The How Many? Commandments (Ex. 20-23)

Perhaps the most famous of all parts of the Old Testament is the narrative of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are often held to be the foundations of morality, the definitions of right and wrong, even the basis, it’s argued, of all law and order, the divine and infallible and inherently just strictures handed down from God himself to Moses. Exodus, starting with chapter 20, starts listing the many things God has prohibited us from doing, or orders us to do, and the text continues with its rules through several more chapters, ending during Chapter 23.

Wait, wait — that doesn’t make sense — Chapters 20, 21, 22 and 23. It takes four chapters to list ten commandments?

Actually, there is a whole lot more than ten rules here. There is an entire bevy of stuff that God prohibits and lists punishments for–and regulates, even, as this includes what today the legal system generally organizes under criminal, tort, property, and contract law. These other laws– many of them frankly appalling — don’t get the same kind of ink as the epochal don’t bear false witness and the whole not-having-other-Gods business. As we all know about the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 20), I thought it would be worthwhile to mention a few of the other rules in Exodus that usually go unmentioned (and, not curiously, get left off of those Ten Commandment monuments that have appeared outside or inside courthouses). So what follows is a list of some other examples. (Yes, if you want to be argumentative, I did pick out some of the more absurd examples — many of the rules in these sections are perfectly reasonable — but absurd or not, if they’re allegedly coming from God, I think even one awful thing in a couple dozen should still shock us.)

An important consideration is to what extent these extra rules shape our view toward the first Ten Commandments. Do these other rules make all of the laws illegitimate? How, and from what authority, can we choose to follow some of these and not others?

Okay, enough of the questions, here’s a few examples:

  • If you give your male slave a wife, and she has kids, once you set the male slave free (you supposedly to set male slaves free after six years(FN1)) you get the right to retain the woman and the kids as your slaves. (Ex. 21:2)
  • If you kidnap someone, you should be put to death (Ex. 21:16).
  • If you simply curse your father and mother, you should be put to death (Ex. 21:17).(FN2)
  • It’s okay to beat your slave, as long as the slave recovers in a day or two (Ex. 21:20).
  • It’s only a problem if you kill a thief who trespasses on your property after sunrise. No worries if it’s during the night (Ex. 22:2).
  • If you have sex with an animal — okay you know where this is going. Yep, you guessed it: death (Ex. 22:19).
  • At festivals honoring God, “no one is to appear empty-handed” (Ex. 23:15). I.E., God doesn’t like it if you don’t bring a present to his party.

Indeed, these are only the beginnings of all of the rules, punishments, and regulations that make up much of the Old Testament. In Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, we’ll be faced with dozens and dozens more. As James Kugel writes: “It would be no exaggeration to say that, from this point in the Pentateuch onward, God’s laws move to front and center…” (How to Read the Bible, p 241).

FN1: Oh this doesn’t apply if you sell your daughter into slavery. Then you can keep her as long as you want.
FN2: Yes, I understand that “cursing” in that time doesn’t mean just telling your pops to F off, but death does seem like a harsh penalty for speech, regardless of the content.

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7 Responses to The How Many? Commandments (Ex. 20-23)

  1. telson says:

    God’s law, or His perfect will, is connected with one huge problem, and it is that ”and yet none of you keeps the law” (John 7:19). Nobody can ever meet the standards of God.
    For the fact is that we are all sinners and do not come even close to God’s standards. There can be great and small sinners in the world, but there is still such a huge gap between God and men that no one can cross it by himself.

    Even though there is a huge gap between God and us, the Bible teaches that Jesus came down from Heaven and bridged this gap. He came to live under the law (Gal 4:4,5) But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.) He fulfilled the Law and always acted in accordance with His Father’s will (John 6:38 For I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me.). He came down from Heaven and did everything that was impossible for us sinners to do.

  2. Greg says:

    Thanks for the comment. I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at, but let me try to respond to it as follows. I would welcome any additional clarifications if I’m misstating your point.

    The references you cite to both the Gospel of John and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians actually center on a single, early Christian debate: How Jewish should Christianity be? The “law” you mention was the later codification of the Ten Commandments/their ilk/plus the oral tradition kept by Jewish leaders (the mitzvot, or so-called “Mosaic Law” or simply “the Law”). The Bible contains evidence that Paul and Peter debated how much of the Law Christianity should incorporate (see Gal. 2 11:14). This is what is going on here. Specifically, the portion of the Gospel of John you cite is Jesus admonishing the Jews for NOT keeping the Mosaic Law (again, here’s the debate cropping up). Now, I don’t know enough about this to know the exact ins and outs of what was considered Mosaic Law at the time, but since the source is the Torah, I’m guessing the stuff I cite from Exodus was a part of it.

    Whether Jesus “bridged” the gap and “fulfilled” the law is a manner of theological belief. I think the Gospels take somewhat differing views of this, with John being much more Neoplatonic and anti-Jewish (by that, I mean, Christianity being more detached from Judaism), and Matthew being much more Jewish in orientation (it positing Jesus as the successor to Moses). The point I’m trying to make is that clearly the views differed among Jesus’ apostles and early followers — evidenced by both the Gospels and the debates Paul mentions. From a Christian standpoint, at least if we accept that Jesus in some ways repudiated the law, then all of the absurd rules in Exodus are irrelevant. But if we believe he “fulfilled” the law or that Christians should follow the law, then we should have some moral/ethical problems with such things that Exodus blesses, such as slavery and a rampant death penalty.

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  4. Lloyd says:

    the law was made for all of god,s creation its man blueprint for living.Jesus came to full fill the law,he show man the law from gods point of view.

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