Introduction to the Ten Commandments

Different Versions of the Ten Commandments

Quite a few politicians and citizens want the government to display the Ten Commandments on public grounds and in various government buildings, like schools. In such a situation, it becomes reasonable to ask: What exactly are these “Ten Commandments”? What many don’t realize is that there aren’t really “the” Ten Commandments; instead, there are multiple versions of the Ten Commandments.

 

Ten Commandments: Standard Version?
Any time someone chooses to place a listing of the Ten Commandments in a home, office, church, or public space, they will be making choices.

They will have to choose which biblical passage to rely upon, which translation to use, and typically which shortened version to use. These are all religious, linguistic, social, cultural, and political choices.

Ten Commandments: Originals & Sequels
As many people are aware, but perhaps tend to forget, the Ten Commandments had to be written down twice. Moses got them once, but upon his return to camp he found that people had started the party without him. Naturally incensed, he made the blunder of smashing the tablets upon which God had written his commandments. This was God's first work as an author, and now it was lost! But God, being God, felt capable of salvaging the matter. He told Moses that he'd write them down again, exactly as they had been written originally.

Protestant Ten Commandments
Protestants (which here refers to members of the Greek, Anglican, and Reformed traditions — Lutherans follow the “Catholic” Ten Commandments) usually use the form which appears in the first Exodus version from chapter 20.

Scholars have identified both Exodus versions as having probably been written in the tenth century BCE.

Catholic Ten Commandments
The use of the term “Catholic” Ten Commandments is meant loosely because both Catholics and Lutherans follow this particular listing which is based upon the version found in Deuteronomy.

This text was likely written in the seventh century BCE, around 300 years later than the Exodus text which forms the basis for the “Protestant“ version of the Ten Commandments. Some scholars believe, however, that this formulation could date back to an earlier version than the one in Exodus.

Catholic vs. Protestant Commandments
One interesting difference occurs in how Catholics translate the Deuteronomy verses into actual commandments. In the Butler Catechism, verses eight through ten are simply left out. The Catholic version thus omits the prohibition against graven images. The Protestant versions of the commandments retain the prohibition against graven images, but it seems to be ignored since statues and other images have proliferated in their churches as well.

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Quite a few politicians and citizens want the government to display the Ten Commandments on public grounds and in various government buildings, like schools. In such a situation, it becomes reasonable to ask: What exactly are these “Ten Commandments”? What many don’t realize is that there aren’t really “the” Ten Commandments; instead, there are multiple versions of the Ten Commandments.

At first, it might seem odd to question just what the Ten Commandments are supposed to be —aren’t they obvious?

Well, no — they aren’t obvious at all. During his 2000 election campaign, President George W. Bush marched into a hornets’ nest by proposing that a “standard version” of the Ten Commandments be posted in schools and public places. “I have no problem with the Ten Commandments posted on the wall of every public place,” Bush told reporters.

Asked if he preferred the Protestant, Catholic or Jewish version of the Commandments, which he must not have realized differ slightly from one another, Bush replied: “The standard version. Surely we can agree as a society on a version that everybody can agree to.”

The issue which Bush and so many others fail to understand is that there is no such “standard version” of the Ten Commandments — something which theologians are painfully aware of. According to Frank Kirkpatrick, a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut “There is no standard version and I don’t see how you could arrive at one.

If you try, will people be offended? Sure they will.”

The Ten Commandments appear in three places in the Bible: in Exodus, chapter 20, in Exodus, chapter 34 and in Deuteronomy, chapter 5. All three versions differ with the Deuteronomy version being longer and including different elements.

No version conveniently lists the commandments from one to ten, which is presumably how they would appear when posted.

In Exodus, for example, the relevant passage covers 17 verses and encompasses at least 14 imperatives. Naturally there are also a myriad of different translations. It is often believed one of the key Commandments states, “You shall not kill.” But the original Hebrew does not use “kill.” It says, “You shall not murder,” which is clearly very different.

Historically, the commandments have been drastically abbreviated to aid memorization, which then leads to even greater differences on what to put in and what to leave out. The version that is often displayed in homes and offices is a radically shortened version of the original. But isn’t there something in the Bible about not changing the text?

Any time someone chooses to place a listing of the Ten Commandments in a home, office, church, or public space, they will be making choices. They will have to choose which biblical passage to rely upon, which translation to use, and typically which shortened version to use. These are all religious, linguistic, social, cultural, and political choices.

Unfortunately, almost no one is aware of any of these factors — they see whatever listing they use as the “natural,” the “obvious,” or just the “correct” listing that requires no particular choices or input from them.

This is what makes debates about the Ten Commandments so difficult. When someone is unaware of how their own background and choices have shaped their actions, it’s far more difficult to get them to make new choices and thus change. It’s also difficult to get them to understand how or why other people might have made different choices — and that those choices are just as valid or reasonable.

« Ten Commandments: Different Versions | Ten Commandments: Originals & Sequels »

As many people are aware, but perhaps tend to forget, the Ten Commandments had to be written down twice. Moses got them once, but upon his return to camp he found that people had started the party without him. Naturally incensed, he made the blunder of smashing the tablets upon which God had written his commandments. This was God's first work as an author, and now it was lost! But God, being God, felt capable of salvaging the matter.

He told Moses that he'd write them down again, exactly as they had been written originally.

It appears that both versions were recorded in the text of Exodus, so let's compare the two versions and see how well they match. The first appears in Exodus 20:1-17

  • And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
    • Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
    • Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

      Now, God wasn’t happy that Moses broke the tablets with all of this information on them, but he was willing to give it another go: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.“ (Exodus 34:1)

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      Now, God wasn’t happy that Moses broke the tablets with all of this information on them, but he was willing to give it another go: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.“ (Exodus 34:1)

      Here is what God appears to have placed on this second set of tablets, appearing in Exodus 34:10-26

      • He said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the Lord; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
      • Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles (for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).
      • You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods. You shall not make cast idols.
        • You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt. All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
          • Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.
          • You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning. The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.

          There are a couple of similarities between this set of instructions and those that appeared earlier — for example, prohibitions against idols and against worshipping any other gods. All in all, though, the list in Exodus 34 is radically different from the one in Exodus 20, commanding positive acts unlike anything mentioned in the first version.

          Could this be a mistake? Could this just be a set of general commands with the “real” Ten Commandments having been written on the tablets?

          No, not likely. The verses that follow the above make it clear that what we have just read are, indeed, the Ten Commandments:  

          • The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exod. 34:27-28)

          It should be noted that this is the only place where the label “The Ten Commandments” is used in the Bible. The other two listings (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) are normally referred to as the Ten Commandments, but the actual text doesn’t describe them as such. Some have tried to argue that the above text is separate from the “Ten Commandments” and what is referenced in verse 28 are the original commandments from Exodus 20, thus eliminating the contradiction.

          The fact that the commandments in chapter 20 are never referred to as the “Ten Commandments,” though, renders such a harmonization very weak. There is no particular reason to think that what is being written here aren’t the commandments quoted above except a prior commitment to the text being contradiction-free.

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