This essay surveys traditions about the Ten Commandments in the Bible as well as in the literature of commentary that has grown up around them. My intention is to examine the biblical texts as they stand, noting the difficulties that they present, unprejudiced by the aura of sanctity that surrounds them. Such a clear-eyed approach will reveal both the uncertainties and the ambiguities attached to these few short sentences that have given rise to so much thought and discussion through the ages.
When Moses repeats the Ten Commandments ( Deut. 5:6-18) he calls them "these words (devarim) which the LORD spoke...to your whole congregation at the mountain ( Horeb) with a mighty voice out of the fire" (5:19). Earlier, he had introduced these Commandments as "the ten words" (i.e., utterances): ('asereth ha-devarim, 4:13),1 the same expression used in Exodus 34:28 for the text inscribed on the second set of tablets that he had hewed, "He wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the ten words." According to Deuteronomy (10:4) these were the same Commandments as those written on the first tablets, although this is not made entirely clear in Exodus 34 (see below); and in the original account of the giving of the Commandments (Exod. 20), the name "ten words" does not appear at all.
Later on, Mishnaic Hebrew replaced devarim with dibberoth, the plural of dibber, the term specialized for divine speech.2 This rabbinic