The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Ten Suggestions

August 23rd, 2003 · No Comments · culture, history

Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who refused to move the Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse has been suspended (with pay, natch) for not fulfilling an order by a federal judge. “Roy’s Rock” will be moved by Monday, if not sooner.

A few years ago, a local homeless lawyer unsuccessfully sued to get the FoE brand Ten Commandments monument off the capitol grounds here in Austin. Win a few, lose a few, I guess.

Thing is, the “Ten Commandments” isn’t what’s on those monuments. A careful reading of the reveals that YWHW never called anything the “Ten Commandments”, and where the bible does specify a list of commandments as being the “Ten Commandments”, they are very much not the same commandments with which you might be better familiar. To be clear, the first half-dozen books of the Bible are more fantasy than fact: most were written at least a thousand years after the supposed events took place, by different writers with widely ranging agendas, and assembled by a group of displaced aristocrats in, what was at the time, the cultural center of the universe.

The Ten Commandments on the American monuments (and to be fair, they’re the ones you’d probably recognize) are Biblically termed the ‘Covenant’ or the commands of the covenant. In Exodus 20, YWHW speaks these words and they are apparently simultaneously carved into some nearby rocks by lightening. Presumably, Moses cuts these rocks from the mountain or has the tablets precarved and God aimed real well (the story isn’t clear). In any case, these tablets are smashed at the foot of the mountain before anyone really gets a chance to read them, besides Moses. This is apparently a problem for God, because he doesn’t remember the wording when he goes to deliver the commands of the covenant again to Moses in Exodus 34. This time, Moses gets to do the carving, and instead of the clean, classic list of negative commands, it’s this weird, rambling collage of rules for sacrifice, celebrations, and diet — but this is the list that is specifically described in the text of the Bible itself as the “Ten Commandments”.

The commands of the covenant (Ex. 20) are repeated in Deuteronomy 5, and Deut. makes a point to talk about how Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain — actually mentions this three or four times. But even where Deut. lists the commands, they are not specifically referred to there as the “Ten Commandments”, but as the Covenant.

Now, it’s pretty clear in the Bible (II Kings 22) that Deuteronomy was a late “addition” to the works of Moses, meaning that it was probably written by the priests of YWHW sometime towards the end of the Judean kingdom when the other books of “Moses” had already been around for long enough to become venerable. Comparitively, it’s a quirky read on the events of the exodus, as it glosses over some things and conflicts with Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers on other things. Normally, it’s not the best source if you’re trying to get at what the “earliest truth” was, but in this case, it actually supports my theory, so I won’t beat on it very hard this time.

The book of Exodus, itself, is a collection of mythic Moses stories from a variety of sources. Much as the Greek tales of Hericles emphasized different elements of the stories, depending on location, but also differed in detail, so too do the Moses stories differ in emphasis and detail. When these stories were put together to make the book of Exodus as we know it today, different parts from each tradition were used. Where there is repetition, it is frequently due to different traditions being included. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the idea of there being “Ten” commandments is something of a misnomer that accrued sometime between the creation of the general body of Moses mythos and the book of Deuteronomy. Even today, there is no general agreement among the various strata of Jews or Christians about how to number the commandments.

They probably were never meant to be an even set. One could imagine that the last thing on God’s mind was coming up with a list of exactly ten commands. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that the text from Exodus 34 is probably from the same story that Exodus 20 tells, just from a different source: thus either or none can be called the “Ten Commandments”. Finally, that one reference in Exodus 34 that specifically defines the commands as the “Ten Commandments” has two problems — one is that it comes from a relatively late hand or was substantially modified by a late hand, the other is that the line with the phrase “Ten Commandments” is at the end of the passage, as if it were inked in by some helpful scribe fairly late in the assembly process, and thus can’t really be ‘trusted’, either.

And along these lines, what did Jesus of Nazereth think about the “Ten Commandments”? When asked (Matt. 22:34-40) what the greatest commandment was, Jesus avoids the entire list and picks a single line out of Deuteronomy (6:5, if you must know). One thing that is clear and fairly noncontroversial about the life of Jesus was that he was probably a rabbi — a teacher well versed in the Torah and other Jewish holy scripture. He clearly knew about the ‘Ten Commandments’, yet found that none of them were particularly worth repeating.

Oh, and here’s a handy online bible with some nifty search features.

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