The Twenty Commandments?

Commandments by James Perkins
Commandments by James Perkins
Someone emailed me the following question this week, which they had received from an inquisitive atheist friend: In Exodus 20, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses subsequently smashes them after the golden calf incident, and when he returns to pick up a new set in Exodus 34, the list is somewhat different. Given that God claims that the words are the same as the previous ones, (Exodus 34:1) how can we explain this contradiction?

It’s an important question, and one I first remember coming across a few years ago in an article from the late Christopher Hitchens. So here’s the answer I gave. See what you make of it:

To my mind, this question is only really a problem if you assume that the text from Exodus 34:17 onwards is meant to be taken as the content of the Ten Commandments. But I think we have good reason to assume that it is not.

The reason we know these verses are not the Ten Commandments is because in v1 God says thatHe will write the Ten Commandments down and in v27 he tells Moses to write ‘these words.’ That suggests that the words written down by Moses cannot be the same ones as referenced in verse 1, but rather some other words.

Now of course, some people will simply claim that this is another contradiction in the text – the author couldn’t make up his mind about whether Moses or God wrote the words – but only a seriously dumb writer would allow such a contradiction to stand in such a short piece of text, and it’s an impressive form of chronological snobbery to assume that people in the ancient times were too thick to spot such an obvious contradiction!

To my mind the best answer to the question is that God wrote down the Ten Commandments, which were the same as in Exodus 20 (and not listed here in this passage) and He instructed Moses to write these extra words from v17 onwards. So in v28, God – not Moses – is the “he” who wrote the words of the Ten Commandments.

This squares with how the author of Deuteronomy describes the event. In Deuteronomy 4:12-13 he describes the first encounter on Sinai in which God wrote the Commandments on the tablets and then in 10:1-5 he describes the second encounter. In chapter 10 he emphasises that Godpromised to write the words (v2; cf. Ex 34:1) and that God – not Moses – did write the words (v4; cf. Ex 34:28). He also stresses that they were in the same writing as before, and that they were the same as the words that had been given on the day when God had spoken on the mountain in the midst of fire. The author of Deuteronomy thinks they were exactly the same, which means that the words written by Moses were different.

On top of that, Moses was up there for 40 days (Exodus 34:28) so it’s pretty reasonable to assume that they may have had some other stuff to chat about on top of the original Ten Commandments!

So – what do you make of my answer? How would you have responded? And is there anything I’ve missed?

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