A while ago I was online commenting in debates about the Bible and a woman told me something seemingly absurd about the Ten Commandments. She said that the so-called Ten Commandments that we are familiar with which include the famous “Thou shalt not murder” and so on, are not the actual Ten Commandments. She said that according to the Biblical story itself, the actual Ten Commandments were totally different.
I thought I knew the story, but after reading the Mount Sinai story through again, and paying attention to every detail, I noticed that she was right. I then began searching for arguments on both sides of this issue from religious apologists as well as atheists. This is what I have found: Surprise, the Bible is not consistent. The Ten Commandments, the most famous and allegedly central rules of the Bible, are something which the Bible itself cannot get straight.
So here is what the Bible actually says about the “Ten Commandments”:
God speaks to Moses in front of the Israelites and tells him the rules which we normally call “the Ten Commandments”. However they are not called the “Ten Commandments” here, and there is no mention of any tablets.
God then instructs Moses to ascend Mount Sinai and he tells him “Here are the legal decisions to be used by the Israelites” and he goes on to list a ton of random commandments ranging from what legal action to take if an ox gores someone, to how to handle a situation where a pregnant women is inadvertently punched in a fight, to what to do if someone curses their parents (kill him, of course) and other things.
Then in chapter 24, it says Moses wrote all these rules down, presumably into the “Book of the Covenant” mentioned in verse 7. So Moses goes back down the mountain and this point there is still no mention of any tablets.
Then soon after that in chapter 24, Yahweh commands Moses to go back up the mountain because:
“I will give you the tablets of stone on which I have inscribed the instructions and commands so you can teach the people.”
So Moses does this, but we are not told what was written on these tablets. Most people assume that it was that first list of ten laws including “Thou shalt not murder” and so forth. But I will show you why I think this is a wrong interpretation.
Yahweh proceeds to also give a massive number of instructions about buildings an altar and burning incense among other rituals which takes way longer than really necessary. Then in chapter 31, God finishes talking and we read this in verse 18:
“When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God.”
Now in chapter 32, Moses goes down the mountain holding these tablets which remember, are inscribed with rules that haven’t actually been told to the reader:
“Then Moses turned and went down the mountain. He held in his hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant… These tablets were God’s work; the words on them were written by God himself.”
He sees that the Israelites have begun worshipping idols, which enrages him, so he smashes the tablets on the ground because he has poor anger management skills. Then the next time Yahweh references the tablets he says in chapter 34 verse 1:
“Then the Lord told Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones. I will write on them the same words that were on the tablets you smashed.”
God explicitly says that he will write the SAME words that were on the first tablets. That is key. Then verse 4 tells us that Moses followed these instructions:
“So Moses chiseled out two tablets of stone like the first ones. Early in the morning he climbed Mount Sinai as the Lord had commanded him, and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands.”
At this point, Moses chiseled out the tablets but he has not yet written on them. Yahweh then comes down and says that he is making a covenant. He proceeds to tell Moses these rules (paraphrased for brevity):
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. Make no idols.
3. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover)
4. Sacrifice your firstborn of each of your animals to Yahweh
5. Rest on the Sabbath
6. Observe the Festival of the Harvest
7. All Israelite men must appear before Yahweh three times per year
8. Do not mix the blood of a sacrifice with anything containing yeast
9. Offer the first of your harvested crops to Yahweh
10. Do not boil a kid goat in its mother’s milk
Then the exact next verses say:
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”
There it is! The first use of the term the “Ten Commandments” in the Bible. And those are the rules it refers to–not the famous ones which, as I mentioned, were not said to be written on the tablets.
Now remember that earlier Yahweh had said:
“Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones. I will write on them the same words that were on the tablets you smashed.”
In light of that, anyone must admit that these are the actual Ten Commandments and that these were the words inscribed on the original tablets which Moses smashed (according to the Biblical story, that is).
But it gets stranger. Later in the story, in the book of the Deuteronomy, Moses retells the story of when he received the Laws from God, and this time his version of events is different from before. He says that God told him these commandments, and that these were inscribed on the two stone tablets:
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. Make no idols.
3. Do not misuse the name of Yahweh in vain
4. Rest on the Sabbath
5. Honor you mother and father
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor
10. You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbor
These are of course the “Ten Commandments” we are all familiar with. And after listing those commandments, Moses clearly states:
“These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.”
But this is a blatant contradiction. These are not the commandments said to be written on the tablets earlier in Exodus chapter 34!
The story was either changed for political reasons, or possibly the Exodus account was even misread by the scribe who wrote the book of Deuteronomy, resulting in the contradictory description of what occurred at Mount Sinai. That would be easy to understand given the bloated and confusing nature of the stories of the Torah.
Either way, it is one of the most severe and important contradictions in the Bible yet it is one that most people know nothing about. As always, it reveals that the Bible is a book constructed by priests and political leaders with their own fallible human minds, for their own purposes, building upon and changing previous stories and doctrine.
Christians try to explain this contradiction by claiming that the commandments in chapter 34 were “an addition” to the “original” commandments about murder, theft, etc, and that God had already written down the murder and theft commandments on the new tablets before Moses added the commandments listed in chapter 34. This is perhaps possible, but it is very unlikely for two reasons:
First, some of rules are the same (“Have no other gods” and “Rest on the Sabbath”) so these wouldn’t make any sense if they were meant to be in addition to another list which already included them. Also, 7 of the 8 remaining commandments from Exodus 34 were already given to Moses in chapters 20 through 23 which, again, would render them nonsensical as an addition, but easily explainable if the Bible is a collection of man-made edited texts.
Second, the fact is that the commandments in Exodus chapter 34 are the only ones explictly called “the Ten Commandments”. There’s no getting around that. So if Christians are correct that the Deuteronomy list is an addendum, then they are still wrong in asserting that the title “Ten Commandments” belongs to the ones listed in Deuteronomy.