Are the Ten Commandments Historically Reliable?

Once again there is a big stink over whether or not a monument bearing the Ten Commandments should be displayed on public property.  This time it is in Florida (Cross City) where a five-foot, six-ton, $20,000 granite monument with the commandments listed on it has been plunked down on the front steps of the Dixie County courthouse.  This in-your-face devotion may have good intentions, but the display arouses questions in regard to the background of the “laws” allegedly handed down by god to Moses.

The first four injunctions of the Ten Commandments, also called “Decalogue,” are aimed solely at trying to inveigle god’s conditional love.  As presented, these commandments were penned in the 8th century BCE by priests of Yahweh to use as their authority over the people.  Read the first four alleged “commandments” again: they have nothing to do with maintaining justice, evenhandedness and ethics within society; they are fashioned exclusively to flatter the ego of an imagined humanlike deity.

It must be remembered that the Hebrew Scriptures as we know them were fashioned upon collected oral folklore and modified to written accounts in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE (700s).  These tales were added to and modified through the next century.  In fact the book of Deuteronomy was not added to the lineup of priest-books until around 536 BCE during the reconstruction period  following the “Babylonian Captivity.”  At that time some enterprising men (priests) discovered versions of Judah’s spiritual past, which are now known as the E, the J, and the P versions, and edited them into the works known as Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, and it was at this time that the work now known as Deuteronomy was added. To present it all as “holy” authority, the works were then claimed to have been dictated by god to the character of Moses on Mount Sinai.  Then it was easy to have the assertion accepted that the whole Torah was from Moses’ hand—this despite that such belief meant that Moses often spoke of himself in the third person.

The Hebrew name for what is more widely known as Exodus is We’ elieh semot, which begins, “And these are the names…”  This opening phrase serves as the name for the book, which is a convenient link to the preceding narrative of Genesis.  It is not accidental that the opening words of Exodus which lists the descendants of Israel utilize precisely the same words as found in Genesis 46:8.  So too, there is considerable narrative borrowed from Genesis 12 which revolves around the alleged promise of Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob regarding progeny and land ownership.

Where could the inspiration for the lordly commandments have come from?  Certain facts from genuine ancient history provide clues.  Around 2600 BCE a ruler of Sumer, who was named Urukagina, found so much immoral activity in his kingdom that he found it necessary to post laws for the people to obey.  The long inscription is regarded as the first-ever record of social reform, and it was instituted from a noble concept of freedom, equality and justice.  A few of the injustices that Urukagina addressed included the unfair use by supervisors of their power to take the best of everything for themselves; the abuse of one’s official position; and the practice of monopolistic groups to extort unbearable prices.  Sounds discouragingly like GOP politics in the USA today, doesn’t it?

Approximately 842 years later (c. 1758 BCE), Hammurabi of Babylon would decree a similar code upon the immorality found within his kingdom.  These laws were displayed on a stele for the public to see, and the king depicted himself as receiving the law code from the god Shamash.  The code sought to protect the weak and the poor against the injustices practiced at the hands of the rich and powerful.  The Hammurabi code was strictly a civil code of 282 paragraphs, not a pretense of religious worthiness.  Many of the punishments were based on the principle of equal retaliation—the juvenile “eye-for-an-eye” revenge approach.  This, in turn, was utilized in the Hebrew myths by those who presented the tale of the Ten Commandments as having been handed down to Moses by god.

Jump ahead to the timeframe c. 637 BCE.  King Amon of the little state of Judah was assassinated, and his eight year old son, Josiah, became king.  Young Josiah was to bring about religious reform to Judah, and the impetus for this was the suspicious coincidence of the High Priest Hilkiah “discovering” within the walls of the Temple which was being repaired, the “Book of Law”—the alleged last sermon by Moses to the children of Israel.  When the High Priest’s secretary, named Shapan, read the sermon aloud to Josiah, the boy was horrified, for it convinced him that his ancestors had failed to obey the Lord’s strict instructions given to Moses.

The timely “discovery” of this work, which is almost certainly the work of the High Priest Hilkiah and his secretary Shapan, would become the core of the scriptural book known as Deuteronomy, and is widely accepted as meaning “second law.”  In Hebrew this work is called debarim, meaning “words,” taken from the opening verse.  It is from this “discovered” Book of Law that the “Israelites,”which at that time was promoted as the faithful of Yahweh, were charged (with typical cult prohibitions) to have no transactions, no social interaction, and no intermarriage whatever with the native inhabitants of the region.  Followers were to understand that Yahweh was a most psychotically jealous god.  And the “discovered” sermon of Moses clearly stated, “For you are a people consecrated to Yahweh your Elohim; it is you that Yahweh our Elohim has chosen to be his very own people out of all the people of the earth.”  This is now included in Deuteronomy 7:5-6; and so too are all the other alleged demands said to have been listed in the discovered “Book of Law.”  It was in this timeframe that the working foundation of what is now known as the Old Testament was set down.  As a result, the Ten Commandments thus appear in three places in Scripture; Exodus 20:1, Exodus 34:28, and in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

When considering the Ten Commandments, we should pause to ask, “Which Ten Commandments?”  Even the scriptural accounts relate that the first set of commandments (in Exodus 20) wound up in broken fragments due to Moses falling into a fit of rage (Exodus 32:16-19).  The second version of the commandments (Exodus 34), had little resemblance to the first!  Had god forgotten what he had said originally?

According to the highly edited version from which we are instructed to take as moral guidance, the first four commandments concern only how we are supposed to think about god if we are to receive his conditional love.  The remaining six commandments express no concern on how to be compassionate, impartial, upright, tolerant or enlightened—the very soul of genuine morality.  The single commandment expressed in positive terms is honor thy father and mother.  The remaining commandments (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, as popularly presented) are couched in decidedly negative terms–“thou shalt not.”

Is this questionable background of Moses’ alleged relay of god’s laws a worthy cause to indulge in deliberate disobedience of civil law?

5 Responses to “Are the Ten Commandments Historically Reliable?”

  1. Wellhausen came up with this grand theory based on the idea that story forms are repeated, God is referred to by different names in different places, perceived style variations within the books and perceived theological variations in the books. Period. He had no real evidence. He read the books, applied his skepticism and made a colossal guess. There are no manuscripts of J, E or P. There’s no records that support the argument. It’s a guess based on a supposition grounded firmly on a foundation of speculation. Higher criticism isn’t based on proof. You talk as though these are facts based on real history and evidence. Or maybe you can point to manuscripts or archeology that supports the argument… Really, J, E, and P are based totally on subjective reads of the Torah.

    • chouck017894 Says:

      Any method of categorizing a subject can be questioned. You say there are no J, E, or P documents per se, and that is true in a narrow sense. But Julius Wellhausen’s divisionary classification has merit because it recognizes the inconsistencies such as writing styles, period settings, location references, and repeated use of storylines. Attempts over the centuries at fine-tuning alleged events of one small group of believers raises suspicion and exposes the “holy” works as unreliable history. It is alarming that very little in the “holy” accounts can be authenticated. Trying to reshape history to fit a faith system’s ideology makes for a poor map to reach a soul-state of spiritual enlightenment. You say that higher criticism isn’t based on proof: considering that practically nothing in scriptures is based on proof, that is an interesting tact to use to defend a hypothesis of divine accuracy.

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