22 Things That People Misunderstand About the 10 Commandments

By: Lauren | Last updated: May 17, 2024

The Ten Commandments of the Decalogue come from the books of Exodus in the Christian Bible and the Jewish Tanakh. They are a set of principles, instructed by God, on how one should live. 

However, while the Ten Commandments may seem like straightforward directives, there are actually several misconceptions about this important part of religious and human history. 

The 10 Commandments Are Only for Christians

One of the most common fallacies regarding the Ten Commandments is that they were written exclusively for Christians. The original Ten Commandments are in both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Tanakh, so both religions use them as a guidepost for their lives. 

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Additionally, the Ten Commandments have influenced the religion of Islam. While the Qur’an doesn’t explicitly list them in the same way, each of the laws is stated at some point.


Christians and Jews Agree on What the Ten Commandments Say

While followers of both Christianity and Judaism follow the Ten Commandments, they actually translate them quite differently.

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In fact, they not only write the exact words differently, but they also derive different meanings. Even specific sects within both Judaism and Christianity follow the Commandments in seemingly contradictory ways. 

The Ten Commandments Don’t Apply to the Modern World

Although the exact date Moses received the Ten Commandments from God is unknown, scholars believe it happened between 3,400 and 3,700 years ago. Some people argue that the Ten Commandments no longer apply to our modern world because of their ancient origins.

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However, the truth is that these directives are timeless. As Evangelical leader Billy Graham said, “Although they were given many centuries ago, the Ten Commandments are still valid, and our lives (and our world) would be far better if we followed them.”

The Commandments Are Just 'Don’ts'

Depending on the translation, the Ten Commandments usually start with “thou shalt not,” which makes it seem as though they are simply a list of “don’t do this.” But they are really much more than that. 

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The Ten Commandments are spiritual and emotional guideposts by which followers of God can and should live. They contain positive messages that help people live virtuously and have a better relationship with themselves, others, and their God. 

The Sabbath Is Only a Day of Rest

Commandment four states, “Remember the sabbath day, keep it holy. Six days you shalt labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God.” Christians took this instruction to mean Sunday was the day of worship. In Judaism, it’s called Shabbat, and it lasts from Friday evening until Saturday evening. During that time no work is done. 

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What people don’t understand about the Sabbath commandment is that it isn’t just about showing up to a church service or taking time off work. It’s truly about taking time each week to feel gratitude for one’s life and the gifts of God.


'Do Not Steal' Only Applies to Theft

The eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” seems fairly obvious, too. But it’s about much more than just refraining from committing theft. 

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Of course, taking anything that doesn’t belong to you would count as stealing. But so would stealing someone’s peace with unkind words, stealing someone’s honor through deception or even stealing through bribing or committing fraud. 


Honoring One’s Parents Isn’t an Important One

The fifth Commandment states, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” However, the exact meaning of “honor” has been debated worldwide. Some say that there are parents who don’t deserve a child’s affection if they don’t care for them as they should. 

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But it’s important to understand that God specifically wants his followers to respect, love and support their parents no matter what, from childhood well into adulthood. 


The Ten Commandments Encourage Inequality

In the modern world, many people are disappointed by the Bible and the Torah’s use of the words “man” or “he” instead of “humans” or “them.” It often feels as though these texts were written for and by men alone. 

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However, the Ten Commandments are truly for people of every gender. In fact, they promote respect and kindness to all people from every background through honesty, loyalty and honor. 


'Thou Shalt Not Kill' Only Applies to Murder

Commandment number six, “Thou shalt not kill,” may seem like the most straightforward directive in the bunch. But this one has actually caused quite a debate over the years. 

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Certain sects of the religions that adhere to the Ten Commandments have a different take on this particular rule. While some say “kill” only applies to “murder,” others argue that absolutely no life, including that of an animal or fetus, should be taken by one who wants to dedicate their life to God. 


The Ten Commandments Only Apply to the Religious

While the Ten Commandments are believed to be instructions from God, they are moral principles that can and should apply to all people, not just those who follow the religion

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Today’s legal and moral standards, such as laws against murder, theft and lying under oath, are largely based on these original ancient decrees.


The Ten Commandments Are the Only Laws to Live By

Finally, many people understand the Ten Commandments to be a comprehensive list of laws set by either the Jewish or Christian God. However, that’s not exactly true. 

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While the Ten Commandments are the foundation of ethics, morality and worship for both religions, they are just the starting point. Both religions, as well as Islam, have many other statutes included within their sacred texts.  


The Commandments Are Only About Religious Rituals

Many people believe that the Ten Commandments focus solely on religious rituals and worship practices.

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However, they also encompass ethical and moral guidelines that govern social behavior, promoting justice, honesty, and respect within the community.


Only Literal Interpretations Are Valid

Some individuals think that the Ten Commandments should be interpreted literally, without considering context or deeper meanings.

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In reality, many scholars and religious leaders encourage interpreting these commandments metaphorically or symbolically to apply their principles more broadly to various aspects of life.


Static and Unchanging

A common misunderstanding is that the Ten Commandments are rigid and unchanging.

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Although static in its text, throughout history, religious leaders and scholars have reinterpreted and adapted these commandments to address contemporary issues and moral dilemmas, showing their flexibility and relevance across different eras.


Ranked by Importance

Some people assume that the order of the Ten Commandments reflects their importance, with the first being the most crucial and the tenth the least.

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However, religious teachings often emphasize that all commandments are equally significant and interrelated, forming a holistic guide for ethical and spiritual living.


The Commandments Are Only Negative Prohibitions

While many of the Ten Commandments are framed as prohibitions, they also imply positive actions.

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For instance, “Thou shalt not steal” suggests promoting honesty and integrity, and “Thou shalt not kill” encourages respect for life in all its forms. Again, perspective and interpretation are crucial in understanding the deeper meanings of these commandments.


Irrelevant to Non-Abrahamic Religions

People often think that the Ten Commandments have no relevance to those outside of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

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However, the ethical principles they promote, such as honesty, respect, and justice, are universal values found in many different religious and philosophical traditions.


Only for Personal Morality

Another misconception is that the Ten Commandments solely address personal morality.

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In truth, they also lay the foundation for social justice and community ethics, emphasizing the importance of treating others with respect and fairness.


They are Only Historical Artifacts

Some believe that the Ten Commandments are merely historical artifacts with no contemporary relevance.

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Despite their ancient origins, these principles continue to influence modern legal systems, ethical standards, and cultural values around the world.


They Are Exhaustive Moral Guides

Many people misunderstand the Ten Commandments as an exhaustive moral code, covering all aspects of ethical behavior.

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In reality, they are a foundational set of principles that complement other teachings and moral guidelines within the broader religious texts.


Commandments Do Not Address Internal Attitudes

It is often thought that the Ten Commandments only regulate external actions.

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However, several commandments, such as “Thou shalt not covet,” address internal attitudes and desires, emphasizing the importance of maintaining purity of heart and mind.


Only for Adults

Many believe the Ten Commandments are just for adults!

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From an early age, numerous religious traditions weave these principles into the fabric of our upbringing, sculpting our moral compass and guiding our ethical actions throughout life.


Written in a Vacuum

It’s often assumed that the Ten Commandments were created in isolation without any influence from the surrounding cultures.

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However, historical and archaeological evidence suggests that they were influenced by existing legal and moral codes of neighboring civilizations, integrating and elevating common ethical principles into a divine mandate.