The secret Ten Commandments few people know

the real ten commandments

“This is part 2 of a series of posts titled “Relearn the Bible.” These four blog posts are written to challenge notions of the Bible held by biblically illiterate Christians, including that the Bible is a magical rule book void of human history, influence, & the need for careful interpretation.

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In recent decade there has been numerous controversies regarding the removal of public monuments that have inscriptions of the well recognized “Ten Commandments,” a set of ten special laws that God gave to humanity. The fight rages in politics due to the fact that much of the Christian world often argues that these “Ten Commandments” given to Moses and recorded on two stone tablets, are the most unique and noble set of laws ever given, and that these are the laws upon which all society is based. Those who defend the plaques ask polemic questions such as “why would you remove ‘The Ten Commandments,’ are you immoral and seeking to promote murder and theft?” Many churches that I have visited are decorated with large portrayals of those two stone tablets, upon which is inscribed the famous “Ten Commandments.” These large wall murals are said to be symbolic recreations of the original stone tablets that were inscribed with the infamous “Ten Commandments.”

What if I told you that there are really two versions of “Ten Commandments” given from Mount Sinai? Or that most scholars argue that the two stone tablets which were in the Bible called “ten commandments” held many things that you have never even heard of?

Yikes. This could prove very harsh to someone with Sunday school theology (a view of Christianity that does not come from very careful reading of the Bible, but simply believing things you heard in Sunday school.)

THE BACKGROUND OF LAW GIVING

Let’s look at the history of the Commandments as seen in the Bible. This is primarily and historically recorded in the book of Exodus (later mentioned a second time in non historical order in Deuteronomy), as the nation of Israel was parked around a large and terribly stormy mountain, known to us as Mount Sinai. During this encampment many things happened, including the turning away of Israel to worship false gods in the form of a golden calf and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Unknown to many people is the fact that Moses went up to God at least three times. Likewise, Moses also came down from Mount Sinai, on at least three separate times, and therefore three times bringing laws and commandments from God.

First Set of Laws

In Exodus 19, Moses goes up on the mountain to converse with God. There God reveals to Moses things about himself, as well as certain teachings and laws. The last verse in Exodus 19 says “So Moses went down to the people and told them.” Exodus 20 starts out by giving a list of commandments, as dictated by Moses. This list (Ex 20:1-17) is what most people know as “The Ten Commandments” received by two stone tablets. Yet in Exodus, this list is not yet reported as being written on stone tablets but spoken verbally (though in Deut it appears to have also been recorded on stone). After a short intermission (Ex 18:21) wherein the people showed great fear of the Lord, Moses continues talking to God and continues to add more and more commandments and laws to this first list. Interestingly enough, many Bibles have added a title to this section called “The Ten Commandments” however, the Bible itself does not ever call this set of laws by that name, and many scholars argue it calls another set of ten laws the phrase “Ten Commandments.”

Second Set of Laws

The first set of Laws given by God, starting with what we know as “The Ten Commandments” finally end in Exodus 23, after talking about slavery and the Sabbath. Then, for the first time, in Ex 24:12, God promises to give Israel commandments that are written on tablets of stone. Moses proceeds up Sinai at least for the second time. There we see a very long conversation where God gives him specifications about the building and running of the Tabernacle, its holy objects, and sacred ceremonies (Exodus Chapters 25-31). During this time, as Moses is receiving this revelation, the Israelites, camped at the bottom of Mount Sinai create and begin to worship a golden calf. “Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets” (Ex 32:15). And upon seeing the idol worship of his people “Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.” (Ex 32:19). The actual laws written on stone were lost!

Third Set of Laws

In Exodus 33, God rejects the Israelite’s and refuses to be their God (Ex 33:1-5). Moses entreats God to love his people, and finally God agrees (Ex 33:12-19). Then Moses again treks up the Mountain, earlier being told by God to “chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (Ex 34:1). Calling the second set of laws the “first tablets” implies there were no tablets prior, at least at this time in history. It implies that at this time, the first set of laws, which we know as our Ten Commandments weren’t yet written on tablet form! On the mountain God retells Moses the words that were on the first (broken) set of tablets. These Ten Laws given in Exodus 34 appear to be the only commandments written on tablet, at this time, both the first version that was broken, and the second version that was rewritten. And they seem to be different than the ten laws of Exodus 20. At the end of this list of ten laws in Exodus 34, the text itself seems to classify them as “The Ten Commandments.” God said:

Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” (Ex 34:27-28).

This is the only place in the Bible where the actual phrase “The Ten Commandments” is seen in context and close proximity (within a few verses or in the same chapter) with a list of ten commandments or “words.”

THE REAL TEN COMMANDMENTS?

So what then did these “Ten Commandments” as apparently titled by the Bible itself contain? What was written on the two tablets of stone that were carried around in the ark of covenant? (1 Kings 8:9). Below is likely the real “Ten Commandments” as described and named in Exodus 34:13-28. Please do read the original text yourself to verify this.

1. “You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

2. “You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal.”

3. “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.”

4. “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest.”

5. “You shall observe the Feast of Weeks… and the Feast of Ingathering.”

6. “Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel.”

7. “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened.”

8. “Or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning.”

9. “The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.”

10. “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

CAN THIS REALLY BE TRUE? (ANALYSIS)

This part is for geeks. The phrase “Ten Commandments” (in Hebrew this is written literally as “ten words”) is only found in the Old Testament three times! It is found only once in proximity to one of two seperate Decalogues (Greek for “ten words”). These two Decalogues are called by scholars as the Ethical Decalogue (which is the most popular) and the Ritual Decalogue (mostly unknown, sometimes disputed). The first of three times (Exodus 34:28) that the phrase “ten commandments” is used in the Bible is in the verse following Ritual Decalogue (the commandments listed above) and the second two times it is found in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 4:13, 10:4). However, both times in Deuteronomy there is no mention as to  which particular set of Decalogues the “ten words” actually refers to; it simply states that “the Ten Commandments were given” and does nothing to specify further. The only times the phrase “Ten Commandments” is written in the Bible near one of the two Decalogues, it is right at the conclusion of the Ritual Decalogue.

A few traditional commentators have suggested that the Ritual Decalogue ends in Ex 34:27 and the “Ten Commandments” mentioned in Ex 34:28 are actually referring to Ethical Decalogue found all the way back in Ex 20. This appears to be a stretching of what the text actually says. First, God introduces the Ritual Decalogue by calling it a “Covenant” (Ex 34:10), also God ends it by again calling it a “Covenant” (Ex 34:27) and by telling Moses to write down the “Words” of the “Covenant.” Then in the next verse, we again see “Words” of a “Covenant” being written on tablets (Ex 34:28). And in the following verse we see tablets with the “words” of the “Covenant” being given to the people. The simplest solution is that the “Words” of the “Covenant” throughout this singular narrative all refer to the same thing, which would mean this “same things” is the “Ten Commandments.” To say there are two separate sets of “Words” and two separate “Covenants” found in one passage, but not distinguished here, nor elsewhere, seems to really stretch the natural reading of the text.

Yet, even if we remove Ex 34:28 from the context of Ex 34:1-27, and say that the “Ten Words” of covenant that Ex 34:28 mentions are not the words of the covenant called the Ritual Decalogue found in the preceding verses, we have an even greater problem. There is absolutely no way to connect the phrase “Ten Commandments” to the Ethical Decalogue found in Ex 20. Even if we say the English phrase “The Ten Commandments”, found right in the midst of the Ritual Decalogue doesn’t actually refer to the Ritual Decalogue, there is no way to push that phrase fourteen chapters back into the Ethical Decalogue. The only attempt to answer this question has been an inference based on the two later mentions of stone tablets in the Deuteronomy passages

Scholarly Support

Finally, in case it is not yet apparent, I am not an Old Testament scholar. However, all of this is affirmed by numerous scholars and books. For example Dr. Whybray, an Oxford trained Biblical scholar, clergyman, and Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Studies writes:

“Another [decalogue] is to be found in Exod. 34:14-26, sometimes referred to as the “Ritual Decalogue” in distinction from the “Ethical Decalogue”; it is called “the ten commandments” in v. 28 and was inscribed by Moses at Gods dictation on the second set of tablets that replaced the broken ones.”

(Introduction to the Pentateuch R. N. Whybray p. 116).

For others scholars who have published on the idea that the “real” ten commandments are likely the Ritual Decalogue see:

  • Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. by T. Desmond Alexander, David Weston Baker; 
  • Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue by David H. Aaron;
  • The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church by F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone;
  • Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman;
  • The Hebrew Bible: A Brief Socio-Literary Introduction by Norman K. Gottwald;
  • The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law by William J. Doorly;
  • The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Coogan;
  • Conversations with Scripture: The Law by Kevin A. Wilson

Final words

There are two sets of “ten laws,” called Decalogues that were given by God to the Jews in the Book of Exodus (and mentioned a second time in the Book of Deuteronomy). Both Decalogues are God’s Laws and both are given in the Bible. The first we call the Ethical Decalogue, because it has ethical laws (do not kill, steal, etc) and the second we call Ritual Decalogue because it has ritual laws (observe this feast, etc). There is much discussion as to which ones should be truly called “The Ten Commandments” as the Bible and modern scholars say its the Ritual Decalogue, and yet historically most of the Jews and Christians have chosen the Ethical Decalogue as that candidate.

A novel idea, proposed in The Decalogue Through the Centuries: From the Hebrew Scriptures to Benedict XVI by Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, is that the phrase “Ten Commandments” in the text itself (Ex 34:28, Deut 4:13, 10:4) should be more accurately translated as “Ten Words” or “Ten Declarations” in the English, and that we should differentiate between the “Ten Declarations” of Covenant in Ex 34, and the Ethical Decalogue which has been been called the Ten Commandments by early Jewish and Christian tradition. We should keep tradition as it is (for indeed the Ethical Decalogue is still a list of God given commandments), reinterpret the text where its unclear, and often clarify that there exists these two Decalogues instead of only one. Perhaps that is a good way of dealing with the situation. In any case, we all have much to learn about the Bible, and its never good to simply assume we know everything there is to know.

4 responses

      • Yes! There are thirteen by many scholars’ accounts, but fourteen by mine. The first set of seven sayings focuses on Yahweh whereas the second set focuses on humanity. Each set contains six Hebrew imperfect verbs with some infinitive or imperative. This six to one ratio closely resembles the six days of work and one day of rest.

  1. I have a feeling that you have the list a bit wrong here. I think your 7 and 8 should be combined and number 4 should be Exodus 34:19-20, “All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.”

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