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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