What do the ‘Ten Commandments’ represent?

Every believer is familiar with the so-called ‘Ten Commandments’ and claims to understand them. For many believers these are a kind of guideline. Follow them, that is good and enough. But the books of Moses mentions much more commandments. Also, in the rest of the Bible many others are brought forward. How do these link up with the ‘Ten Commandments’? What makes these latter so different? What is written about that in the Bible (KJV)?

By Marco van Putten

The ‘Ten Commandments’ were spoken by God Himself (Ex 20:2-17). God announced these words to the Israelites (Ex 20:1) and later He wrote them on two stone tables (Ex 31:18; 32). Moses received these tables after spending almost two months [1] with Him of the mountain of God, Horeb, in the Sinai desert. This happened after that God had led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt (Ex 31:18).

Other ‘commandments’
From the moment Moses went up the mountain of God (Ex 20:21) until his return (Ex 32:19) many other commandments were given to him, which seemingly do not have any link with the ‘Ten Commandments’. That’s odd. The same could be said about commandments that God gave years before it [2] and also long after Moses returned to the Israelites [3]. How do they link up with the ‘Ten Commandments’?

What’s the purpose of commandments?
In the Bible many rules are written. They are meant to train believers to become adults in faith and to guide daily (religious) life. To keep everything on the right track. To avoid accidents and problems [4]. Deliberate and conscious trespassing of them regards God as ‘sin’ [5] and in some cases even as criminal (when it is done with premeditated evil intent; an evil heart). If this becomes known [6] and is sufficiently proven then this sin need to be put straight again [7]. Then one cannot depend on any ‘insurance’, protection and compensation. So, there is earnest reason to avoid sin and to keep the commandments. God will execute punishment by others of do it Himself.
But there is an even more urgent reason to keep them. The rules and commandments also represent ‘knowledge’ and wisdom of God, that is meant to lead to God’s blessing and salvation. The rules originated from God’s will. The commandments are also in line with the original order of Creation. The one who keeps them not only honors God and guarantees His blessing, but also brings its life in line with how Creation was meant to be. Therefore the Bible puts so much explicit and extensive emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation with God of unintentional sins. Believers discover in this way how the Bible ‘works’.

Difference in weight determined
The ‘Ten Commandments’ are not just some common rules, but they are orders God gave [8] in the form of ‘Thou shall’ and ‘Thou shall not’. What one is supposed to do and what one is supposed to avoid (forbidden). So, He gave ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ commands.
In traffic there are also signs. But something goes above them. When for example a police officer stops someone or gives a sign, then that is an order. Normal traffic signs are overruled by it and the order has to be followed. Ignoring it will have more severe consequences that ignoring the normal traffic signs.

What do the ‘Ten Commandments’ represent?
The Bible mentions all sorts of commands of God, but the ‘Ten Commandments’ aren’t just commands. They are the eternal commands of God and represent the ‘outer limits’. God has put the death penalty on trespassing each individual commandment of these ‘Ten Commandments’ (Ex 33) [9]. But not just that. They also represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’; the core of God’s will. The ‘Ten Commandments’ carry the whole structure of the Covenant requirements of God.

Basic attitude
It is remarkable that orthodox Judaism is not centered on the ‘Ten Commandments’ [10]. Although it superficially seems so. That religion is centered on the ‘Sjema’ (Dt 6:4-9) as a kind of creed. This is so because the Sjema mentions something that is more essential then the ‘Ten Commandments’. Something that preceeds it. Namely, to love God above anything else. This charge is also mentioned within the ‘Ten Commandments’ (Ex 20:6), since that is the goal of keeping the commands of God. That is the way that God wants believers to love Him [11]. Since to love in Biblical sense means wanting to do God’s will [12].

The other commandments of Horeb
How can it be that God gave all kinds of commandments op the mountain Horeb (Ex 21-31; 34), but that ultimately only ‘Ten Commandments’ were given to Moses? This becomes clear when these are compared with each other.

The detailed rules show that the ‘Ten Commandments’ must represent much more than those mentioned in

Exodus 20:1-17. That means that what was written on the two stone tables were not all the Covenant requirements of God. The ‘Ten Commandments’ thus ask for interpretation, but also that they can be applied to almost all situations.

That the ‘Ten Commandments’ of God in themselves are already an interpretation and that those become

material in the many underlying rules.

That some rules are not mentioned in the ‘Ten Commandments’ [13], but still are part of the Covenant

requirements. The difference can for example be that these are rules on which the death penalty is not placed explicitly, like on trespassing the ‘Ten Commandments’.

For the command ‘You shall not covet’ something that belongs to you neighbor (Ex 20:17) does not have the more

detailed rules next to it.

When the Covenant was presented to Israel for the second time (Ex 32:31-34:29) the social rules of the ‘Ten

Commandments’ are not repeated, but the emphasis in this repetition is on the behavioral rules towards God (Ex 34:13-14, 17, 19-20). Thus, this second presentation of the Covenant is better or at least more specific.

The extensive rules deal with:


Avoiding contact with the unbelievers and keeping oneself holy (Ex 23:32-33; 34:12, 15-16 (e.g. dietary rules)).

That God has led Israel from Egypt (Ex 20:2) therefore means much more than only the historical fact. They have become God’s Own nation of priests.


Actively combat idolatry (and occultism) (22:18, 20; 23:12, 24; 34:13, 17). This goes further then only the

commandment against idolatry (Ex 20:3-6).


The three major feasts (Pésach, feast of Weeks, feast of the tabernacles (Ex 23:12-17, 19a; 34:16-26)) and the

Sjabbat year are connected with the Sjabbat commandment. The word ‘Sjabbat’ (Ex 20:8) has to be understood in much broader terms that the weekly Sjabbat, since several feast days are also to be kept as a Sjabbat day.


The death penalty on cursing or using violence against the governments (Ex 21:15, 17; 22:28) goes much further

than a command to honor those (Ex 20:12).


The possibility of an escape when the neighbor is killed without purpose (Ex 21:13), whilst the ‘Ten

Commandments’ only cover murder (Ex 20:13).


Adultery is always forbidden (Ex 22:16-17, 19), thus the command in the ‘Ten commandments’ is to be understood

likewise and not just in connection with marriage (Ex 20:14).


The largest extension is given on the command against stealing (Ex 21:3-11, 16, 18-22:8, 10-15, 29:31) and on not

giving a false testimony against the neighbor (Ex 23:1-3, 6-8).

It is remarkable that most of the ‘other’ commandments of Horeb seem to fit reasonable with the ‘Ten Commandments’. They, just as the commandments that were given later, put the ‘Ten Commandments’ in practice in daily circumstances. So, the ‘Ten Commandments’ have to be understood as the shortlist that condenses the will of God.

The ‘Ten Commandments’ reinterpreted
Based on a comparison between the ‘Ten Commandments’ and the other rules that were given to Moses on the mountain of God, the following reinterpretation is determined:


Be holy and separated (from the unbelievers)


Serve nothing else ‘above’ God and fight anything that threatens that


Also don’t submit unto or compromise with other ‘gods’


Keep all the Biblical remembrance days and festivities


Honor those that are put ‘above’ yourself and do not despise them, since they are (supposedly) put in that

position by God


Do not commit murder


Do not have improper sexual relations


Do not take in any way something unjustly


Do not gossip, do not lie, do not bend (religious) decisions of ‘authorities’ and do not bend justice


Be satisfied and not jealous and do not suppress the weak and the stranger

These commandments are aimed towards deeds of believers, but of course they mean to change (the intent of) the heart. Its remarkable that the 1st-3rd and the 6th-8th commandments are about rejecting the acts of the pagans (no way back to paganism). The other 4 commandments (4th-5th and 9th-10th) are about religion (calling of God).

Seriousness of God’s will
Everywhere in the Bible it becomes clear that from God’s perspective the ‘Ten Commandments’ are most holy and that He honors them earnestly. It starts with the death of the two sons of Aaron who did not regard their ministry as priests (Lv 10:2). But also Israelites are killed for trespassing the ‘Ten Commandments’ and some other rules of the Covenant of God (e.g. Nm 15:36).

It is remarkable that the offense of the ‘golden calf’ (Ex 32) took place before the ‘Ten Commandments’ were given, but that God still wanted to exterminate Israel because of their offence. Just as He killed almost all humans and animals during the Flood (Gn 6:7). That shows that all ‘commandments’ of God’s will on which the death penalty was placed were already known before the ‘Ten Commandments’ were given. Even unbelievers know that going against God’s will is sinful and will have consequences (Ex 9:27). That also shows that the ‘Ten Commandments’ are only just the core of God’s rules. The rules of God are mentioned everywhere in the Bible and are not limited to those of Moses [14].

God doesn’t allow being mocked. A human that is called into the people of God can no longer live without consequences. This shows that His grace and blessing is not given away ‘cheap’, but that His love is earnest, but also particular and conditional.

[1] Forty nights and days.
[2] For example to Noah and Abraham.
[3] For example, food laws (Gn 9:4; Lv 11), circumcision (Gn 17:10), the commandments for the Biblical holidays (Lv 23) and the rules for marriage (1 Cor 7).
[4] Therefore these rules cannot just be called ‘laws’.
[5] In the Bible the commonly called concept ‘sin’ is classified from severe to less severe.
[6] The majority of Christianity has put this Biblical system already very early in time aside.
[7] Since nowadays this is neglected because of the pilling up of the corrupting society, that sin eventually is reckoned to satan. He knows what to do with it. But that is less favorable then to enforce the needed correction. This way it goes from bad to evil (2 Tim 3:13).
[8] The Hebrew word for ‘order’ is ‘mitswah’, deriving from the root tsawah – ordering/commanding. Still this word is often understood and translated wrongly as ‘law’.
[9] In many countries in the West the death penalty is abolished. Believers therefore are not allowed to perform it, although the Bible orders them to do so. But the Bible also mentions alternative punishments (e.g. Acts 5:5, 9).
[10] Therefore is not right to classify Judaism as a religion of laws or a religion that is focused on following laws.
[11] Because God Himself is love. He wants man, created in His Image and Likeness, to (again) become like Him.
[12] But never just follow feelings about loving someone else!
[13] Basically there are four: 1. Rules for offerings (23:15b + 34:20; 23:18a, 19b + 25a, 26b); 2. Relations with outsiders (22:21; 23:9); 3. How to treat weak Israelites (22:22-27); 4. Religious counseling (22:9).
[14] If there are specific rules of the New Covenant then these outweigh those of the Old, but mostly they confirm the rules of the Old. When not mentioned in the New Covenant, then the rules of the Old must be regarded as ‘put through’ into the New. This most certainly is the case for the ’Ten Commandments’.