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The Ten Commandments (Really!)

So, you think you know the Ten Commandments. You learned them in Church. You watched Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie ten times. You saw them posted in front of the courthouse. Are you sure you know them? I doubt it.

The commandments that most people refer to as the “Ten Commandments” are not really the Ten Commandments that God wrote on two stone tablets and gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. They are commandments that God gave orally to the people of Israel, as part of a long set of commandments that formed part of God’s “laws.”

The Commandments in Exodus 20[1] are:

  1. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
  2. You shall have no other gods before me.
  3. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
  4. You shall not worship them [idols] or serve them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
  5. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
  6. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  7. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
  8. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.
  9. You shall not murder.
  10. You shall not commit adultery.
  11. You shall not steal.
  12. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  13. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  14. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his ass or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

One problem immediately comes to light–there are more than ten commandments. Further, different religious traditions have grouped the commandments in different ways, in an effort to cast them into a set of only “ten.”

The Jewish Ten Commandments (paraphrased) are:

  1. I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt.
  2. You shall have no other gods but Me.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. You shall remember the Sabbath [Saturday] and keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness.
  10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The Catholic Ten Commandments are:

  1. I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but Me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  3. You shall remember to keep holy the Lord’s day [Sunday].
  4. Honor your father and mother.
  5. You shall not murder.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

The Protestant Ten Commandments are:

  1. You shall have no other gods but Me.
  2. You shall not make any graven images [idols].
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. You shall remember the Sabbath [Sunday] and keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness.
  10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

None of these traditions comport with the account of the true Ten Commandments, as set forth in the book of Exodus. These traditions are mistaken, probably due to vagueness and error in the book of Deuteronomy, which was written long after Exodus. In any event, popular religious traditions have consistently labeled the Exodus 20 commandments as the “Ten Commandments.” Merely reading the book of Exodus, and applying plain and ordinary meaning to its words and phrases, demonstrates the error in this conclusion.

To be sure, Exodus 20 does contain a list of commandments that God gave to the people of Israel. But these are not all of the commandments that God gave to Israel on Mt. Sinai, nor does the Bible indicate that these commandments were written on stone tablets or were “The Ten Commandments.” Exodus 20 actually states only that the Lord gave these commandments in a fiery, smoky, lightening and thunder-filled speech from Mount Sinai to all of the people of Israel.

Then, in Exodus 21-31, God continues giving commandments, literally dozens upon dozens of them. He gives commandments concerning how to do slavery correctly, and how to resolve personal injury and property damage claims (Exodus 21). He gives commandments for punishing thieves and arsonists, for governing lenders, for punishing sorcerers and sexual miscreants (Exodus 22). He gives commandments promoting honesty and justice, and he issues commandments for ritual sacrifices and religious intolerance (Exodus 23).

In Exodus 24, after giving literally scores of commandments, laws and ordinances, Moses is summoned to Mount Sinai by God, who promises only then to give Moses “the stone tablets with the law and the commandments which I have written for their [the people of Israel’s] instruction” (Exodus 24:12). This passage does not describe which of the scores of commandments would be included on the stone tablets, and in fact seems to imply that all of them will be included. (After all, anything is possible with God).

Moses visits God on Mount Sinai to receive the stone tablets. In Exodus 25, however, God does not deliver the stone tablets containing “The Ten Commandments.” Instead, God continues with even more oral commandments! He instructs Moses to take up collections, and then to build a sanctuary or dwelling so that God may reside among the Israelites. He gives instructions for building the ark of the covenant (which Indiana Jones will later save from the Nazis), as well as a special table and lamp stand. God requests specific building materials and ornaments, and has some architectural requests (Exodus 26-27). In Exodus 28, God gets very specific about what sorts of clothes priests should wear, and continues in chapter 29 to describe his commandments for the consecration and ordination of priests. In Chapter 30, God spells out a number of religious rituals, and imposes a tax of one-half shekel (same amount, whether you’re rich or poor) on everyone over twenty-years-old who wants to be counted as one of God’s chosen people. In Chapter 31, God selects subcontractors, particular artisans and craftsman, who are to work on His sanctuary. For the umpteenth time, God reiterates the Sabbath laws.

At the end, in Exodus 31:18, the Bible finally records that, “When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets.” Again, this passage does not describe what was written on the stone tablets, and it does not in any way imply that the commandments from Chapter 20 were written there.

Any Tom, Dick or Charlton Heston can tell you what happens next. Moses returns from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets (still described only as containing God’s “testimony,” and never referred to anywhere in Exodus as containing “The Ten Commandments,” but interestingly, described as having writing on both sides of each tablet–implying that they may contain all of God’s laws?) and finds the people dancing around a golden calf. In anger, Moses throws the tablets, and they shatter at the base of the mountain. To atone for the sins of the day, Moses gathers the Levites and commands them to begin slaughtering their own families, friends and neighbors–which they do, killing 3,000. For good measure, God sends a plague on the survivors to smite unenumerated hundreds or thousands more.

But in Chapter 33, Moses, on behalf of Israel, and God, make up and have an intimate moment wherein God shows Moses his backside. In Chapter 34, God agrees to replace the tablets that were broken, and here, finally, the true “Ten Commandments” are revealed.

How do we know these, rather than the previous commandments from Exodus 20, are the true Ten Commandments? Because the Bible says so! Explicitly! Unambiguously! Unquestioningly, and leaving no doubt! God speaks the commandments to Moses, and 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.” So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, The Ten Commandments.” (Exodus 34:27-28, emphasis added)

The true Ten Commandments are quite different than the Exodus 20 commandments. The true Ten Commandments, according to Exodus 34 are:



Text and Comments


You Shall Practice Violent Bigotry

Text: Exodus 34:11-13:

Behold, I am going to drive out the Amorite before you, and the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will become a snare in your midst. But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim.


God basically calls for complete radical religious intolerance, including destruction of churches. Asherim were sacred wooden poles built to honor the Canaanite goddess, Ashera. Canaanites also erected stone pillars at their altars to honor the god Baal. Smash them! Smash them all!




You Shall Worship Only Me

Text: Exodus 34:14-16:

You shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God–otherwise you might make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they would play the harlot with their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and someone might invite you to eat of his sacrifice, and you might take some of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters might play the harlot with their gods and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods.



This builds on the religious intolerance theme of the first commandment. In fact, in other parts of Exodus, God clarifies that anyone who does worship another god will be punished with death and torment, and their innocent heirs for three or four generations also will be punished for that sin! Perhaps God forgot–Jealousy is one of the seven deadly sins! Also, Paul says in Galatians 5:20-21 that jealousy is one of the “sins of the flesh” and is separate and distinguishable from the “fruits of the Spirit.” Whoever is jealous cannot be admitted into the kingdom of God. Maybe God was grandfathered in.


You Shall Not Make Molten Gods

Text: Exodus 34:17:

You shall make for yourself no molten gods.



Apparently artists, especially sculptors, are not favored by God. This is more clear in the Exodus 20 commandments, where God clarifies that artists not only shouldn’t sculpt gods, but also may not sculpt an image of anything in the heavens, on the earth or in the waters under the earth.


You Shall Observe Certain Special Holidays



Text: Exodus 34:18, 22, 25:

You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you came out of Egypt …

You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year.

… nor is the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover to be left over to the morning.




Essentially, there are four holidays–one for each season. The Feast of Unleavened Bread in the month of “Abib” refers to a Springtime holiday. On the Hebrew religious calendar, Abib is most closely associated with our month of March, and may run over into April. The feast of Weeks is an early harvest festival. The Feast of Ingathering is a year-end holiday. The Ten Commandments does not explicitly command the Feast of Passover, but implies it by commanding that no leftovers should be saved. Israel probably didn’t want the leftovers anyway–they had no refrigerators in Moses’s day.


You Shall Honor Me With Animal Sacrifice

Text: Exodus 34:19-20:

The first offspring from every womb belongs to Me, and all your male livestock, the first offspring from cattle and sheep. You shall redeem with a lamb the first offspring of every ass, and if you do not redeem it then you shall break its neck.



Animal sacrifice is described throughout the old testament, and there are numerous references, especially in Leviticus, describing how pleasing it is to God to savor the smell of burning animal flesh. Here, God treats donkeys differently than other livestock. Even God doesn’t want to savor the smell of a barbecued ass–give him a lamb instead.


You Shall Honor Me With Human Sacrifice

Text: Exodus 34:19-20:

The first offspring from every womb belongs to Me . . . . You shall redeem all of the firstborn of your sons.



I assume you can redeem your son by sacrificing a lamb, the same way you redeem your ass. Also, this is the same way God redeems all of us–Jesus is the sacrificial lamb (and we are like his asses?)


You Shall Honor Me With Vegetable Sacrifice

Text: Exodus 34:26:

You shall bring the very first of the first fruits of the soil into the house of the LORD, your God.



Probably to ensure that all of the food groups are properly represented.


You Shall Offer Your Sacrifices Three Times a Year, But NEVER with Leavened Bread

Text: Exodus 34:20, 23-25:

None shall appear before me empty-handed … Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel. For I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders, and no man shall covet your land when you go up three times a year to appear before the LORD your God. You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread



Apparently God has something against white, wheat, rye, multigrain, sourdough and pumpernickel. And don’t even think about muffins, baguettes, popovers, biscuits, bagels or focaccia. God likes matzoh! Maybe a little matzoh-ball soup for variety.


You Shall Rest Every Seventh Day

Text: Exodus 34:21:

You shall work six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest.



This commandment appears frequently and has some variations. For example, Exodus 23:10-11 commands sowing fields for six years, and then leaving the seventh year harvest for the poor. In some variations, the commandment specifies that rest should occur on a particular day, the Sabbath, which may be Saturday or Sunday, depending on whether you are Jewish or Christian. Ironically, although this commandment appears quite frequently, including both in the Exodus 20 commandments and the true Ten Commandments, it is the one commandment that is most ignored by modern people–especially during the Christmas shopping season.


You Shall Not Cook Goat Stroganoff

Text: Exodus 34:26:

You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.



God is not only a jealous God, but apparently also a superstitious God. This commandment probably arises from the baseless ancient superstition that cooking a kid in its mother’s milk will cause illness or even death to the mother. In any event, I can honestly state that I have never broken this commandment!

So there you have it. The truth about the Ten Commandments, according to the Bible. Now, perhaps we should petition to post these Ten Commandments, the true Ten Commandments of God, on the lawn of the courthouse?


[1] All biblical references refer to, and all biblical quotes are taken from, the New American Standard Bible.