Thursday, September 6, 2007

Awkward Bible Passages Part V

The LORD said to Moses, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain." So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD...

Then the LORD said: "I am making a covenant with you... Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. Do not make cast idols.

"Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt. The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

"Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk."

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.
- Exodus 34:1-5,10-28 (NIV)

Now, you may ask what's so awkward about the above passage, other than being awkwardly long for a blog entry. After all, you've read the ten commandments before. (The full passage is even longer, so I recommend reading Exodus 34 in its entirety.)

But read it closely; these aren't the Ten Commandments you're used to. The Decalogue we all know so well was originally given to Moses in Exodus 20 (remember that whole golden calf ordeal?). Those original commandments can also be found in Deuteronomy 5. The awkwardness in Exodus 34 is that the Lord says, "I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets," and yet completely forgets what he commanded the first time around. Note the addition of maxims such as, "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk." Truly words to live by; words that should be prominently displayed in our courthouses, don't you think? Gone are the previous injunctions against killing, stealing, and adultery (some of the few useful - though entirely obvious - morals presented in the original). These have been replaced with dietary guidelines and commands to observe certain feasts. God does remain clear that he is jealous, and will not tolerate idols.

Obscure as this passage may be, you might remember this event as the Sinai visit from which Moses emerged with a so-called radiant face. Turns out, the translation of the Hebrew "karan," which is often rendered as "rays" that emit from Moses' skin, is more literally translated as "horns" [Jonathan Kirsch]. Hence, the Israelites may have had trouble looking at his face not because it was too bright, but because it was grotesque. This is the translation St. Jerome used in his Latin Vulgate edition. It helps explain the classical depictions of Moses that include horns coming from his forehead, such as the famous sculpture by Michelangelo, or this 1518 baptismal font [above].

Returning to the Ten Commandments... I memorized the standard commandments when I starred as King Josiah in a fifth grade school play. To this day, I sing the song, "Count To Ten" when I want to recall a specific number. Here's a sample: "One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart. Two. Don't bow down to idols, that's not smart. Three. Never take the Father's name in vain. Four, keep the Sabbath holy; six remain." And so on it goes. (As an aside, some scholarship suggests that the Torah was compiled around 632-609 BCE, when Josiah "found" it in the temple, especially since the Israelites did not acquire a written language until a few hundred years after Moses supposedly died circa 1235 BCE [Thomas Robinson].)

Speaking of memorization, a reader (Peter) pointed out to me something I had never known: Catholics memorize a different set of commandments than Protestants do. He sent me this website on the "Catholic deception", which I highly recommend for humorous reading. It's written by a Protestant who's hip to the clever Catholic conspiracy to remove the prohibition against idols and graven images, and make up the difference by splitting the last commandment into two. Maybe he's on to something... it is indeed the Ten Commandments that Catholics (and apparently Lutherans) learn. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the Ten Commandments to see how they are divvied up by the various branches of Christianity. The confusion is somewhat understandable, as the original texts do not present an ordinal list denoting where one commandment ends and the next begins. To illustrate the point, try breaking down the list in Exodus 34 into ten distinct commands. There's a few ways to do it.

For a little bit of trivia: how many commandments, total, are in the Torah? Answer at the bottom of this post. Hint: the "Torah" consists of the first five books of the Bible - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are also referred to as the Pentateuch, and authorship has traditionally been ascribed to Moses (though modern scholarship postulates a number of authors vastly post-dating Moses, who is dubious even as a historic figure).

Whether you're using the originals, or this alternate list in Exodus 34, there's not much to the Ten Commandments themselves. The useful morals are quite obvious, and certainly don't need to be codified or spelled out for a modern audience. "What's that? Killing is bad?? Brilliant!! Why didn't I think of that?" The director of CFI Los Angeles (and friend of mine), Jim Underdown, gives a great presentation on the shortcomings of the Ten Commandments. You can find a very brief synopsis online, along with Jim's Eleven Strong Suggestions, which I think will prove far more useful in your day-to-day life.

My friend Sherri also had a good insight about the Ten Commandments: isn't it odd that in common depiction the tablets look like gravestones? Something to ponder.

(Thanks to Peter for the inspiration, and Wikipedia for the images.) Answer: 613.