The law recorded in Ex 20:2-17, also called the Decalogue, which sums up what God requires of man, and defines his duty toward God and toward his fellow men (cf. Mt 22:34-40). The principles enunciated by the Ten Commandments are eternal, for they are based upon the character of God, but the form in which these principles were uttered at Sinai was adapted to the understanding and instruction of men in their state of sinfulness and natural nonconformity to the divine will. The 10 commands of the Decalogue have the unique distinction of being the only words addressed audibly by God to the entire congregation of Israel (see Ex 20:1, 18, 19; Deut 4:10-13; 5:22). All of the other laws and regulations God ordained at that time were communicated through Moses as an intermediary (see Ex 20:19-22; Deut 4:14; Deut 6:1). Subsequent to the oral delivery of the law God inscribed these 10 commands upon 2 tables of stone which He gave to Moses to be preserved in the ark (Ex 31:18; 32:19; 34:1-4; Deut 5:22; 10:1-5). Moses' original account of the law as proclaimed by God, and later engraved upon the tables of stone, gives the Decalogue in the wording of Ex 20:1-17. Later Moses repeated the law in oral form with slight variations in wording (Deut 5:6-21). The only noteworthy difference in this repetition of the law is the reason assigned for the observance of the 7th-day Sabbath— deliverance from Egyptian bondage, in place of the creation of the world in 6 days, as in the original form. The many civil regulations enacted at Mount Sinai were an application of the principles of the 2nd table of the Decalogue to the society and needs of the Jewish people. The ceremonial law, which sets forth a divinely ordained system of worship appropriate to the period of earth's history when that law was given, was an extension and development of the principles enunciated in the Decalogue particularly with respect to man's relationship to his God.

In the time of Christ the Jews arranged and numbered the 10 commands of the Decalogue as most Protestants do today (see Jos. Ant. iii. 5. 5). The arrangement and enumeration followed by the Roman Catholic Church, dividing the 10th, on covetousness, is that adopted by St. Augustine, who preferred, of the two then-existing methods, the one combining the 1st and 2nd commands and dividing the 10th. He thus assigned 3 commands to the 1st table of the Decalogue, and 7 to the 2nd. One of his reasons for adopting this arrangement was to have the symbolic numbers 3, 7, and 10 in the Decalogue.

The 1st command enjoins monotheism, or the exclusive worship of the one true God, Yahweh, in contrast with polytheism, or the worship of many gods. The 2nd command forbids idolatry of all kinds, that is, attempts to worship the invisible God through visible forms (cf. Hos 8:6; Col 1:15-17). The 3rd command forbids all irreverence, especially the needless mention of God's name in ordinary conversation, and perjury accompanied by an invocation of the divine name. The 4th command enjoins the observance of the Sabbath and identifies the true God as Creator of heaven and earth. By keeping the Sabbath men were to remember Him as such, and they would thus be protected against all false worship. The 5th command enjoins respect and submission to parents as God's appointed agents for the transmission of His revealed will to succeeding generations (see Deut 4:9; Deut 6:7). The 6th command protects life as sacred. The 7th command enjoins purity and thus safeguards the marital relationship in order that the home may realize its divinely appointed objectives. The 8th command safeguards property. The 9th command safeguards truth and protects against perjury. The 10th command goes to the root of all human relationships by providing that man shall not covet that which belongs to another, much less deprive him of it by force.

A fragmentary papyrus sheet, the famed Nash Papyrus, contains the Decalogue in the form presented in Deut 5, together with the "Shema," a quotation of Deut 6:1. This famous Hebrew document, originating in the 1st cent. b.c., is now in Cambridge, England. Up to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls it was the earliest Hebrew document containing any part of the Bible -- Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary.