The Ten…Commandments?

Via Mano Singham comes this story of a pastor who unwittingly had a close encounter with a little-known fact:

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.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tangentially: when you quote 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…”).

    – I assume you copy the italicization from the King James Version text as commonly rendered.

    But italics were a relatively new invention in 1611, and presumably unknown to the Jews at the time present versions of Exodus were written down, never mind the Hebrews when they were supposedly delivered. When you, or another modern, uses italics, we customarily read them as if a speaker were emphasizing those particular words, but that comes across quite strangely when applied to the phrases italicized in quotations such as the above. It doesn’t even match up with the patterns of Random Capitalization seen in nutcase Rants these days.

    So why did they do this?

  2. Al Dente says

    Nor is the phrase “Ten Commandments” found anywhere in the original Hebrew texts (or the original Greek texts, for that matter).

    Pshaw, I say. I saw a movie with Charlton Heston descending from a hill carrying two tablets with Roman numerals I to X inscribed on them. How more authoritative can you get?

    Seriously, many people follow Cecil B. DeMille’s vision of Exodus rather than King James’ (or the committee James convened to translate the Bible).

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Susannah @ # 2 & Deacon Duncan @ # 3 – Thanks for helping me out with that!

    Though from what I know of other languages – admittedly, very little of Hebrew or Greek – those sorts of fill-ins would be necessary all over the place just to accommodate idiosyncrasies of, um, idiom, and grammar and syntax. Even in closely related languages such as English and French, very little comes through word-for-word.

    As for the Ten Ultimata, they always struck me as a bit lacking: in the Hebrew Testament, just about everything of importance comes in a 40-pack.

  4. DLC says

    Al Dente @ 3 :
    I’ll see your Charlton Heston and raise you a Mel Brooks: “I give you these fifteen! (drops a tablet) Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey! ”
    But seriously : “god’s laws” are too numerous, too concerned with being nice to Yaweh and too confusing to be a solid basis for a system of law. Rather like building one’s house on a sand pile.

  5. Edward Black says

    I’ve always felt the Big Ten were more rules to keep the peasants down and keep them knuckled under the ruling priests and high-status group.

    The first set deals with “You shall have no god before me!” and details religious practice, no idols, no working on the Sabbath etc. All are aimed at keeping the people worshipping one set god in one set way, which is great for the priestly caste and maintains their authority.

    Then come the other rules, most if you analysis them in the light of the society is all about protecting the rich. “You shall not covet your neighbour’s ox”: Oxen were the creme de la creme for plough animals but very expensive to feed, only the rich could maintain them. Poor people ploughed with donkeys or pull the plough themselves.

    “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife”. You had to pay dowries to get a wife. Rich men had as many as they could afford, many poor men never had enough money to marry. It is still very much the situation in India and many Islamic countries, poor young men can’t get married. BUT DON’T YOU DARE BE ENVIOUS OF THE RICH GUYS!

    The rest are for maintaining social order which is great for the rich and the priests.

    • Thorne says

      Just about ALL religions are primarily concerned with keeping the poor in their place, and letting the wealthy keep control. It’s not just a crime to steal from the rich, it’s a SIN, and risks your immortal soul. These sins are far more easily forgiven when you have the money to appease the priests. One very seldom sees a wealthy murderer given the death penalty, but plenty of poor people are executed for far lesser crimes.

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