Editorial note: I’ll be posting a regular series that shares notable and perhaps surprising facts that pertain to religion. Some amusing, others shocking. Many of them will correct misinformation that various religious groups like to spread, and / or reveal things they like to hide. A few of them might perhaps reframe people’s understanding of certain topics. This is the first in the series.
Also, if you have any issues with anything I’ve written here, please be sure to read my caveats page before responding.
Adherents of Judaism and Christianity often hold the Ten Commandments in the highest regard, as the most primary and important of God’s laws. Sometimes they also claim that these commandments are our moral foundation, and / or the foundation for Western law. But did you know that God gave the Israelites two very different versions of the Ten Commandments?
As the Bible recounts it, Moses went up to Mount Sinai, where God dictated the Ten Commandments to him. He engraved them into stone tablets and brought them down the mountain to the Israelites. When Moses found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he destroyed the stone tablets in a fit of anger, and then lead a holy murder rampage. Thus, Moses had to go back and get the Ten Commandments from God, again. But — despite God saying that He would give Moses the same commandments, again — the second time God gave Moses The Ten Commandments, they were not the same as the first. Or so it appears.
The first set can be found in Exodus 20:2-17, and reads as follows:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;
you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Oddly, the Bible then rewords these Ten Commandments a little bit differently in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Read the two versions side by side, and you’ll see that they are not quite the same. Nonetheless, they’re close enough for practical purposes.
Exactly how the passage above divides into “ten” commandments is not universally agreed upon, especially among Jews compared to Christians, compared to Muslims. (See here and here for examples of slightly different interpretations.) However, they are perhaps most commonly shortened and numbered approximately as follows:
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. Do not make any graven image.
3. Do not take the LORD’s name in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5. Honor your mother and father.
6. Do not kill.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not bear false witness.
10. Do not covet.
The other set, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses the second time, can be found in Exodus 34:12-26, and reads as follows:
Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods.
“You shall make no molded gods for yourselves.
“The Feast of Unleavened Bread you shall keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, in the appointed time of the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.
“All that open the womb are Mine, and every male firstborn among your livestock, whether ox or sheep. But the firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb. And if you will not redeem him, then you shall break his neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.
“And none shall appear before Me empty-handed.
“Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.
“And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end.
“Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord, the Lord God of Israel. For I will cast out the nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither will any man covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.
“You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leaven, nor shall the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover be left until morning.
“The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
As you can see, this version of Ten Commandments bears little resemblance to the version God gave Moses the first time, a few chapters earlier in the Bible.
Again, exactly how this passage divides into “ten” commandments is a matter of interpretation that isn’t universally agreed upon, since there are really more than ten in the passage. Is it a distinct commandment to make no deals with pagan foreigners? Or to destroy temples of other gods in the lands you invade? Or to not come before God empty-handed?
This set is perhaps most commonly shortened and numbered approximately as follows:
1. Do not worship other gods.
2. Do not make idols / molten gods.
3. Keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
4. The firstborn male of every womb belongs to God.
5. Work six days; rest on the seventh.
6. Observe the Feast of Weeks.
7. All men must appear before God thrice per year.
8. Don’t offer yeast along with blood sacrifices.
9. The first fruits of the land belong to God.
10. Don’t boil a goat kid in it’s mother’s milk.
Three of these ten are somewhat similar to the other ten, while seven of them are entirely new. So, which set should believers consider the “true” Ten Commandments, the most primary laws from God, the essence of His message, the moral framework of Abrahamic religions, the very basis of the relationship one should have with the LORD?
It poses a conundrum. If the first set is so important, then why did God completely change them the second time? If the second set is so important, then why didn’t God give those, the first time? (And how does this switch from one set to the other congrue with Numbers 23:19, which tells us that “God… is not human, so He does not change his mind”?)
It would seem that the most obedient choice would have to be the second set. The Ten Commandments, Version 2.0, is the most up-to-date option. If God wanted us to treat the first set as the real Ten Commandments, He would’ve given them to Moses the second time, too, right? The primacy of Version 2.0 is bolstered by the fact that God calls the second set the Ten Commandments, and refers to the second set as His covenant with Israel (Exodus 34:27-28) — not the first set.
In fact, if we read Exodus 20 again, carefully, we can’t actually be certain that the first set listed above were ever really the Ten Commandments. It tells us that God spoke those words. It doesn’t say those were the words written on the stone tablets Moses broke. It could’ve been that the second set of commandments listed here was also the set written on the tablets Moses broke, while the stuff God spoke in Exodus 20 was something else. Indeed, this interpretation is the only interpretation consistent with God saying he was giving the same commandments as the ones on the broken tablets, again.
So, either God never intended the first set of commandments listed above to be the Ten Commandments, or He nixed the original ten and gave a new, improved version, instead. In either case, the second set listed here is the only legitimate Ten Commandments.
And yet, the updated Ten Commandments are largely rejected and ignored, while believers focus on the outdated Ten Commandments, instead. For example, if you do a Google image search for photos of Ten Commandment monuments, every single monument picture that comes up is of the wrong version, not the correct one.
Why is this? It’s because we know that the second version is much worse than the first. “Thou shalt not kill” versus “Thou shalt not cook a goat kid in it’s mother’s milk”? It’s no contest which is reasonable and which is worthless and bizarre. The outdated “Ten Commandments” are profoundly flawed (as I explain here), but the newer set is utterly without any merit, whatsoever.
By disobediently choosing the outdated commandments over the updated commandments, theists highlight an important point: many people don’t just derive their morality from their religions nor from supposed divine sources; rather, they also impose their own pre-existing morality onto their interpretations of their religions and onto their imagined divine sources.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s silly to say that the Ten Commandments are our moral foundation, or the foundation for Western law (in addition to the fact that it’s perfectly legal to break at least seven out of ten of the first set of commandments, and ten out of ten of the second set, in almost all Western countries). People didn’t need the Ten Commandments in order for them to know that it’s wrong to kill or steal or commit perjury, they already knew (as is attested by the fact that many cultures came up with codes against murder, theft, and perjury — such as the Code of Ur-Nammu, from Mesopotamia, in 2100 B.C. — long before the Ten Commandments, without consulting the God of the Bible).
But wait! There’s More!
There’s actually a lot more, but I’ll keep it to one final twist in the already twisted story of the Ten Commandments.
In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Luke, each tell the story wherein Jesus Counsels the Rich Young Ruler. In that tale, Jesus recites “the Commandments” for the young man. However, in “Luke’s” version, the Ten Commandments are only five commandments; in “Mark’s” version, there are only six, and one of these six is an entirely new one (“Do not defraud”); and in “Matthew’s” version, there are also only six, with a yet different entirely new one than in Mark’s version (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). So, if you believe that Jesus did not make mistakes, and the Bible is inerrant, then there’s an entire new layer of Commandment perplexity for you to untangle.