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10 Commandments

The ten commandments written on two stone tablets in front of a brick building and with green plants growing around the top edge of the stones.

Sunday 8 October 2023
Year A: 18th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 22)
Liturgical Colour: Green


  • Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
  • Psalm 19: 1-14
  • Philippians 3:4-14
  • Matthew 21:33-46


Have you ever tried to count the 10 Commandments? They appear twice in the Old Testament; in one of our readings for today Exodus 20.1-20 and in Deuteronomy 5.6-21. Have a go!  Of course, everyone agrees there are ten. They are even referred to as the 10 commandments in the same books (Exodus 24.38, Deuteronomy 4.13, and 10.4). However, it is not immediately obvious how they should be grouped and various translations and traditions have divided them up differently.

They fall into two sets of duties; the first towards God and the second towards fellow humans. There are no specific punishments attached to breaking them; that came later and makes up quite a lot of the rest of the Pentateuch. Rather, motivation for keeping them was seen as the recognition of absolute divine authority and the desire to live in accordance with God’s will. Nevertheless, the image of God is fierce and the people were afraid. God also adds that obedience would lead to material blessings and disobedience would lead to curses on future generations, which is a bit of an incentive.

The commandments are often referred to as the Decalogue, which means ten words. In today’s reading they are addressed to the people of God either directly or through Moses. (That bit is not really clear.)

What is clear is that the 10 Commandments are central to the covenant God establishes with the community of Israel at Sinai. Up to this point in the Old Testament we have been hearing about relationships between God and a series of individuals. This time God makes a covenant with the whole people. Importantly, as always, this is God’s initiative. God sees and God acts. And God acts not because God was forced to or needed to, but in order to offer a new beginning. Humans then and now are called to respond.


The Common Worship lectionary a lot of us hear on a Sunday does not cover the whole bible and often misses out verses from the bits it does include. The Book of Common Prayer lectionary incorporates more, but still not everything. This has been the case since the earliest public worship and various reasons are offered as to why. Reading the whole bible would involve a lot of repetition. Recent compilers of the lectionary have sought to put together readings that complement one another. Also, some passages are deemed to be too graphic or potentially misleading for public reading.

I have to confess that if I notice someone has decided to miss something out I always have a look to find out why! Sometimes I agree with the omission and sometimes I don’t. I do recognise the need to be critically discerning though. Indeed, I think it is crucial to be critically discerning about scripture whether it is left out or in.

For example, we know that the 10 commandments were not found in a diary entry by Moses the same day, but written much later. (Not least because they describe rules more suited to established city living than wandering in the desert.) We also know that the book of Exodus, like almost all scripture, was written and rewritten and argued about by humans for a long time before becoming canon, i.e. agreed and fixed. I think that makes it more interesting, not less.

So what?

I have been musing about how fierce and frightening God appears when giving the 10 commandments, and how much that is at odds with our image through Jesus of a God full of grace and love. Most of the 10 commandments are all about prohibition, i.e. what we shouldn’t do. I wonder what a set of commandments all about what Jesus says we should do would look like?