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The Irrelevant Wisdom of the Ten Commandments

atheism and christian apologeticsFew Christians can list the Ten Commandments in order, but almost all are familiar with them:

1. Have no other gods before me
2. No graven images
3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain
4. Keep the Sabbath day
5. Honor your mother and father
6. Don’t kill
7. No adultery
8. Don’t steal
9. Don’t lie
10. Don’t covet

These are the well-known Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. What could be ambiguous about this list? Stay tuned as we run through the story.

It takes 11 more chapters for God to finish giving all his secondary commandments, first rules for how the people should conduct themselves and then rules for the temple and priests.

After weeks of waiting for Moses to return from Mt. Sinai, the anxious Israelites make a golden calf in chapter 32. Moses is furious when he finally returns. He smashes the tablets, has the calf ground up and force-fed to the faithless people, and orders the Levites to slaughter thousands of their fellow tribesmen.

Then follows an indeterminate amount of time during which God descended on Moses’ tent as a pillar of smoke and “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.”

As a side note, it’s interesting that this appearance of God to Moses (Ex. 33:11) as well as that to Abraham (Gen. 18:1–2) is denied in other parts of the Bible. We’re later told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18) and “No man has seen or can see [God]” (1 Tim. 6:16).

Back to our story: Moses goes up Sinai a second time in Exodus 34. God says, “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered,” so we know that this nothing new, just a replacement set of commandments. But the contents are very different:

  1. Make no covenant with the Canaanite tribes
  2. Destroy their altars
  3. Make no idols (“molten gods”)
  4. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread
  5. “The first offspring from every womb belongs to me”
  6. Rest on the seventh day
  7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks
  8. No leavened bread during Passover
  9. Bring the first fruits of the soil to the Lord
  10. “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk”

The chapter ends with these words: “And [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is the first time this label is used in the Bible.

You want to display the Ten Commandments in public? Go for it, but put up this list. It’s the official list, after all.

Contrast this with the story of the first tablets, which concludes at the end of chapter 31, “[God] gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.” There is no mention of a “ten commandments,” and these stone tablets presumably contain all of the rules given in chapters 20 through 31.

Another detour: chapter 34 has this savage claim, “[God] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 34:7). And yet, three books later, we get this contradiction: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).

I guess this too can be rationalized: Deut. 24 is talking about what man must do. Man needs to treat people fairly and punish only the wrongdoers. Ex. 34 is talking about what God will do. God has a long memory and will hold a grudge against you to punish your descendants.

Speaking of punishments, the Ten Commandments list crimes without giving punishments. For you traditionalists who like the “thou shalt not” set of commandments, “Positive Atheism” has handy list of the corresponding punishments. God has a pretty limited imagination, and you can guess what they are: “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed” (Ex. 22:20), “the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 24:16), and so on.

Display the Ten Commandments in public, just put up the correct ten. I dare you.

Say what you will about the Ten Commandments,
you must always come back to the pleasant fact
that there are only ten of them.
— H. L. Mencken

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Retro

    Display the Ten Commandments in public, just put up the correct ten. I dare you.

    I like the idea of including the punishments… death, death, death, death…

    I find it interesting that while Moses is given extremely elaborate and detailed instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, the Ten Commandments are extremely short and vague. It’s nice to see where God puts His priorities.

    As a side note: Where did the Israelites get all the stuff to build the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle from while they were wandering around in a desert for forty years? …and where did the large number of animals required for the sacrifices come from? (Remember they left so quickly that they didn’t have time to add yeast to their dough, and they left Egypt on foot. Also remember that there’s nothing in the desert for the large flocks of animals to eat or drink.)

    Also, Exodus 27:20 mentions that the Israelites pressed olives for the lamp oil used in the Tabernacle… it’s a good thing they brought a forty year supply of olives and an olive press along with them.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      There were 2 million people in the initial generation that all had to die before the Israelites entered Canaan. Jews didn’t cremate, so where in the Sinai are the graves of those 2 million people?

  • Bob Calvan

    “As a side note, it’s interesting that this appearance of God to Moses (Ex. 33:11) as well as that to Abraham (Gen. 18:1–2) is denied in other parts of the Bible. We’re later told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18) and “No man has seen or can see [God]” (1 Tim. 6:16).”

    Wrongo as usual!

    No it is not denied..Your presuppositions and inability to understand scripture ( being you are spiritually dead and a child of wrath) is the issue. God is Triune. From Gen to Rev. The same God . YHWH..When people saw God in the OT they saw the eternal Son. They saw the reincarnate Jesus Christ. As Jesus says He came to reveal the FATHER. When the Bible speaks of no man seeing God it refers to the Father. Or the being of God. As God is Spirit. In Isaiah we se that Isaiah saw YHWH on His throne. Yet in John we are told who Isaiah saw was Jesus. So if you ask Isaiah who he saw he would tell you I saw YHWH. IF you ask John who Isaiah saw He would say Jesus . As Jesus is YHWH. Also when Jesus told the Jewish leaders the Abraham rejoiced to see His day , and that Jesus told them He is the I AM ( YHWH) they tried to stone Him for making Himself out to be God..

    • Retro

      God is Triune… In Isaiah we se that Isaiah saw YHWH on His throne. Yet in John we are told who Isaiah saw was Jesus. So if you ask Isaiah who he saw he would tell you I saw YHWH. IF you ask John who Isaiah saw He would say Jesus . As Jesus is YHWH.

      Sounds like a cosmic shell game or Three Card Monte to me… guess which part of the Trinity is sitting on the throne.

  • Bob Calvan

    It would be nice if Bob would read the beginning of Exodus 34..Where we are told the second set of the tablets are identical to the first set that Moses smashed.
    As we read:EX 34:1 Now the LORD said to Moses, “Cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered.

    Later in the Chapter we read God mad a covenant with Israel and listed more laws, which have nothing to do with the Ten Commandments.

    And as we can see from the Parallel passage in Deuteronomy 10..We see again the second set of tablets is identical to the first. As we read:

    1 “At that time the LORD said to me, ‘Cut out for yourself two tablets of stone like the former ones, and come up to Me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood for yourself. 2 I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered, and you shall put them in the ark.’

    And also in the NT we see Jesus Christ quoting from the Ten Commandments .

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Bob C:

      It would be nice if Bob would read the beginning of Exodus 34.

      You mean Ex. 34:1? Which I quoted?

      Yes, that they were supposedly the same is exactly the point that I made. And yet, we can see that they weren’t.

      I guess the Bible is wrong. Again.

  • RandomFunction2

    To all,

    Paradoxically enough, I tend to think that contemporary biblical scholars have a better grasp of the Old Testament than that of first-century Jews. Of course in some respects first-century Jews were ahead of us, but in many other respects, we are more learned and more rational than they were when it comes to reading the Bible.

    For instance, I don’t think Jesus read the Enuma Elish or hieroglyphs.

  • Retro

    Paradoxically enough, I tend to think that contemporary biblical scholars have a better grasp of the Old Testament than that of first-century Jews.

    We certainly have a better grasp of the OT than the author of Matthew did.

    One simple example is the prophecy concerning Jesus riding TWO donkeys in Matthew 21:1-7. It is based on a misunderstanding of Zechariah 9:9 which refers to only ONE donkey.

    Another example is in Matthew 2:23 where Matthew tells a story about how Jesus ended up in Nazareth in order to fulfill prophecy. It seems that Matthew didn’t understand what a nazarite vow was, and thought it refered to where Jesus came from.

    BTW, the idea that Jesus took a nazarite vow is why Jesus is usually portrayed with long hair.

    So then, Matthew changed his story about Jesus to match alleged prophecies… the technical term for this is called “making stuff up”.

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