When, Where, and How Was Decalogue Created?
Historical Origins and Evolution of the Ten Commandments

(Ludwik Kostro)


Each Christian child, preparing for its First Holy Communion learns Ten God's Commandments by heart. Most of us remember them till death. However, hardly anybody knows the history of the Commandments. This article aims at presenting main stages of development of the Decalogue in Biblical times. It was then, when the two types of the Decalogue and its side versions were created. They can be found in the ultimate version of the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books of the Old Testament), which - in the opinion of both believer and non-believer Biblicists - was created in the 4th century BC. [1-2]

It is quite surprising for many people that besides the ethical Decalogue there is another one, i.e. the cult Decalogue, older than the ethical one, which forbids to 'cook a young goat in its mother's milk'. It is even more surprising that according to one of biblical traditions, it was the cult Decalogue with the above mentioned prohibition inscribed on the stone tablets, not the ethical one, commanding to 'honour your father and mother' and including prohibitions 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal.' This fact is rather unknown to general public. However, all the biblical dictionaries mention the two kinds of Decalogue present in the Pentateuch, at the same pointing exact spots where their different versions can be found. It is enough to look it up in the smallest dictionary, i.e. ABC of the Old Testament [3] to find it is true.

We can differentiate the 'ethical Decalogue' (Ex. 20; Deut. 5) from the 'cult one' (Ex. 34; Deut. 23). There are different opinions as far as their origins are concerned. Some of the Old Testament scholars (particularly older and more orthodox - L.K.) refer the 'ethical Decalogue' to Moses, whereas the others (younger and more contemporary - L. K.) treat it as a younger piece of work, dating it back to the Babylonian captivity [3, p. 21].

It should be added that the Babylonian captivity refers to the years 597 - 538 BC, so the 'ethical Decalogue' might have been created as late as in the 6th century BC, i.e. seven centuries after Moses had lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Some find it hard to believe because in the cultural space influenced by the Judaistic, Christian and Moslem religions, the ethical Decalogue constitutes the basic canon of morality. The followers of the three religions were brought up under conviction that the ten ethical Commandments were received by Moses from God himself (in the 13th century BC). The results of the research, however, seem to be undeniable and absolute, and they are accepted by numerous believing biblicists.

1. The Decalogue and Biblical traditions. When was the ethical Decalogue created?

Today, both believing and unbelieving specialists [1-2] generally agree, that the Pentateuch comprises four fundamental traditions, i.e. Jehovistic (J), Elohistic (E), Deuteronomic (D), and Levitical (Priests) (P). The Jehovistic tradition, the oldest of them, dating back to the King Salomon's times (ca. 965 - 926 BC) takes its name after the name of Jehovah, used in it in reference to the God of Israel. The cult issues take significant and fundamental place in this tradition [4, pp. 312 and 490]. The Elohistic tradition, named after the name of Elohim, dating back to 750 - 700 BC, the cult aspect seems to recede into the background, whereas ethical aspect comes to the fore [4, p. 312]. The third tradition, Deuteronomistic one, covers those parts of Pentateuch and other books which were written or reworked in the spirit of the Deuteronomy, constituting a part of the Pentateuch. It dates back to 597 - 538 BC and tries to prove that the fall of Israel and Judah, and the Babylonian captivity was an inevitable punishment for infringement of the Law given by God at Mount Sinai. The tradition urges revival of the obedience of the Law [4, p. 242]. The youngest of all the Pentateuch traditions is the Levitical one. It was probably written by the end of the Babylonian captivity (the end of the 6th century BC) in the Levitical circles. It deals with various events in the history of Israel from the point of view of the cult. This tradition depicts the history of the Israelites in captivity. In spite of the lack of the temple and the obstacles in carrying out the cult, both the promises of the Lord and His Law are still in power. The Pentateuch is a compilation of the documents comprised in the four traditions mentioned above, i.e. J, E, D and P.

According to the oldest biblical tradition, i.e. the Jehovistic one, it was Jehovah himself who commanded Moses to carve out the cult Decalogue on the tablets, not the ethical one. Let us take a closer look at the text of the 34th Chapter of the Exodus which contains the message of the Jehovistic tradition. According to it, Moses was firstly ordered to chisel out new tablets and carve out once again the same commandments which were placed on the first tablets broken to pieces by him. It means that according to the Jehovistic tradition, the firs tablets also contained the cult, not the ethical Decalogue:

Jehovah said to Moses, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that that were on the first tablets that you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks or herds may graze in front of the mountain." Then Jehovah came down in the cloud and stood there with [Moses] and proclaimed His name, Jehovah (Ex. 34, 1-5)1.

We skip here the fragment where Moses asks the Lord's forgiveness for his people's sins, and let us read the text where Jehovah is making a covenant with His people, giving them His cult Decalogue:

Then Jehovah said: "I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, Jehovah, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, and cut down their Asherah poles.

Do not worship any other god, for Jehovah, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them , they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. Do not make cast idols. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I command you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. No one is to appear before me empty-handed. Six days you shall labour, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the ploughing season and harvest you must rest. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year.

Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Jehovah, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before Jehovah, your God. Do not offer the blood of the sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of Jehovah, your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk.

Then Jehovah said to Moses: "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant and with Israel." Moses was there with Jehovah forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant - the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34, 10-28).

As you can see, according to the Jehovistic tradition it is Jehovah himself who tells Moses to write the cult Decalogue on the tablets. It should be added that in this paragraph of the Pentateuch the oldest J tradition gives the cult Decalogue a name of 'Ten Words" (in Greek dekalogos, in Hebrew 'aseret hadde- barim).

According to Grether, a Hebrew name 'aseret hadde- barim is an old one, and most probably reaches the oldest sources of Pentateuch [5, p.181].

A later Deuteronomic tradition D shall apply the name 'Ten Words' also to the ethical Decalogue (Deut. 4, 13: 10, 4)

Since the times of a very renowned Biblicist who was the first to notice the existence of the four J, E, D, P traditions, the cult Decalogue has been considered the oldest version of the Ten Commandments. It should be noted, however, that even this Decalogue does not fully reach back the Moses times, as it contains also some inclusions from the King Solomon era, i.e. from the times when the Jehovistic tradition was formed. For instance, the commandment of going up three times each year to appear before God in the temple had some sense only when the temple did exist, and the temple was constructed in the 9th century BC by the said Salomon. Also some other cult commandments point to the settled rural manner of living. The commandments mention harvest and the obligation of bringing firstfruits to God. During Moses times, people of Israel constituted a wandering group. As an effect of later inclusions, we can find more than ten commandments in the cult Decalogue under discussion. Generally, a number of twelve commandments is used, therefore some researchers use the name of 'Dodecalogue'. A Practical Biblical Dictionary contains a special entry:

"DODECALOGUE (Greek - twelve words), Ex. 34, 14-26. Later, more developed wording of the [cult - L. K.] Decalogue in which you can enumerate (depending on the method of counting) twelve or ten commandments related to the rural cycle of holidays (also called cultic Decalogue)" [4, p. 262].

The first version of the ethical Decalogue can be also found in the Exodus. It belongs, however, to the later, Elohistic E tradition than the Jehovistic J one; it also contains influences of further traditions, i.e. Deuteronomic D, and the youngest, Levitical P. Stanislaw Lach, a Catholic Biblicist makes the following comment:

"The text of [ethical - L. K.] Decalogue is based - in general opinion - on the E tradition with further transformations D or P" [5, p. 181].

Thus, the ethical Decalogue (Ex. 20, 1- 17) results from three traditions, E, D and P.

According to the tradition constructed in this way (finally drawn up in the 4th century BC), the ethical Decalogue are the words of the Lord himself, spoken directly by Jehovah to all the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai amidst thunder, lightning, and the sound of trumpets. Mount Sinai is depicted as a volcano erupting fire and smoke:

And God spoke all these words: "I am Jehovah, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above and earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, Jehovah, your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not misuse the name of Jehovah, your God, for Jehovah will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath to Jehovah, your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days Jehovah made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore Jehovah blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land of Jehovah, your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at the distance […] (Ex. 20, 1 - 18).

When the Elohistic tradition was born (the 8th century BC), the cult of Jehovah was not fully monotheistic yet. This concept was to emerge in the 7th century BC. That is why we cannot find in the ethical Decalogue such adjectives as 'one', 'the only', and 'true' accompanying the Name of God; however quite frequently we can find possessive adjective 'your': "I am Jehovah, your God", 'You shall not misuse the name of Jehovah, your God". This 'God of the Hebrew' is contrasted with 'other gods', the existence of whom was not fully denied yet. Jehovah is jealous about their cult: "Do not worship any other god, […] for Jehovah is a jealous God." The Israelites were bound by monolatry, i.e. they could worship only their own God, on Sabbath day in particular: "[…] the seventh day is Sabbath to Jehovah, your God". The ethical Decalogue still lacks Elohistic tradition of formal monotheism. Reverend S. Lach notices:

"The words of the first commandment of the Decalogue do not impose formal monotheism yet, because they only advise to worship Jehovah, without excluding the existence of other gods, worshiped by other nations. But as it was Jehovah, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, proving to be higher than Egyptian idols, and presented Himself in the Decalogue as God jealous about Israel, who wants to become its only master, as He is a master of forces of nature, so we might assume that in Decalogue the teaching of monotheism is imbedded in the context" [5, p. 184].

There is another very similar version of the ethical Decalogue in the Deuteronomy (Chapter 5). There are certain differences in details and different justification of celebrating the Sabbath day. According to this version, Moses declared the commandments as his people was afraid of climbing the mountain because of the volcano spitting fire, called in this case Mount Horeb instead of Sinai. The previous tradition Jehovah forbade people to climb Mount Sinai:

At that time I stood between Jehovah and you to declare to you the word of Jehovah, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain. And he said: "I am Jehovah, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Deut. 5, 5-7).

In the previous version of the ethical Decalogue the commandment of observing the Sabbath day was justified by the version of the creation of the world in six days, with the seventh day of resting (which belongs to Levitical P tradition and can be a prove of the influence of this tradition, and its ultimate edition in the 6th century BC); in the version of the Decalogue under discussion the Sabbath day obligation results from being brought out of Egyptian captivity:

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as Jehovah, your God, has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Jehovah, your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest , as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and Jehovah, your God, brought you out of there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Therefore Jehovah, your God, has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deut. 5, 12-15).

It must be stressed that the last commandment of the two versions of the ethical Decalogue under discussions forbids to covet your neighbours property. So it is not the issue of sexual desire; had it been the sexual desire, the coveting party might have been accused of homosexuality if one coveted2 someone's slave, or zoophilia or bestiality if one coveted somebody else's ox or donkey. Thus coveting one's wife is treated here as coveting a component of one's property. Both versions differ by the positioning of the wife. In the first version the wife is a component of the neighbour's household, placed besides the manservant, maidservant, and cattle: ox or donkey. In the second version the wife is mentioned before the neighbour's household:

You shall not covet your neighbour's wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour's house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour (Deut. 5, 21).

In both versions of the ethical Decalogue, manservants and maidservants are mentioned. So we should try to answer the question what the Decalogue's attitude is towards servants (slavery).

In both versions of the ethical Decalogue, slavery is treated as something normal, hence justified. There is no commandment forbidding it. There are no words like "You shall not make your neighbour your manservant (slave)"; quite the opposite: the property rights of slave owners are protected. Recently mentioned last commandment forbids even coveting itself to take over somebody else's manservant or maidservant. Among the provisions of Moses Law complementing the ethical Decalogue, which find it normal and fully legal to buy and sell menservants or maidservants and treating them as physical objects. It was permitted to sell one's own daughter as a servant, although the provisions here were different than in the case of a slave, e.g. she must not have been sold to foreigners (Ex. 21, 7-11):

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her (Ex. 21, 7-8).

A manservant did not enjoy rights of a free person. Death penalty was applied for homicide ("life for life" Ex. 21, 23; "Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death" Ex. 21, 12). For fatal beating up of a slave there was only a severe penalty if he or she died instantly, however, if they were in fatal agony for a day or two, the proprietor went unpunished.

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod, and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property (Ex. 21, 20-21).

And what does a composition of both versions of the ethical Decalogue look like from a formal point of view?

"From the formal point of view, the Decalogue is a mixed composition because it can be divided into three parts: in the first part (prohibition of worshipping other gods and making images of God), it is Jehovah who speaks in the first person; in the second part (prohibition of misusing of God's name, remembering the Sabbath day and honouring parents), Jehovah is mentioned as the third person; in the third part (starting from "You shall not murder" on), the speaker is not directly defined (neutral wording). Moreover, the length of individual commandments is different - there are short prohibitions beside developed clauses. Finally, commands are mixed with prohibitions […]. The Decalogue is a set of commandments, out of which each individual one has its own earlier and later history developing around a single central motif" [7, pp. 83-84].

As far as further history [of commandments] is concerned, during Christian times the commandment prohibiting making figures or images disappeared. In Judaism the word and the Book (the Torah) were most important; in Hellenic and Roman cultures - an image and a figure. When Christianity entered the Roman Empire, the devotion to sculptures and pictures was so strong (the love of sculpture and painting) that it overpowered the God's commandment prohibiting this type of creativity. When the commandments forbidding making figures and images was removed, the last one was divided into two to maintain the number of ten, i.e. IX: "You shall not covet your neighbour's wife" and X: "Or anything that belongs to your neighbour".

There were cases of iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries in Byzantium, and later during the Reformation period, when people remembered the rejected prohibition still present in the Bible.

What is the interrelation with the earlier cult Decalogue and the later ethical one? According to the Lexicon of Religion, published on Cardinal Franz Ko nig's (a retired Primate of Austria) initiative, the cult Decalogue is an artefact the later ethical Decalogue refers to:

"The Decalogue composed in such a way refers to its artefact, i.e. the law of privileges [of the cult Decalogue - L. K.] (Ex. 34) presented in the context of Jehovistic Sinai theophany (Ex. 19-34)" [7, p. 84].

It must be noticed that the cult Decalogue in turn refers to the events that took place in the 13th century BC when Moses declared to his people brought out from Egypt the context of covenant taken with Jehovah, their God. We do not know, however, the original text from those times.

The ethical Decalogue (Ex. 20; Deut. 5) is presently dated at 8th-6th century BC. Therefore Wladyslaw Kopalinski in his Dictionary of Myths and Tradition in Culture under the entry "Decalogue" writes:

"These laws were written most probably in 8th-6th century BC" [6, p. 199].

The fact that prophets from the period before 8th century BC never quote the ethical Decalogue may be a proof of its late creation.

Some authors [13] point out that there is another, third version of the ethical commandments (Lev. 19) much different from the two under discussion. In this version each commandment ends with the words "I am Jehovah, your God".

This is the beginning and a few excerpts from this set of commandments:

Jehovah said to Moses: "Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them:

Be holy, because I, Jehovah, your God, am holy.

Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am Jehovah, your God.

Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am Jehovah, your God" (Lev.19, 1-4) […] "Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am Jehovah" (Lev. 19, 11-12).

The above discussed set of commandments does not contain the prohibition of adultery. These can be found a couple of lines before the set:

"Do not have sexual relations with your neighbour's wife and defile yourself with her" (Lev. 18, 20).

However there is an excerpt [in the set] referring to this prohibition:

If a man sleeps with a woman who is a slave girl promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed (Lev. 19, 20).

As we can see, the Holy Bible contains a few versions of the Decalogue. We do not know, however, the primary version that had been carved out on the tablets. Most probably it was similar to the cult Decalogue included in the current version of the Bible (Ex. 34), and scholars claim that it is the oldest version of the Ten Commandments.

2. Where was the primary Decalogue created and which mountain should it be associated with?

Depending on the tradition, the Bible gives two names of the mountain connected with the declaration of the Decalogue. According to the Jehovistic (Ex. 34) and Elohistic (Ex. 20) tradition it was a mountain called Sinai. However, according to the Deuteronomic tradition (Deut. 5) it was a mountain called Horeb. As we can see, traditions are not coherent as far as the name of the mountain is concerned.

Where was Mount Sinai / Horeb located? This question has not been univocally answered so far.

According to the Christian tradition, relatively young (4th century AD) [8, pp. 337-338; 10, pp. 66-68] as compared to the time of the declaration of the primary Decalogue (13th century BC), Mount Sinai/Horeb is located on the Sinai Peninsula. It is supposed to be a mountain called Dzebel Musa, situated within the mountain range in the southern part of the peninsula presently called the Sinai Peninsula. Since the mountain range in question has nothing to do with volcanoes, and according to Pentateuch during the declaration of the primary Decalogue "the smoke billowed up from it like smoke from the furnace" (Ex. 19, 18; Ex. 20, 18), some researchers believe that Mount Sinai/Horeb was located on the Gulf of Aquaba, where we can locate a mountain range of volcanic origin. It can be proved by the fact that Midianites used to live there, and Jethro, Moses' father in law was a member of this tribe. Therefore The Great Biblical Atlas [14, pp. 34-35] marks Mount Sinai/Horeb? with the question mark in two places: in the Sinai Peninsula and in the range of volcanic mountains in the land of Midianites. Some scholars doubt, however, if there were active volcanoes on the Gulf of Aquaba during Moses' times. In their opinion an erupting volcano is a typical background of a manifestation of deity (theophany) in ancient religions, therefore it must not be taken too seriously as a historical fact [10, pp. 62-63]. There are some other suggestions of locating the Mountain of Commandments, e.g. in the mountain range presently known as the Seir:

"Sinai. In some relations - the mountain on top of which Jehovah appeared to Moses (Ex. 19; other relations speak about Mount Horeb, or simply 'the mountain'). According to Christian tradition (since 4th century AD) Sinai is situated on the Sinai Peninsula (another possibility the Seir Mountains, near Kadesh, present Saudi Arabia)" [8, pp. 337-338].

As we can see, we do not know where exactly the primary cult Decalogue was declared; even more - we have no idea where the latter, ethical Decalogue was created. The latter Decalogue most probably should not be associated with any mountain but with the land of Babylonia, as the creation of the ethical Decalogue is generally associated with the Babylonian captivity.

As it has already been said, according to Christian tradition from the 4th century AD the declaration of the primary Decalogue took place on 'Mountain of Moses' in the range of the mountains presently called the Sinai. How was this tradition created? This question is answered by the Oxford Dictionary of Biblical Knowledge translated and published in Poland within the Primate's Biblical Series:

"According to the most popular opinion, Mount Sinai might have been Djebel Musa (Mountain of Moses; map 2:S4) near St Catherine's Monastery. This identification was carried out for the first time by Byzantine monks in the 4th century AD, there is no evidence, however, that the monks had any topographical information whatsoever...

When Byzantine monks settled down on Sinai (300 - 600 AD), they started digging wells, construct terraces and cascades in the valley, create gardens and orchards. Cesar Justinian built up the church and fortified monastery (527 AD) which was then named after St Catherine. In the area of 2½ sq km Byzantine monks identified the spot where God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, the spot where Moses drew water out of the rock, the mountain on which God talked to Moses, and the place where Aaron erected the golden calf. Most probably the monks found on this historical peninsula some remote place where they could make their living, and gradually started to identify places described by the Bible with specific spots in their vicinity" [9, pp. 733-734].

As we can see, the tradition created by the monks living in the 4th century AD has no scientific foundations. Thus, we do not know which mountain is related to the declaration of the primary Decalogue. Most convincing seems to be an opinion of scientists who say that it must have been some mountain in the Gulf of Aquaba, because it was the place, where Midianites, a tribe worshiping their God, Jehovah. Moses' father in law, Jethro (the core of his name comes from the name of Jahwei, meaning "Jehovah gave us plenty") was a priest of this God. However, as far as the name of Moses' father in law is concerned, the Biblical traditions are not fully coherent about it. Besides the name of Jethro (Ex. 3, 1; 4, 18, 1n, 5n), there are two other names, i.e. Reuel (Ex. 2, 18) meaning 'A Friend of El' or 'El Is the Shepherd', and Chobab (Num. 10, 29; Judg. 4, 11) [8, p. 151].

3. Who declared the Decalogue and who made the tablets with the Ten Commandments?

The Holy Bible gives different traditions in relation with the declaration of the Ten Commandments and the origin of the tablets. Let us deal with the declaration of the Decalogue first. According to one of the traditions it is God himself who speaks to people and declares the text of the concluded covenant. The voice of God himself can be heard amid the roaring erupting with fire and smoke volcano:

Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because Jehovah descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently […] Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. […] And God spoke all these words: "I am Jehovah, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" [Now, according to this tradition, we have the declaration of the ethical Decalogue - L.K.] When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God to speak to us or we will die" (Ex. 19, 18-19; 20, 18-19).

Then Jehovah said to Moses: "Tell the Israelites this: You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold" (Ex. 20, 22-23).

According to another tradition, God is responsible only for the phenomenon of the erupting volcano. And this very phenomenon is interpreted as God's speech, whereas Moses declares the Decalogue in a language known to his people:

Jehovah spoke to you face to face. (At that time I stood between Jehovah and you to declare to you the word of Jehovah, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said: "I am Jehovah, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" [Now, according to this tradition, we have the declaration of the ethical Decalogue. Moses declaring the contents of the Decalogue is merely an interpreter, and the Decalogue is made up by God - L.K.] These are the commandments Jehovah proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud, and the deep darkness; and he added no more [meaning that it was Moses who added a translation into the language understood by his people - L.K.] (Deut. 5, 4-6 and 5, 22).

As far as the origin of the tablets with the Decalogue is concerned, one of the traditions (Ex. 31 and 32; Deut. 5) claims that Moses received them with the ready text from Jehovah himself:

When Jehovah finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God. […]The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets (Ex. 31, 18; 32, 16).

Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me (Deut. 5, 22).

According to another tradition, God tells Moses to chisel out tablets similar to the ones he broke down, and carving out once again what was written on the first ones. So the text chiselled out on the first and second set of tablets - in the light of the tradition under current discussion - was the work of Moses:

Jehovah said to Moses: "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and [I will]3 write on them the words that were on the first tablets which you broke." […] So Moses chiselled out two stone tablets and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning as Jehovah had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands [Now we have the declaration of the Decalogue - this time a cult one - L.K.] […] Then Jehovah said to Moses: "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." Moses was there with Jehovah forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant - the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34, 1, 10-28).

All the evidence shows that the tablets with the primary Decalogue (most probably the primary cult one) were the work of Moses or his people who could chisel the stone and write texts on it (the skill acquired back in Egypt). The Ten Commandment Tablets have not preserved till today so we do not know what they looked like and what was inscribed on them.

Biblical stories about the Decalogue and the tablets coming directly from God are treated by contemporary biblicists as literary convention used to stress the transcendent origin of the basic laws. Man has always been aware that it is not him, who is the creator of the basic laws; these laws were of higher source. Biblicists point out that similar stress on transcendence of laws can be seen in the Hammurabi Code, a work earlier than the Decalogue. Two-meter-long column (black diorite stela) with the inscribed text of the code (at present preserved in the Louvre) was depicted on ancient relieves as an object directly handed in by some god (most probably Marduk) to Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) [10].

Therefore all the contemporary biblicists treat the primary Decalogue (unknown to us in its original form) as the work of Moses. Thus the Catholic Encyclopaedia published by the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland says:

"The Decalogue written down by Moses and stored in the Tabernaculum" [11, pp. 1106-1107].

4. The Decalogue and the capital punishment

According to the provisions of the Old Testament, the infringement of the provisions of the Ten Commandment was punished with death. First of all this punishment was awarded to those, who broke the First Commandment, i.e. who worshipped alien gods or lead others to do the same:

Whoever sacrifices to any god other then Jehovah must be banned4 (Ex. 22, 20).

"Ban" (cherem) means in the Bible a person or a thing devoted by God to be destroyed or the very act of devoting somebody or something for destruction [12, p. 1423].

Sometimes Israeli kings and prophets seemed authorised to carry out destruction, particularly when the infringement were massive and frequent.

For example king Jehu treacherously summoned to the Baal's temple all the worshipers together with their priests and commanded to kill them all (cf. 2 Kings 10, 18-27) The cult of Baal flourished in Israel particularly during king Ahab's times, whose wife promoted the worship. King Jehu for his deed, as the Bible says, received praise and a reward from Jehovah himself:

Jehovah said to Jehu: "Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab all I had in mind to do, your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation" (2 Kings 10, 30).

Prophet Elijah acted in similar way, when he gave out orders to murder ca 450 prophets of Baal (cf. 1 Kings 18, 1-40):

Then Elijah commanded them, "Seize the prophets of Baal. Don't let anyone get away!" They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there." (1 Kings 18, 40).

Sorcery was also treated as worshipping other forces then God Jehovah, therefore people practicing witchcraft were sentenced to death.

"Do not allow a sorceress to live." (Ex. 22, 17)

Death sentence was also awarded for infringement of the Second Commandment, i.e. for making idols and worshipping them, even if they depicted Jehovah himself. According to Exodus, at the God's command Moses ordered the Levites to slain all the men who worshipped a calf depicting Jehovah:

Then he said to them: "This is what Jehovah, the God of Israel says: Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp and from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbour…" Then Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died." (Ex. 32, 27-29).

Certain forms of abuse of the God's name, e.g. blasphemy was also punished with death:

[...] anyone who blasphemes the name of Jehovah must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Weather an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death. (Lev. 24, 15-6).

Using Gods name in perjury evokes also grievous consequences:

[…] everyone who swears falsely will be banished. Jehovah Almighty declares: "I will send [the curse] out, and it will enter the house of him who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in his house and destroy it, both its timbers and its stones" (Zach. 5, 3-4).

Death was also a punishment for not celebrating the holy day, i.e. Sabbath:

Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of rest, holy to Jehovah. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death (Ex. 31, 14-15).

Also some sins against the commandment ordering respect for father and mother were punished with death:

Anyone who curses his father and mother must be put to death (Ex. 21, 17),

Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death (Ex. 21, 15).

Infringement of the commandment prohibiting homicide was punished with death, unless the killed person was a slave, as it has been mentioned before:

Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death (Ex. 21,12).

Not only homicide, but also kidnapping aimed of selling the person was punished with death:

Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or has him when he is caught must be put to death (Ex. 21, 16).

Death sentence was also awarded for adultery and various sexual misconduct:

If a man commits adultery with another man's wife - with the wife of his neighbour - both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death. If a man sleeps with his father's wife, he has dishonoured his father5. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man sleeps with his daughter in law, both of them must be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in fire, so that no wickedness will be among you. If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he must be put to death and you must kill the animal. If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relation with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They must be put to death: their blood will be on their own heads. And if a man shall take his sister, his father's daughter, or his mother's daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a wicked thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people: who has uncovered his sister's nakedness will be held responsible. If a man lies with a woman during her monthly period and has sexual relations with her [uncovered her nakedness], he has exposed her flow [the source of her blood], both of them must be cut off from their people (Lev. 20, 10-18)6.

Punishment was milder if a man seduced an unmarried woman:

If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay [her family] the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins (Ex. 22, 16-17).

Also theft was generally not punished with death:

If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep (Ex. 22, 1).

Although Zechariah says that God will annihilate thieves:

[…] every thief will be banished. […] Jehova almighty declares: "I will send [my curse] out and it will enter the house of the thief […], it will remain in his house and destroy it, both its timbers and its stones" (Zech. 5, 3-4).

There is no death penalty in the Bible for the next two, i.e. the final two Commandments, i.e. for lying and false testimony, and for coveting the neighbours household (i.e. his wife, manservant, maidservant, and the rest that belongs to him).

The Decalogue, being a fundamental moral code has never lost and shall never lose its importance. However, we do not punish with death the infringement of it. The only exception is the death penalty awarded in some countries for manslaughter. At present Pope John Paul II demands the abolition of capital punishment wherever it is still applied.

5. Two commandments referring to love

With time the Decalogue was abbreviated end expressed in a positive way only with respect to two Commandments of love, to God and to the others:

Love Jehovah, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your sons. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deut. 6, 5-7),

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am Jehovah (Lev. 19, 18).

As we can see, the neighbour meant a member of the Israeli nation only, and when an alien person was in question, he or she had to be also included in the commandment of love:

The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am Jehovah, your God! (Lev. 19, 34).

A different situation was with the enemies of Israel: these could be exterminated. It is enough to mention the behaviour of the God's man, David, who - together with his men - kills two hundred Philistines hostile to Israel in order to get married to a daughter of King Saul. King Saul has but one condition. David shall receive Saul's daughter as a wife if he brings Saul 100 Philistine foreskins. David organises the expedition, kills two hundred Philistines and brings Saul two hundred Philistine foreskins. Saul treats the successful expedition as Jehovah's blessing to David:

Saul replied: "Say to David, The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins to take revenge on his enemies". Saul's plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines. When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king's son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed, David and his men went out and killed two hundred Philistines. He brought their foreskins and presented the full number to the king so that he might become the king's son-in-law. The Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. […] Saul realised that Jehovah was with David and that his daughter Michal loved David (1 Sm. 18, 25-28).

Love of all the people, including enemies shall be introduced as late as in the New Testament by Jesus Christ.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. […] If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them (Luke 6, 27-28 and 32-33).

The Decalogue was inherited by us from the People of Israel. This contribution of the nation to the world culture is enormous. And we also owe to this nation the fundamental moral code upon which basic inter-human relations are based.



1 All the Biblical quotations after: The Student Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992.

2 = desired.

3 English translations of the Bible, together with Greek and Latin versions use in (Ex. 34, 1) words: "I will write", although it is incoherent with (Ex. 4, 27) where we can read: "Write down these words". The Polish translation in St. Lach's Exodus. Introduction - Translated from the original version. Comments, and the Millennium Bible skip the words: "I will", leaving the imperative form: "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and write on them the words that were on the first tablets which you broke".

4 English versions of the Bible usually translate it as "must be destroyed" or "devoted" (cf. Robert Young's Literal Translation).

5 The Polish translation is coherent here with St. James' Bible: "And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness".

6 Lev. 20, 17-18 has different wording in The Student Bible. The translation in the text above is adjusted to the Polish version.


[1] H. Langkammer, OFM, Slownik Biblijny (Biblical Dictionary), Ksieg. Sw. Jacka, Katowice, 1982 (cf. entry "Pentateuch").

[2] W. Tyloch, Dzieje ksiag Starego Testamentu (History of the Books of the Old Testament), Ksiazka i Wiedza, 1994.

[3] W. Steinmann, ABC Starego Testamentu (Old Testament: ABC), Wydawnictwo Kerygma, Lublin 1992.

[4] Praktyczny slownik Biblijny (Practical Biblical Dictionary), collective work of Catholic and Protestant theologists, ed. by: Anton Grabner - Haider, IW Pax i Wyd. Ks. Pallotynów Warsaw 1994.

[5] S. Lach, Ksiega Wyjscia, Wstep - przeklad z oryginalu, komentarz (Exodus. Introduction - Translated from the original version - Comments), Pallottinum, Poznan 1964.

[6] W. Kopalinski, Slownik mitów i tradycji kultury (Dictionary of Myths and Culture), PIW, Wyd. V poprawione, Kraków 1996.

[7] Leksykon religii, Zjawiska - dzieje - idée (Lexicon of Religions. Phenomena - history - ideas), (Out of the initiative of Cardinal Franz Knig with a cooperation of numerous scholars, ed. by: Hans Wandenfels), Verbinum, Wyd. Ksiezy Werbistów, Warsaw 1997.

[8] Mala encyklopedia biblijna (Little Biblical Encyclopaedia), (Forward by biblicist Rev. Prof. Jerzy Chmiel from the Papal Theological Academy in Kraków) Dom Wydawniczy "ASLAN", Kraków 1995.

[9] Slownik wiedzy biblijnej, Prymasowska Seria Biblijna, (The OxfordCompanion to the Bible) scientific ed.: Bruce M. Metzger i Micael D. Coogan (trasl. by: W. Chrostowski), Of. Wyd. "Vocatio", Warsaw 1997.

[10] E. Zenger, Der Gott der Bibel. Sachbuch zu den Anfä ngen des alttestamentlichen Gottesglaubens, Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, Stuttgart, 1992.

[11] Encyklopedia katolicka (Catholic Encyclopaedia), Vol. III, (ed. by: R. Lukaszyk, L. Bienkowski, F. Gryglewicz), Tow. Nauk. KUL, Lublin 1997.

[12] Pismo Swiete Starego i Nowego Testamentu, (Biblia Tysiaclecia) (The Holy Script of the Old and New Testament - The Millennium Bible), Wyd. Pallotinum, Poznan -Warsaw 1971.

[13] Podreczna Encyklopedia Biblijna (Concise Biblical Encyclopaedia), collective work ed. by: E. Dabrowski, Volume I, A-L, Ksiegarnia Sw. Wojciecha, Poznan-Warsaw-Lublin, 1959.

[14] Wielki Atlas Biblijny (The Great Biblical Atlas) (ed. J.B. Pritchard), Oficyna Wyd. "Vocatio", Warszawa 1994.

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[A presentation of the author can be found in Episteme N. 2]

Department for Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science
University of Gdansk, ul. Bielanska 5
80-952 Gdansk, Poland