroughly religious.  They begin with the claim of the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt.

And so they are constitutional; they are foundational.  But for a different sort of society, ancient Israel-like society and its courts as well as perhaps for communities of faith that trace back to it.


  • Brent A. Strawn

    Brent A. Strawn is D. Moody Smith Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Professor of Law at Duke University. He has edited over twenty-five volumes to date, including the award-winning The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law (2015). He has authored over 250 articles, essays, and contributions to reference works, as well as six books, most recently The Incomparable God: Readings in Biblical Theology (2023). Strawn is an ordained elder in the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church and has appeared on CNN on matters ranging from Easter celebrations to Pope Francis to gun violence.