The Second Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-21)

The noted essayist (and atheist) Christopher Hitchens, perhaps better remembered for his wit than his theological arguments, provided an interesting retort in his essay The New Commandments. Hitchens said that, when faced with a suggestion from someone urging that the Ten Commandments be placed outside a court house or in a school room, one should respond: “Which set?”

Hitchens might be a bit more caustic about this than we are at Holey Books, but he has a point: there are two different versions of the Ten Commandments, and one would think it might be important to pin down exactly which one we should place in monument outside our halls of justice (assuming we think that’s right and/or constitutional, of course). If you’ve been following along here at Holey Books, you’re probably thinking: Greg just can’t get enough of these Ten Commandments posts, can he? I can’t, I admit it. Previously, I have looked at the extra additions to the Ten Commandments in Exodus, the way the Ten Commandments appears to be a “suzerein” treaty and appears to reflect a monolatrous theology, as well as the key difference between the Exodus version and the Deuteronomy version. I also attempted to provide some synthesis of those previous posts. So what more, then, you might ask, could one possibly write on the Ten Commandments?

Oh, much more.

In our progression through the Bible, we have now come to the second version of the Ten Commandments. The version in Deuteronomy, I think, requires some more detailed examination than I have provided it thus far. In this section (Deut. 5:6-21) Moses presents the Ten Commandments again to the Israelites, but with some distinct differences. One difference I have already explained: a striking change in the reason for keeping the Sabbath holy. In short, the issue is why the Israelites are supposed to refrain from working on the Sabbath. In Exodus, God says it’s because He rested on the seventh day (Exod. 20:8-11). In Deuteronomy, God says it’s because the Israelites should remember the times when they all toiled every day as slaves (Deut. 5:12-15).

So what happened between these two versions? Is Moses’ memory failing? Did he make a change himself? Did God change his mind? None of these explanations is particularly appealing. Whether this is a “hole” is perhaps up to interpretation, but certainly if we assume that scripture is perfect, and unchanging, then the evidence here presents a strong rebuttal. Maybe the important question, though, is: Why was there such a difference?

This question is, as one might guess, difficult, and is one probably beyond my ability to answer. Still, some smarter and better read scholars have done most of the dirty work on this. The original text of this commandment, such scholars postulate — as in the one that predates both Exodus and Deuteronomy — must have been much shorter, something along the lines of “Don’t do any work on the Sabbath day” (except add the “You shall not” and all that Biblical diction). The resulting versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy, then, show the hand of their respective editors. Specifically, the hand of the priestly editor (the so-called “P” Source in the Documentary Hypothesis) who probably tacked on the bit in Exodus justifying the commandment by allusion to Genesis (where P also shows up). Deuteronomy, of course, shows no knowledge of the Genesis story, instead basing the premise of the commandment solely on the human ordeal the Israelites had to endure in Exodus.*

There is no real “right” version of the Ten Commandments, only, perhaps, one, somewhat hidden “original” version that has undergone some edits and endless copying. At the very least, this seems to be a hole that shows us the imperfection of scripture.

Have I exhausted my writing on the Ten Commandments? Maybe. At least for now.

*Note the strangeness here: one would think the version in Exodus would cite to the Israelite’s ordeal in Egypt as being a good reason for this commandment, since that supposedly just happened. Yet, that version cites to Genesis, and only the ostensibly later version in Deuteronomy cites to Exodus itself.

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