The Ten Commandments by Brent A. Strawn

Transcript

Well I think I’d like to say about The Ten Commandments is clearly they’re important in the Bible and many people think they’re important.  They are important in the Bible.  They’re repeated twice in the Bible in Exod 20 and Deut 5.  So they’re repeated.  In both cases, they appear in the primary or pole position of the following legal material indicating their importance.  And at least in Exodus it’s clear that—well, in Deuteronomy as well—it’s clear that this is the unmediated words of God to all the people.  And the law that follows the Ten Commandments is mediated through Moses. But all Israel hears these Ten Commandments.

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So they’re important, they’re repeated; they’re in primary position; and they’re unmediated.  But what’s intriguing about the Commandments that people may not know is in fact there are two versions.  And we might even expand that two to more depending on how we consider a text like Exod 34, which is also thought to relate to the Decalogue in some ways or offer an alternative Decalogue, one that’s more ritually based; and the later parts of Deuteronomy, which seemed to be keyed in some ways to the Ten Commandments.

So the fact that they’re important is clear, and part of that is their repetition.  But the repetition is significant because the repetition is not identical.  So in fact, Deut 5, repeats the Ten Commandments, but makes some interesting changes—a number of them in fact.  Some of them are rather noticeable even in English translation.  For instance, the motivation for the Sabbath commandment,  in Exod 20, the motivation to rest on the Sabbath is because the Lord rested on the seventh day from creation.

But in Deuteronomy 5, you rest because you were a slave in Egypt and you know what it’s like not to have rest.  And so you ought to rest and give rest to others.  So there’s differences between the Commandments.  So despite the importance of the Ten Commandments, the repetition shows in fact that they are not unchangeable.  In fact, they are something like constitutional law, which as we know in our society is amendable, that one must amend the Constitution periodically according to time and circumstance and so forth.  And that’s the way it is with the Ten Commandments too even in the Old Testament.

Further amendments seem to be found in the Deuteronomy in the way Chapter 6-11 take up the first commandment and the way Chapters 12-26 take up the whole of the Ten Commandments and add case law related to their implementation.  So yes, the Ten Commandments are quite important and they are constitutional in a way, foundational, but not foundational it should be said for a society like ours, a secular, democratic sort of society and its courts.  Instead, the Ten Commandments are thoroughly religious.  They begin with the claim of the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt.

And so they are constitutional; they are foundational.  But for a different sort of society, ancient Israel-like society and its courts as well as perhaps for communities of faith that trace back to it.

 

Contributors

Brent A. Strawn

Brent A. Strawn
Associate Professor, Emory University

Brent A. Strawn is associate professor of Old Testament at the Candler School of Theology and Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University, where he is also affiliated with the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies and a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He is the author of What Is Stronger than a Lion? Leonine Image and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Academic Press and Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005) and editor of The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us About the Good Life (Oxford University Press, 2012).

A more accurate name for the Ten Commandments, literally translated as the ten words (deka = ten, logos = words).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Unrelated to religion.

Exod 20

The Ten Commandments


1Then God spoke all these words:

2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

3you shall h ... View more

Deut 5

The Ten Commandments


1Moses convened all Israel, and said to them:


Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall lear ... View more

Exod 34

Moses Makes New Tablets


1The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the form ... View more

Deut 5

The Ten Commandments


1Moses convened all Israel, and said to them:


Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall lear ... View more

Exod 20

The Ten Commandments


1Then God spoke all these words:

2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

3you shall h ... View more

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