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Where did the Ten Commandments come from?

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 01/18/13

The Ten Commandments were given directly from God to the People of Israel and continue to provide a moral compass for Christians and Jews today.

The Ten Commandments are familiar to many as the fundamentals of morality for Christians and for Jews. They can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible, in a section considered to be written by Moses. Moses, of course, is not the actual author of the Ten Commandments. Rather, he recounts to us the Ten Commandments that the Lord gave to Israel (and by extension, to us) as part of the covenant between God and his chosen people.

The Ten Commandments are found in the Book of Exodus, which is believed to be authored by Moses.

The Ten Commandments are still part of the religious practice of both Judaism and Christianity. They are outlined in the book of Exodus, which is part of the Jewish Scriptures as well as the Christian Old Testament. Exodus recounts the journey of Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land of Canaan.

Exodus is one of five books considered to be part of the Pentateuch, the first of the Jewish canon. Biblical scholars largely agree that Moses was the author of the majority of these Scriptures (though there are some parts, such as the story of Moses' death, which obviously must have been added by another). Mosaic authorship is referred to by figures in other books of the Old Testament that were written latter in the history of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ himself refers to the “Book of Moses,” saying to the Sadducees, “As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God told him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, [the] God of Isaac, and [the] God of Jacob’?” (Mark 12:26). Therefore, when asked where the Ten Commandments come from, one could rightly say from the Pentateuch, widely believed to be authored by Moses.

Yet, it is not enough to say that the Ten Commandments themselves were authored by Moses – they came from the Lord.

Moses (and other collaborators) may have authored the Book of Exodus, but he, of course, is not the author of the Ten Commandments. Rather, the Book of Exodus itself tells us that God directly gave the Commandments to Moses in what is known as a theophany.

The Israelites had fled slavery in Egypt, it is written in Exodus, and made it to the desert of Sinai. While the Israelites were camped, Moses made his way to the top of Mount Sinai, where “God delivered all these commandments” (Exodus 20):

  • "I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.
  • You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers' wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  • "You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.
  • "Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you. In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
  • "Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.
  • "You shall not kill.
  • "You shall not commit adultery.
  • "You shall not steal.
  • "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him."

The Commandments signaled the start of a covenant between the Lord and the newly formed people of Israel.

Exodus 19 explains that before God gave the Ten Commandments, he formed a covenant with the people of Israel. Biblical scholar Joseph Jensen writes, “There is no reason to doubt that Israel's covenant dates back to the desert generation. Only a covenant or something very like it could explain the character of Israel as she first emerges into the light of history, a people based on loyalty to one God.” In other words, other peoples were identified by ethnicity or location; the Israelites were identified by Creed (Joseph Jensen, God's Word to Israel, 82-83).

It is through this covenant that the People of Israel were considered the Chosen People: “The covenant is a consequence of election. Yahweh had chosen Israel to be his people; through the covenant relationship is given form and permanence. Israel becomes Yahweh's covenant partner in response to his elective love” (Jensen, 82).

The Lord tells Moses, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine” (Exodus 19:3-5). Jensen points out that faithfulness was a condition of this covenant.

The faithfulness God called Israel to through the covenant would be fulfilled by keeping the Ten Commandments.

It is after the formation of the covenant that the Lord gives Moses the Ten Commandments that the Israelites are to follow. This is the way in which they will stay faithful to the Lord. The first three Commandments are directly related to the way in which the Israelites were to love the Lord (believing only in Yahweh, keeping his Name holy, and observing the Sabbath), while the other seven are concerned with the way in which they were to treat their neighbors.

These Ten Commandments continued to be fundamentals of morality that Christians followed as well. The Commandments are not arbitrary rules by an irrational god; rather, they all are meant for the ultimate good of those who follow them and remain true guides throughout salvation history. In reference to the law, Christ said, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17, 19).

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