God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Ten Commandments Aren’t Commandments

The Ten Commandments — listed in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5 — aren’t called commandments in the original Hebrew or in the Greek LXX.

In Hebrew, they are d’varim in Exodus 20, either “things” or “words.” (This dual use of d’varim is a bit like “things” in English — I can own ten things or tell you ten things.)

To the best of my knowledge, of the major translations only the NAB renders the Hebrew as “commandments” in Exodus 20.

For that matter, the number “10” doesn’t come from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, but rather from Exodus 34:28 and two other places in Deuteronomy. There, the KJV and other translations (NIV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, and others) translate “ten d’varim” as “ten commandments,” sometimes capitalizing the phrase and sometimes with a note that the Hebrew doesn’t say “commandments.”

(Later Jewish tradition would replace d’varim with dibrot, which also doesn’t mean “commandments.”)

Two questions come to mind: Should we keep calling these the “ten commandments” even though that doesn’t seem to be what they are in the Bible? And is the NAB justified in its translation decision?

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May 18, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , ,

23 Comments »

  1. >>>…Should we keep calling these the “ten commandments” even though that doesn’t seem to be what they are in the Bible?…

    Not if “we” have principles. I know I never do.

    >>>And is the NAB justified in its translation decision?

    Not in the least.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. I never think of them as orders – I love things – having just cobbled my way through Ecclesiastes a la Dr Seuss. I don’t mind commandments – because I think of its cognate ‘mandate’ and the preposition ‘with’. But most people don’t think that way so the word needs too much explanation. The ten promises is how I often think of them. I know I understand in my own heart the negative aspect of each one. That’s why the ‘with’ is important.

    Thanks for the note.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 18, 2010 | Reply

  3. Well, are all the “things” imperative? If Gos day “Let my people go”, that’s an imperative, so that’s a commandment too, but directed to one person only.

    Comment by Formiko | May 20, 2010 | Reply

  4. Definition of commandment: A command; a mandate; an order or injunction given by authority; charge; precept. The things spoken were given by God himself, written on stone tablets. Deut 27:26 says anybody who does not do them is cursed… God (authority) speaks and says if you dont do these things your cursed. So this meets the definition exactly. So once again your playing games with words, which you can do all you want, but its not gonna change a thing.

    Comment by Jamie Black | May 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. I would add that what makes it a command is the one giving it.

    Comment by Jamie Black | May 22, 2010 | Reply

  6. Let me add this: God told Adam that in the day He eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil dying he shall die… Now what makes it a commandment is not the word commandment but the One giving the instruction. I think what i am definitely seeing here are people who do not like God telling them what to do. But when God says “Do this and live, or If you do this you will die” You have an explicit command… Not a principle. Principles dont come pre packaged with an explicit outcome of disobeying it.

    Comment by Jamie Black | May 23, 2010 | Reply

  7. One more thing: If an officer of the Law tells you to do something or you will go to jail, this is not a principle to live by. Its a command given by a person with authority.

    Comment by Jamie Black | May 23, 2010 | Reply

  8. Intense words, Jamie Black. But the contraction of ‘you are’ is not ‘your’ but you’re – so when you give the accusation “you’re wrong”, at least spell it right. Then your black will be white and clear for a moment. Using ‘you’ in an accusation is difficult without making you sound like the Judge. It is to our own master that we stand or fall, not to you. So do follow the advice of the teacher here and learn to speak your truth with grace, if indeed it is the black and white issue you seem to think it is. Your other name is the name of one of my sons – so I know the difficulty of carrying a name like James.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | May 23, 2010 | Reply

  9. But when Jesus and Paul and James refer to these 10 words/things that God gave Moses, don’t they refer to them as “command(ment)s” in the Greek?

    Comment by EricW | May 25, 2010 | Reply

    • It’s a good point.

      In at least some places they do (Mark 10:19, just for example: “You know the commandments [entoli]:…”).

      On the other hand, Mark 10:19 (also Luke 18:20) only quotes the negative commandments. And for that matter, the same Greek word is used for what we might call “orders” in English, as in John 11:57: “the high priests and the Pharisees had given orders [entoli]” to disclose Jesus’ location.

      I don’t believe that the phrase “10 commandments” appears in the NT.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 28, 2010 | Reply

  10. To me, it doesn’t matter if the 10 d’varim are functionally “commandments” or not (and isn’t there 613 of those anyway?). The issue here (IMHO) is translation integrity, i.e. translate what the word actually is, don’t translate someone’s interpretation.

    Comment by Brian | June 9, 2010 | Reply

  11. Here is a question I have. How often does the infinitive in Hebrew function as an imperative? In Exodus 20:8 we have, “zacor et yom hashabath lqadsho”and in Deut 5:12 has ” shemor et yom…” Why can’t we understand ‘remembering the Sabbath day’ as being one of the ten things God mentions but also as a filter through which we ‘wear or carry’ God’s name?

    Comment by D'Angelo Joyce | December 31, 2010 | Reply

    • I look forward to Joel’s response to this interesting question. Thanks for bringing it up. We see something similar in “the great commish”:

      Mat 28:19 Then having gone, disciple all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
      Mat 28:20 teaching them to observe all things, whatever I commanded you. And, behold, I am with you all the days until the completion of the age. Amen.

      However, Brian, you proposed:

      “…but also as a filter through which we ‘wear or carry’ God’s name?”

      The “we” would only be appropriate if you were Jewish, which you are not, to my knowledge, so you might want to reconsider how you are appropriating this passage. The NT, even for Jews, has abandoned God’s personal name, and is commanded to address him as “our father” (and definitely not as “Lord Jesus”)!

      Comment by WoundedEgo | December 31, 2010 | Reply

    • [The question concerns the grammatical forms of “keep” {shamor} and “remember” {zachor} in the two different texts of the Ten Commandments. Unlike the other commandments, which are expressed either through future-tense verbs or true imperatives, the forms for these words are technically called the “infinitive absolute.”]

      The short answer is that we commonly see the infinitive absolute form used for an imperative.

      For the imperative “keep,” we find the infinitive absolute form shamor three times in Deuteronomy: 5:12, 6:17, and 16:1. In all three places it’s pretty clear that the meaning is imperative. Deuteronomy 16:1 is particularly clear, because it starts a new theme, so it can’t be the continuation of the previous text.

      We also find the true imperative shmor twice in Ecclesiastes: 8:2 and 12:13.

      I suspect that these and other instances are not really infinitive absolutes, but rather alternative forms of the imperative.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 6, 2011 | Reply

  12. Slight correction, D’Angelo (myself) proposed the above quote not Brian. I guess I wasn’t clear, my apologies. I did not mean to imply that I or you or anyone one this form must keep the sabbath day to wear the name of the Lord. I should have said ‘a filter through which, they…’ The point was not even to buttress a discussion on Sabbath keeping, but on whether or not the infinitive absolute should be understood as a command, rather than an extension of the previous command, not to wear the name of the Lord in vain. I am not even sure ‘name’ here refer to personal name, but rather reputation.

    Comment by D'Angelo Joyce | December 31, 2010 | Reply

    • Mea Culpa… I read his name at the top instead of your name at the bottom. Thank you for the gracious correction.

      Are you saying that you don’t take the name YHVH as a personal name? Or that you think he is saying “not taking my reputation in vain”?

      Exo 20:7 You shall not take the name of Jehovah your God in vain; for Jehovah will not leave unpunished the one who takes His name in vain.

      Joel, I’ve heard this often, and have, in the past repeated it myself. Is there any possibility that this is how it would/should be understood?

      Comment by WoundedEgo | December 31, 2010 | Reply

      • I believe YHWH to be the personal name; however I believe the commandments is against ‘living in a reputable way as children of YHWH’

        Do you understand my original question? Should ‘remember the sabbath day’ function as an imperative (like its translated universally) or as an infinitive absolute that functions as a subordinate to ‘do not wear the name of the Lord in vain.’ The translation would be ‘Do not bear the name of the Lord in vain…Remembering the sabbath day to keep it holy’

        Comment by D'Angelo Joyce | December 31, 2010

  13. Here is what I am proposing

    Do not have other Gods besides me
    Do not make and idol
    Do not wear the name of the Lord your God
    Remembering the Sabbath Day to keep it holy
    Honor your Father and your Mother
    Do not murder
    Do not commit adultery
    Do not steal
    Do not give false testimony
    Do not covet

    Comment by D'Angelo Joyce | December 31, 2010 | Reply

  14. Remembering the sabbath day was suppose to be indented, but oh well.

    Comment by D'Angelo Joyce | December 31, 2010 | Reply

  15. Is there a possibility that d’varim could have been variously interpreted in the ancient Hebrew mind?

    D’varim appears once in Exodus 20 and twice in Ex 34:28, in most versions I think. Yet the translators went for “commandments” for the second occurrence in Ex 34:28.

    I’m not suggesting that they got the meaning right, but the term “ten-words” doesn’t seem like correct English either. Words are identified by their letters, and the Ten Commandments are not a group of ten individual words. Perhaps if they went for “things”, this might have been more consistent, but “things of the covenant” does seem a bit awkward.

    It seems like the translators compromised on consistency in translation here to achieve something that is more important – functionality. So, Joel, as to your question: Is the NAB justified in its translation decision? Only those with your credentials can answer that. For the non-expert, as long as a translation has footnotes attached, it is the readers’ choice whether or not explore to these concepts further.

    Comment by Robert Kan | August 24, 2012 | Reply

    • That’s interesting.

      I suppose what he’s asking then is whether the neologism “Ten Commandments” should stand seeing as how the original Hebrew and Greek writers refer to them in generic terms. Translating the passage more or less literally won’t really have much of an impact on how a particular culture refers to them now though–it’s a little too late for that. They are “ten” and they are “commands” after all. Plus you have that famous movie “The Ten Commandments.” Either way you’re gonna get a neologism (at least Ten Commandments sounds cool). I tried using “utterances” in conversation but it just doesn’t carry the same weight…

      It’s kinda like your (Dr. Hoffman’s) Baptism post. Although transliterating the Greek “baptizo” as “baptize” is what led to its use in the English language, it still didn’t change it’s function as a proselytizing ceremony/ritual. Granted it did open the word to all kinds of interpretation, but this is where proper education should happen–which is lacking among the majority of Christians. Translation alone can’t fix all the problems.

      Comment by George M | August 24, 2012 | Reply

      • Given that the “Ten” are given within the body of Jehovah’s treaty terms with Israel, might they be translated “terms”?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | August 24, 2012


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