The Ten Commandments
(1) They are laws given to Moses by God.
(2) They are written on tablets of stone.
(3) They are called “The Ten Commandments”.
But this is an atheist blog and Christians know there is going to be a sting in the tail of this story, so a lot of them are right now putting the "not-amused" look on their face and saying, "No, no, it's not that simple," as they prepare to defend their faith against whatever trap they feel sure I have set for them.
The trap, however, is one of their own making. It is not me, but they, who say the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone and handed to Moses by God himself - So let’s see if we can find them in the bible…
There is a list of rules in Exodus 20:3-17
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me
- No graven images
- Don’t take god’s name in vain
- Remember the Sabbath
- Honor your father and your mother
- Do not kill
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not steal
- Do not bear false witness
- Do not covet your neighbour’s possessions
As it happens, it is not until Exodus 24:12 that we find a set of rules written on tables of stone.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me in the mount, and be there, and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments, which I have written.
According to the bible, Moses was up on the mountain for so long that the Israelites got sick of waiting for him, and they started worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32:1-4) but finally, after forty days and forty nights:
Moses turned and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand. (Exodus 32:15)
So that’s the first two criteria filled: The laws were given to Moses by God (1) and they were written on tables of stone (2) but they are still not called “The Ten Commandments”. And nobody knew what the rules were anyway, because as soon as Moses saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he:
“cast the tables out of his hands and brake them.” (Exodus 32:19)
It's pretty certain, though, that "thou shalt not kill" was not on the list because Moses now set about murdering all of his opponents! He called on the Levites to kill everyone who had worshipped the calf - and the Levites spent the rest of the day, merrily slaughtering all of their friends and relations.
"and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men." (Exodus 32:25-29)
Then, in Exodus chapter 34, God decides to make another set of stone tablets to replace the ones that Moses had smashed earlier:
And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and I will write upon these tables, the words that were on the first tables, which thou brakest. (Exodus 34:1)
And the words he wrote are recorded in Exodus 34:14-26:
- Thou shalt worship no other god
- Thou shalt make thee no molten gods
- The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep.
- The firstborn ox and sheep belong to God.
- On the seventh day thou shalt rest
- Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks
- Thrice in a year shall all your men children appear before the Lord
- Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven.
- The first of the first fruits belong to God
- Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.
...the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exodus 34:28)
So we have:
- Laws given to Moses by God (criterion 1)
- Those laws are written on tables of stone (criterion 2)
- And they are called The Ten Commandments (criterion 3)
Actually, none of this stuff is important to anyone except Christians who simply cannot and will not admit to error. Christians who have been brought up to believe that the ten commandments are in Exodus chapter 20, will never, ever, agree that they were wrong and that the real ten commandments are in Exodus chapter 34 (even when verse 28 specifically tells them so).
But it's even less serious than that - not to a fundamentalist of course - but atheists and Christian scholars who know and understand bible history are well aware of what happened. The very early Israelites started with an oral tradition that contained a set of laws, but as the tribes drifted apart, the rules began to change. A slip of the tongue here; a misunderstanding there; and several centuries later each tribe had quite different looking sets of rules - yet each set was based on the original laws invented by the very early Israelites.
Then, after nearly a thousand years of changes and modifications, it was decided to put all surviving traditions together in a single book. Not surprisingly, each group insisted that details of their own story should not be altered, so the editors stitched them all together and that's why Exodus contains so many conflicting tales about the ten commandments.
It doesn't bother an atheist like me. I think it's a fascinating journey of discovery into the distant past, and well worth the effort required to learn who did what, and when, and why they did it, but the modern Christian is not prepared to make that effort.
The modern Christian begins with the idea that the bible story is the inspired word of God and therefore it contains no mistakes and no contradictions. Their attitude is that the ten commandments are found in Exodus chapter twenty (because their mother told them so) and that's the end of the story. If anyone else says anything different, they must be a cheat, a liar, a tool of Satan, or angry with God !
All that, rather than admit to themselves, "Oh shit, I was wrong..."
1: The Catholics and Lutherans take their Ten Commandments from Deuteronomy chapter five