From time to time, I will do a search for other blog posts about the Ten Commandments.  Invariably, the results will include posts from a non-religious perspective challenging the efficacy of the Ten Commandments.  I enjoy perusing a couple of these posts in an effort to understand some of the difficulties others have with these commands.  Growing up in church, it is easy to forget some of the issues people wrestle with when giving the Bible a cursory reading.  One reoccurring argument goes something like this:

The Bible itself cannot even agree on what the Ten Commandments are, as there are different lists.  If the writers of the Bible cannot even agree on a list of ten commandments, then why should we trust anything in the Bible?

And while it may be easy to dismiss such objections as nitpicking, there is an interesting issue behind that line of questioning: Why are there different lists of what we would characterize as the Ten Commandments?

Some people of faith may even be surprised to learn that there are no less than three separate lists of what appear to be the Ten Commandments with some variations between them. It is an issue that I only briefly mention in my book, Ten Essential Words.  So what are these lists and why do they differ?

Let’s first look at each list.  The first comes from Exodus 20, the text most often associated with the Ten Commandments:

  1. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land Yahweh your God is giving you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The next list is found in Exodus 34.  Moses, we are told in an act of ager, smashes the first list and then returns to the mountain of God, where Yahweh again gives Moses the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments.  The list is less obvious, but reads something like this:

  1. Do not worship any other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
  2. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land.
  3. Do not make any idols.
  4. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
  5. The first offspring of every womb belongs to me.
  6. Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest.
  7. Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.
  8. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.
  9. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of Yahweh your God.
  10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

There are some similarities between the two lists, but also some obvious differences.  Finally, in Deuteronomy 5, Moses again reminds the people of the terms of the covenant with Yahweh, reviewing the Ten Commandments:

  1. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God.
  4. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother, as Yahweh your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land Yahweh your God is giving you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

So what are we to make of these three lists of commands?  Is this evidence, as some would assert, that the Bible is unreliable and cannot agree on even the basic commands from God?

First let’s acknowledge that the list between Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20 are virtually identical and the minor variations can easily be explained.  The book of Deuteronomy is a record of a speech Moses gave some 40 years after the events of Exodus 20.  And the account of the exodus wanderings make it clear that Moses is addressing an entirely different group of people in his Deuteronomy address from the group that originally left Egypt.  Thus while the Commandments are the same, some of the explanations were no doubt tailored to a different group of people.  (For example, in Exodus 20, the basis of remembering the Sabbath was creation, while in Deuteronomy, the basis is “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.”)  There is no real disagreement between these two lists.

But what about Exodus 34?  The answer can be found when the wording of Exodus 34 is carefully examined.  The chapter begins with these words,

Yahweh said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.”

It is clear that Yahweh is the one who did the writing on these initial tablets and tradition holds that these commands were written by God.  This section is followed by the above list in Exodus 34, then concludes with these words,

Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”  Moses was there with Yahweh forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

So who wrote what down?  If we are to take the words of Exodus 34 at face value, then here is what took place:

  • Moses chiseled another set of two stone tablets after breaking the first set.
  • God then writes the Ten Commandments on these stone tablets.
  • For 40 days, Moses was with God listening and understanding all the details of the covenant beyond the Ten Commandments so that he could effectively communicate the covenant with God to the people.
  • So Moses writes the details of this conversation down.  What Moses is writing is not the Ten Commandments.  This is what we have recorded in Exodus 34.
  • The he in the last verse above, then refers to God and not Moses, since the beginning of the section makes it clear that God wrote the Ten Commandments and Moses wrote down other things God communicated.
  • So Moses carries down with him what God had written down – the Ten Commandments – along with many other notes and specific commands that he received from God.  It is not hard to imaging that in addition to God writing the Ten Commandments down for Moses, Moses also wrote them down, along with a collection of other instructions for worship and governance.

So while the words of Exodus 34 appear to be another version of the Ten Commandments, they are in fact a different list of some other commands and explanations received from God.  This is what the text indicates.  Some have speculated that what is recorded in Exodus 34 may be a set of ritual commandments, meant to mirror the Ten Commandments.  This may well be the case also.

This is an interesting question and can be confusing, especially if we are unwilling to let the text speak for itself.  And we should always remember that there is bound to be some degree of difficulty in understanding some of the details of a document written 3,000 years ago.

Recently, prominent atheist Alain de Botton constructed a list of 10 commandments that would promote virtue in a society, even if that society were moving past the need to believe in God – a 10 commandments for atheists.  In an article in The Telegraph, de Botton writes,

Even if we now realise that we made up our own moral exhortations, we have no cause to do away with them all. We continue to need reminders to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so.

de Botton explains that even though he rejects the idea of a moral code originating from God, there is something to be learned from the promotion of virtue, leading him to come up with his own list, “If I had to design a list of 10 virtues that could apply today, I might go for the following”:

  1. Resilience
  2. Empathy
  3. Patience
  4. Sacrifice
  5. Politeness
  6. Humor
  7. Self-Awareness
  8. Forgiveness
  9. Hope
  10. Confidence

In subsequent articles, de Botton’s list has been praised as a more enlightened list than many outdated moral codes.  Others have chimed in, blogging about de Botton’s list and constructing their own 10 commandments for society to live by.  One such blogger has devoted much time to demonstrating the archaic and outdated nature of the Biblical 10 Commandments, as well as coming up with a list of his own.

Actually, I must admit that de Botton’s list is not a bad list.  I’m not sure I would reject anything on that list as immoral or self-indulgent.  And having perused a handful of these newly emerging 10 commandment for atheists lists, there really isn’t much to dismiss from them.  Surely the world would be a better place if religious, agnostic, and atheist alike tried to embody most of the virtues being put forth on these lists.

But here is the thing.  My concern is not so much with the content of these lists as the precariousness of the philosophy that lies behind them.  Actually, two issues come to mind:

  • The person who does not believe that God exists will have the difficult, if not impossible task of promoting a virtue or morality that should apply to everyone else.  This tension has been debated in many philosophical circles and has not been overcome.  I recently listened to an interesting lecture by an atheist who was wrestling with this very issue: How do you promote a good and virtuous society while rejecting the existence, and thus the moral authority, of a transcendent deity?  If there is no God, then there is no basis for a moral code that applies to society as a whole.  There is an entire debate surrounding this very issue.
  • But my main caution would be this: If any transcendent moral code is rejected, then who does get to decide what is good and virtuous in a society?  Does the majority get to decide?  Should it be de Botton who decides for everyone?  Should I appoint myself as the virtue police, as many have done in response to this 10 commandment list for atheists?  What I am getting at is that if there is no higher authority, then I am precisely the one who gets to define what is moral and virtuous!   While the list above is laudable, who is to say what would have been defined as virtuous in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, or during the period of American slavery?  What might be considered virtuous ten years from now?

As much as I might like to think that I could come up with a list of virtues that should govern society, I am glad that responsibility does not fall on me.  It is because religious people believe that the 10 Commandments originate from God (and not Moses) that those commandments have moral authority to govern our lives.  Of course, people of faith will not always live up to these commands – this is one of the points Jesus asserted many times.  The cultural expressions (enforcement, punishment, promotion, etc.) of these commands looks different today than 3,000 years ago, but the principles behind the expressions are enduring.  This issue is one of the main themes of Ten Essential Words, (and is an issue that is not readily understood my many critiques of the Ten Commandments!).

People are certainly free to believe what they want to believe.  I have never been one to assert that the 10 Commandments should be displayed on every street corner, whether you hold to them or not.  And if you don’t believe in God, I would not expect you to live by the Ten Commandments.  But if God does not exist, then I become my god and you become your god, and we begin to resemble Mount Olympus, full of competing deities all battling for their share of power and moral authority.

I do believe there is a God and am happy to let God be God!  I don’t want the job.