• Ten Words, Two Lists

    With 613 commandments to choose from in the Old Testament, why focus on a top ten list? George Carlin has a theory:

    He suggests the list was “deliberately and artificially inflated to get it up to ten” because “ten sounds official, ten sounds important…it’s a psychologically satisfying number,” and in the final analysis the editors who put together the Bible decided to highlight ten specific commandments as a marketing decision. (For a comedian, even a rather good one, this Carlin fellow was awfully penetrating.)

    What Carlin may not have known is that two distinctly different groups of early Hebrews made the same marketing decision, drawing up two distinctly different sets of commandments, each for their own purposes. If you run a Google search for “עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים׃” (literally: ten words) you will find several references to Exodus 34:28, where the phrase first shows up in the Hebrew Bible:

    And he [Moses] was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (KJV)

    And what exactly were these ten commandments? Probably not the ones you’re thinking about. Here are verses 12-26 from chapter 34 (NASB):

    1. Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will become a snare in your midst.
    2. You are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim—for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God— otherwise you might make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they would play the harlot with their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and someone might invite you to eat of his sacrifice, and you might take some of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters might play the harlot with their gods and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods.
    3. You shall make for yourself no molten gods.
    4. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you came out of Egypt.
    5. The first offspring from every womb belongs to Me, and all your male livestock, the first offspring from cattle and sheep. You shall redeem with a lamb the first offspring from a donkey; and if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. You shall redeem all the firstborn of your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.
    6. You shall work six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest.
    7. You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. For I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders, and no man shall covet your land when you go up three times a year to appear before the Lord your God.
    8. You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread, nor is the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover to be left over until morning.
    9. You shall bring the very first of the first fruits of your soil into the house of the Lord your God.
    10. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.

    My numbering scheme here is somewhat arbitrary, by necessity, since there is no generally agreed upon numbering system for these relatively obscure ritual commandments. There is just one other place in the original Hebrew text where the author makes note of ten commandments, at Deuteronomy 10:4, but that passage is nowhere near a list of injunctions, and does not specify which particular ones are being invoked.

    Why two separate lists, though? The best explanation is to be found in the documentary hypothesis, which posits multiple distinct traditions which were compiled together into what would eventually become the Torah. Under that hypothesis, the so-called Ritual Decalogue came from the Jahwist source while the Ethical Decalogue came from a later Priestly source. The relevant entry at H2G2 has a particularly good summation:

    The Ritual Decalogue is a shorter version of the immediately preceding section of the Book of Exodus, known as the Covenant Code. It is not clear whether the Decalogue is a synopsis of the Code, or the Code is an expansion of the Decalogue, or if both are taken from a now-lost document. It does seem, though, that the two are closely linked.

    The most widely-accepted explanation of how the Old Testament came to be written, the Documentary Hypothesis, posits four separate authors for the first books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch or Torah), spread out over time. It states that the Jahwist (from Judah) produced the Ritual Dialogue, while the Elohist (Israeli) tradition used the more complex Covenent Code. Again, it is not clear whether one was based on the other or whether both came from a third source, now lost, but both were combined to give a single document called the Jahwist/Elohist source. The Ritual Decalogue was replaced with the Ethical Decalogue by a later author, known as the Priestly source. By this hypothesis, the modern text was produced by a fourth writer, the Deuteronomist, who tried to combine both the Jahwist/Elohist document (containing the Ritual Decalogue) and the Priestly document (containing the Ethical Decalogue), giving us the combined text we have today (containing both).

    The relevant entry at Wikipedia is a bit more involved, but covers much of the same ground:

    The documentary hypothesis identifies the Ritual Decalogue as the work of the Jahwist, from the Kingdom of Judah, and the Covenant Code as that of the Elohist, from the Kingdom of Israel, both writing independently. It does not however answer the question of how these texts were related, merely that the Ritual Decalogue circulated in Judah, and the Covenant Code in Israel. What the documentary hypothesis does partly explain is the relationship of the Ritual Decalogue to the Ethical Decalogue, and why, instead of the Ethical Decalogue, it is the Ritual Decalogue which is written on the two tablets when Moses ascends the mountain to have the Ethical Decalogue inscribed for a second time.

    The documentary hypothesis claims that the Jahwist and Elohist texts were first combined by a redactor, producing a text referred to simply as JE, in such a way that it now reads that God dictated the Covenant Code, which was written onto stone, Moses subsequently smashing these stones at the incident of the golden calf, and thus having to go back and get a new set, with a set of commandments, the Ritual Decalogue, resembling the first. Under this reconstruction another writer, the Priestly source, later took offence at parts of JE, and rewrote it, dropping the story of the golden calf, and replacing the Ritual Decalogue with a new (ethical) decalogue initially based on it, but taking commandments from elsewhere as well, and replacing the Covenant Code with a vast new law code, placed after the Decalogue for narrative reasons, most of which forms the greater part of the mitzvot in Leviticus.

    The scholarly consensus is that the original ritual decalogue was edited and reworked by the priestly source, who kept in the bits about God being a jealous fellow who is profoundly offended by polytheism, but changed most of the rest to suit his own theological priorities and agenda. There is a unique sort of irony to be had here, since we are talking about someone redacting commands that were supposedly etched in stone from the beginning.


    Category: Atheism

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.