Thursday, January 27, 2011

Were The Ten Commandments Meant For Everyone?

Were The Ten Commandments Meant For Everyone?

Posted: 26 Jan 2011 12:01 AM PST

Is it possible that at least some of the Ten Commandments were originally only meant for Hebrew priests?

To be clear, I have no proof for what I’m about to propose. I’m only going to put forward a few thoughts on the subject for consideration. If you are someone who believes that every word in some version of the Bible is literally and infallibly true, having also not changed over time, then nothing that follows will be of use to you. As is (hopefully) widely known, there are multiple versions of the Ten Commandments. This fact alone shows that Hebrew stories have changed over time.

(The name Ten Commandments is not used in Exodus 20, only in the Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 34 versions. I’m only using the term for familiarity’s sake.)

I am going to start with the version of the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20. This list is proceeded by an event that I think most people overlook or don’t bother to see as too important. In Exodus 18 Moses’ father-in-law Jethro questions why Moses is taking on the entire burden of deciding disputes for everyone. Moses tell Jethro he does so “because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”

To put this in context, this is before the Ten Commandments (and the rest of the laws recorded in Exodus) are created. Moses is apparently the only one who can do this job, being the only one who talks directly to the Hebrew god. Jethro makes a suggestion that Moses accepts in order to stop him from deciding disputes “from morning till evening.” His solution has Moses picking individuals to help resolve minor disputes, “…but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves” is the accepted solution in verse 22.

This is the lead-in to the story of the creation of the Ten Commandments–we have just heard how Moses has picked a set of helpers to decide disputes after teaching them their god’s “decrees and instructions.” In the next chapter, a preamble of sorts is given to the actual verbal declaration of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20. In chapter 19 there are a couple of interesting phrases, including verse 5-6: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” [emphasis added].

Moses and Aaron were part of the tribe of Levi, the one that produced the Hebrew priests

Why would that phrase, “a kingdom of priests,” be necessary? Remember that according to the Hebrew tradition, Moses is a descendant of Levi, the tribe that produces the Hebrew priests. (Levi was the head of one of the “12 Tribes of Israel,” one tribe for each son of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.) Then, in verses 22 and 24, restrictions on actions of priests are specifically mentioned before Yahweh will verbally present the Ten Commandments to everyone.

(As an interesting side note, in Exodus 20:22-23, right after the Ten Commandments speech, there’s one more reminder about “other gods”: “Tell the Israelites this: … Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.’” He just said in the famous first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” but needs to add as a post script that there are to be none “alongside” him either. It’s quite likely a deliberate foreshadowing attempt by the author given the upcoming golden calf fiasco. It also serves the purpose of getting rid of a justification of the golden calf by claiming it was not ‘before“ Yahweh, just a lower or subordinate god, getting them off the hook.)

Between the various versions of the Ten Commandments and their varying number, maybe some of them were originally not meant for everyone

After the verbal declaration that everyone can hear, from Exodus 21 to 31 Yahweh lays out a litany of other rules, concluding in Exodus 31:18 with this final note: “When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.”

So, at this point the story is famous: Moses sees the golden calf, breaks the tablets and has to head back up the mountain for another set after talking Yahweh out of killing them all. This set is different than the first, however, concluding with “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

Before the second set of tablets is created, however, Yahweh takes some vengeance (Ex. 32:27-29). “’Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, ‘You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day’” [emphasis added]. (Yahweh also in verse 35 “struck the people with a plague” for the golden calf.) Again, the Levites–the priests–are specifically mentioned and they “were blessed” for murdering 3,000 people.

Hebrew priests had lots of rules of their own to follow. Why wouldn't they have had a few of their own commandments, too?

There is no verse in the Old Testament that specifically targets the Levites as exclusively needing to follow the dictates of the Ten Commandments. But the special references to them in several places in the narrative just might mean at one point they had their own list of primary rules that has since been absorbed into a set aimed at everyone. As we can easily see from the different versions of the story, there is no consistent set of commandments, meaning that whatever the original intent, it was likely altered over time.

Plus, given contradictions that have Yahweh and/or his prophets ordering the breaking of these commandments by offering exceptions, the commandments are seen in a more reasonable light if at least some of them were not meant to be universal for everyone all the time. Dictates like not worshiping other gods, observing the Sabbath (not just the weekly one but all the “holy days”), and not using the god’s name in vain simply make more sense if they are seen as a set of rules just for priests.

There are lots of other rules which have priests engaging in rituals which make them “clean” and therefore the ability to perform their duties. Certain exclusive rules for their general behavior would not be unreasonable to add into the mix. The storylines which include references to priests specifically, may offer hints that older versions of the stories had this element. Eventually, some of the priest-only rules may have replaced or have been added to a different list to come up with the familiar versions of the Ten Commandments we now know that supposedly apply to everyone.

Finally, another consideration is that the Ten Commandments aren’t actually limited to ten. If the three different versions are looked at without the verse numbers added much later, the number of commandments can easily be seen to be higher than ten. This also shows that if there was an original list of “ten commandments,” that list has long since disappeared, having morphed into the three versions we have today.

This is just an idea and may not have enough merit to ponder for very long. But, if we look at this with the same attitude we approach other ancient religions and how ideas not only changed over time but were influenced by the beliefs of other peoples, we just might find a correlation worth pursuing.

Related articles:

1.       Lockland Ohio Sued: Remove 10 Commandments from Town Hall

2.      Action Alert: Proposed Ten Commandments display in Cape Coral, FL

3.      The Fab Ten Commandments and Parking


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