This article will answer 3 very important questions:
- Who wrote the 10 Commandments?
- When were the 10 Commandments written?
- How were the 10 Commandments given?
The question “who wrote the 10 Commandments?” depends on how we define the word “wrote.” As you will see, I’m not trying to be cute.
The Giving of the 10 Commandments
The Jewish people received the 10 Commandments from God at Mount Sinai. This happened during the month of Sivan which is the 3rd month on the Jewish calendar.
Here is how the event is described in the Torah (based on the English translation from the Judaica Press Tanach):
16 It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered.
17 Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.
18 And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently.
These 3 verses describe what happened on the morning of the giving of the 10 Commandments. If you are interested in more context, then you should read all of Exodus chapter 19.
The 10 Commandments
After God has all of the people positioned where he wants them, He began to speak to all of the Jewish people. The entire congregation heard these words:
1 God spoke all these words, to respond:
2 “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 You shall not have the gods of others in My presence.
4 You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth.
5 You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me,
6 and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.
7 You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain.
8 Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.
9 Six days may you work and perform all your labor,
10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities.
11 For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.
13 You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
14 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.”
Those 14 verses are the 10 Commandments. When they were given, Moses and the entire Jewish people were standing at the base of Mount Sinai.
Moses Receives the First Tablets
A short time later, God called Moses to come up onto Mount Sinai. He spent 40 days and nights there. During that time he was taught the entire Torah by God.
At the end of the 40 days here’s what happened:
18 When He had finished speaking with him [Moses] on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with the finger of God.
A few verses later, Moses starts going down from Mount Sinai:
15 Now Moses turned and went down from the mountain [bearing] the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets inscribed from both their sides; on one side and on the other side they were inscribed.
16 Now the tablets were God’s work, and the inscription was God’s inscription, engraved on the tablets.
These verses (in Exodus 31 and 32) are the first mention of the 10 Commandments being written. And the writing was by “the finger of God.”
Let’s be clear about one thing. According to Jewish teaching, God does not have any physical form. In other words, the phrase “the finger of God” is not to be taken literally.
However, the Torah uses figurative language so that its message will be easy for people to understand.
Moses Receives the Second Tablets
Moses ended up breaking the first set of tablets. This was his reaction to the Jewish people worshiping the Golden Calf.
After that episode was sorted out, God invited Moses back up the Mount Sinai:
1 And the Lord said to Moses: “Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones. And I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.
28 He was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water, and He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments.
So we see that the second set of tablets are very similar to the first set. In particular, it is God who writes the 10 Commandments on these tablets.
We no longer have access to either the first or second set of tablets.
Moses Writes a Torah Scroll
What we do have is our written Torah scrolls.
Here is how the first written Torah scroll came to be:
9 Then Moses wrote this Torah, and gave it to the priests, the descendants of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.
24 And it was, when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion,
25 that Moses commanded the Levites, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying:
26 “Take this Torah scroll and place it along side the ark of covenant of the Lord, your God, and it will be there as a witness.
These verses tell us clearly that Moses wrote the first Torah scroll.
The 3 Questions Answered
We can now answer the 3 questions we started with.
1. Who wrote the 10 Commandments?
Now you can understand what I wrote above that the answer depends on how we define the word “wrote.”
God and Moses wrote the 10 Commandments.
God wrote the 10 Commandments on the first and second set of tablets.
Moses wrote the 10 Commandments as part of the Torah scroll he wrote and gave to the tribe of Levi and to the elders of the people.
2. When were the 10 Commandments written?
The 10 Commandments were written by God shortly after God spoke on the top of Mount Sinai. The first set of tablets was given to Moses after 40 days. The second set of tablets was given about 80 days later.
Moses wrote the entire Torah in a scroll at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness.
It’s true that parts of the Torah may have been written down by Moses before the end of the 40 years. However, for our purposes in this article, it’s easiest to say Moses wrote the 10 Commandments at the end of the 40 years.
3. How were the 10 Commandments given?
The 10 Commandments were given by God as He “stood” on Mount Sinai and the Jewish people stood at the base of the mountain.
From Exodus 19 quoted above, we can conclude that the 10 Commandments were given with thunder, lightning, the blast of the shofar, fire, smoke, and earthquakes.
It’s easy to understand the reaction of the people:
15 And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.
16 They said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.”
The giving of the 10 commandments is first recorded in the Book of Exodus, Parshat Yitro. I’ve written a summary of Yitro that you can read here. The article The 10 Commandments List gives you a list and brief discussion of the 10 Commandments.