A Baptist minister is in hot water after preaching a sermon that called the Ten Commandments sayings or promises rather than mandates.
In his Christmas Eve message, Senior Pastor Perry Noble of NewSpring Church… told congregants that no word for “commandment” exists in Hebrew, the Old Testament’s original language.
For this faux pas, Noble has provoked a backlash among Christians, including the president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, who is threatening to disaffiliate Noble’s congregation for failure to conform to Baptist beliefs. Ironically, however, Noble is closer to the truth than the president of his denomination, which may be why he’s in such hot water. It’s true Hebrew DOES have a word for “commandment.” It’s just that this word never follows the number “ten.”
And that’s just the tip of the “Ten Commandments” iceberg.
The Hebrew word for “commandment” is “mitzvah” as in “bar mitzvah,” which literally means “son of [the] commandment.” A mitzvah is a specific injunction or instruction, of which there are seventeen in Exodus 20, grouped together under nine (not ten) distinct topics. That’s why there are seven different traditions for how to take the 17 commandments in Exodus 20 and turn them into Ten of something. There aren’t an even ten of anything there, so when you call them Ten Commandments, you have a problem.
Nor is the phrase “Ten Commandments” found anywhere in the original Hebrew texts (or the original Greek texts, for that matter). Whenever any commandment is given an ordinal number in the scriptures, like “the first commandment” or “the second commandment”, the order does not correspond to any of the traditional numbering schemes that try to get Ten Commandments out of Exodus 20.
What you do have in the Scriptural texts are a few references to “Ten Discourses” or “Ten Accounts.” The Hebrew word is dabar, which corresponds roughly to the Greek word “logos” (hence the name Decalogue), and refers to a lengthier proclamation containing one or more injunctions. Dabar is translated as “Chronicles” in the books of I and II Chronicles, and is the word used for the “decree” mentioned in Daniel 9:25, (“[From] the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks…”).
The specific phrase “Ten Commandments” (dabar) is first used in Exodus 34:28, referring explicitly to the ten decrees or discourses which (according to the text) God delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and which constituted the official divine Law. In fact, the verse even calls them that:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
In Deuteronomy 4, the second usage of the phrase “Ten Commandments” (dabar) also identifies them with the ten discourses by which God made his covenant with Israel: “So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.” Two tablets of stone, small enough for one man to carry, is way more than needed to engrave just the 17 commandments in Exodus 20, but would be just about right for the Ten Discourses recorded between Exodus 20 and Exodus 31, inclusive.
The third and final Biblical reference to the Ten Commandments (dabar), in Deuteronomy 10:4, also specifically identifies them as being the covenant which God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. “He wrote on the tablets, like the former writing, the Ten Commandments which the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the LORD gave them to me.”
Interestingly, although Moses does not call them “Ten Commandments”, he repeats the seventeen commandments from Exodus 20 in Deuteronomy 5, with some slight variations. Even here, though, he explicitly identifies them as representing the whole covenant that Israel had with God.
The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today. The LORD spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire, while I was standing between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.
This is actually a little bit inconsistent with the story as told in Exodus 19, which says that the people were forbidden by God to go near the mountain. Either way, though, the people themselves did not personally witness the giving of the Ten Discourses, despite what Moses claims. When Moses says, “the LORD spoke to you face to face,” what he really means is “the LORD spoke face to face with me, as your official representative.” And what he spoke to Moses was a series of Ten Discourses constituting the official covenant (or Testament) governing Israel as a theocracy.
From a review of the actual texts, the conclusion is clear. Biblically speaking, the “Ten Commandments,” or Decalogue, are the entire Old Testament Law, from Exodus 20 through Exodus 31, including the parts about selling your daughters as sexual slaves, and how to blackmail a temporary slave into becoming a permanent one, and how to legally beat a slave to death. To truly keep the original Decalogue, we have to make it a capital offense to do any work or kindle any fire on Saturdays, and we’re obligated to stone children to death if they disobey their parents, and so on and so on. In other words, the real “Ten Commandments,” as originally given, are terrible laws to live by.
This is the little-known fact with which Pastor Noble had the unfortunate close encounter. It’s a little-known fact because in this particular case, extra-biblical tradition has completely eclipsed the significance of the original texts, even though the original texts are still right there in front of everybody.
I’m not sure who first came up with the idea of “Ten Commandments” as a name, or who first decided to limit the expression to only Exodus 20. “Ten Commandments” does not seem to appear in the writings of the early church fathers, who called it “the Decalogue,” but if I recall correctly the Latin Vulgate does have the Latin equivalent of “Ten Commandments” where the Hebrew says “dabar”. I have a suspicion that theologians decided to limit the Decalogue to only Exodus 20 some time before they started calling it “Ten Commandments.” But if anyone knows anything more about it, I’d be interested to hear.
By the way, here are the original Ten, for anyone who is curious.
I. Ex 20:1 “Then God spoke all these words, saying…” through Ex 20:17.
II. Ex 20:22 “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel…” through Ex 20:26.
III. Ex 21:1 “Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them…” through Ex 23:33.
IV. Ex 25:1 “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying…” through Ex 30:10.
V. Ex 30:11 “The LORD also spoke to Moses, saying…” through Ex 30:16.
VI. Ex 30:17 “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying…” through Ex 30:21.
VII. Ex 30:22 “Moreover, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying…” through Ex 30:33.
VIII. Ex 30:34 “Then the LORD said to Moses…” through Ex 30:38.
IX. Ex 31:1 “Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying…” through Ex 31:11.
X. Ex 31:12 “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying…” through Ex 31:17. The next verse, Ex. 31:18, says “When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.” Which makes perfect sense: God dictates his law, then gives Moses a hard copy. (Literally!) So that’s what was on the two tablets, and not just the First Discourse from Exodus 20.
Go ahead and put that on a granite monument in front of the courthouse if you want. But leave room for everyone else’s primitive, barbaric religions when you do.