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The Ten Commandments

In fidelity to Scripture and in conformity with Jesus' example, the tradition of the Church has always acknowledged the primordial importance and significance of the Commandments. Learn what they are and their relationship with Scriptures.
by Staff Writer | Source:

The word "Decalogue" means literally "ten words." God revealed these "ten words" to his people on the holy mountain. They were written "with the finger of God," unlike the other commandments written by Moses. They are pre-eminently the words of God. They are handed on to us in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Beginning with the Old Testament, the sacred books refer to the "ten words," but it is in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ that their full meaning will be revealed.

The Decalogue must first be understood in the context of the Exodus, God's great liberating event at the center of the Old Covenant. Whether formulated as negative commandments, prohibitions, or as positive precepts such as: "Honor your father and mother," the "ten words" point out the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin. The Decalogue is a path of life:

If you love the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply.
This liberating power of the Decalogue appears, for example, in the commandment about the sabbath rest, directed also to foreigners and slaves:

You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

The "ten words" sum up and proclaim God's law: "These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them upon two tables of stone, and gave them to me." For this reason these two tables are called "the Testimony." In fact, they contain the terms of the covenant concluded between God and his people. These "tables of the Testimony" were to be deposited in "the ark."

The "ten words" are pronounced by God in the midst of a theophany ("The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire."). They belong to God's revelation of himself and his glory. The gift of the Commandments is the gift of God himself and his holy will. In making his will known, God reveals himself to his people.

The gift of the commandments and of the Law is part of the covenant God sealed with his own. In Exodus, the revelation of the "ten words" is granted between the proposal of the covenant and its conclusion - after the people had committed themselves to "do" all that the Lord had said, and to "obey" it.The Decalogue is never handed on without first recalling the covenant ("The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.").

The Commandments take on their full meaning within the covenant. According to Scripture, man's moral life has all its meaning in and through the covenant. The first of the "ten words" recalls that God loved his people first:

Since there was a passing from the paradise of freedom to the slavery of this world, in punishment for sin, the first phrase of the Decalogue, the first word of God's commandments, bears on freedom "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
The Commandments properly so-called come in the second place: they express the implications of belonging to God through the establishment of the covenant. Moral existence is a response to the Lord's loving initiative. It is the acknowledgement and homage given to God and a worship of thanksgiving. It is cooperation with the plan God pursues in history.

The covenant and dialogue between God and man are also attested to by the fact that all the obligations are stated in the first person ("I am the Lord.") and addressed by God to another personal subject ("you"). In all God's commandments, the singular personal pronoun designates the recipient. God makes his will known to each person in particular, at the same time as he makes it known to the whole people:

The Lord prescribed love towards God and taught justice towards neighbor, so that man would be neither unjust, nor unworthy of God. Thus, through the Decalogue, God prepared man to become his friend and to live in harmony with his neighbor. . . . The words of the Decalogue remain likewise for us Christians. Far from being abolished, they have received amplification and development from the fact of the coming of the Lord in the flesh. (CCC 2056-2063)

Exodus 20 2-17


Deuteronomy 5:6-21


A Traditional Catechetical Formula


I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out
of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of bondage.


I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out
of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of bondage.
1. I am the LORD your God:
you shall not have
strange Gods before me.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a 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;
you shall not bow down to them or serve them;
for I the LORD your God am a jealous God,
visiting the iniquity of the fathers
upon the children to the third and the fourth
generation of those who hate me,
but showing steadfast love to thousands of those
who love me and keep my commandments.


You shall have no other gods before me
. . .
You shall not take
the name of the LORD your God in vain;
for the LORD will not hold him guiltless
who takes his name in vain.


You shall not take
the name of the LORD your God in vain
. . .
2. You shall not take
the name of the LORD your God in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work;
but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God;
in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son,
or your daughter, your manservant,
or your maidservant or your cattle,
or the sojourner who is within your gates;
for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
and rested the seventh day;
therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.


Observe the sabbath day,
to keep it holy
. . .
3. Remember to keep holy the LORD'S Day.
Honor your father and your mother,
that your days may be long in the land
which the LORD your God gives you.


Honor your father and your mother
. . .
4. Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not kill.


You shall not kill. 5. You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.


Neither shall you commit adultery. 6. You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal. Neither shall you steal.


7. You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness
against your neighbor.
Neither shall you bear false witness
against your neighbor.


8. 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,
or his manservant, or his maidservant,
or his ox, or his ass,
or anything that is your neighbor's.


Neither shall you covet
your neighbor's wife . . .

You shall not desire . . .
anything that is your neighbor's.

9. You shall not covet
your neighbor's wife.

10. You shall not covet
your neighbor's goods.

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