The Ten Commandments

The national edition of Salt Lake City’s Deseret News has a new series on the Ten Commandments. So I thought it would be a good time to post the section on the Ten Commandments (lightly edited for this post) from my new book, The Bible’s Many Voices, for those who’d like to explore the subject further.

Note that the commandments are divided into ten in different ways by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. For this reason, I refer in what follows to “the Sabbath commandment,” not to the “third” or “fourth” or “fifth” commandment.

The Ten Commandments

According to the storyline of the Pentateuch God only spoke the Ten Commandments once, in Exodus 20. But the book of Deuteronomy, which is essentially presented as a long farewell speech by Moses, gives him the opportunity to recap the entire story of the exodus and the wilderness wanderings. In the course of this recap, he retells the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments and, in Deuteronomy 5, recites them again. In Moses’ repetition of the commandments, they are (naturally) essentially the same as in the Exodus 20 version, but not exactly so. The most obvious difference, and the most telling one, comes in the commandment about the Sabbath:

Exodus 20

8 Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it.

9 Six days shall you labor and do all of your work.

10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your God. [YHWH represents the four Hebrew letters that spell God’s name, usually “translated” into English as “the Lord.”] You shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your animal, or the stranger who lives in your town.

11 For in six days YHWH made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. Therefore YHWH blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.

And in the repetition:

Deuteronomy 5

12 Keep the Sabbath day, to sanctify it, as YHWH your God commanded you.

13 Six days shall you labor and do all of your work.

14 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to YHWH your God. You shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox, your ass, or any of your animals, or the stranger who lives in your town, so that your slaves may rest as you do.

15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that YHWH your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore YHWH commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

There are a few minor differences here in the Deuteronomy version, of the kind that are found in the other commandments as well. For example, the words “As YHWH your God commanded you” are added after the very first sentence, and a couple of specific animals are added to the general rule that even animals should not be forced to work on the Sabbath. The more telling differences are a tiny but crucial one right at the beginning, a small addition in the middle, and then the large difference at the end. Let’s take the differences in order.

The first difference between the two versions of the commandment is that in Exodus the Israelites are instructed to “remember” the Sabbath day, while in Deuteronomy they are instructed to “keep” it. The change is made because the word “remember” serves a special purpose in Deuteronomy. It is always used only with historical events. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are frequently told to remember what happened to them, but they are never told to remember what God has told them. They “remember” events, but “keep” God’s commandments. Apparently the distinction was made in order to distinguish two different kinds of knowledge, things that were seen and those that were heard. Most of the Bible is not interested in this distinction, which depends upon a fairly sophisticated understanding of the human mind, but Deuteronomy is. Hence “remember” of the Exodus text was changed in the repetition to match Deuteronomic psychological terminology.

The second quite significant change is the addition to the long list of those who must be permitted to rest on the Sabbath of a clause emphasizing that, on this day, rest is not just for the masters but for the slaves as well. Since the Exodus version of the commandment already makes this entirely clear, the addition seems to serve as a kind of rhetorical emphasis, insisting that the commandment involves not just a day of rest, but a day when all people revert to their original equal status. Moreover, the emphasis that slaves must rest provides the justification for the rest of the verse, the Deuteronomic explanation of why the Israelites must observe the Sabbath.

The Exodus version of the Ten Commandments indicates that the special status of the seventh day of the week comes from the blessing God granted it when He finished the work of creation:

Gen. 2:3 God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He sabbathed from all His work that God created by making.

I have deliberately translated the verb “rested” here as “sabbathed” in accordance with its sound and its etymology, to show how the link with the Sabbath is all but explicit in this verse.

Though the explanation that the Israelites must observe the Sabbath because God blessed that day does not say so explicitly, it also implies something more: that observance of the Sabbath is an aspect of what theologians call imitatio Dei, “imitation of God.” By imitating divine behavior, the human beings who (according to Genesis 1) were created in God’s image can conform more closely to the divine model. In this case, since the process of creation involved not merely six days of labor but a seventh day of rest, they, like God, must work for six days but then rest on the seventh. Moreover, it would seem that according to this explanation the world was actually constructed in such a way that resting on the seventh day keeps one “in tune with the universe.”

The Deuteronomic explanation is quite different. As we’ve seen, Deuteronomy adds an extra clause to the commandment, emphasizing that slaves rest equally with their masters, which makes the subsequent explanation of the commandment much more logical in context. The subsidiary “commandment” (not counted as one of the Ten) to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” amounts almost literally to the insistence that each individual Israelite have a social conscience. This explanation presents the Sabbath commandment as inextricably tied up with the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. Implicitly, God’s redeeming them from slavery provides the justification for His issuance of commands to them, as their new Master. Moreover, they are instructed to renew this awareness of their own experience as slaves every seven days. Seen in the perspective of Exodus 20, the Sabbath is an inherently cosmic phenomenon. In Deuteronomy 5, it is very much a social and historical one — a worldly one.

Let’s continue our tour by looking at one more set of “ten commandments.” This one is not a repetition of the commandments that were proclaimed in Exodus 20, as Deuteronomy 5 was, but a different sets of commandments that, nonetheless, seems to have a special status. It is one version of what is called “the ritual Decalogue.” (There is a second we will not get to today.) “Decalogue” comes from the Greek for “ten words,” which is how this text is described in the Bible.

The reason it makes sense to think of this set of commandments as a second kind of Decalogue is the way it is woven into the story. Everyone is familiar with the image, made famous in art and so much a part of how we think of the Bible that it is used in movies and cartoons, of Moses coming down the mountains with two stone tablets that have the Ten Commandments engraved on them. But not everyone remembers that, when Moses finally did come down the mountain, he saw the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf, lost his temper, and broke the stone tablets. (See Exod. 32:19.) Moses then goes back up the mountain and (after forty days) returns with a second set of tablets. In fact, it is here that they are first identified as the “Ten” Commandments; in Exodus 20, the number is not mentioned. Yet the commandments in Exodus 34, presented (like the earlier ones) as the basis of God’s covenant with Israel, are quite different:

Exodus 34

17 You shall not make molten gods for yourself.

18 You shall keep the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you on the occasion of the month of Abib; for in Abib you went forth from Egypt.

19 Everything that first breaches the womb is Mine, among all of your animals that bear a male, whether ox or sheep. 20 But an ass that first breaches the womb you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every first-born of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before Me empty-handed.

21 Six days shall you labor, and on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing-time and harvest-time, you shall rest.

22 You shall make for yourself a Festival of Weeks, the first-fruits of the wheat harvest , and a Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.

23 Three times a year, every one of your males shall appear before the Lord YHWH, God of Israel. 24 When I dispossess nations before you and expand your territory, no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before YHWH your God three times a year.

25 You shall not slaughter My sacrificial blood with anything leavened, nor shall the sacrifice of the Festival of Passover remain overnight until morning.

26 You shall bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the House of YHWH your God.

You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

27 YHWH said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words do I make a covenant with you, and with Israel.” 28 He was there with YHWH forty days and forty nights. He ate no food and drank no water. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Words.

It is after coming down the mountain with this set of tablets that Moses’s face acquires the radiance that is associated with God’s Presence; that story is therefore assumed to be part of the Priestly source. Nevertheless, scholars have long considered the preceding passage, the one we have just seen, to be the otherwise missing J version of the Ten Commandments, woven into the story at this point. (It is difficult to figure out how to divide them into ten, suggesting that even the identification as a Decalogue is not original.) But because of the content of the section, they often note that this version must have a “cultic” origin. In biblical scholarship, “cult” is not a pejorative word; it simply refers to the technical aspects of any form of worship — how the rituals of that religion are performed. The technical aspects of the worship of YHWH, of course, were in the hands of the priests. Since our object here is not to categorize texts according to the Documentary Hypothesis but simply to recognize the different biblical voices, we can safely say that this version of the Ten Commandments is priestly, albeit with a lower-case “p.”

Looking back at what is covered in this set of commandments, it is easy to see why scholars have given it the “ritual” label. By contrast with the famous Decalogue of Exodus 20, this one has no rules against murder, adultery, theft, testifying falsely, or covetousness, and no injunction to honor one’s father and mother. Certainly the voice that is speaking here was not in favor of murder and so forth. Their absence from the Decalogue should not mislead us into thinking that such horrendous crimes were of no consequence for this author. But we must assume that such things were taken for granted as the basis of any society. The Ritual Decalogue says that the special basis of the covenant between God and the Israelites involves their obligations to Him — to offer sacrifices to Him according to certain particular rules and at certain particular times and, most importantly, to come on pilgrimage to His Temple three times a year with offerings of the bounty of the land to which He was bringing them.

It is also easy to see why this Decalogue makes sense from a priestly point of view. From a strictly practical perspective, the offerings brought to the Temple provided the priests their subsistence. Reading more generously, it makes sense that the priests would see the obligations of the Israelites toward God — for which they were ultimately responsible — as the essential basis of society. Neglect of these obligations would, presumably, place the Israelites as a whole, not just the priests, at risk. If the purpose of a decalogue was to distill the essence of law, the constitutional core (so to speak) that defined this particular culture, it makes sense that a version of this in a priestly voice would be of a ritual nature.

Scholars gave this group of laws the name Ritual Decalogue at a time when “ritual” was something of a pejorative word. Ritual was considered to consist of a series of formal actions which could be carried out by someone who was actually thinking of evil or, perhaps worse, of nothing at all. The realm of ritual behavior, in this sense, was thought of as the enemy of what was “spiritual,” an attitude of love and awe towards God. But to think of the Ritual Decalogue like this is to hear the priestly voice in a distorted way. We would do better to take a hint from the contrast between the two versions of the Sabbath commandment in the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 decalogues, one linking Sabbath observance to divine concerns and one to human concerns. The P decalogue of Exodus 34 shows us that the priestly writers gave pride of place to the Israelites’ obligations toward God. A later version of the priestly voice, the Holiness Code, would integrate both ritual and social concerns within the Israelites’ religious obligations.

[Copyright 2014 by Michael Carasik]

Read a sample from The Bible’s Many Voices at this link.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: