How much would you bet you can name at least 5 of the 10 Commandments? I’ll give you two-to-one odds.
Tell you what, let’s bust it down to three. Only three. You don’t have to get them verbatim, either, the general idea is close enough.
Think you can do it?
OK, but first, you can’t pick just any ten commandments. After all, there are more than 600 in the Hebrew Bible. No cherry-picking here.
I’m talking about the passage where Moses goes up the mountain, God dictates a set of commandments to him, Moses carves them on stone tablets, and the scripture calls them the “ten commandments” by name. Just that, nothing else.
So, we good? Ready to take the bet?
I’ll put a picture of Moses parting the sea right here so you can’t peek, and once you’ve decided on your five (or three, if you’re playing junior league) scroll down and see how you did. Good luck…
Exodus 34:10–28 (Note: There are no paragraphs in the original text, so I’ve created them here and numbered them to make the commandments easier to tell apart. And I’ve restored the original tetragrammaton “YHWH” which English translations usually replace with “the LORD”.)
[YHWH] 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 YHWH; 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 YHWH, 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 YHWH 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 YHWH 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 YHWH your God.
 You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
YHWH 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 YHWH 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.
OK, there they are. Now let’s review:
Do not make covenants with non-Hebrew neighbors.
Do not make idols of cast metal.
Observe the feast of unleavened bread.
Make sacrifices of (or for) firstborn male livestock, and for firstborn sons.
Never show up at the Temple empty-handed.
Rest on the weekly sabbath.
Observe the festival of weeks, the festival of the wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering.
Do not leaven the blood of sacrifice or let the passover meal sit out overnight.
Bring the first bushels of your crop harvests to the Temple.
Don’t boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk.
So how’d you do? I’m guessing almost everybody reading this got between 1 and 0 correct. OK, maybe 2 if we don’t get too picky about the idols having to be cast rather than carved. And sorry, but I can only give half a point for worshiping no other gods because that’s really not the gist of the first commandment there. But hey, if you got 5 or more, you win and you really know your Bible!
Now I know what you’re thinking. What about not killing? Not stealing? Honoring your parents? Not committing adultery or bearing false witness or taking God’s name in vain? What about not coveting your neighbor’s stuff? That plus keeping the sabbath plus not worshiping idols and having no other God, aren’t those the Ten Commandments?
Well, you can call them that, and most people do, but the Bible doesn’t call them that. And in the original version (they get a reboot, as we’ll see) those commandments aren’t even carved onto tablets. Heck, Moses doesn’t even hear them.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at that text.
You will note that God sends Moses down the mountain, so Moses goes and talks to the people. Then God speaks these commandments while Moses is still down there, where the people can hear the thunder and trumpets but can’t hear God from where they are (they say they’d be dead if they did) so neither could Moses.
Exodus 19:24–20:21 (Note: The header in the linked text does not appear in the Biblical text and so is not reproduced here.)
YHWH said to [Moses], “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to YHWH; otherwise he will break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Then God spoke all these words:
I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I YHWH your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to YHWH your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that YHWH your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
So what’s going on? Why is this set of commandments so different from the ones that the scriptures actually call the “ten commandments”? Why does God recite them when there’s no one around to hear them? And why do we remember these as the Ten Commandments today and not the other ones?
The Bible is like a quilt
The older books of the Bible, and a few of the newer ones, weren’t written by one author, but compiled. They’re like a family quilt, handed down generation after generation, until no one is exactly sure where all the pieces came from.
But over the decades historians, archaeologists, linguists, and others have pooled their expertise to figure out many of the broad outlines and quite a few of the details about who sewed the different swatches and when they were added. Let’s take that first set of commandments for starters.
We can tell these were written, or compiled, by Temple priests and scribes. Why? Well, because they’re mostly about Temple law and ritual — what to sacrifice, when to celebrate holy days, how not to worship, that sort of thing. They even mention the Temple (the “house of YHWH”) by name. Which means this passage comes from either the First Temple or Second Temple periods, before and after the Babylonian Exile of the 500s BCE.
Another clue confirms where it was written and tells us roughly when — it’s the bit about the “cast” idols. During the 800s and early-to-mid 700s BCE, Israel and Judah were separate kingdoms. The Judahites objected to the cast metal figures of bulls at temples in Israel, although they were fine with the sculpted cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant in their own Temple in Jerusalem. The Assyrian empire put an end to the Kingdom of Israel in the late 700s BCE, and the Ark was not present in the Second Temple after the Exile. Which means that this set of commandments is of Judahite origin and dates to the First Temple era when Israel was still around to be criticized. (Although the phrase “God of Israel” suggests the text got a touch-up after the Exile, as I’ll explain in a bit.)
Now if we look at the second set, there’s none of that. No mention of the Temple, or keeping the feast days, or refraining from weird Canaanite rituals involving baby goats and mother’s milk. And all idols are now forbidden, whether cast or sculpted or anything else. So what does this tell us?
(First, a fun fact: The command to “not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH”, traditionally translated as not taking the name of the LORD in vain, had nothing to do with saying the word “God”, or writing “YHWH”, or cursing. It’s a commandment to keep one’s agreements. In ancient Hebrew culture, contracts were sworn on the name of God. By the time of Jesus, this practice had become controversial. According to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus took the hard line, saying folks shouldn’t swear by God or heaven or the earth or Jerusalem or anything else, but just say “Yes” or “No”.)
These are all commandments any Hebrew could keep, no matter where they lived, and even if the Temple didn’t exist. Which means they were written during the Babylonian Exile, between the First and Second Temple eras, a profoundly prolific and transformative phase of Hebrew religion. To accommodate their new situation, prophet-priests like Ezekiel helped to midwife a different view of God and His relationship to humankind. According to their visions, God was not required to tabernacle at the Temple or anywhere else, but was with His people wherever they may be.
This particular bit of text appears to be a sort of summary of the heart of Hebrew law, a distillation anyone could memorize and obey in their day to day living. Perhaps (probably) it was originally part of a larger text. But regardless, it must have become popular as a stand-alone dictum, a self-contained formulation known widely among Jews in the Babylonian diaspora, in the way that people today know the Serenity Prayer, or “May the road rise to meet you”, or the Our Father.
But the Exile didn’t last forever. Some seven decades after Nebuchadnezzar had removed the royals, priests, scribes, and wealthy landholders from Judah, Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed those Hebrews who wished to return to Jerusalem to go back to their homeland. The Temple was rebuilt, and the scriptures were updated for a new time.
Yes, they did that. Just as people do today. That’s why we have differing English versions of The Bible around, like the Shakespeare-era King James Version, the academically rigorous New Revised Standard Version, and highly (sometimes questionably) paraphrased editions like The Message Bible. In fact, the book of Exodus itself, compiled as it was from older texts, contains variants of chunks of the earlier Temple-based ten commandments, like those found in chapter 23 (verses 12–19).
When the books of the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible were compiled, the passage that is popularly known today as “the Ten Commandments” was added to the quilt, sewn into the story. That’s why God appears to speak them to nobody — they weren’t in the original version. But by then they had become so important as a moral code that they could not be left out.
The Deuteronomic literature (the “second law” or more accurately a second telling of the law and its scriptural context) which was completed post-Exile even includes a second version of these universal Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:1–22), in an account of a speech by Moses reminding the Hebrew people of their experience at the mountain where God dictated the Law. They’re mostly the same as the version inserted into Exodus, but there are a few important differences worth looking at….
In the pre-amble to his recitation of the commandments, Moses reminds the people that “YHWH our God made a covenant with us at Horeb”. That may surprise you if you learned that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. Well, this is another Israel/Judah thing. The Judahites placed this event at Sinai, the Israelites at Mount Horeb (aka the Mountain of God). But wait, Israel doesn’t exist when this version is written, right? So what’s up?
Israel was the larger, more prosperous of the two Hebrew nations when it fell to Assyria. Some of the Israelite priests (who were the academics and bureaucrats of their day) fled south to Judah, which experienced a kind of cultural boom as a result. But they brought their northern traditions and views with them, which we can see in some of the Exilic and post-Exilic writings, including Deuteronomy. So while Exodus 34 says that Moses “rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai”, Deuteronomy says it happened “at Horeb”, indicating that this version was written by a priest or scribe of an Israelite faction that fled to Judah many decades earlier and rose to prominence in Judahite politics.
The reason for the sabbath day is different, too. Exodus says “YHWH blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it” because “in six days YHWH made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day”. But in Deuteronomy there’s no mention of creation. God says: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and YHWH your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore YHWH your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” So what’s to be remembered isn’t God’s rest from creation, but rather the Hebrew people’s rest from enslavement.
To understand this, we need to recall my side note about “the God of Israel”. Remember when I said that the appearance of the phrase “the God of Israel” in the First Temple version of the commandments indicated some editorial touching-up during the Second Temple era? OK, that’s because that particular phrase wasn’t commonly used in Biblical writing before that time, and certainly not in Judah.* So why did the Judahites start calling their God “the God of Israel” after the Babylonian Exile, when Israel no longer existed?
Well, it’s because not all Israelites left the land of Israel after it was incorporated into Assyria. And the Hebrews who stayed there continued worshiping at their own sacred sites and refused to agree with the Judahites that the Jerusalem Temple was the sole tabernacle of YHWH and the only valid location for sacrifice. At the time of Jesus, these folks were known as the Samaritans, and their land was sandwiched between Jerusalem-aligned Galilee to the north and Judea (formerly Judah) to the south. There were many resulting conflicts between the groups, some of them violent, which is the background to Jesus’ parable of the “good Samaritan” in which a traveling Samaritan (boo! hiss!) takes more care for an injured Judahite man than do a traveling priest and Levite.
So when the repatriated Judahites rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, they reasserted their claim that it was the only valid location for sacrifices to YHWH. But the Samaritans had never stopped worshiping and sacrificing on Mount Gerizim, which they recognized as the site most sacred to YWHW. Their claims to be the true Israel with the true holy place conflicted with the claims and ambitions of the post-Exile Judahites to the south. Which is why the Second Temple scriptures make a point of calling their God the “God of Israel”, so as to identify the Jerusalem-centered Hebrew community as the chosen people of YHWH and their Temple as His “house” for all Hebrews.
At the same time, their scriptures also placed great emphasis on the exodus from Egypt, identifying themselves as the descendants of “the people” who were brought out. The change in the reason for observing the sabbath in the Second Temple text reflects this identity clash between Samaritans and Judahites, which caused a permanent split between the two cultures and their religions. During the Exile, the sabbath was observed as remembrance of a universal event, the creation of the world. Afterward, it would serve as a weekly reminder of the foundational event in post-Exilic Hebrew nationalism.
Finally, God takes a more active role in the reboot. In Exodus, God dictates and Moses writes. But in Deuteronomy, Moses says God Himself “wrote [the commandments] on two stone tablets and gave them to me”. He also reminds the people that “YHWH spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain” and that “YHWH spoke with you face to face at the mountain”. In this version, there can be no doubt who it was that Moses encountered, no accusations that he rather than God wrote the Law.
But even this re-visioning of the commandments didn’t erase their universal appeal compared to the older Temple-centric set, the ones actually called the ten commandments in the scriptures themselves. Which is why the Exilic commandments are the ones people remember as “the Ten Commandments” today.
In the latter half of the first century of the common era Rome sacked Jerusalem, and what was left of the nation of Judah was dispersed, not to be reconstituted until more than 18 centuries had passed. Temple-based Judaism and its priesthood were supplanted by synagogues and rabbis. Once again, as during the Babylonian Exile of the mid first millennium BCE, the Hebrew moral code had to be portable, able to be followed by anyone wherever they may find themselves on the globe.
At about the same time as the fall of Jerusalem, a small sect of Judaism known as Christianity was transforming into a Gentile religion. It, too, had need of a portable, universal moral code. So, like its cousin, the new Christian religion identified the Exilic code rather than the First Temple code as “the Ten Commandments”.
And that, my friends, is why you lost your bet. So whaddya say… best two out of three?
*For a detailed analysis of the use of “God of Israel” in the Hebrew Bible, see Michael J. Stahl, “The ‘God of Israel’ in Judah’s Bible: Problems and Prospects”, Journal of Biblical Literature 139:4, 721–745.
Header image: “Moses Receives the Ten Commandments”, Woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860 (public domain)