When it comes to the Bible, there are generally two responses that one gets: it’s easy to understand or it’s difficult to understand.

Indeed, many of the critiques leveled at Scripture by opponents of the faith often come down to a fundamental failure to understand the cultural context of the authors as well as a failure to recognize that they stand in a culture that was ultimately influenced by people who looked into the text and saw something to move toward.

They look at the laws of the Israelites and are repulsed by a culture that is remarkably different, filled with brutality that just seemed to accept the fact that life was brutal and that there were limits to human beings that should not be transgressed, and when those lines were transgressed there were harsh penalties.

I was moved by a recent Twitter thread wherein an atheist painted a picture of brutality at the hands of what he portrayed as a ultra-fundamentalist Christian father beating him mercilessly, while implying that he was doing him a favor because children like him—implying unruly or disobedient children—would have been killed. Never mind that the context of the passage in question implies that the “son” in question is actually an adult (as I’ve discussed here). Then there’s also how the Israelites dealt with rape or how they engaged in warfare. Many of the objections raise are fundamentally emotional in nature and, often, fail to demonstrate a coherent basis upon which to make any judgments.

We can transfer the argument then to alleged contradictions, most of which are simply differences of perspective, matters of translation, or transcription errors. Those raising the issue often fail to ask simple questions about either the text or the expectations of the original audience in their cultural context.

I bring this up because of something that was brought to my attention some time ago as I was listening to The Naked Bible Podcast and, in a study of Exodus 33 and 34, has a brief discussion on a second set of commandments. In fact, it’s from Exodus 34 that we get the words “Ten Commandments”.

A Whole ‘Nother List

This issue was brought back to mind by Amateur Exegete (AE) in a recent post titled, “Public Displays of the Ten Commandments: Which Version?”

There AE writes,

“Most are aware of the version found in Exodus 20:3-17 and often it is some truncated version of this found on displays. But since the Pentateuch wasn’t written by a single author but was the product of a redactor bringing together four different sources, it is no wonder we find different versions of the Ten Commandments within it. In Exodus 34 we find a version of the commandments (v. 28) that includes things like a requirement to keep the festival of unleavened bread (v. 18) or the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (v. 26). Why don’t Christians want to display that version? (link and emphasis added)

And while the question is worth consideration, and might be worth circling back to (yes that’s a dig at the current US presidential press secretary) it’s to his brief commentary that we should look as he cites some interesting factoids between the versions that appear in various locations (ie the Septuagint) but punts to an article at The Professor Sindie White Crawford who sets about to document the various versions in greater detail. As she notes in her abstract to the article,

“Beyond the two versions of the Decalogue in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the usual differences between [Masoretic Text], [Samaritan Pentateuch], and LXX, in Second Temple times, liturgical texts in Qumran (4QDeutn) and Egypt (Nash Papyrus), Greek references in the New Testament and Philo, and even tefillin parchments, reflect slightly different recensions of the text.

And while these are interesting from a historical and textual point of view, for me the issue is one of sociological importance as the focus is placed in Crawford’s article on “the big three”—murder, adultery, and theft—and how they appear and are discussed in various sources, specifically in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, and any apparent relationships to textual sources as their order appears in various texts, specifically with regard to ordering or skipping Commandments or even arguments regarding justification for their observance, such as regarding the differences in the reasons for observation of the Sabbath, as Crawford writes,

“In Exodus the reason is theological, harking back to the creation story in Gen 1:1-2:4a, where God rests on the seventh day after the labor of creation (Gen 2:2). In Deuteronomy the reason is historical remembrance; as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they should allow their own slaves one day of rest per week. This is in keeping with Deuteronomy’s humanistic emphasis and concern for the social good.

And while I think that there’s something to that, I would like to suggest that to limit them to being one or the other without recognizing that both share the same fundamental theological reasoning would cause one to ignore that there is an thread of continuity riding beneath the wave of the text.

Some have noted that Exodus appears to be understood as possibly a direct sequel to Genesis as it begins with echoes from it canonical predecessor at the start of its narrative.[1] In my (non specialist) opinion, failing to ignore even an allusory  connection to the preceding text would likely cause interpretational missteps in understanding Exodus as a book itself, which should be our first priority from any standpoint, which brings us back to AE’s question.

Back to the Beginning 

The question seems to apply that there’s some level of arbitrariness in selecting which “Ten Commandments” get displayed, but I think that AE and any other atheist who thinks that they’re actually proving something by bringing up this passage misses, and its one of the things that often gets overlooked or just outright ignored in such circumstances and its our favorite term: context.

If we notice where this incident falls in the text, namely after the incident with the golden calf, which had immediately been preceded by God having spoken to the people about the covenant, which Moses had gone up to receive, and in the his extended absence the nation rebelled. Upon his return, finding the people enthralled in their idolatry, Moses had destroyed the tablets that he had been given in anger. The new tablets of the covenant were to replace the ones that had been destroyed. 

In the intervening period of the narrative, prior to Moses first ascent up the mountain, there is a statement regarding in the terms of the covenant, found in the law code that runs from Exodus 20:22 through to 31:18, many of which find restatement in brief reproduction, as well as some from the law code of Deuteronomy. This would seem to indicate that the section in question is meant to serve as some type of summary statement of the law, serving as something of an outline of the greater code.[2] But there’s another aspect to the issue that needs to be considered. 

John Pilch, in his book A Cultural Handbook on the Bible notes something curious in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, when it comes to Exodus 34, writing,

“Dictated, as it were, by God, these words possessed the power of the deity. Josephus says that Moses brought the people to God in order that they might hear the words directly, “that the energy of what should be spoken might not be hurt by its utterance by that tongue of a man, which could but imperfectly deliver it to their understanding” (Antiquities 3.5.4).[3]

This pietistic reluctance to speak the exact words that were seen as spoken directly by Yahweh to his people stems from a superstitious belief about the power of language as well as an aspect of honor culture that we miss, as Pilch notes, “[The] cultural practice relative to citing the commandments is dictated by concerns for secrecy and concealment, two major strategies for safeguarding honor in cultures where honor is a core value.”[4]

As the Israelites would have seen the dictated words of Yahweh as having particular power, this would have coupled with the tendency towards secrecy,

“Secrecy and concealment … rest on a premise of distrust. One cannot trust others with certain information. One does not know what they will do with the information, nor how they may react to the information. The Israelites would be concerned above all that no one (either among themselves or, worse yet, among their enemies) should aggravate God and thus incur divine displeasure. Better not to take any chances; don’t trust anyone with these powerful words.[5]

This would mean that, having stated the commandments once before, there would be a reluctance to restate them and so they talk around the subject. 

So, to AE’s question: why not the “commandments” of Exodus 34?

Because the author(s) of Scripture, by the fact that two very similar lists, as well as other circumlocutions for what is commonly called “the Ten Commandments” are scattered throughout Scripture and emphasized.[6] Also, something that AE notices, that is worth closing on, when it comes to the Decalogue in its place in modern culture,

“The reception of the Ten Commandments is a fascinating subject in and of itself and there is no time to explore it here. Jews and Christians alike have put it to use for this or that religious, rhetorical, and even political purpose. 

Well said, and true. How the Decalogue has been received is a subject worthy of study, but what also needs to be considered is the background of the culture that it went into, so that we don’t stumble over wooden arguments or be caught off guard. The commandments were given to establish a community, bound by a religion, so a rhetorical strategy arose that allowed them to be communicated. And now we have them.

The question is, are we just going to show them off or live in light of them?


  1. Nahum M. Sarna. The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus. Jewish Publication Society. 1991. p. 2-3
  2. Raymond F. Collins. “Ten Commandments”. Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 6. Doubleday Publishing. 1992.
  3. John J. Pilch. A Cultural Handbook to the Bible. William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2012. p.156
  4. Ibid, p.155
  5. Ibid, p.156
  6. Ibid, p.156-7