We’ve already seen two sets of the decalogue, or ten commandments. The first, given in Exodus 20, were never called the ten commandments. There’s also no indication that these rules – and not the full lot of ordinances from Exodus 20 all the way to Exodus 30 – are the ones that made it onto the stone tablets.

Of course, Moses smashes these tablets, so we have to wait until Exodus 34 for God to “write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables which you broke” (Exod. 34:1). Again, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of what is written on the tablets until, in Exod. 34:27-28, where God changes his mind and asks Moses to be the one to carve the ten commandments (actually named this time) onto the stone tablets. However, the context makes it rather clear that the ten commandments referred to are the ones that have just been given, and they are very different from the ones in Exodus 20.

Deuteronomy 5 completely ignores that second set, and instead talks about the laws that God gave to the entire assembly. There are ten of them, but they are not, as far as I can tell, ever named the “ten commandments,” but they are explicitly written on the stone tablets. The laws he gives are nearly identical to the ones from Exodus 20. Once these laws have been given, God gives the remainder of the ordinances to Moses alone.

The framing of the commandments is rather interesting. God prefaces them by saying that 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” (v.2-3). That’s factually incorrect, of course, but indicates a theology of an ongoing covenant, one that is renewed with each new generation though a magical proxy system.

The writing style of this chapter – and the tone of that passage in particular – is extremely sermon-y. It feels like something that would have been read out loud to a congregation.

The Commandments

The commandments themselves are:

  1. Have no other god before God
  2. No idolatry
  3. Don’t take God’s name in vain
  4. Observe the sabbath
  5. Honour your father and mother
  6. Don’t kill
  7. Don’t commit adultery
  8. Don’t steal
  9. Don’t bear false witness against a neighbour
  10. Don’t covet your neighbour’s stuff
Moses Receives the Ten Commandments, from Walters manuscript W.171, between 1400 and 1404

Moses Receives the Ten Commandments, from Walters manuscript W.171, between 1400 and 1404

Much of it is copied verbatim from Exodus 20, so it’s really striking when there are differences. Namely:

The sabbath: In both cases, a reason is given explaining why the sabbath should be kept. In Exodus 20, it was because God rested on the seventh day, making the sabbath a reminder of Creation. Here, the reason is to serve as a reminder of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt (now they can rest, I guess?). Why the difference? My assumption would be that both versions used the same source which did not have an explanation, so each reflected the particular school of thought of its author.

Coveting: In Exodus 20, the first specific example of things not to covet is “your neighbor’s house.” The prohibition against coveting the neighbour’s wife comes along with a list of stuff the neighbour might own, such as his servants, his ox, his donkey, “or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exod. 20:17). But in Deut. 5, the wife is listed first, then follows the neighbour’s house, field, slaves, animals, and all the rest. It may just be a translator’s addition, but the wife is also linguistically separated from the possessions by the repetition of “and you shall not” (v.21).

Are women included?

I’ve already pointed out a few times that the Bible so far has clearly been written with a male audience in mind. When ordinances are relevant to women, they are presented as things that men should make sure their women are doing, rather than addressing women directly.

The commandment prohibiting coveting makes this clear. While separating women from the list of a man’s possessions is a start, the commandment still assumes a heterosexual male audience (or homosexual female, I suppose) – there is no prohibition on coveting one’s neighbour, or one’s neighbour’s husband.

But the sabbath commandment lists the members of the household who must not work. There’s the listener, of course, plus: “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” (v.14). Wives are conspicuously absent. Does that mean that women are – at least for this commandment – assumed to be among the addressed?

John Hobbins, of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, writes:

The often unmarked way a legal text switches from addressing the entirety of a particular audience to a subset thereof may bother literal-minded people, but the facts are clear. Unmarked switching – that is, switching marked by content change only – is also and even more typical of parenesis (instruction). Anyone who pays attention to the way parenesis works in “real life” knows this. The Decalogue is a parenetic legal text. It is not at all surprising that it is characterized by shifts in focus at the level of audience.

In the comment section, he continues:

As David Stein has noted, proof of this is provided by the book of Deuteronomy, “wherein (without marking) Moses shifts his address among various groups (warriors, householders, non-priests, Transjordanian tribes, etc.) . . . The reading convention must have been to construe 2m address in a ‘to whom it may concern’ fashion.”

More thoughts on the commandments

The commandment against killing gets a lot of mentions, as people (rightly) point out that there’s plenty of killing in the Bible – much of it allowed, and even demanded, by God. In particular, the punishments for breaking the ordinances frequently demand the death penalty.

As Collins points out in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible:

The sixth commandment is usually translated, “You shall not kill,” but it is clear from the following chapters that a blanket prohibition on all forms of killing is not intended. The effect of this law is not to prevent all killing, but to regulate the taking of life and to make it subject to community control. (p.69-70)

The commandments against lying and stealing are also clearly more complex than they appear. In Exodus 3 and Exodus 11, God tells the Isrealites to steal from their Egyptian masters. In Exodus 1, the midwives are portrayed as heroic for lying to the pharaoh in order to protect the Israelite babies.

And this is precisely why I don’t like the decalogue. It’s far too simplistic – don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill… yet even the Bible acknowledges on multiple occasions that all of these things might be okay, or even good. So why doesn’t the decalogue reflect that? It lacks nuance, and it lends itself to people like Ray Comfort claiming that lying to Nazis about the Jews in your attic will condemn you to hell (without Jesus’ interference).

The voice of God

In Exodus 19-20, the narrative is something of a jumble. God comes down to Mount Sinai and calls Moses up, then he tells Moses to go back down and tell the people not to come near the mountain, but the consecrated priests are okay, but then Moses shouldn’t let the priests up, but it’s okay for Aaron to come up. Moses goes back down the mountain to tell the people this, and then God just launches right into the ten commandments, apparently without even waiting for Moses to return.

While he speaks, the people perceive “thunderings and the lightenings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking” (Exod. 20:18), and they were afraid. Moses is apparently among them, because they tell him to serve as an intermediary so that God won’t speak to them, lest they die. Moses tells them not to worry, that the display was just so that they can properly fear God.

In Deut. 5, the narrative is much clearer. God delivered the ten commandments to the entire assembly, they were afraid of dying if they heard more, so they asked for Moses alone to hear the remainder of the ordinances.