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Ruth L Miller is an eclectic scholar with degrees in many fields of science and the social sciences and is ordained as a New Thought minister - because she keeps on seeking answers to the fundamental questions that make it possible for the spiritual beings we call humanity to live well and in harmony on this planet for generations to come.


What do the “10 Commandments” really mean?

When we understand that what we read in English today was written thousands of years ago by people who spoke a very different language and thought very differently, and that it’s been translated multiple times over centuries, by many different people, all of whom thought differently about the world than we do, we begin to realize that what the original writers said and what we hear may be radically different. Even the new translations, mostly from the Greek and some from the Hebrew, are based on modern American and European thought patterns rather than the ways people thought in the Middle East 2000 or more years ago. So, even though the original writing, and even the translations, may have been “revealed,” what they were thinking then and what we think when we read what they wrote are often very different.
This is particularly the case with what has come to be known as “The Ten Commandments.”
Most Jews today, reading the chapters in Exodus or Deuteronomy in which the list of ten is presented, don’t translate the Hebrew as “thou shalt” but as “thou dost.” This is because, while all the languages derived from Latin (including English) include an “imperative” form, in which one person can command another to do something, the far more ancient biblical Hebrew does not. And, while in English we use verbs to talk about past, present, or future actions, in biblical Hebrew verbs describe an action that is complete or incomplete—no time is involved. So the original list of ten can neither be telling someone to do something, nor describing some future event.
It turns out that the verbs in the list of ten are all written in the second person (you), masculine, singular, imperfect (an incomplete action—“man, you’re cutting yourself”) as opposed to “perfect” which would be a completed action (“man, you cut yourself”). The result is a very different list from the one most of us were raised on.
As written, the opening Hebrew sentence can be most correctly translated as, “Hear, Oh Israel, I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of the Mizraim (which is usually translated as Egypt and refers to the sons of Noah’s son Ham); you have no other gods greater than I.” It’s then followed by a series of verbs, each preceded by a symbol that is read as “lo” and means “no” or “not.”
For example: לֹא (lo). This word negates the following verb: תִּגְנֹב (tig-nov). The base word is the verb גנב (ganav) meaning “to steal.” The prefix ת identifies the verb tense as imperfect – in the process of stealing – and the subject of the verb as second person, masculine, singular – you stealing. Because of the “lo” this would be translated as “you not stealing” or “you do not steal.”
And the list goes on in the same way. It’s very similar to a list written in the Egyptian Book of the Dead about 400 years before Moses, in which the soul speaks to Ma’at, the Judge of the after-life and says “I have not…” done any of the same things.
Interestingly, the true meaning of the word “Shalt” is not all that far off from the original Hebrew intention. Although, through usage (particularly in interpretations of this list!) it has come to imply a command, the word “shall” or “shalt” historically means “must happen; must occur; can’t not take place.” That’s how it’s used in legal documents and legislation, today: “Seller shall receive…” “funds shall be placed in escrow…” and so forth. They are statements of what must happen, or can’t not happen, rather than commands to do something.
One possible reason for the misunderstanding may be the way Latin is structured. In Latin, the same spelling is used for a second person plural verb—“you folks are working hard”—as for the imperative, command form: “You! Work hard!” So it’s possible that the original translator, believing that the statements in the list were addressed to the many people present in the Israelite camp, wrote the verbs in the second person plural, but someone later interpreted that as the imperative command form and convinced everyone else to teach it that way.
Whatever the reason we’ve been misinformed in the past, when we look at those familiar verses in Exodus now, we need to re-think what was being said. They’re not rules for us to follow, but promises!
They tell us that, when we accept the Almighty One as the Love of our lives, the Source of our existence, and the Power beyond all powers within or around us, then, in fact, we can’t ever allow a desire for money or property or any idol to be more important than our desire to commune with The One, or covet anything, much less steal; we would always honor our elders as guides to experiencing that One, and we would never be inclined to kill another!


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