January 11: Which Ten Commandments?

‘“Do not be angry, my lord… You know how prone these people are to evil.’” Exodus 32: 22

Read: Exodus 20: 1–17; 32: 1–20; 34: 1–28

The Ten Commandments are the epicenter of the Jewish and Christian way of life. They are not mere laws, they established the covenant between God and the Israelites, and serve as the basis for morality in the lives of billions today. And yet there are still several head-scratching moments in the episode ranging from Exodus 20–34.

Moses has gone up to Mount Sinai to talk to the Lord to receive what Bibles title, “The Ten Commandments”, although the passage itself never claims that. From chapter 21–31, God details the law and rituals his people are to live by. In chapter 24 he refers to “the Law and commandments”. In chapter 32, the Israelites grow weary and ask Aaron to build them something to worship and he obliges. The Lord tells Moses that the Israelites are breaking the first commandment (not that they know it yet) and Moses descends the mountain to see that it is true. In anger, he breaks the stone tablets that God himself wrote the covenant law on and Moses and the Levites then kill about three thousand, as instructed by the Lord. The Lord instructs Moses to make two similar tablets as the ones before and he will “inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.” Moses does so, but the commandments are not the same. Only two of the original commandments are maintained. The passage ends, “and he inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments.” These would be the tablets that would be placed in the Ark of the Covenant.

I can empathize with God in the sense that you watch those you rescued and favored turn their back on you, but the commandment hadn’t been received yet. How can you punish people that don’t know the rules? And then of course, the Lord instructs the Levites to kill, breaking the sixth commandment. There is no punishment. Some would say that the idolaters should’ve died because they ought to know better. But Aaron says in Exodus 32:22 that the Israelites are prone to evil! God knew what he was getting himself into choosing to build a nation from Jacob the birthright stealer, whose name means “he deceives” (Genesis 27:36). Also, Aaron should be killed since he make the golden calf, but isn’t. As a story, the Pentateuch is fascinating. As a basis for one’s morality, it is destructive and inconsistent.

The example of the changing commandments is one which highlights the contradictory nature of scripture. These are obviously not the same commandments, although Moses was told that he would receive the exact same commandments. Which then leads to a hilarious but sobering thought: how is it that we have both sets of commandments? If the tablets detailing Exodus 20 broke, how can we possibly have those commandments? It is astounding that those who read the scripture never consider this, but it speaks to the level of indoctrination that one is under. And if one were to say, “Maybe Moses remembered the original ten” it doesn’t change the fact that the Lord would obviously remember them as well and simply re-write them. But no, the Levites kill thousands and the commandment of “thou shalt not kill” is conveniently removed from the Ten Commandments placed in the Ark of the Covenant. And those must have been the flimsiest stone tablets ever if an old man can throw them to the ground and they both get shattered beyond recognition.