Let’s have a look at the Bible during Lent.
How many of the Ten Commandments do you know?
Most people can probably remember that there’s one about graven images, one about killing (actually it’s murder, but that’s a whole different argument) and coveting (because the first time they heard it they had to rush for a dictionary to find out what “covet” meant”).
Here they are:
The Ten Commandments
According to the Book of Common Prayer:
- Thou shalt have no other gods but me.
- Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven mage, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shew mercy unto thousands in them that love me, and keep my commandments.
- Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his Name in vain.
- Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.
- Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
- Thou shalt do no murder.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his servant, not his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.
There we go. Nice and easy. Except they’re…er…not the Ten Commandments. Now this might come as a surprise, and I realise that I am contradicting centuries of theology and religious teaching. So maybe I better state at the outset that the theologians and religious teachers are probably right and I am probably wrong.
OK let’s start with a synopsis. The Ten Commandments (or perhaps I should say, what we know as the Ten Commandments) were given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. So Moses would remember them, God wrote them on two stone tablets. When Moses returned to the people he found that they were worshipping a golden calf. In a rage he broke the tablets and had to go back up the mountain to get replacements.
It starts in Exodus Chapter 19 – with the Ten Commandments listed at the start of Chapter 20. In my bible, there is even helpful sub-heading: “the ten commandments”. But that’s an important point that I will come back to later. “The Ten Commandments” has been added as a heading; it is not in the text.
The Commandments don’t stop after these ten. They go on for pages and pages (and continue – or are possibly reiterated – in Leviticus) and cover things such as personal injuries and compensation (e.g. what to do if a bull gores a man, or a donkey falls into pit); social responsibility; liturgy; specifications for the tabernacle and its contents (these include a lot of gold and expensive cloth which leads me to wonder where a nomadic people would find such materials); consecration of priest; and so on and so on.
It’s not until we get to Chapter 32 that Moses finally comes back form the mountain and we have the Golden Calf incident and the second set of tablets. And it is in this section of the story that the bible text actually states “the ten commandments”. 34:27 “and he [Moses] wrote on the tablet the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments [my italics].
But what were the Ten Commandments in this covenant?
The Ten Commandments
According to the New International Version (NIV) :
- Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.
- Do not make cast idols.
- Celebrate the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Ahib, for in that month you came out of Egypt.
- The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your first born sons.
- No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
- Six days you shall labour, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the ploughing season and harvest you must rest.
- Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no-one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.
- Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from then Passover Feast remain until morning.
- Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.
- Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.
So, according to this list, only two of the standard Ten Commandments are actually in the Ten Commandments. And number ten baffles me – is cooking a goat in its mother’s milk really a more heinous crime than murder, adultery, or stealing?