The Ten Commandments

“Obey the Ten Commandments,” commands a bumper sticker in the FPAC parking lot. But which ones? There is one set in Exodus 20 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5), and another, the so-called “Ritual Decalogue” in Exodus 34, which enjoins believers to keep the feast of unleavened bread, to sanctify firstborn sons and livestock, and not to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. But I guess most people mean the first set, the “Ethical Decalogue.” One thing that I did not consider until I started attending my wife’s church: there is no standard enumeration of these commandments! See the table under “Traditions in Numbering” at Wikipedia (I grew up with “R”, but I now labor under “L” – that is, bowing down to graven images is ignored, but coveting my neighbor’s house is somehow different from coveting everything else of his.)

I always like to assign Exodus 20: 1-14 as a primary source document for analysis. Alas, in a Christian culture, the Bible can never be just another primary source document, and this exercise usually elicits “Bible Study” answers about appropriate moral behavior. But if you read it as a text that was produced at a specific time and place, you can reconstruct certain characteristics of ancient Hebrew society:

• Religiously, it was monotheistic. This belief was extremely important (meriting the first four commandments), with competitor religions featuring idol-worship (commandment two).

• Economically, it was not nomadic but settled (“your neighbor’s house”) and it was agricultural (oxen and asses are mentioned – it is likely that such animals were used for plowing and short-distance transportation). (This provides evidence, by the way, that the Commandments were not actually granted to Moses atop Mount Sinai, while the Hebrews were wandering around the desert.)

• Legally, it had a system of criminal courts or at least of dispute resolution (the commandment against “bearing false witness”) and a strong sense of property rights (commandments against stealing and coveting).

• Socially, it was formally hierarchical or perhaps even slave-holding (“menservants” and “maidservants” are mentioned, and as possessions), and it was patriarchal, but not overly so: it is assumed that the listener is male (“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”), but women are often mentioned in the same breath as men (“your son or your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant” or “honor your father and your mother”).

Thus, with a little imagination and thought, documents can be made to speak, and bring the past to life!

One thought on “The Ten Commandments

  1. what a refreshing look at what knowledge you can gather from reading the bible as a historian. I’ve read the bible all the way through several times and found many contradictions. Being brought up Roman Catholic we only glance at the bible every once in a blue moon and then, only hear those passages from the Old and New Testaments that are used in the Mass. Never occurred to me that the Commandments were not given during the exodus.

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