Part two of a two-part series. For part one, click here.
Cecil B de Mille’s movie of the fiery finger of God writing the 10 commandments on stone makes for a spectacular piece of film, but was this the way it really happened?
For a start, the two tablets of stone would not be commandments one to three/four on one tablet and four/five onwards on the other. All 10 would be on each of two stones and, in the practice of those times, a copy would be deposited in the temples of the two parties who entered into covenant agreement.
The commandments are expressions of the community’s more important laws, those that carried the death penalty, and took formal shape around the time of the judges, 1100 BCE, 150 years after Moses’ death.
In time, this list gained such importance among Hebrews that they started to attribute it to Moses, the legislator and organiser of the entire legal life of the people.
To say that Moses had given the commandments from Mt Sinai is giving justice to one who had been the great animator of all the legislation of Israel.
Influence of Deuteronomy
It is worth remembering that Deuteronomy was one of the three works most often quoted by Jesus. It is the heart of the Pentateuch and the 10 Commandments are hidden among its many laws, earlier laws that were the basis for what became the 10 Commandments.
The references are worth checking:
Deuteronomy 13:2-6 corresponds to the first commandment, 17:2-7 to the second, 17:8-13 to the third, 21:18-21 to the fifth, 19:11-13 to the sixth, 22:13-21 to the seventh, 24:7 to the eighth, 19:16-19 to the ninth and 22:22 to the 10th commandment which was later split in two.
Interestingly, the third commandment regarding resting on the sabbath does not appear among these references and was added only later during the exile, when the observance of the sabbath came to be a decisive criterion of fidelity to Yahweh.
Spirit of the Decalogue
The careful reader will note that there is a mysterious and abrupt cut in the story of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 19:25 where it states that ‘Moses came down from the mountain and said…’ After that, instead of Moses talking, it is God who appears to be pronouncing the commandments, ‘God spoke all these words’ (20:1).
The part of the story that tells of God giving the commandments to Moses was a later addition and framework to express that whatever the complex origins of the 10 Commandments, they are part of the sacred scriptures and are truly inspired as the Word of God.
What really matters is that the prescriptions from the sacred text are put into practice—that humans adore only their creator, do not harm their neighbour, and do not covet their neighbour’s goods.
Clearly the commandments grew out of the most basic of rules for the survival and growth of any community. For a religious community an extra depth was added. Always the commandments are a response ethic to a God who loved us first; ‘If you love me, keep my commandments.’
From Yahweh to Jesus
Three gospels tell the story of the young man who asked Jesus what he must do to be saved, and Jesus drew his attention to the commandments, notably the ones the rich and powerful most often break, those against their neighbour (not to kill, steal, and lie).
When the young man told Jesus that these commandments he had observed since infancy, Jesus calls him to follow him. Now the missing, first commandment (to follow only Yahweh) appears. We now have a new, revolutionary way of interpreting the principal commandment. The call to the young man is addressed to all Christians. To follow Jesus is the new Decalogue (10 words/commandments) of Christians.
Reference: Valdes, A A The Bible: Questions People Ask 2005). Used with express permission of the Claretian Press.