The Ten Commandments are famous. Many Christians will know them by heart, at least the short form of each. Non Christians will even know some of them, or at least be aware they exist. Jewish people certainly know them. But how well do we know them? Can you recite them in their short form? In their long form? Is there more to them than just memorizing the list? See how many of these "little known facts" about the Ten Commandments you already knew.
1. They Aren't Called The Ten Commandments in the Bible
That's right. The Hebrew scriptures don't call the Ten Commandments the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word for commandment is mitzvah, plural is mitzvot. But when it refers to these it calls them the Ten Words (Aseret ha Devarim), not Aseret ha Mitzvot. Of course, Devarim means words in the broader context, not literally ten words. We might say, "what's the good word?" not expecting a one word answer. Or we might say "spread the word", meaning a thought or saying, not just one word.
The Ten Words are listed in their entirety twice in the Bible, Ex 20 and Dt 5. Neither passage breaks them into a numbered list. In fact, if you read it without knowing there were ten sayings, you might find more like 13 or 14. Numbering them is discussed below. So how do we know there are ten? The Bible tells us so in three places, let's look at one. Moses is rehearsing the events from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of Israel, he says this.
Dt 10:4 And he wrote on the tablets, in the same writing as before, the Ten Commandments[a] that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And the Lord gave them to me.
[a] Deuteronomy 10:4 Hebrew words
So we know there are ten, we know the text doesn't number them, and we know they are not called commandments but rather words. Then there must be at least one word that is not a commandment, a devar that is not a mitzvah.
2. God Introduces Himself
Ex 20:1 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
After centuries of slavery, it is unlikely many if any knew God. There is some indication they knew His name, which He actually used in verse one, saying "I am Yehovah". [insert your own argument about spelling and pronunciation of YHVH here]. In many of the numbering schemes, this Word is tacked on as an introduction to the first Commandment. While this may be logical, in the Hebrew reckoning, verse one stands alone as the first Word. And you can see, it is not a commandment. It is an introduction to the entire Ten Words, not the first actual commandment.
The New Testament does refer to commandments. In Mt 19, a man comes to him and asks "Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" Christ tells him to keep the commandments (Greek entole). By Hebrew reckoning, there are 613 commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah, so it is understandable that the man asked "which ones?" And Christ answers by listing five of the Ten Words plus the famous line "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself", which may be implied in the Ten Words, but is not explicitly in the text of Ex 20.
According to Jeff Benner, writing for the Ancient Hebrew Research Center , a more accurate meaning of entole is the same as Hebrew mitzvah, which is precept, or principle, but is usually translated as commandment.
3. How the Ten Words Are Numbered
Well, it depends on who you ask. As I showed above, there is disagreement right from the first Word. Some include it in the numbering, some do not. The disagreements continue with the second and third words. Some split "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me" and "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image" into two Commandments, while others make it into one. Apparently the Lutherans omit graven images altogether. Then there is fair agreement till the Word about coveting - is it one or two commands? Here is a chart from Sunday Software showing the major variants . Wikipedia  has an even more comprehensive chart on the numbering.
4. How Are the Ten Words Divided?
Many churches teach that the first four Commandments show how to love God, and the last six show how to love your neighbor. That's not a bad way to look at them, but it's not the only way. The parchment at left depicts the two tablets as having five on the left, five on the right. The Word in question, the fifth Word, is "Honor thy father and mother". How does honoring parents fit with the first four Words more than the last five? The first five Words make us look up, the second five make us look eye to eye. It's like two hands, one with fingers pointing vertically, one with fingers pointing horizontally. Writing in Mosaic Magazine , Leon Kass has a lot to say about the fourth and fifth Words, Keep the Sabbath, and Honor your Parents. He likens the upward focus on parents as the "embodiment of, and our first encounter with, the gracious beneficence of the world— and of its bountiful Source", that parents "embody and model the Lord God of Israel". In other words, to a child, parents are like gods. Another quote from Kass:
In other words, authority begins with parents.
The experience of awe before parents is the germ of the religious disposition; for within God’s covenant, parents stand as representatives of divine authority and care, and the honor and reverence they are owed has purposes beyond family integrity and stability. Indeed, as I pointed out, honoring and fearing/ revering mother and father are, at once, paths toward and manifestations of the holiness to which the children of Israel are called, in imitation of God Himself.
In other words, authority begins with parents.
5. The Words are Second Person Male
What do I mean by that? I have been quoting the King James here because King James English expresses something modern English can't, specifically, there is a difference between Ye and Thou. In modern English we use the word You to speak to a man, a woman, or a group of people. But in Old English, you could differentiate your audience a little. "Thou shalt not kill" means something different from "Ye shalt not kill". Thou is singular, Ye is plural. When Jesus said "Drink ye all of it", he meant for everybody present to drink.
But it is even more precise than that in the Old Testament. Hebrew distinguishes when addressing single male (atah), single female (at), group of males (atem), and group of females (aten). That is, the single word You in English may be translated from one of four Hebrew words. Old English can at least distinguish between single and plural, modern English not at all. Unless you're from the South, where y'all is singular and all y'all is plural.
The Ten Words use second person male (atah). That's right, they are addressed to the men. No that doesn't mean women are exempt - consider adultery, both the man and the woman were stoned to death. I think it may have more to do with the patriarchal structure of ancient Israel.
But it also means that God spoke these Words to each individual. Millions of people were on Mt. Sinai that day, and God effectively spoke to each one personally. And He is speaking to each one of us today. And that personal message still comes through in the King James "Thou shalt not ..."
And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
Usually, we focus on the fact that the people were afraid and removed themselves. But look at what it says "the people saw the thunder". How can this be? According to Rabbi Rashi , a medieval French rabbi, it is not a mistranslation. It was an intense revelation from God. Rabbi Akiba  "They saw what was audible and heard what was visible". It was mass synesthesia Seeing the Sounds . Synesthesia means "union of the senses" Wikipedia . Carol Steen, co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association sees sounds as color. She said simply "We see it in our mind's eye." Pitchfork  ,
Extra-Biblical sources add some other details on this mass synesthesia event.
Rabbi Akiba again
They saw the fiery word coming out of the mouth of the Almighty as it was struck upon the tablets. Torah Class 
Rabbi Johanan 
every nation heard the voice in its own tongue and was amazed Coming Home Network 
Words of fire. In their own tongue. That sounds exactly like the New Testament Day of Pentecost, sometimes referred to as Second Sinai. Indeed, most agree that the Giving of the Ten Words happened on the Day of Pentecost. Note that on the OT Pentecost (Shavuot), the Words were written on tablets of stone, but in the new covenant, the Words will be written on our hearts and minds [Jer 31:33]. To be clear, it is the same Ten Words that will be written on our hearts and minds that ancient Israel received on Sinai on that day of Pentecost.
We accept the old adage "seeing is believing", but the Bible also says that "faith comes by hearing". Many, like Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman  liken seeing to the physical and hearing to the spiritual. God's voice, His words, were so powerful, the experience so transcendent, that it crossed from spiritual to physical. By being visible, the Words became all the more real to the hearers.
7. The Ten Words Are The Old Covenant
Let's look at one of the other places Moses uses the phrase "Aseret ha Devarim", the Ten Words, in Ex 34:28 "And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments." Actually there is more to the covenant than just the Ten Words, read all of Exodus 21-24. The Ten Words are the only part that God spoke to all the people. In Ex 24 the people said "All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!"
This was the first time God made a covenant with a nation. Before this, he had made covenants with individuals, like Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But now He made a nation of Jacob's descendants and made a covenant with them. The children of Israel had to obey the voice of God, in return, God promised them this:
Ex 19:5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'But it was more personal than that. It was also a marriage covenant.
Jer 31:32 Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.
Treasured possession, kingdom of priests, holy nation, and wife. Today, we understand that the church is to be the bride of Christ, but that idea is very old. Many more blessings are promised elsewhere like Lev 26 and Dt 28, but Ex 19:5 shows what the people were promised less than two months after deliverance from Egypt and slavery. And they said YES. But we know it didn't last even the forty days while Moses was on the mountain receiving the tablets of stone, which brings us to:
8. The Meaning of the Broken Tablets
Now that we understand that the Ten Words are a covenant, the symbolism of Moses breaking the tablets is easy to see. The tablets represented the covenant which Israel broke while Moses was on the mountain. They broke the covenant, Moses broke the tablets.
9. What Was Written on the Stone Tablets?
Above I showed a graphic of the Ten Words with five Words on each tablet, but the Bible says
Ex 32:15 And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.
|The Ten Commandments (shortened version)|
written in 10th century BC characters,
like on Cecil B. DeMille's tablets in the movie.
Wikipedia "The Ten Commandments (1956 film)"
10. Sign of the Covenant
God made a covenant with Noah to not destroy the earth by flood. He gave the rainbow as a sign of His word. God made a covenant with Abraham to make his descendants a great nation. He gave circumcision as a sign. The covenant with Noah (and his descendants) was unconditional - there was nothing Noah could do to "set the bow in the cloud", but the covenant with Abraham (and his descendants) was conditional, in that Abraham (and his descendants) had to do something - circumcision.
What is the sign of the Old Covenant? The consensus is that the Sabbath is the sign of the Old Covenant, even by people who believe it was done away in the New Covenant. Everyone cites Ex 31:12-17
16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.
17 It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
18 And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.
Some (like me) view Sabbath keeping as essential, as John G. Reisinger wrote "To break the sign is to despise the entire covenant" Sabatismos , and Sabbath breaking is one reason the Israelites who left Egypt died in the wilderness without entering the promised land. Ezek 20:
15. Yet also I lifted up my hand unto them in the wilderness, that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands;
16 Because they despised my judgments, and walked not in my statutes, but polluted my sabbaths: for their heart went after their idols.
17 Nevertheless mine eye spared them from destroying them, neither did I make an end of them in the wilderness.
Others (not me) argue it is no longer in force. Others argue that the Sabbath command in Ex 31 was a separate covenant apart from the Ten Words, ie Old Covenant Forerunner Commentary . As proof, they argue that the Old Covenant had already been ratified and therefore could not be modified, so the Sabbath covenant is a separate one. However that leaves the original question "what is the sign of the Old Covenant?" All roads lead to the conclusion that the Sabbath IS the sign of the Old Covenant, separate covenant notwithstanding. It is part of the New Covenant as well. The Sabbath is an identifying mark, "a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever." But don't let anyone tell you it was only for Israel - Christ said the Sabbath was made for mankind. If you wish to be under the Old or the New Covenant, you must keep the Sabbath.
The Ten Words and the Covenants are very important in the Bible. These aren't the only little known facts about them. There are many other facts about the Ten Words. Perhaps you have some you would like to share in the comments.
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia9. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/229-what-the-hell-is-synesthesia-and-why-does-every-musician-seem-to-have-it/