The “Ten Commandments” occupy an iconic place in popular imagination.  Whether as a result of Cecile B. DeMille’s epic 1956 retelling or not, most of us know the basic outline of the story: Moses goes up Sinai where God gives him the Ten Commandments, writing them with His own finger on the tablets.  The people, though, scared because Moses stayed on the mountain forty days, made a golden calf.  Moses comes down the mountain and in fury breaks the tablets.  He soon reascends to receive them again from God, but this time in Moses’ writing.

I have the privilege this semester of teaching a course on the Ten Commandments and the other day, in going over the biblical accounts (and DeMille’s movie), I was struck by how firmly this narrative is entrenched.  The biblical accounts are actually far more complex, or better, confused.  Scholars have long noted these discrepancies (see, e.g., here) but they are worth reviewing.

  1.  In Exodus 19, Moses ascends the mountain where God tells him to get the people ready.  He goes down and does this, then goes back up, then God tells him to go down again and then to come back with Aaron (19:24-25).  He goes down but does not come back up, and at that moment God speaks the Ten Commandments (20:1).
  2. God’s direct speak to Moses (not Aaron) begins only in 20:18, where God launches an extensive monologue that includes various civil laws.  God then commands Moses to come up the mountain with the elders (24:1) and after they do so commands Moses alone to ascend the mountain (perhaps further up) to receive the stone tablets inscribed with the teachings (24:12).  Then God launches into another monologue, this one dealing with the Tabernacle.  This account ends with the giving of the tablets (31:18).
  3. The incident of the golden calf occurs in chapter 32.  Verses 15-19 describe the tablets, written by God, and how Moses broke them.
  4. In chapter 34, Moses reascends the mountain at God’s command.  In verses 6-26 God issues a series of commands that are almost totally different than the Ten Commandments, and then, the narrative continues,

And the Lord said to Moses: Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.  And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water; and he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

It is worth pausing here for a moment.  According to Exodus, what exactly are the “Ten Commandments”?  Are they the “traditional” ones of Exodus 20, that God seems to say to everybody?  Are they the long account of the Tabernacle (2)?  Or are they the rules on the second set of tables (4)?  The narrative is far from clear and is further complicated by the account in Deuteronomy.

  1. Deuteronomy 4:10-14 seems to try to reconcile some of the problems of Exodus: God spoke the (traditional) Ten Commandments to everybody and then wrote them on the tablets.  He then further instructed Moses about the various civil ordinances.
  2. Deuteronomy 5:4-5, though, seems to say that the (traditional) Ten Commandments were given to Moses, who stood between God and the people.  Deuteronomy 5:19-20 then reverts to the explanation of 4:10-14: God spoke to all, inscribed them on stone, and then kept Moses on the mountain to receive more instructions.
  3. Yet in Deuteronomy 9:8-11, Moses receives the tablets at the end of the forty day period of instruction – who knows what is on them – and then comes down, only to break them in fury.
  4. Finally, Deuteronomy 10:1-5 tells of the second set of commandments, written in the hand of God:

The Lord inscribed on the tablets the same text as on the first, the Ten Commandments that He addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. (10:4)

At the end of the day, it’s hard, at least for me, to make a single coherent narrative out of these passages.  There are differing accounts of what is on the tablets, who heard or received them, and who wrote the second set.  Most scholars explain these differences as resulting from the inelegant splicing together of different sources.  Whether or not that is true, these differing accounts are worth observing.  The story is far from obvious.

In teaching this material the other day I was also left with another question:  Exactly how important is the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments in the narrative of the Torah?  In the DeMille movie, it is the climax of the Moses narrative.  If you didn’t have such a preconception, though, would it really seem all that important or would it seem “flatter,” just one of the Torah’s many stories and law collections?  I’m still pondering that one.