One could consider that this question is making a request for an enumeration of the Ten Commandments. However the idea really resonates in the words “what are”. When someone asks, “What are dogs?” We do not list all the dogs; rather we describe them from a conceptual basis and present a unifying idea of what dogs are so we can readily ascertain their distinctiveness as a category of phenomena in relation to other categories.
The Ten Commandments are the only words that have been recorded in history to have been written by God Himself.
They concern God’s relationship with humans and that of humans with each other.
The first five commandments contain the word “God”. They state that God has been active in delivering people from bondage and creating the Universe. One commandment states that God is resting from His labors of Creation and desires that those whom He has created in His own image acknowledge this by having a day of rest and enjoying His goodness in fellowship with Himself. Another commandment states that the Almighty is a God of love and a God of reprimand. There is a commandment stating that God judges those who are insincere and disregard Him, while claiming to identify with Him. The fifth commandment of the five presents God as a benefactor who provides an inheritance to those who are humble; also protecting them and bestowing longevity upon them.
The next five commandments deal with the affairs between humans and do not have any reference to God whatsoever.
The first four commandments of the Decalogue are often presented as God orientated with the following six as man orientated—although, this is a little deceptive when presented as conclusive.
One view that has merit is the first three commandments challenge man’s pride. The next two speak of God’s grace towards man. The next four speak of man’s relationship with his fellow man. The last commandment deals with each man’s own heart.
The psalmist commented of God,
“I have seen a limit to all perfection, but thy commandment is exceedingly broad.” (Psalm 119.96)
The psalmist also said blessed is the person who meditates the law day and night for that person will prosper (Psalm 1:1-3)
So what are the Ten Commandments exactly?
The Ten Commandments constitute the moral law that distinguishes what is good in life from what is evil. They serve as a standard that measures the caliber of every individual who is capable of intelligence and therefore has the ability to form a relationship with the capacity of appreciating the worth of another person.
Humans have standards that form the criteria to measure the quantity of material objects and evaluate their quality in respect to similar material. They also have standards for speech, dress and behavior at home, at work and play, both professionally and informally. These standards are intellectual ideas that are distinguishable by what is said and done and are accepted by common consent.
The Ten Commandments are the Creator’s standards for His Creation that have the capacity to think and make decisions and act on those decisions, so they know when they have violated faith, either with Himself or another member of the Creation. Positively speaking, the Ten Commandments provide humans with an understanding of the standards expected of moral behavior; that is, what is required of people to act in good faith towards their Creator and their fellow humans. One commandment in particular warns about (or encourages the avoidance of) ideas that might become the beginning of a violation of faith occurring from within one’s own thoughts.
There are two listings of the Ten Commandments within the Pentateuch. The first record being that which God wrote himself (Exodus 20). The second record has some alterations that specifically distinguish the Ten Commandments as part of the covenant with the Israelites (Deuteronomy 5).
The introduction of Deuteronomy, chapter five, points out the fact that this is a covenant with the Israelites and not with the fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—of whom Jesus said were alive (Matthew 22:31-33), even though they had been physically dead for over 1500 years when making the comment. The specificity of the covenant with the Israelites alone is not only reflected in the introduction which begins in the first verse and forms part of the first commandment to the Israelites, but also in the fourth, fifth and tenth commandment. Where these commandments differ from those in Exodus 20 (which are universal in scope), we have an emphasis of the covenant that was peculiar to the Israelites. The highlighted portions below of the fourth, fifth and tenth commandments are different to Exodus 20. In verse one of this modified version of the Ten Commandments as delivered by Moses (John 1:17) that are particular to the Israelites, instead of beginning as in Exodus 20:1 with "God spoke these words saying....", we find Moses summoned all Israel, and said to them, 'Hear O Israel...' which sets the tone of the address. Thus we read:
And Moses summoned all Israel, and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your hearing this day, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said: “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods before me.'
“‘Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
“‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
“‘Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’
The fourth commandment sets the Sabbath day as an identifying mark for the Israelites who have come out of Egypt as a nation, and because of this, they learn this is the reason they are to observe it, not because the Lord God has rested from His labors of Creation—the difference is profound. People coveting their neighbor’s wife has obviously become a problem for the Israelites, much more than their coveting their neighbor’s property; the revised order (of mentioning the wife first before the house) in the tenth commandment reflects this. The fifth commandment includes a more pronounced idea of protection by God resulting from honoring one’s parents. In which case, we can see that the modifications of the Ten Commandments are such as to emphasize identification as a people, honoring of parents and the respect of the marriage unit; that is, the basis of the nuclear family. The aim of these modifications appear to be so the Israelites maintain social cohesiveness and integrity as a nation. A nation that is called to bring about God’s purpose, so the appropriate ransom can be paid for the kidnapping of the human race, and the Eternal One’s righteousness is established.
In summation: The Ten Commandments are the standards that permit assessment and adjudication, without bias, of any violation of faith in relationships among humans and with the Creator of humankind.