A Triplet of Decalogues
The Pentateuch tells the story of a prophet called Moses, the son of enslaved Hebrews in Egypt who was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, killed an Egyptian slave-driver, absconded to Midian, and met God in a burning bush. After releasing his fellow Israelites from captivity, he led them to the promised land of Canaan. During his forty-year trek through the wilderness, he stopped off at the Mountain of God (named Sinai in some verses and Horeb in others) and received the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, recorded in Exodus 20.
The Ten Commandments form one of the most important law codes of the Abrahamic religions. They begin with the declaration that Yahweh is the god who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and that they should worship only him. They prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft, adultery, coveting and lying under oath, and command strict observation of the Sabbath and honouring one’s parents.
According to the story, after Moses received the Ten Commandments, he came back down the mountain to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, and, in a fit of anger, he threw the tablets to the ground, breaking them. He then had to climb back up the mountain to get a second set of tablets, recorded in Exodus 34. This set of commandments is very different from the first, and, unlike the earlier set, which is never called the Ten Commandments in the text, the passage concludes with the words, ‘And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments’ (Exodus 34:28).
Another set of commandments, almost identical to those found in Exodus 20, are given in Deuteronomy 5. So, in total, there are three different sets of Ten Commandments in the Pentateuch. The ones in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are often referred to as the Ethical Decalogue and the ones in Exodus 34 are often called the Ritual Decalogue.
The Ritual Decalogue has a lot of rules in common with the Covenant Code, found in Exodus 20:22-23:19, especially Exodus 23:10-19. Rather than prohibiting murder, theft, adultery, and lying, it commands that the Hebrews observe various festivals and has a bizarre law about not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. Like the Ethical Decalogue, it does, however, command the worship of Yahweh alone and prohibits the making of idols.
The differences between the two versions of the Ethical Decalogue are quite minor but interesting. Regarding the Sabbath, Exodus 20:11 gives this reason, ‘For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day,’ but Deuteronomy 5:12 says, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.’Here’s a comparison of all three versions of the Ten Commandments.
|The Ritual Decalogue (Exodus 34)||The Ethical Decalogue (Exodus 20)||The Ethical Decalogue (Deuteronomy 5)|
|Introduction||Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord. For it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst.||I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.||I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.|
|Other gods||But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot with their gods and make sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods and make your sons play the harlot with their gods.||You shall have no other gods before Me.||You shall have no other gods before Me.|
|Idolatry||You shall make no molded gods for yourselves.||You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.||You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.|
|Feast of Unleavened Bread||The Feast of Unleavened Bread you shall keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, in the appointed time of the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.|
|Firstborn||All that open the womb are Mine, and every male firstborn among your livestock, whether ox or sheep. But the firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb. And if you will not redeem him, then you shall break his neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.|
|Offerings||And none shall appear before Me empty-handed.|
|Blasphemy||You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.||You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.|
|The Sabbath||Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.||Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.||Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.|
|Other Feasts||And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord, the Lord God of Israel. For I will cast out the nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither will any man covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year. You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leaven, nor shall the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover be left until morning.|
|Firstfruits||The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.|
|Kid in Milk||You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.|
|Parents||Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.||Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.|
|Murder||You shall not murder.||You shall not murder.|
|Adultery||You shall not commit adultery.||You shall not commit adultery.|
|Theft||You shall not steal.||You shall not steal.|
|False Witness||You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.||You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.|
|Coveting||You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.||You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.|
|Conclusion||Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for according to the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.||These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and He added no more. And He wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me.|