An overwhelming majority of the modern English translations render the words עשרת הדברים in Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:4 and Exodus 34:28 (biblehub links) as the "Ten Commandments". I believe that this is an erroneous translation, as דברים does not mean commandments anywhere else in the Bible. Which translation was the earliest to render it this way, and what might have been the motivation for this?

See here as well.

  • Exodus 24:12 appears to be calling them 'mitzvah', or in the least 'torah'.
    – user21676
    Mar 11, 2018 at 6:08
  • 2
    You've already asked the historical question on Christianity.SE, which is interesting and, I think, appropriate there. (It seems like the community agrees.) Although it's not inappropriate here, I suspect you're going to meet a lot of people on BH who would like to challenge you on the "obviously erroneous translation" part. To me it would make more sense to go ahead and ask what the justification (if any) for such a translation is in light of modern hermeneutic/linguistic considerations here and leave the historical Q for C.SE.
    – Susan
    Mar 11, 2018 at 6:55
  • @user40520 there are definitely commandments in the decalogue, however, that still won't justify the later translation of דבר as a commandment.
    – user22655
    Mar 11, 2018 at 7:11
  • @Susan thanks for the feedback. I will welcome the challengers... I feel like here I focused more on the translation part (albeit still with emphasis on the history), and there more on the term in general, and its history. I'm on a phone right now, but I'll try to edit it tomorrow as per your suggestion.
    – user22655
    Mar 11, 2018 at 7:14
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    Sounds good, just to add -- although it ultimately argues against it, this TDOT article (starting at the bottom of p. 116) gives many of the references regarding the history of interpretation of דבר as "a technical term for apodictic commandments". As you can see, there's a lot here that could be argued/discussed in a Q&A here (which is to say: this has not been seen as "obviously erroneous" by many Biblical scholars), which is why I suggested focusing on that.
    – Susan
    Mar 11, 2018 at 7:33

4 Answers 4


I believe that this is an erroneous translation, as דברים does not mean commandments anywhere else in the Bible.
-- OP


  1. Eight times in the book of Esther דָּבָר (Strong's H1697 - dabar) is directly rendered "commandment". For example:

    But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment <dabar> by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.
    -- Esther 1:12 (KJV)
    If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment <dabar> from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.
    -- Esther 1:19 (KJV)

    Doing a search for דָּבָר (dabar - H1697) + צָוָה (Strong's H6680 - tsavah) returns 140 hits of this type:

    This is the thing <dabar> which the LORD hath commanded, <tsavah> Gather of it every man according to his eating, an omer for every man, according to the number of your persons; take ye every man for them which are in his tents.
    -- Exodus 16:16 (KJV)

    Such usage is more than adequate support for the idea that "a commandment" can be defined in the biblical context as "the word(s) of a sovereign command".

  2. Deuteronomy 4:13
    Here is what I get from the Hebrew:

    And he declared to you his covenant which he commanded you to keep ‒ the ten principles that he wrote upon two tables of stone.

    Details: enter image description here


Some might object to דָּבָר itself, being translated as "commandment", but, given ...

  1. there is more than sufficient support for "a commandment" to be defined as "the word(s) of a sovereign command"; and
  2. the LORD COMMANDED Israel to keep the covenant consisting of the TEN WORDS/SAYINGS/PRINCIPLES written on two tables of stone;

... then such commanded words/sayings/principles can legitimately be referred to as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

  • This answers the question I asked slightly. I would refer you to the comprehensive answer given here, and please read the comment thread, in which we argue back and forth over a number of these points.
    – user22655
    Apr 11, 2018 at 13:31
  • Either which way, דברים in the plural does not mean commandments anywhere else. The point I was trying to make was that the translations (especially KJV) are wholly inconsistent in rendering only the times that דברים are preceded by עשרת as commandments, but when referring to the exact same event, דברים are not translated in the same way. This leads me to believe that there was some external reason for translating those 3 verses in this way.
    – user22655
    Apr 11, 2018 at 13:55

The expression (עשרת הדברים) has been translated in various manners. Two of them are the commonest ones: 'Ten Commandments' and 'Ten Words'. As regards the latter, we may say it is a very generic translation. If the final sense of this expression focused on the idea of 'to speak', or, 'to pronounce some words' the Bible writer did would use, for example, אמרות, a noun derived from the MT verb אמר (Jer 38:22), since its meaning is - in its own nature - a generic one.

Instead, the root דבר, from which the noun דברים derived, although it remains inside the general concept of 'to speak', it has an own specific nuance. If, now, we put aside the general and mutual (with אמר) meaning of 'to speak', and similar, what remains? The sense of 'to guide, to route, to direct' (this meaning (among others) can be found (only some examples) in Barnes ('to lead, to guide'), Brown-Driver-Briggs ('to lead away'), Benjamin Davies ('to drive'), Reineccius ('duxit'), Fuerst ('to put together in a row' [I.], 'to drive, to lead' [II.]), Gesenius 'to set in a row, to lead, to guide, to drive'.

So, taking into account this nuance, the expression עשרת הדברים would be rendered: "The Ten Guidelines", or "The Ten Leading Principles". In fact, they weren't compiled to represent specific laws but - rather then - real principles on which the various Torah's laws were relied on.

For example, if Exo 20:17 was a directly punishable specific law, how the Israel's judges did punish its contravening? Can I (embodying a judge of Israel) punish a man for coveting something not his own? If one would say, 'Yes, because I will punish this person when his concupiscence will lead him to steal the object of his desire'. All right, but you will be punishing him not to contravene Exo 20:17 but to contravene Exo 20:15! I can punish an action not a feeling.

So, it is clear that the expression עשרת הדברים: not indicates mere 'words', neither 'specific laws' (liable to a direct punishment), but a whole of guiding principles a people (Israel) is God-encouraged to follow.

To answer directly to your question (really, they are two questions): I've made no search to know what translation had used the expression "The Ten Commandments" for the first time, but I can say that the motivation to translate in this manner depends just for the nuance we've discover inside this root, 'to guide, to route, to direct'. Personally, I prefer translate this expression, as I mentioned before, "The Ten Guidelines", or "The Ten Leading Principles".

  • P.S. I apologize for my wobbly English. Mar 18, 2018 at 14:03

Exodus 20:1 "God spoke all these דברים saying" or Deut 5:22 "These words the LORD spake I think a simple answer is that דברים can mean anything from ‘words’ to ‘things’ to ‘precepts‘. See Gesenius’ Lexicon (within Blue Letter Bible for either of these verses). The translators have to use the context to give the sense of what was meant. Deut 5:2 is talking about God’s covenant בריתו which in Deut 5:32 He commanded צִוָּה His people to do לעשות: ten things. But ‘things’ is very weak word in English and cannot convey the serious nature of a covenant or the fact that they were commanded to do them. Hence the choice by translators, of precepts or commandments gives the right sense of the meaning. The earliest translation giving this meaning is probably not relevant to the discussion, since - however and whenever it was translated -the Hebrew clearly speaks of God commanding the people to do what God had given to Moses - hence they become commandments.

  • Hello EAnnP, welcome to BH, and thanks for the answer. Needless to say, I disagree with you on this one, and in order to avoid rehashing the same points over and over again, I would forward you to the answer and comments to christianity.stackexchange.com/a/62680/40626.
    – user22655
    Mar 25, 2018 at 13:53
  • EAnnP, can you include an excerpt from the Lexicon, and cite it? And, as the OP's question is asking for the earliest translation, it appears your answer is non-responsive.
    – Gina
    Mar 28, 2018 at 9:39

The relationship between YHVH and Israel is variously described as Father and son, Master and servant, etc. but is perhaps most literally described as that of a Suzerain and subject kingdom. That is, the kingdom of Israel owes fealty to the king of heaven. The terms of this contractual arrangement are set forth in the Sinai document we often refer to as "the law", the broad outline of which is set forth on the two tables. It might be fair to say that the two table contain the ten obligations of the lesser people with the various detailed commands with their sanctions are more specific obligations as a subject nation. In this view the ten "commandments" might better be understood as the "terms" of the concord. The commands that follow are requirements because the first two terms afford the Suzerain the right to make such laws. As such it can be said that all of the law and the prophets derived their force from the authority in the first two terms.

So rather than "commandments" I would lean rather to the translation of "terms" or "articles"; perhaps "matters".

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