The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text

The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text

by Michael Coogan


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The complex and surprising history of one of the world’s most famous texts

In this lively and provocative book, Michael Coogan guides readers into the ancient past to examine the iconic Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue. How, among all the laws reportedly given on Mount Sinai, did the Ten Commandments become the Ten Commandments? When did that happen? There are several versions of the Decalogue in the Old Testament, so how have different groups determined which is the most authoritative? Why were different versions created?
Coogan discusses the meanings the Ten Commandments had for audiences in biblical times and observes that the form of the ten proscriptions and prohibitions was not fixed—as one would expect since they were purported to have come directly from God—nor were the Commandments always strictly observed. In later times as well, Jews and especially Christians ignored and even rejected some of the prohibitions, although the New Testament clearly acknowledges the special status of the Ten Commandments. Today it is plain that some of the values enshrined in the Decalogue are no longer defensible, such as the ownership of slaves and the labeling of women as men’s property. Yet in line with biblical precedents, the author concludes that while a literal observance of the Ten Commandments is misguided, some of their underlying ideals remain valid in a modern context.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300212501
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,149,878
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Coogan is director of publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum, lecturer on Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School, editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and author of God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says. He lives in Concord, MA.

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A Short History of an Ancient Text

By Michael Coogan


Copyright © 2014 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17871-5


Idols and Images

June 10, 1956, was a sunny day in North Dakota. Smiling for the camera, the actor Charlton Heston, Judge E. J. Ruegemer, and two elected officials stood on either side of a large carved stone slab titled "the Ten Commandments" (Figure 1). Since the 1940s Ruegemer, a juvenile court judge, had led the campaign of the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE) to combat juvenile delinquency by distributing copies of the Ten Commandments to Boy Scouts and other civic and religious groups throughout the United States. The matinee idol Charlton Heston was there as part of the promotion for Cecil B. DeMille's film epic The Ten Commandments, which opened October 5, 1956, and in which Heston played Moses. DeMille joined the FOE campaign, and arranged and paid for public monuments to be erected all over the country, with the film's stars Heston, Yul Brynner, and Martha Scott appearing at the dedication of three of them. So a sincere, if naïve, campaign was co-opted by Hollywood public relations.

Some of these monuments, and other public displays of the Ten Commandments, have been the subject of court cases, including Van Orden v. Perry. Thomas Van Orden, an avowed atheist, sued the state of Texas (in the person of its governor, Rick Perry), claiming that the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin, Texas, also funded by the FOE (see Figure 2), was unconstitutional. He argued that it amounted to governmental endorsement of one religion, thus violating the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In its decision of this case in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the monument was constitutional and so could remain in place, because religion in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular, were part of the heritage of the United States, and so the monument's purpose was more historical than religious. In other cases, however, both lower federal courts and the Supreme Court have ruled that displaying the Ten Commandments, and other explicitly religious texts in public spaces and on government buildings, does violate the "establishment clause." The main exceptions are when the Ten Commandments are part of a display of great laws or lawgivers of history. That is the case, for example, in sculptures and decoration in the building of the Supreme Court itself. A second exception, according to Justice Breyer in his concurring opinion in Van Orden v. Perry, is when the monument in question has been there for so long that by dint of time it has itself become historic, like the monument in Austin, which was erected in 1961, in a public space with many other historic monuments and markers.

One of the arguments that proponents make in support of the FOE and similar monuments is that their content is not primarily or exclusively religious, and at first glance that would appear to be the case. Let us begin with the decorative frame, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. At the top, centered between the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, is a stylized version of the "Great Seal of the United States," found in its complete form on the one-dollar bill. The version on the monument combines the eye of Providence at the top of a pyramid from the back of the seal with the eagle from the front, which is holding in its talons the American flag. This then is very much an American monument, whose subject is not just the Ten Commandments.

In the upper corners, as if they were receding into the background, are the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, with an abbreviated version of the biblical text inscribed on them in stylized archaic Hebrew script. Balancing them in the bottom corners of the monument are two six-pointed stars, a symbol of Judaism, and centered between the stars is the Christian symbol [??], the first two letters of the title "Christ" in Greek (chi and rho) superimposed on each other.

Now let us consider the text of the Ten Commandments on the monument. It is severely abridged, stripped of the particulars that make it a very Israelite text. Gone is God's self-identification as the one who brought the Israelites "out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves" (Exodus 20:2). Gone too are the theologically challenging descriptions of God as jealous, punishing sons for their fathers' sins to three and four generations, and never forgiving the misuse of his name (Exodus 20:5, 7). Gone as well is the explanation of the Sabbath, which in the version of the Ten Commandments on the monument connects it with the unscientific view that the world was created in six days (Exodus 20:11). I should also note that the words rendered "manservant" and "maidservant" (as in the venerable King James Version) soften the sense of the original Hebrew words, which mean actual slaves, as the Israelites had been in Egypt; the alternate version of the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy makes this clear: "... so that your male slave and your female slave may rest like you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 5:14–15).

Curiously, the commandment concerning parents is not abridged. They are to be honored "that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." In its context on the monument, under the Great Seal of the United States, this could easily be interpreted to mean not the biblical Promised Land of Canaan, but the New Canaan, the "Providence Plantation" of the American people.

The FOE monuments, then, are hybrids: very American, very Christian, both secular and sacred. Their content and their placement in public spaces rather than in houses of worship seem to assert that the Ten Commandments is one of the central, even foundational texts of the United States, which is in essence a Christian (or perhaps a "Judeo- Christian") nation. But it is not very biblical for several reasons, one of which, in addition to those already given, is that its depiction of the eagle violates the commandment that prohibits the making of graven images.

Commercial, constitutional, and textual matters aside, there are more important issues: Is this ancient Israelite set of laws an appropriate, if controversial, American symbol? Are its values so easily transferable to a modern context? Before we can decide on the relevance for our time of a text that is several thousand years old, we should determine what it meant in its original setting, to its first audiences. To do so we will need to consider the Ten Commandments in their historical and literary contexts in the Bible, as well as in their broader ancient Near Eastern environment. We will see that the Ten Commandments are the stipulations of the contract or covenant between God and Israel, a central biblical concept that is also elucidated by other types of contracts in biblical and ancient Near Eastern law. Moreover, the Ten Commandments come from a culture different in many ways from ours. Ancient biblical society was overwhelmingly patriarchal, one in which women were essentially property and slavery was a given. The Ten Commandments reflect those values—but should they still be authoritative, even if contained in an apparently divinely given code?

We must also consider the ancient history of the Ten Commandments themselves. They are found not just in Exodus 20, but also in a slightly different version in Deuteronomy 5, and in a very different version in Exodus 34. Which version, if any, is original? When were the different versions created, and why? What does their very existence suggest about the nature of the Bible as a composite work that contains repetitions, inconsistencies, and even contradictions? Other biblical passages allude to the Ten Commandments, providing further evidence for their importance and relatively early date, but these passages have their own variations, also complicating the issue of immutability.

By late biblical times, the Ten Commandments had achieved a special status, as a kind of epitome of biblical teaching to guide belief and practice. That status is apparent in the New Testament and in other early Jewish and Christian texts. But also by then, and continuing up to the present, it is clear that the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Ten Commandments were not always observed literally, and various subgroups within Judaism and Christianity differed, and continue to differ, about how to interpret and apply them. Is making an image of God—or of any divine, human, or animal form—allowed, or not? Is the Sabbath to be observed on Saturday or Sunday? Are women hierarchically subordinate to men, and may people own slaves? Most important, should the Ten Commandments still be an authoritative text? These questions are the subject of this book.


A Contract Sealed with Blood

The book of Exodus tells how Moses, a divinely chosen if reluctant leader, led the Israelites out of Egypt. The miraculous escape from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land is the central event of the Hebrew Bible, celebrated in song and story, memory and myth, retold for each generation. It became the paradigm of divine action—God's "strong hand and outstretched arm" (Deuteronomy 4:34)—not just for Jews, but also for Christians and Muslims. For example, in Luke's gospel Jesus speaks of his imminent death, resurrection, and ascension as his "exodus" (Luke 9:31). In the complex web of biblical traditions, however, the exodus itself is a kind of prologue. It is followed by a stay of nearly a year at Mount Sinai, somewhere in Arabia, the mountain where God had first appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Sinai is the locale for the last half of the book of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first ten chapters of Numbers—nearly a third of the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Camped at the base of the mountain, whose precise location still eludes us, the Israelites received a lengthy series of commandments, statutes, and rules, as the book of Deuteronomy formulaically puts it.

The first set of instructions God gave, and the only ones he proclaimed directly to all the people, are familiarly known as the Ten Commandments. That term itself is not used in Exodus 20, when they are first proclaimed. Later, when Moses gets a replacement set because he broke the tablets on which they were first written, they are called in Hebrew the "ten words" (Exodus 34.28); this comes into English, through Greek, as "Decalogue," a more literal if somewhat more academic translation than "Ten Commandments."

But why are there just ten? Although some scholars have posited that there were originally fewer, or more, than ten, there is no ambiguity in the biblical sources: the primary revelation at Sinai, the contract between God and Israel, had only ten "words." As we will see, it is not always easy to find exactly ten commandments in the Decalogue, or to number them precisely, but the number itself is fixed. So, why ten? The most convincing hypothesis is that it was a kind of mnemonic, an aide memoire for instruction: these rules can be counted off on the fingers. But religious groups differ on precisely how the commandments are to be numbered, for the Bible in fact does not do so. Significantly, in Jewish tradition, the first of the ten "words" is God's self-identification: "I am Yahweh, your god, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves" (Exodus 20:2), not really a commandment at all, and the second "word" is the first commandment of Christian tradition: "You should have no other gods besides me" (Exodus 20:3). In this book, for convenience, I will refer to the commandments following a traditional Christian numbering based on their text in Exodus 20; see Table 1 in Chapter 3.

God's opening remarks at Sinai contain striking imagery and important language. When they had camped at the base of the mountain, Moses went part of the way up, alone, and Yahweh—God's personal name—spoke to him:

Thus you should say to the house of Jacob, and tell the sons of Israel: "You saw what I did to Egypt, and how I lifted you on vultures' wings and brought you to myself." (Exodus 19:3–4)

Yahweh summarizes the events of the exodus from Egypt with a vivid if ornithologically inaccurate metaphor. Despite the usual evocative translation "eagles' wings," the birds in question are not eagles, and certainly not the majestic bald eagle of American iconography featured on monuments of the Ten Commandments. Rather, they are vultures, more specifically probably griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus). These magnificent birds are equally majestic, with a wingspan that can exceed nine feet. Like the North American bald eagle, they are not actually bald (despite Micah 1:16), for their heads are covered with small white feathers. They are scavengers, feeding on carrion—"where the carcass is, there the vultures gather" (Matthew 24:28); that is why they are considered unclean (Leviticus 11:13; Deuteronomy 14:12). They make their nests high in cliffs, like those overlooking the Dead Sea, where their eggs and young are safe from predators. But what does the phrase "on vultures' wings" mean? The metaphor is elaborated in Deuteronomy, also with reference to the exodus from Egypt:

As a vulture stirs up its nest,
swoops over its fledglings,
spreads out its wings and takes them up,
lifts them on its pinions,
Yahweh alone led him. (Deuteronomy 32:11–12)

Underlying this may be a kind of folklore about how these birds teach their young how to fly. When a young bird has matured enough to be able to fly, one of its parents pushes it out of the nest, and as it feebly flaps its immature wings and plummets down, the other parent comes up underneath it, and carrying it on its back, returns the fledgling to the nest. This process is repeated until the young bird's muscles have sufficiently developed to fly on its own. Unlikely, to be sure, but a charming metaphor for divine concern, and a possible explanation of the phrase in Exodus 19.

Yahweh continues:

"And now, if you will truly listen to my voice, and keep my covenant, then you will become for me a possession treasured more than all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will become for me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation."

These are the words that you should speak to the sons of Israel. (Exodus 19:5–6)

In these momentous words, Yahweh asserts Israel's special relationship with him: it is to be his personal, treasured possession, his covenanted people. As such, it will be sacred, with all its citizens priests.

Moses then delivered these divine words to the people, and after they had made themselves ready, Yahweh appeared with all the manifestations of a storm god—dense cloud, thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and earthquake—and he pronounced to all the Israelites the first of his laws. After these had been given, the terrified Israelites begged Moses not to let the deity address them directly any longer; he should serve as intermediary, passing along to them further divine commands. Moses acceded to their request, and for the rest of the book of Exodus, God spoke directly only to him.

Before he had communicated the Ten Commandments, God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites that they must keep his covenant. Because of its frequent use in the Bible, we may be inclined to think we know what "covenant" means. But the concept of covenant, and the idioms and ceremonies associated with it, are deeply rooted in concrete ancient vocabulary and practice, and to understand it better we should explore those elements, drawing on both biblical and nonbiblical sources.

The word "covenant" (Hebrew berit) is a legal term, used in the Bible for ordinary human contracts such as marriage (see Ezekiel 16:8; Malachi 2:14; Proverbs 2:17) and debt slavery (see Job 41:4). It is also used for another kind of contract, which we call a treaty. In ancient treaties, kings made commitments of loyalty to each other. When they were equals, the treaty is called a "parity treaty," and the parties often referred to each other as brothers (see, for example, 1 Kings 9:13; Amos 1:9); when one was superior to another, the treaty is called a "suzerainty treaty," and the parties—the suzerain and his vassal, to use medieval terminology—often referred to each other as father and son, or master and servant (see, for example, 2 Kings 16:7). When the biblical writers used the term "covenant" to characterize the relationship between God and Israel, they had these legal analogues in mind: God was Israel's husband, owner, and ruler. The prophets Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel especially develop the marital metaphor; some legal texts speak of God as Israel's owner; and the Psalms and other texts often refer to God as king.

The last metaphor is especially pertinent. One of the most important scholarly insights of the mid-twentieth century was how biblical writers used the form of ancient Near Eastern treaties to elaborate their understanding of God's relationship to Israel. Several major clusters of treaty texts are known, from the late second millennium and the first half of the first millennium BCE. Like other legal documents then and now, these treaties share a common template—boilerplate, in legal speak. The template includes the following elements:

• Identification of the two parties to the agreement; in suzerainty treaties emphasis is on the more powerful ruler.

• A historical summary of the relationship between the two parties; in suzerainty treaties emphasis is on what the more powerful ruler has done for his vassal.

• A list of the obligations that the treaty imposes on both parties, especially on the vassal; these require loyalty to the suzerain and prohibit actions against other vassals of the suzerain.

• The invocation of the gods of both parties as witnesses; in the ancient world, the sacred and the secular were intertwined.

• Curses that the gods will bring down if the terms of the treaty are not kept, and blessings that the gods will bestow if they are. (A sample of an ancient treaty is reproduced at the end of this book.)


Excerpted from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS by Michael Coogan. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

The Three Biblical Versions of the Ten Commandments ix

1 Idols and Images 1

2 A Contract Sealed with Blood 9

3 Which Version of the Ten Commandments? 25

4 How Old Are the Ten Commandments? 35

5 Original Meanings 50

6 Which Laws Are Binding? 94

7 Up for Grabs? The Selective Observance of the Ten Commandments 113

8 Honoring the Ten Commandments 127

An Ancient Treaty 135

Notes 143

Sources 153

Acknowledgments 155

Index 157


Michael Coogan on the Ten Commandments:

The Ten Commandments have become a focal point in the culture wars that divide society. Held to be a concise summary of what God wants everyone to do—and mostly not to do—they have been displayed in public spaces to remind all of their supposedly unchangeable message.
But if the Ten Commandments were given directly by God, then why does the Bible have different versions of these supposedly divinely given rules? Why do modern displays abridge and alter them? Why have both Jews and Christians throughout history sometimes ignored and even disobeyed them? Are all of the values these ancient and historically conditioned laws express still valid today? 
As a biblical scholar I have been both amused and troubled by how the Ten Commandments have been wrenched from their original context and made into a kind of graven image, not to be examined or challenged. In this book I trace the history of the Ten Commandments from Moses to Cecil B. DeMille and the United States Supreme Court. I do so without presuppositions or dogmatic constraints, paying close attention to what they actually say. Contrary to many pastors and politicians who view the Ten Commandments as a timeless code, I conclude that some of the specific prohibitions and some of the values underlying them are no longer appropriate or acceptable in a modern, pluralistic society. Others, however, enshrine more universal ideals, that should be honored, although not by public display.

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