Ten Commandments
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The ten commandments

Ten Commandments
Moses receiving the Ten Commandments,
from a Jewish prayer book written
in medieval Germany, about 1290 AD
(now in the Saxon State Library)

July 2016 - The Bible says that while the Jews were wandering in the desert between Egypt and Israel, Moses received a message from God telling him to go up to the top of a mountain. On top of Mount Sinai, God gave Moses two stone tablets. Each tablet had five laws carved into it, which told the Jews how God wanted them to behave. These were the ten commandments:

1) Don't pray to any god except Me.
2) Don't make statues or pictures of gods to pray to.
3) Do not take the Lord's name in vain.
4) Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5) Honor your father and your mother.
6) Do not kill.
7) Do not commit adultery.
8) Do not steal.
9) Do not bear false witness (do not lie).
10) Do not wish for your neighbor's wife, nor his donkey, nor anything that is his.



The Golden Calf

But when Moses came back down from Mount Sinai, he found the Jews worshipping a golden calf, instead of God. This was how other people, like the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, worshiped their gods. But God wanted the Jews to worship no other gods besides Him, and also not to make any statues to pray to! Before Moses even got down from the mountain, the Jews had already broken two of the ten Commandments. Moses was very angry (though how could they know since he hadn't told them yet?), and destroyed the calf.

painting of people pointing to a fire with a cow in it
The Golden Calf (Dura-Europos)

This is our earliest illustration of the story of the Golden Calf, from the Jewish synagogue at Dura-Europos, in the late 200s AD. You can see the white calf in the fire and some people looking upset.

stone carving of a man holding tablets and a scary creature coming out of a cow
Moses and the Golden Calf (Vezelay, ca. 1140 AD)

This is Moses (on the left) holding the Commandments up and casting a demon out of the golden calf (from the Romanesque church at Vezelay, about 1140 AD).

Learn by doing: how well do you follow the Commandments? Do you think they are good ones?
What the Jews did next (Joshua)

Bibliography and further reading about the Ten Commandments:

What the Jews did next (Joshua)
More about the Jews
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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