30 The Ten Commandments: They May Not Say What You Think

Most Christians know the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, but few realize that God created two very different versions of the Law.

Let’s review the story. Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, but the anxious Israelites made a golden calf during his long absence. Moses was furious when he returned. He smashed the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, had the golden idol ground up and force-fed to the faithless people, and ordered the Levites to slaughter thousands of their fellow Israelites.

Moses went up the mountain with blank stone tablets a second time, and God said, “I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke,” so we know this is nothing new, just a replacement set. God labels these the Ten Commandments, the first time the term is used in the Bible. This second set was placed in the Ark of the Covenant.

Despite what God said, this second set is very different from the first.

“Have no other gods before me” (#1) is replaced by a prohibition against treaties with the Canaanite tribes. “Honor your mother and father” (#5) is replaced by “The first offspring from every womb belongs to me” (with no exemption for human babies). And the familiar second half of the list—no killing, adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting—is replaced by:

6. Rest on the seventh day

7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks

8. No leavened bread during Passover

9. Bring the best of the first harvest to the Lord

10. Don’t eat goat cooked in milk

Christians who want to see the Ten Commandments displayed in public buildings may want to clarify which set.

One book with two radically different versions of God’s law is easily explained by the Documentary Hypothesis—the two versions came from two different traditions, which were eventually combined—but the explanation isn’t the point. The point is that the Ten Commandments are not a single, unambiguous set from an infallible Bible. Read them yourself in Exodus 20 (first set) and 34 (replacement set).

Those Christians who think the Ten Commandments are good moral advice may forget there is no law without penalties, and the penalty for breaking most of the Ten Commandments was death.

Modern Western values reject those penalties, and in Western countries, secular constitutions define the rules, not the Bible. We don’t find prohibitions against slavery, rape, and torture in the Bible, nor do we find support for freedom of speech and religion, the right to marry regardless of religion or race, universal suffrage, or democracy. Where we find them is in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in most Western constitutions.

Unlike the Ten Commandments, the fundamental human rights we value today were not written in stone, and that has been their strength.

Image credit: Unknown author (public domain) via Wikimedia

Notes

the anxious Israelites made a golden calf during his long absence . . . [Moses] smashed the tablets: Exodus 32.

“I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets”: Exodus 34:1.

God labels these the Ten Commandments: Exodus 34:28.

the penalties for breaking most of the Ten Commandments are death: For breaking the first commandment against worshipping another god, see Exodus 22:20. For idols, Exodus 32:27. For blasphemy, Leviticus 24:16. For not keeping the sabbath day holy, Exodus 31:15. For dishonoring parents, Leviticus 20:9. For killing, Exodus 21:12. For adultery, Leviticus 20:10. For lying, Proverbs 19:9. Stealing and coveting did not always have a death penalty.