By Israel Drazin
People think of the Bible as a book of instruction, telling people how to act; yet it is frequently obscure.
One example among hundreds is Exodus 18:7 that relates that when Moses’ father-in-law Yitro came to visit him in the desert, he bowed and kissed him, and one man asked the other about his welfare. We have no idea who bowed, who kissed, and who asked.
Another example is that the Bible uses seven different names for Yitro, as in Exodus 4:18, and we have no idea why it does so.
Still another is that we are told in the chapter 18 episode that Yitro brought Moses’ wife and children from Midian, yet Exodus 4:20 says that Moses took them with him when he traveled to Egypt. Did Moses send them back to Egypt and, if so, why?
More significantly, the details of many biblical laws are not stated. For example, one of the most important biblical commands is the mandate to rest from work on the Sabbath, but the Bible doesn’t say what activities are prohibited during the Sabbath.
Good literature contains obscurities and ambiguities which encourage readers to become partners in the development of the tale; for readers imagine their own ideas and flesh out what happened and what will occur. While this is good for narratives, leaving out legal details is not helpful. It was in response to such ellipses that Jewish tradition codified laws and said they were the Oral Torah that was also revealed by God to Moses.
Many of these Oral Laws contradict the written Torah laws because of changing circumstances, leaving many Jews to realize that they are not Torah Jews, but Rabbinical Jews.
Many people, including clergy and scholars, are convinced that the Ten Commandments are the fundamental principles of all religions and that all religions accept them. This is not so. The following are some facts about the Ten Commandments.
- This revelation is called Asseret Hadibrot in the Hebrew Bible. The words do not mean “ten commands” because there are more than ten commands in this document. The words mean “ten statements,” which have more than ten commands. Scholars and clergy differ on how many commands are in the document. Some say eleven, others twelve and thirteen; but all agree that there are more than ten. The Latin translation of Asseret Hadibrot is Decalogue, which also means “ten statements.” The term Ten Commandments is a wrong translation and it does not reflect the facts.
- There are two versions of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible, one in Exodus 20 and a second in Deuteronomy 5. The basic commands are the same, but there are differences in wording, spelling, and the reasons for two of the commands, the Sabbath and honoring parents.
- The Hebrew Bible in our hands today is called the Masoretic Text because its wording and spacing, among other things, was set by a group of scholars called Masorites during the eighth to the eleventh century CE. They kept Exodus 20:2-5 and Deuteronomy 5:6-9, which Modern Jewry considers the first and second commands, as a single statement and divided what Jews today consider the tenth command into two statements. Thus the generally accepted Masoretic version of the Decalogue is different than the version that is not in the Hebrew Bible, which Jewry decided to accept.
- While many others interpret the various commands literally, the rabbis understood the prohibitions in a non-literal manner. For example, do not steal forbids kidnapping, murder disallows only unprovoked and unjustified killings, and coveting is not a bar against thinking, but against acting.
- Roman Catholics made more substantial changes. They deleted mention of the exodus from Egypt which is in the first statement because it is not an essential part of Christianity. The deleted the command against idols in its entirety because many Roman Catholic homes had statues and, like the Masorites, they divided the tenth command into two to complete the number ten. The long discussion about the Sabbath being the seventh day was deleted because of the Christian change of the Sabbath to Sunday. The reasons for not taking God’s name in vain and honoring parents were deleted. The Church understands their two commands about coveting as interior thoughts, not actions.
- Islam sees the commands differently than the Jews and Roman Catholics. Among other diversities, it speaks of Allah, forbids drawing pictures of Allah, mentions the holiness of Friday instead of the seventh or first day, and allows – according to some interpretations – the killing of infidels. It forbids wives to commit adultery, but allows husbands to have more than a single woman. It also, according to some interpretations, allows Muslims to steal from unbelievers.
In short, the notion that everyone accepts the Ten Commandments is simply not true.
Exodus 20:21 states that the altar that would be placed in the tabernacle and later in the two temples must be made “of earth.” The law was apparently insisting that one of the core parts of the tabernacle and temples should be simple to teach people the value of simplicity. The law was never implemented. Exodus 37:26-28 states that the altar was made of gold.