Ten Insights about the Ten Commandments.
Ten Insights about the Ten Commandments.
Surprising misconceptions and ambiguities about God’s central and unmediated revelation.
Aron Hakodesh and Parochet featuring the Decalogue. Note the
round shape of the tablets. Mir Yeshiva, Jerusalem. photo by ציון הלוי.
The Ten Commandments are among the best-known, and most poorly understood, biblical texts. They appear first in this week’s parashah, Yitro, in Exodus 20, and are repeated in Va’etchanan, in Deuteronomy 5. A careful look at them highlights certain problems and offers a clear window into the value of historical-critical biblical scholarship.
1. These should be called the Ten Commandments.
The Hebrew term עשרת הדברים appears three times: Exodus 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4, and is more accurately translated “the ten sayings,” which is reflected in the English term that I prefer to the Ten Commandments: the Decalogue, from Greek “deca logoi,” or ten sayings.
Rejecting the translation “commandment” is not a matter of pedantry; in the typical Jewish understanding, אנכי יי א-להיך (I am the Lord your God), which is an utterance, but not a commandment, begins the Decalogue. Thus, the name “Ten Commandments” is inaccurate from a Jewish perspective, and better suited for other Bible-based religious traditions where לא יהיה לך (You shall have no other gods) begins the Ten Commandments, and what precedes is an introduction.
2. An earlier “Cultic Decalogue”?
Strikingly, the term עשרת הדברים is absent from Exodus 20! The term is first used in Exodus 34:28, after a set of (ten) laws in vv. 10-26, and many scholars believe that this was the original or earliest Decalogue, which is often named “the Cultic Decalogue,” since it largely deals with cultic or ritual matters.
3. We know how to get to the number ten.
Exodus 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4 all give ten as the number of sayings. But contrary to many of the artistic depictions, the Bible does not contain Roman numerals that elucidate how to divide into ten the various sayings, which are more than ten. This is done by combining various sayings together, and/or by seeing אנכי as introductory, and not counting among the ten. Even Jewish tradition does not offer a single definitive way of doing this.
4. We know the order of the sayings in the Decalogue.
Two passages in the Bible, in which prophets are accusing Israel of misbehavior, contain the Decalogue’s short two-word sayings beginning with לא, “you shall not” in different orders from each other, and a different order from the Torah.
[False] swearing, dishonesty, and murder, and theft and adultery are rife; Crime follows upon crime!
אָלֹ֣ה וְכַחֵ֔שׁ וְרָצֹ֥חַ וְגָנֹ֖ב וְנָאֹ֑ף פָּרָ֕צוּ וְדָמִ֥ים בְּדָמִ֖ים נָגָֽעוּ
Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced,
הֲגָנֹ֤ב׀ רָצֹ֙חַ֙ וְֽנָאֹ֗ף וְהִשָּׁבֵ֥עַ לַשֶּׁ֖קֶר וְקַטֵּ֣ר לַבָּ֑עַל וְהָלֹ֗ךְ אַחֲרֵ֛י אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם:
Indeed, much ancient evidence suggests that these short commandments were known in a variety of different orders (see e.g. the Nash Papyrus, the best manuscripts of the LXX which have adultery before murder, an order also found in Luke 18:20, Romans 13:9 and Philo).
5. The Decalogue was written on tablets that were rounded on the top.
This is a late artistic tradition, imported into Judaism from Christian art, based on the form of the Roman diptych. Not all Christian art adopted this convention; Michaelangelo’s Moses (created 1513-15) shows Moses with two rectangular tablets. This is certainly how they would have been imagined in antiquity; at least this is how they appear in the Dura Europos synagogue, and how the rabbis seem to have imagined them (b. Baba Batra 14a; Exodus Rabbah 28:1) – despite the many synagogues that (under Christian influence) include depictions of rounded tablets.
Additionally, it is surprising that artistic representations show writing on only one side of the tablets, while Exod 32:15 explicitly states that it was written on both front and back.
6. Each tablet of the Decalogue contained five sayings.
Although fifteen biblical texts speak of two tablets, none clarifies what was written on each. Nothing in the biblical text suggests that each tablet contained five sayings, and some scholars have suggested that since the tablets functioned to seal a covenant (ברית), like ancient near Eastern treaties, two complete copies were made: one for the overlord or suzerain, the other for the vassal or subservient power. Thus, it is quite possible that the Bible is imagining that each of the two tablets contained the text of the entire Decalogue.
7. The Decalogue is law.
Laws typically contain punishments; these are strikingly absent in the Decalogue, though much of later Jewish tradition assumed, with little evidence, that violation of the norms of the Decalogue are all punished by death. This is nowhere stated in the Bible. Indeed, it is best to understand these statements as admonitions, not as laws.
8. Stealing refers to kidnapping.
This is the view of the rabbis (see Mechilta of R. Ishmael and b. Sanhedrin 86a) and is supported by some modern critical scholars (e.g. Albrecht Alt). It is largely based on the notion that violation of most of the other sayings in the Decalogue is viewed elsewhere in the Bible as a capital offense, so this must be the case here as well, so stealing here must refer to the case of Exod 21:16, of stealing a person, which is a punishable by death. But nothing indicates that all of the sayings refer to capital cases; this is especially unlikely with the final case(s) concerning coveting.
9. We know “the” text of the Decalogue.
The Decalogue texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy differ in many points, small and large. This is explained in a variety of ways in Jewish tradition, most famously with the idea that both versions were spoken simultaneously by God: שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד.
Academic scholars suggest that the versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy reflect variant redactions of an older collection. The one in Exodus went through Priestly editing, and thus reflects the Priestly creation story ending with Shabbat in Genesis 2:1-4a; the Deuteronomy version underwent Deuteronomic editing, and thus offers the exodus as the reason for Shabbat observance, since this is a main theme of Deuteronomy. Thus, most scholars believe that both the Exodus and Deuteronomy version reflect changes over time to a much shorter original Decalogue, although no unanimity has been attained about that more original text.
10. The text of the Decalogue is internally consistent.
Jewish tradition (b. Makkot 24a; b. Horayot 8a) typically explains the change in reference to God in the first person in Exodus 20:2-6 (e.g. “I am the Lord your God,” “my commandments”) to third person in the remainder of the Decalogue (e.g. “the commandments of the Lord your God” “For in six days the LORD made” “the land that the LORD your God”) by suggesting that God only spoke the beginning of the Decalogue directly to Israel, while the rest was conveyed by Moses, who spoke of God in the third person. (This assumes that Exod 20:18-21, which describes the people’s plea that God cease speaking directly to them, describes events transpiring in the middle of the Decalogue.) Academic scholars, on the other hand, believe that this difference reflects different texts or traditions that have been combined.
Scholars have also pointed out that Exod 20:4 intervenes between vv. 3 and 5, and is thus secondary. Verse 5 refers to “them (להם)”, which is the logical grammatical continuation of v. 3 “other gods (אלהים אחרים)” in the plural, while v. 4 refers to “a sculpted image (פסל)” in the singular.
The Decalogue is presented in Exodus 20:1 and Deuteronomy 5:4 as the unmediated words of God spoken to all Israel on Mount Sinai/Horeb. It is striking, however, that Exodus and Deuteronomy do not agree on the precise content of this revelation. I would have imagined that such an important speech would have been preserved exactly, word for word, with no deviations. But this is not so.
Perhaps we can adduce a קל וחומר, an argument from the minor to the major, from this case example. If the Decalogue—presumed to be divine revelation by God to all Israel— was not preserved exactly, but is now found in the Torah in two versions, with significant differences, is it not then surprising that other biblical texts appear in doublets (and triplets), reflecting changes that transpired over time? (By Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler).
 The literature on the Ten Commandments is vast. In addition to the standard commentaries on Exodus and Deuteronomy, see most recently Michael Coogan, The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2014), and for Jewish perspectives, esp. Ben-Zion Segal, ed., The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990), and more recently, some of the essays in The Decalogue in Jewish and Christian Tradition, ed. Henning Graf Reventlow and Yair Hoffman (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 509; NY: T & T Clark, 2011).
 The proper singular in biblical Hebrew of each saying is a דבר; in Rabbinic Hebrew, these are typically called עשרת הדבּרות, where הדבּרות is the (irregular) plural of דיבּר which means a “divine utterance” (see Jer. 5:13).
 Scholars typically divide this section by the following verses to attain the number ten: v. 10; vv. 11-16; v. 17; v. 18; vv. 19-20; v. 21; vv. 22-24; v. 25; v. 26a; v. 26b.
 Concerning different religious traditions, see the by Bernard Levinson chart in The Jewish Study Bible, second edition, ed. Berlin and Brettler (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), 357 and within Judaism, see Mordechai Breuer, in The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition, “Dividing the Decalogue into Verses and Commandments,” 291-330.
 לֻחֹ֗ת כְּתֻבִים֙ מִשְּׁנֵ֣י עֶבְרֵיהֶ֔ם מִזֶּ֥ה וּמִזֶּ֖ה הֵ֥ם כְּתֻבִֽים:
 Exod 31:18; 32:15; 34:1, 4, 29; Deut 4:13; 5:22; 9, 10, 11, 15, 17; 10:1, 3; 1Kings 8:8; 2Chron 5:10.
 Laws have punishments and are part of a legal system; admonitions are not actionable.
 His view is cited and rebutted in Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11 (Anchor Bible; NY: Doubleday, 1991), 314-315.
 וְגֹנֵ֨ב אִ֧ישׁ וּמְכָר֛וֹ וְנִמְצָ֥א בְיָד֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:
 Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, “Bachodesh” 7; j. Nedarim 3:2; b. Rosh Hashanah 27a; b. Shavuot 20b. For more on rabbinic attempts at reconciling the two versions, see Martin Lockshin’s TABS essay, … and Rabbi Norman Solomon’s TABS essay, “The Two Shabbats of the Decalogue: A Historical Approach.”
11] See 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22—strikingly, the collocation זכר כי עבד היה + מצרים is only used in Deuteronomy, another stylistic argument in favor of source criticism.
 Contrast, however, 5:5!
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