The Ten Commandments

Categories: Fact Check, Religion
Comments: 4 Comments
Published on: 2014.12.14

On the capitol grounds, Austin, Texas
(Copyright © 2009 by Wil C. Fry.)

Recently reading a story about a Ten Commandments display at some state capitol building, I recalled an argument I had in the early 1990s with a fellow Bible college student. Twenty years later, I’ve forgotten which of us held to which side of the argument. It was about what exactly was written on the stone tablets in the Old Testament. One of us claimed the usual assumption: “The ten commandments!”, while the other claimed: “The entire law!”

The casual Christian might be surprised at what little biblical evidence there is for Moses’ stone tablets to have contained only ten commandments and how much there is to support the “entire law” theory.

The Bible lists these ten well-known commandments in full only twice (Jesus and others repeated some of them in the New Testament), but never says “the following ten laws are the most important”. They’re not described in the Bible the way most people think they are. The first time, they’re part of a much longer list of laws that YHWH dictated to Moses; the second time Moses was recounting all these laws to remind the Israelites. I find very little in scripture to indicate that only ten of these many laws were inscribed on stone tablets.

What we know as “the ten commandments” first appear in the Bible in Exodus 20, where there’s no reference to stone tablets, to the number 10, or to any extra importance placed on those particular rules. “The Lord” (as English translations usually handle “YHWH”) went on to give quite a few more laws without stopping after ten or saying those were the most important.

Ex. 24.3-4 makes it clear that nothing had been written down or carved into stone up to that point. After Moses “told the people all the Lord‘s words and laws”, he “then wrote down everything the Lord had said.”

It wasn’t until Ex. 24:12 that stone tablets were mentioned for the first time:

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction’.”

Note that it was “laws and commandments” that were to be written on the stone tablets. So Moses went up and spent “forty days and forty nights” up there, receiving specific instructions about making the ark of the covenant, a table, a lampstand, the tabernacle, the altar, a courtyard, and even how to make oil for the lamps. And the priestly garments, the ephod, a breastpiece, more garments, and… You get the idea. Moses was up there until the end of chapter 31. Ex. 31:18 mentions the tablets again:

“When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.”

Of course, if you’ve seen the movie The Ten Commandments, you know something of what happened next (Ex. 32:15-16, the third mention of the tablets):

“Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”

Moses saw that the people had turned away from YHWH and build a golden calf to worship, so he “threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain” (fourth mention of the tablets). To make sure everyone understood how angry YHWH would be about the golden calf, Moses commanded the Levites to grab swords and “go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor” (source) — about 3,000 died. The Lord didn’t think that was enough, so he “struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf” (source).

But back to the tablets. They’re mentioned for the fifth time in Ex. 34:1,4:

“The Lord 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’… So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands.”

After several new laws issued from YHWH, the Lord didn’t write on them the words that were on the first tablets; instead he told Moses to write them down (Ex. 34:27-28, the sixth mention of the tablets):

“Then the Lord 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 the Lord 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.”

This is the first place in scripture that the words “the Ten Commandments” appear (and it seems to be consistent across English translations). I find two things odd about this passage. One is that YHWH didn’t write on the new tablets despite saying he would. A believer might guess that either (a) it’s not important who wrote on the tablets or (b) that YHWH had some reason to change his mind about it — though oddly the Bible doesn’t say why. A non-believer might point this out as a contradiction in the Bible. (A third choice, put forth by some biblical scholars, is that YHWH did write on this second set of stone tablets, and that what Moses wrote was something else. See below.)

The second odd thing is that “the words of the covenant” are explained with the parenthetical phrase “the Ten Commandments”. It’s odd because the first set of stones contained all the laws and commandments, and YHWH said he would write on the second set of tablets “the words that were on the first tablets”.

For me, this is a quandary.

A few verses later, Moses came down the mountain “with the two tablets of the Testimony [“covenant law” in the new NIV] in his hands… and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him” (Ex. 34:29,32, emphasis mine).

The tablets aren’t mentioned again until chapter 40, by which time the Israelites had built and sewn all the things YHWH commanded. Then (seventh mention), “He took the tablets of the covenant law and placed them in the ark, attached the poles to the ark and put the atonement cover over it.”

Then the narrative moves through Leviticus, where hundreds of more laws were issued: how to eat and dress, what to do about diseases, and how and whether to execute those who break particular laws. I don’t see where any of these were added to the tablets, which already contained far more than ten laws. The next book is Numbers, which concerns mostly census-taking, genealogy-listing, arrangement of tribal camps, and details of the journey in the wilderness.

Finally, we move on to Deuteronomy, where the phrase “Ten Commandments” pops up for the second time in 4:13 (also the eighth mention of the tablets):

“He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets.”

Perhaps the number ten is metaphorical; there were clearly hundreds, and there were clearly more than ten written on the tablets.

Chapter 5 lists again what we know as “The Ten Commandments”, but doesn’t use that phrase. In Deut. 5:6-21, Moses lists them as a reminder and then for the first time separates them from the rest of the law. At the end of the list, he said (9th mention of the tablets):

“These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.” (emphasis mine)

Really? He didn’t add anything more? Go back to Exodus 20 and keep reading. The Lord didn’t stop for quite some time and verily did add more. He went on for four more chapters of laws, decrees, and commandments, before writing them all on the stone tablets.

And just in case you doubted me when I said “all” the laws were on the stone tablets, Moses recalls just a few chapters later (10th mention):

“When I went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord had made with you, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water. The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly.” (emphasis mine)

Moses continues to recount the Exodus story, including the second set of tablets. This time it’s clear that YHWH wrote the second set too, apparently solving the mystery from Exodus 34. But for the second time, it’s indicated that only “ten” commandments were written on the tablets:

“The Lord wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the Lord gave them to me.”

It’s easy to see why — if you stick to just two of these verses — people believe that the stone tablets contained only ten commandments, but I think it’s very clear from reading all of them that the tablets (both sets) always contained the entire covenant — “all the commandments”.

Further, the New Testament never mentions the phrase “The Ten Commandments”, but always refers to the entire Hebrew law, the covenant, decrees, or to specific rules — but never to just the first ten. The NT does mention “tablets of stone”, but only three times and just in passing (2 Cor. 3 and Heb. 9).

Interestingly, Hebrew (and later Jewish) custom holds that the tablets contained just the Ten Commandments and nothing more, but recognizes 613 commandments overall.

What I get from all this little Bible study is (1) that “Ten Commandments” is just a title for the entire covenant law and cannot possibly refer to only ten of the commandments, and (2) the Bible seems purposefully designed to start arguments about this sort of thing.


Part of a larger series I’ve begun calling “De-distorting Christianity”. Even if I later change the series title, this tag link should still work.


4 Comments
  1. Oh no you don’t. I’m not some sheeple that has actually read the bible, I just know what it’s supposed to say. I’m a patron and a commandmentist. I can’t have an discussion with anyone who points out that things that are carved in stone weren’t carved in carved in stone.

  2. shari says:

    Did you know that the Catholics, Jews, and Protestants number the commandments differently? I remember looking that up after buying a child’s book on them and found the list didn’t match what I’d always seen. Of course, the Bible doesn’t spell that out…

    As to your main issue, I don’t have time at the computer with undivided attention, so I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions. You’re good at that anyway. :)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Yes. In fact, the Wikipedia page has a table showing the differing number systems of various sects, how they take those same paragraphs and put numbers in different places.

      As for my “main issue”, I hadn’t thought about it for many years, but noticed it recently when I was searching for something else. I began to doubt: “Was there ever a specification that only those commandments were on the stones? Or that they were more important than the others?”

      Like I noted above, a couple of places in Deuteronomy indicate that, but it’s never specifically mentioned that “only these 10” were on the tablets or were greater in kind. (Unless I’ve missed something, which is certainly possible.)

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