The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Old Testament. The first time they appear is when the Israelites have been delivered out of centuries of slavery and brought through the Red Sea. One of the early stops in their wilderness wanderings was Mount Sinai (also called Mount Horeb). It was there that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.
The Ten Commandments appear a second time in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 5. By this time, a whole new generation stands before Moses, as the previous generation had died in the wilderness because of their unbelief and rebellion against God. Moses is at the end of his life, and the book of Deuteronomy contains five final sermons Moses gives to the people before he dies. The Israelites are all gathered on the plains of Moab and listening to Moses restate the law a second time. This is why the book is called Deuteronomy, a word that means “Second Law,” meaning the Law is being repeated a second time. Thus, in Deuteronomy 5, the Ten Commandments are repeated, as is much of the legislation that appeared earlier in Leviticus.
When Moses originally received the Law from God, it took place on Mount Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain and received the Law through a series of revelations from God over a forty-day period. We do not know precisely how these laws came to Moses, but the New Testament indicates (and it was widely taught in Judaism) that the Law was given to Moses through the mediation of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19). However, something dramatic happened with the Ten Commandments. These commands were given directly by God to Moses and were actually written on two tablets of stone by the very “finger” of God. Exodus 31:18 says that “he [God] gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (ESV). These commands are actually called the Ten Commandments in several passages of Scripture, including Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4. The phrase can also be translated “Ten Words,” and frequently the Ten Commandments are referred to by Jewish and Christian teachers as the Decalogue, which means the “Ten Words.”
Traditionally, Jewish rabbis, dating back to a third century rabbi named Simlai, have identified 613 distinct laws that appear in the Old Testament. Rabbi Simlai identified 248 of these as “positive commands,” namely, commands for us to do something. For example, Leviticus 19:36 commanded the Israelites to use just measurements and weights. It was common at that time for people to sell food in the market by weight. Some merchants would secretly cheat people by using weights that were below the standard weight. This command showed God’s interest in promoting integrity in the marketplace.
Three hundred sixty-five of the commands were “prohibition commands,” telling God’s people to avoid certain things. For example, Leviticus 19:14 commanded them not to put an obstacle in front of a blind man, demonstrating God’s special kindness toward those with special needs. The 365 “thou shalt nots” and the 248 “thou shalts” add up to the overall number of 613. So, if there are 613 laws, what makes the Ten Commandments so special, and why were they given to us in such a dramatic fashion? The Ten Commandments are broad, summative commands. This means that all of the 613 laws of the Old Testament will, in one way or another, find their fulfillment and logical expression in one of the ten.
Thus, the Ten Commandments are a wonderful way for someone to understand the heart of the Law. They are not simply a set of negative commands. Rather, the Ten Commandments represent the pathway out of our own self-orientation and into a whole new orientation that puts God, ourselves, and others in their rightful places. It has been observed that of the 613 laws, only 77 of the positive commands and 194 of the negative commands apply today because quite a few of the laws relate to specific actions around the temple (which no longer exists) and the particular practices related to Israelite worship (which no longer apply to the church). Yet, even those commands, if examined closely, reflect deeper moral concerns of God which find their broad expression in the Ten Commandments. Thus, the Ten Commandments are not bound by any particular time, culture, or covenant. They reflect a timeless moral code that is applicable to all people everywhere. For this reason, the Ten Commandments have been found at the core of Christian catechesis manuals for centuries.