Synthesizing the Commandments and the Covenant (Ex. 20-24)

The last few posts on Holey Books have concerned the Ten Commandments — and before we move on to the next book of the Old Testament to consider, I think it’s important that some synthesis be undertaken regarding these previous posts.

In “The How Many? Commandments,” I discussed some other laws that appear in Ex. 20-24, but are not part of the Ten Commandments as we know them today. One point I did not discuss, however, was the reason why we commonly only think of ten commandments, rather than a book of rules, as these chapters of Exodus really are.

One does not need history to see a difference between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the rules in Exodus. The Ten Commandments mostly concern general rules of morality and social order–stealing, murder, monolatry, and lying — while the rest of the rules in these chapters involve very specific situations (such as that ever-important question as to exactly how much you can beat your slave). In other words, the latter seem to presuppose an established, ordered society, whereas the former seem more like general rules of behavior (that is not to say we should think of them as solely as the foundations of law or a moral code, however, as is clear from my post “No Other Gods Before Me”).

History does, however, help to explain this distinction. Most scholars believe that the extra rules in Exodus (i.e., not the commonly-thought-of Ten Commandments) were actually a much later insertion into the text by an established Israelite community. They were, in other words, not really God-inspired (in so much as they were putatively carved on stone atop the mountain and given to Moses) but reality-inspired. This should cause us to seriously reconsider the text. First, we should be concerned that the extent Exodus could be truly called God-inspired. Second, we should be very careful if we quote much of the Old Testament’s laws (and their ridiculousness) as somehow having any divine backing or authority behind them. While we at Holey Books tend to think the great weight of the evidence points to the whole of Exodus being fabricated,* even if there was some shred of truth to the Ten Commandments narrative (which, at least for this portion, there may well be) it most certainly (and logically) would not encompass all of the rules set forth in Ex. 20-24.

*Based on, among other things, the complete lack of archaeological evidence, both in Egypt and among Israelite settlements.

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