The Ten Commandments, revisited

Based on some discussions I had with Jeremy a while back, the following portion of Zondervan’s Illustrated Biblical Background Commentary (Volume 1) – hereafter ZIBBCOT1 – stuck out to me, made a lot of sense and clarified much that I was not familiar with:

Ten Commandments (34:28). Literally, “the ten words.” This is the first time this phrase occurs in Exodus. The list in Exodus 20 that we normally associate with the Ten Commandments is simply called “these words.” Moreover, these two lists differ substantially. The former contains several essentially noncultic provisions (e.g., those commandments related to murder, adultery, theft, false accusation, coveting), which tie it to some degree to the content of the ancient Near Eastern law codes. The provisions in Exodus 34, by contrast, seem to have no connection to the law code tradition since they reflect a much more cultic focus. They center on laws related to proper worship and ritual and, as part of the covenant that must be created because of the annulment of the first, may possess this focus because of the failings in the area of worship, so clearly demonstrated in the episode of the golden calf.

ZIBBCOT1, pp. 262-263

So this is not at all a confused restatement of the “Ten Commandments”, nor is the reference to the “Ten Commandments” a misdirected reference. It is a change of focus purposely written to point out to the Israelites where they most needed to focus their attention if they were to have a proper community relationship with Yahweh.

This relies on an understanding of what occurred when Moses broke the original tablets. More than just an enraged act that required the words to be rewritten, Moses’ action actually made clear that the covenant had been invalidated by the actions of the Israelites, thus annulling the covenant between God and his people. God decides to restate the covenant along new terms:

Breaking them to pieces (32:19). This text may describe an outburst of anger on Moses’ part, but the implications of breaking the tablets go beyond that. To smash tablets recording a legal agreement signifies the annulment of that agreement. The biblical text never makes clear precisely what is written on the tablets. We do know from 24:12 that they contain the “law and commands.” The latter were directly related to the covenant established between Yahweh and the Israelites and contained the essence of the Israelites’ obligations – what they were required to do to fulfill their end of the contract. For Moses to smash them is to declare unequivocally that the agreement is broken. Israel’s recent action constitutes violation of the agreement…The Israelites’ violation of the covenant and Moses’ invalidation of the agreement be breaking the tablets make necessary a renewal of the covenant, which comes in chapter 34.

ZIBBCOT1, p. 260

But it is clear that the original “words” – invalidated (temporarily?)  thought they may have been – are still considered very important to Jewish  and Christian thought and practice. Jesus quotes them (Matthew 19:18). Deuteronomy 5 restates them almost verbatim (with a slight modification of the way the Sabbath is situated in context). Deuteronomy never restates the ten in the terms found in Exodus 34.

It seems clear that the “words” of Exodus 20 are central to Hebrew religious and social thought. The tablets put in the ark, however, presumably contain the “ten words” of Exodus 34 – since those are the tablets that were not broken. Any thoughts on this? Are we to understand that the covenant terms were cultic practice – thus recognizing violation of the ten “words”  of Exodus 20 not as a national violation of the terms of the covenant requiring its annulment, though still infractions against the entire law given by God to Israel through Moses?  It seems that Israel violated the contractual terms of the “ten words” of Exodus 34 as well, in any case…

Interesting stuff, to say the least. I’d be interested in your thoughts.


About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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