Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Can you count to ten?

For some reason the ten commandments came up in conversation recently, and I thought “hmm, that would be good to blog on” because it is something a lot of Christians think they know about when they don’t actually.

In most people’s minds the story is quite simple. Moses goes up mount Sinai and is given the ten commandments graven on stone tablets. He comes back down the mountain, breaks them in disgust when he sees Israel has made a bull statue representing God, and then has to go get another copy. As for what the ten commandments are, most Christians can probably list at least seven of the ten if you asked. We all know them when we see them.

But it’s not that simple… (life never is. :)
The typical list of “Ten Commandments” that we use is from Exodus 20 / Deuteronomy 5. Exodus 20 never uses the words “ten commandments”, rather God just gives a whole lot of verbal orders and couple of stone tablets containing some commands. Deuteronomy 5 identifies those verbal orders with the contents of the tablets and calls them the “ten commandments”. All well and good, except that the list seems to contain about 15 instructions.

So how do you get 15 into 10? You group them of course… if you want to. Rabbinic Judaism generally didn’t bother, and so when the Jews talked about the “ten” commandments they would often talk of fourteen or fifteen individual commandments. The Catholic church worked out how to group the commands together so that there were in fact ten, and then the Protestants decided that they were going to group them differently (splitting the two commands not to make idols up, thus helping their case that the Catholics were breaking the ten commandments with their idol worship).

Of course there are other minor problems such as minor word variations in the lists of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – if the ten commandments were written in Hebrew on these tablets, how can the Bible record two different Hebrew words as being on them? And did God writing the commandments, such as in Deuteronomy, or did Moses write them, such as in Exodus?

But such minor variations are beside the point compared to the entirely different list of the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 34. The list given in Exodus 20 isn’t called the ten commandments, but the list given in Exodus 34 is specially labelled “the ten commandments”. Only problem is that it isn’t the list Christians or Jews normally call the ten commandments. It’s a different list. The Exodus 34 listing is:

1. Worship no other god than Yahweh: Make no covenant with the inhabitants of other lands to which you go, do not intermarry with them, and destroy their places of worship.
2. Do not make molten idols.
3. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days in the month of Abib.
4. Sacrifice firstborn male animals to Yahweh. The firstborn of a donkey may be redeemed; redeem firstborn sons.
5. Do no work or even kindle a fire on the seventh day. Anyone who does so will be put to death.
6. Observe the Feast of First Fruits and the Feast of Ingathering: All males are therefore to appear before Yahweh three times each year.
7. Do not mix sacrificial blood with leavened bread.
8. Do not let the fat of offerings remain until the morning.
9. Bring the choicest first fruits of the harvest to the Temple of Yahweh.
10. Do not cook a goat in its mother's milk.

Only three of the commandments are equivalent to the traditional protestant list – worship no other gods, don’t make idols, and observe the Sabbath. The rest are quite different.

Why is this? Scholars have long had a perfectly good explanation available: It is because the first five books of the bible were written by four different people whos writings were merged together by a fifth person. This is called the “JEPD theory” or “documentary hypothesis”… which seems pretty obviously true to me and explains a large number of problems in a fairly simple way. So basically, the three lists of ten commandments were written by three different people who each believed that theirs was the list of commandments God had given to Israel on Mount Sinai. At lot of Christians worry that the documentary hypothesis is incompatible with Biblical inerrancy (not everyone agrees it is) and oppose it.

So, some questions…
Do we as Christians, really care about any of this? In my experience most Christians feel better for know that the ten commandments exist, but are not particular concerned about their practical relevance.
Does it matter if there are two or three, or even 16000 different lists of ten commandments? Does it at all matter if there are 15 commandments rather than 10?
Or are the 10 commandments just outdated in light of the “two” greatest commandments of Jesus (love God, love neighbour, evangelise to the ends of the earth - pick any two)? Or are they outdated in light of following the spirit rather than the law?


Blogger Nathan said...

I don't assign too much significance to either of the ten commandments, mostly because it's quite hard to differentiate between those commands and the commands not to wear cloth of different fabrics.
I like Jesus.

Blogger P-Style said...


Just a wee comment from one interpreter on the 3 sets of commandments issue


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