Which Ten Commandments?
We all the know the story of the Ten Commandments: Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, where God gives him his rules carved into two stone tablets. Moses descends from the mountain, finds his people sinning and cavorting, and smashes the tablets in anger.
But you probably don't know the story as it's actually told in the Bible, in the book of Exodus. In that narrative, Moses makes numerous trips up and down the mountain, receives HUNDREDS of commandments from God, and receives TWO pairs of tablets (the first is destroyed by Moses, which God replaces). On both sets of tablets are written the following commandments:
1. Thou shalt worship no other god:
2. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
3. The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep.
4. All that openeth the matrix is mine...All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
5. Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest.
6. Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end.
7. Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the LORD God.
8. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.
9. The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God.
10. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.
A little confused?
If this list (from Exodus chapter 34) doesn't look familiar, you shouldn't be surprised. It's not what they teach you in church, Sunday school or the movies. However, it's the ONLY set of instructions directly referred to in the Bible as "the ten commandments" (it actually contains at least thirteen specific commands, and some of them are a paragraph long, but I've done my best to abbreviate them and consolidate them into ten, since that's how they're identified).
According to Exodus, the ten commandments that you know (from chapter 20), which are so revered as a supposed source of moral guidance, were NEVER written down on a pair of stone tablets. There is a conflicting account in Deuteronomy chapter 5, where Moses insists that they WERE, but his narrative is a recollection of the events forty years after the fact, while the Exodus narrative is presumably a first-hand account.
In the original Exodus story, these earlier commandments were given VERBALLY by God to Moses, who then descended Mount Sinai. After a brief discussion with the still-behaving Israelites -- during which Moses quoted NOTHING God had said to him -- he returned up the mountain to receive (again, VERBALLY) additional commandments, more than ninety of them. The narrative tells us that when Moses descended this time he actually relayed God's instructions to the people and wrote them down.
It is only the morning AFTER Moses relayed this first list to the people of Israel that God tells him that he will give him "tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written." So Moses went back up the mountain and waited for seven days. Then God called him in, and spent the next forty days giving him hundreds more instructions, mostly regarding the construction and operation of the tabernacle (covering roughly seven chapters of Exodus). Finally, he gave Moses "two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God."
These are the tablets Moses smashed when he descended back down the mountain, and these are the tablets God promised to replace: "Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest." So Moses went back up the mountain and waited another forty days and nights while God gave him more rules, as well as the replacement set of tablets, which contain the commandments I've listed above.
The story of the ten commandments is one of the best examples of the difference between what we traditionally "know" of the Bible and what's actually in it, and there are many, many more. It's an integral part of the Christian apologetic narrative, replacing one set of commandments (the ACTUAL list identified above) that are wholly religious in their instruction, with another set that includes at least SOME moral directives (thou shalt not kill, steal, etc.).
According to the Bible, God gave Moses hundreds of commandments on Mount Sinai, all of them presumably carrying the same weight and force. However, it's much easier to justify the whole as a moral code when we can narrow our focus to a small handful of them (the more familiar ten) that include at least some measure of humanistic morality.
But if the decalogue is not the moral compass we thought -- if it turns out to be nothing more than a list of instructions on how to worship God -- we're once again left to sort through the entire list of hundreds of commandments given to Moses, including items like "he that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" and "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." We're then faced with the more obvious choice of obeying them all, ignoring them all, or picking and choosing which one's we'll follow.