The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are a list of religious and moral imperatives that according to religious tradition as recorded in the Bible, were written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of two stone tablets. They feature prominently in Judaism and Christianity.
The phrase "Ten Commandments" generally refers to the very similar passages in Exodus 20:217 and Deuteronomy 5:621. Some distinguish between this "Ethical Decalogue" and a series of ten commandments in Exodus 34 that are labelled the "Ritual Decalogue". This article mainly deals with the former.
The Ten Commandments were the specific terms, or 'words of the covenant' that were written on the Tables of Stone at My Sinai: "He wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments."
Some historians believe that the Ten Commandments originated from ancient Egyptian religion, and postulate that the Biblical Jews borrowed the concept after their Exodus from Egypt. Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead (the Papyrus of Ani) includes a list of things to which a man must swear in order to enter the afterlife. These sworn statements bear a remarkable resemblance to the Ten Commandments in their nature and their phrasing. These statements include "not have I defiled the wife of man," "not have I committed murder," "not have I committed theft," "not have I lied," "not have I cursed god," "not have I borne false witness," and "not have I abandoned my parents." The Book of the Dead has additional requirements, and, of course, doesn't require worship of YHWH.
Written in Stone
According to the Bible, God inscribed the Ten Commandments into stone: "God said to Moses, 'Come up to Me, to the mountain, and remain there. I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and the commandment that I have written for [the people's] instruction.'" (Exodus 24:12) also referred to as "tables of testimony" (Exodus 24:12, 31:18, 32:16) or "tables of the covenant" (Deuteronomy 9verses 9, 11, 15), which he gave to Moses.
Traditional Jewish sources (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, de-ba-Hodesh 5) discuss the placement of the ten commandments on two tablets. According to Rabbi Hanina ben Gamaliel, five commandments were engraved on the first tablet and five on the other, whereas the Sages contended that ten were written on each.
While most Jewish and Christian depictions follow the first understanding, modern scholarship favors the latter, comparing it to treaty rite in the Ancient Near East, in the sense of tablets of covenant.
Diplomatic treaties, such as that between Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusilis III, circa 1270 B.C.E, were duplicated on stone with a copy for each party, and the subordinate party would place their copy of the pact in the main temple to his god, in oath to the king (cf. Ezekiel 17:11-19). In a pact between a nation and its God, then, the Israelites placed both copies in their temple.
Exodus 32:15 records that the tablets "were written on both their sides."
The Talmud (tractate Shabbat 104a) explains that there were miracles involved with the carving on the tablets. One was that the carving went the full thickness of the tablets.
The letter samec in the Hebrew alphabet looks similar to the letter "O" in the English alphabet. The stone in the center part of the letter should have fallen out, as it was not connected to the rest of the tablet, but it did not; it miraculously remained in place. Secondly, the writing was miraculously legible from both the front and the back, even though logic would dictate that something carved through and through would show the writing in mirror image on the back.
Texts of the Ten Commandments
1. I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
3. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long.
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 neighbor.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's.