Article by Shawna Dolansky, a religious studies professor at Carleton University in Canada who won a faculty award for “translating abstract biblical texts to digestible university-level content,” has a very good overview (imho) of the 10 Commandments. In addition to biblicalarchaeology.org, she is a frequent contributor to thetorah.com. This article, in Bible History Today, is a decent summary of current scholarship on the subject.
The comments, maybe not so much — but some of them demonstrate vividly (again, imho) why biblical scholarship fills such an urgent need.
The “10 Commandments” are listed in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 34. The first two lists (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) are virtually identical, with a few differences in wording and order. Exodus 34, however, seems to be a completely different (and less familiar) set of commandments.
The list in Exodus 20 is the one to which most people are referring when they cite the 10 Commandments, and it’s introduced in the text as follows: “And God spoke all these words, saying…”
While in Exodus 20 we’re not told how many of “these words” there are, Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:5 and Exodus 34:28 will tell us that there are 10 (in the Greek translation, “deka logous,” meaning “10 words,” and giving us the English “decalog”); but nowhere in the Hebrew will they be referred to as the “10 Commandments.”
[…] Taken together as a Decalog, what kind of document is this? Is it a religious text? Or a moral code? This question matters, because the anti-establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment has been invoked on both sides of the debate about the appropriateness of displaying the Bible’s 10 Commandments in government spaces and on public property. Even though the Bible is a religious document, proponents of such Decalog monuments in courthouses and schoolrooms argue that the 10 Commandments themselves are not necessarily religious, but represent rather the moral and legal foundations of society and the historical source of present-day law codes. This understanding of the commandments as universally applicable relies on common conceptions about their meaning, transmitted over thousands of years of Jewish and Christian interpretation. But what if, to paraphrase The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya, they do not mean what you think they mean? What if we read them as products of an ancient civilization, with a different language, culture, religion and form of government?
While it’s customary to begin at the beginning, and as such, to start our discussion of the commandments with the first one, I will defer that for the moment and skip right to what Jews and some Christians take as the second:
“You will not make for yourself a statue or any image that is in the skies above or that is in the earth below or that is in the waters below the earth. You will not bow to them, and you will not serve them. Because I, YHWH, your God, am a passionate God, counting parents’ crime on children, on the third generation, and on the fourth generation of those who hate me; but practicing kindness to thousands for those who love me and keep my commandments.”
No images of anything! This commandment literally bans all art, apparently on the basis that images that could be construed as representing another god were not to be tolerated, let alone bowed down to or worshiped. The reason: YHWH is passionate (“jealous” or “zealous” work as translations for this word as well). Beyond the plain meaning of this prohibition, we are further reminded here of a fundamental Biblical principle: justice works down through the generations. Why obey this (or any) commandment? Because if you don’t, God may punish your great-grandchildren for your disobedience. A central aspect of the Decalog is corporate responsibility—over space and time. The community is responsible for enforcing God’s laws among themselves, not only because they want to continue to benefit from God’s commitment to the people in the present, but because their actions have consequences for the continuity of their lineages.
Its position in the list also signals a transition from commandments concerned with God and ritual (the first four) to one that is focused on the human community (the final 6). As such, it is noteworthy that this earthly focus begins within familial hierarchy, and not at a tribal or a state level. One is commanded by God here to honor one’s parents—both of them—and nowhere in the list to honor any other human authority figures. The connection between honoring parents and lengthened days on the Promised Land is telling, as well, and speaks to the issue of community responsibility extending across time as well as space; just as the ban on graven images reminds the people that their actions have consequences for future generations, the present commandment extends this responsibility back to generations of the past. One honors one’s parents in life, but also in death, as ancestors would have been buried on the ancestral land that God will allocate to each tribe later in the narrative. In other words, “the land that YHWH, your God, is giving to you” is inalienable, ancestral land; the better you honor your parents in life and in death, the longer this land will remain in your family.
The eighth commandment (seventh in Deuteronomy 5) requires the least explanation:
“You will not steal.”
This one actually means exactly what you might think: Don’t take things that don’t belong to you.
The final commandment is a bit strange, when you think about it:“You will not covet your neighbor’s house. You will not covet your neighbor’s wife or his servant or his maid or his ox or his donkey or anything that your neighbor has.”
Rather than prohibit any kind of action, this one prohibits thoughts. What’s wrong with fantasizing about how great life would be if you only had your neighbor’s ox? The key to understanding why a ban on coveting is included in the Decalog is that doing so could lead to actions forbidden in the previous four commandments, thereby undermining the fabric of human community. Coveting people or property that do not belong to you might instigate activities like adultery, murder, theft and even bearing false witness—for the latter case, look at what happens when Ahab covets Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21!
As evident in my chart, the first commandment tends to be understood as part or all of the following:“I am YHWH your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. There will not be for you other gods before my face.”
This statement at the beginning of Exodus 20 follows 19 chapters of in-depth exploration of YHWH as the name of the God of Israel and his deliverance of the people from Egypt. This begs the question of a need to restate the obvious here at the beginning of the Decalog. However, comparison with other ancient Near Eastern texts demonstrates that similar statements were common opening themes of a particular, well-known document: the suzerain-vassal treaty. These were covenants made between a conquering overlord (the suzerain) and a subject population (the vassal).
Understanding the genre helps us to contextualize and understand what is usually taken as the first commandment, which, it turns out, contains both a preface and a primary covenant stipulation.
The typical ancient suzerain-vassal treaty begins with an introduction of the suzerain, followed by a historical prologue in which the suzerain reminds the vassal of his beneficence toward them and why they owe him loyalty. This is what we have in the introduction and prologue to “these words” in Exodus 20:(Introduction) I am YHWH, your God,
(Historical Prologue) who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.
These opening words of the treaty frame this covenant in political terms that indicate that God is the new king, or overlord, for the Israelites. These are followed by the primary stipulation in any suzerain-vassal covenant relationship—exclusive loyalty from the vassal to the suzerain:
(Primary Stipulation) There will not be for you other gods before me (lit: “before my face”).
A vassal cannot divide his loyalties between overlords but must be faithful to only one. This makes sense in terms of demands of vassalhood, such as sending troops to support the suzerain when he is at war. But in framing the covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel in terms of a suzerain-vassal treaty, exclusive loyalty to the conquering sovereign acquires a further dimension: exclusive worship of one god. In equating Israel’s god with the notion of a suzerain, covenant loyalty sets Israel on a path to monotheism.
Dolansky (Teaching and Learning Services profile):
Shawna Dolansky specializes in biblical studies in the College of Humanities at Carleton University. Her main interests focus on the history and religions of Israel and the ancient Near East, as well as the development of the Hebrew Bible.
Her research incorporates a myriad of tools, including literary criticism, anthropology and archaeology, so that she can understand the worlds of the original authors and the audiences of the biblical texts.
Shawna’s dedication to translating abstract biblical texts to digestible university-level content won her the Carleton University Provost’s Fellowship in Teaching Award in 2013.
Shawna Dolansky, “Understanding Israel’s 10 Commandments,” Bible History Daily, Biblical Archaeology Society, Dec. 28, 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/understanding-israel-10-commandments/. [This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on June 14, 2017.]
Shawna Dolansky, faculty profile, Religion, Carleton University, Ottawa https://carleton.ca/religion/people/shawna-dolansky/ [with publications list].
__________. faculty profile, Teaching and Learning Services (TLS), Carleton University, Ottawa https://carleton.ca/tls/people/shawna-dolansky/.