Sunday Scripture: The Ten Commandments

The Christian Right makes much about the importance of the Ten Commandments to American history.  For the right, it is important to them that the Ten Commandments be displayed prominently in public locations as they believe the displaying of the commandments is an acknowledgement of our nation’s dependence on God.  These displays have been viewed by the courts to be a violation of the establishment clause when displayed by themselves.  The right has viewed these court decisions as the further erosion of morality in America and the rejection of God from the public square.  The best case study of this was the insistence of Judge Roy Moore to display the commandments in the rotunda of his Alabama courthouse. 

What is interesting about the Ten Commandments is that there are two contradictory sets of commandments in the bible.  And the one that we traditional refer to as the Ten Commandments is not the one referred to as the Ten Commandments in the bible.  The first set is found in Exodus chapter 20.  This is the set that we are all familiar with and is the set that the Christian Right so vociferously demands be displayed in civic buildings across the country.  When you read the surrounding verses of this set, it almost seems as if these Ten Commandments were just inserted into the text.  They are somewhat out of place.  The verses do not say that this set was written on stone, not does this passage indicate anything about Moses smashing them after witnessing the idolatry of the Israelites.  In fact, it is not until Exodus 31:18 that God gives  Moses the tablets and it only says that the tablets contained the “testimony” written by the finger of God. 

This first set of commandments is repeated in Deuteronomy chapter 5.  It is here that Moses says that these were written on the two tablets of stone.  It does not say that these are the ones he smashed when he came down from the mountain but it is assumed that they are and that is a sound assumption.  This chapter still does not refer to these commandments as the Ten Commandments.  In Deuteronomy chapter 10, verses 1-5, God tells Moses to cut out two tablets of stone, come back up to the mountain, and that he will write on the tablets the words that were on the first set of tablets.  Here the commandments aren’t listed but they are referred to as the Ten Commandments.

Jump back now to Exodus chapter 34.  Here, just as in Deuteronomy chapter 10, God tells Moses to cut out two stone tablets, go back up to the mountain and he will rewrite the words on the new tablets that were on the old ones.  But the story changes around verse 14.  God starts to list the commandments again.  The first two are the same for the most part as the set we have been talking about.  But things start to get wierd at the third commandment, Keep the feast of unleavened bread.  The fourth commandments match up, remember the sabbath, the new fifth commandment becomes, observe the feast of weeks.  The new sixth commandment is now to have all males appear before God three times a year as opposed to not murdering in the original.  The seventh commandment goes from not committing adultery to not offering the blood of the sacrifice with leavened bread.  In the new eighth commandment we are told not to leave the sacrifice of the feast of the passover out overnight, instead of the original exhortation not to steal.  In the new number nine we are told to bring the first fruits into the house of the Lord, instead of not bearing false witness.  And finally, we are told not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk instead of not coveting our neighbor’s possessions, which include his wife. 

Weird huh?  Well, it’s even weirder that this set in Exodus 34 is the one that is actually referred to as the ten commandments.  According to this chapter, this is the set that Moses placed in the Ark of the Covenant. 

So which set should we really be displaying if we want to honor the true ten commandments?  Once again, we see the selective way in which the bible must be read if it is to make any sense whatsoever in the minds of believers, which in the end is no sense at all.


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