Today’s Catechism sections discuss the Ten Commandments in Sacred Scripture. Supporting material comes from “Against Heresies” by St. Irenaeus.

The Decalogue in Sacred Scripture

2056 The word "Decalogue" means literally "ten words."11 God revealed these "ten words" to his people on the holy mountain. They were written "with the finger of God,"12 unlike the other commandments written by Moses.13 They are pre-eminently the words of God. They are handed on to us in the books of Exodus 14 and Deuteronomy.15 Beginning with the Old Testament, the sacred books refer to the "ten words,"16 but it is in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ that their full meaning will be revealed.

2057 The Decalogue must first be understood in the context of the Exodus, God's great liberating event at the center of the Old Covenant. Whether formulated as negative commandments, prohibitions, or as positive precepts such as: "Honor your father and mother," the "ten words" point out the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin. The Decalogue is a path of life:

If you love the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply.17

This liberating power of the Decalogue appears, for example, in the commandment about the sabbath rest, directed also to foreigners and slaves:

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.18

2058 The "ten words" sum up and proclaim God's law: "These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them upon two tables of stone, and gave them to me."19 For this reason these two tables are called "the Testimony." In fact, they contain the terms of the covenant concluded between God and his people. These "tables of the Testimony" were to be deposited in "the ark."20

2059 The "ten words" are pronounced by God in the midst of a theophany (“The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire."21). They belong to God's revelation of himself and his glory. The gift of the Commandments is the gift of God himself and his holy will. In making his will known, God reveals himself to his people.

2060 The gift of the commandments and of the Law is part of the covenant God sealed with his own. In Exodus, the revelation of the "ten words" is granted between the proposal of the covenant 22 and its conclusion - after the people had committed themselves to "do" all that the Lord had said, and to "obey" it.23 The Decalogue is never handed on without first recalling the covenant (“The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.").24

2061 The Commandments take on their full meaning within the covenant. According to Scripture, man's moral life has all its meaning in and through the covenant. The first of the "ten words" recalls that God loved his people first:

Since there was a passing from the paradise of freedom to the slavery of this world, in punishment for sin, the first phrase of the Decalogue, the first word of God's commandments, bears on freedom "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."25

2062 The Commandments properly so-called come in the second place: they express the implications of belonging to God through the establishment of the covenant. Moral existence is a response to the Lord's loving initiative. It is the acknowledgement and homage given to God and a worship of thanksgiving. It is cooperation with the plan God pursues in history.

2063 The covenant and dialogue between God and man are also attested to by the fact that all the obligations are stated in the first person (“I am the Lord.") and addressed by God to another personal subject (“you"). In all God's commandments, the singular personal pronoun designates the recipient. God makes his will known to each person in particular, at the same time as he makes it known to the whole people:

The Lord prescribed love towards God and taught justice towards neighbor, so that man would be neither unjust, nor unworthy of God. Thus, through the Decalogue, God prepared man to become his friend and to live in harmony with his neighbor.... The words of the Decalogue remain likewise for us Christians. Far from being abolished, they have received amplification and development from the fact of the coming of the Lord in the flesh.26

St. Irenaeus discusses the 10 commandments in “Against Heresies” (4, 16, 3-4).

3. Why, then, did the Lord not form the covenant for the fathers? Because the law was not established for righteous men.1 Timothy 1:9 But the righteous fathers had the meaning of the Decalogue written in their hearts and souls, that is, they loved the God who made them, and did no injury to their neighbour. There was therefore no occasion that they should be cautioned by prohibitory mandates (correptoriis literis), because they had the righteousness of the law in themselves. But when this righteousness and love to God had passed into oblivion, and became extinct in Egypt, God did necessarily, because of His great goodwill to men, reveal Himself by a voice, and led the people with power out of Egypt, in order that man might again become the disciple and follower of God; and He afflicted those who were disobedient, that they should not contemn their Creator; and He fed them with manna, that they might receive food for their souls (uti rationalem acciperent escam); as also Moses says in Deuteronomy: And fed you with manna, which your fathers did not know, that you might know that man does not live by bread alone; but by every word of God proceeding out of His mouth does man live. Deuteronomy 8:3 And it enjoined love to God, and taught just dealing towards our neighbour, that we should neither be unjust nor unworthy of God, who prepares man for His friendship through the medium of the Decalogue, and likewise for agreement with his neighbour—matters which did certainly profit man himself; God, however, standing in no need of anything from man.

4. And therefore does the Scripture say, These words the Lord spoke to all the assembly of the children of Israel in the mount, and He added no more; Deuteronomy 5:22 for, as I have already observed, He stood in need of nothing from them. And again Moses says: And now Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul? Deuteronomy 10:12 Now these things did indeed make man glorious, by supplying what was wanting to him, namely, the friendship of God; but they profited God nothing, for God did not at all stand in need of man's love. For the glory of God was wanting to man, which he could obtain in no other way than by serving God. And therefore Moses says to them again: Choose life, that you may live, and your seed, to love the Lord your God, to hear His voice, to cleave unto Him; for this is your life, and the length of your days. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 Preparing man for this life, the Lord Himself did speak in His own person to all alike the words of the Decalogue; and therefore, in like manner, do they remain permanently with us, receiving by means of His advent in the flesh, extension and increase, but not abrogation.


11 ⇒ Rom Ex 34:28; ⇒ Deut 4:13; ⇒ 10:4.
12 ⇒ Ex 31:18; ⇒ Deut 5:22.
13 Cf. ⇒ Deut 31:9. 24.
14 Cf. ⇒ Ex 20:1-17.
15 Cf. ⇒ Deut 5:6-22.
16 Cf. for example ⇒ Hos 4:2; ⇒ Jer 7:9; ⇒ Ezek 18:5-9.
17 ⇒ Deut 30:16.
18 ⇒ Deut 5:15.
19 ⇒ Deut 5:22.
20 ⇒ Ex 25:16; ⇒ 31:18; ⇒ 32:15; ⇒ 34:29; ⇒ 40:1-2.
21 ⇒ Deut 5:4.
22 Cf. ⇒ Ex 19.
23 Cf. ⇒ Ex 24:7.
24 ⇒ Deut 5:2.
25 Origen, Hom. in Ex. 8,1: PG 12, 350; cf. ⇒ Ex 20:2; ⇒ Deut 5:6.
26 St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres., 4, 16, 3-4: PG 7/1, 1017-1018.