#169. Yahweh makes a covenant with Israel based on which Ten Commandments? (Ex 24:3-8 vs Ex 34:27)


Both Exodus 24:3-8 and Exodus 34:27 present Yahweh as making a covenant with the children of Israel based on “all of Yahweh’s words (Ex 24:4) and “based on these words” (Ex 34:27). Yet the words, or commandments, referred to in each of these passages, Ex 20:1-23:19 and Exodus 34:14-26 respectively, are not the same—despite the fact that the text claims that they are (Ex 34:1)!

This contradiction is an extension of the 2 versions of the Ten Commandments (#134-135). Despite the fact that there are two different commandments upon which these two covenants are made, the later Deuteronomist will add yet another set of law codes and claim that those are the laws by which Yahweh made a covenant with the people. We will look at this contradiction later.

In the composite JEP text that we now have before us, these two once independent Ten Commandments traditions were brought together by a later editor to form a new narrative—the giving (Ex 20-23), breaking (Ex 32), and re-giving (Ex 34) of the Ten Commandments. In source critical terms this narrative is composed of the Elohist’s account of the giving of the laws (Ex 20-23—with the insertion of the Ten Commandments (#133)), the Elohist account of the breaking of the covenant via the Golden Calf sin (Ex 32), and the Yahwist version now used as the re-giving of the covenant/Ten Commandments. To further complicate matters, Exodus 34:1 has Yahweh profess that he is writing down on the stone tablets the same Ten Commandments. But this is clearly not the case!

Here are the 2 version.

E’s (?) Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17)

1. I am Yahweh your god; you shall not have other gods before my face!

2. You shall not make for yourself a statue or an image.

3. You shall not swear falsely by the name Yahweh, your god

4. Remember the Sabbath day.

5. Honor your father and your mother.

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet you neighbor’s house.

J’s Ten Commandments (Ex 34:14-26)

1. You shall not bow down to another god; for Yahweh is a jealous god!

2. You shall not make molten gods for yourself.

3. You shall observe the festival of Unleavened bread.

4. You shall redeem every first born of your sons!

5. You shall observe the Sabbath.

6. You shall make a festival of Weeks.

7. Three times a year every male shall appear before Yahweh, god of Israel.

8. You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice on leavened bread.

9. You shall bring the firstfruits of your land to the house of Yahweh your god.

10. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

The Elohist version is undeniably the more familiar. But it is the Yahwist account that actually, and only, accredits these “ten words” of Yahweh as the Ten words or commandments. Immediately following the tenth commandment—You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk—the text states:

And Yahweh said to Moses: “Write these words for yourself, because I’ve made a covenant with you and with Israel based on these words.” And he was there with Yahweh forty days and forty nights. He did not eat bread, and he did not drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words (Ex 34:27-28).

Apparently then, J’s version, the only version that explicitly labels them the Ten Commandments, is the original. How is it then that the Elohist version is more familiar and seemingly more authentic? The answer has to do with the Deuteronomist’s influence on popularizing and authenticating this tradition (Deut 5:6-18). It additionally has greater appeal because its commandments are ethical in nature. And this brings us to the broader differences between these two versions of the Ten Commandments.

When we compare the two accounts, we readily see that only 3 of the Ten Commandments are similarly listed in both accounts: #1, #2, and the Sabbath commandment (#4 & #5).

It is also quite apparent that the Yahwist Decalogue is highly ritualistic in nature: 8 of its Ten Commandments are concerned with keeping ritual observances. On the other hand, the Elohist, or Deuteronomic version as the case may be, is more ethical in nature, which would certainly be in harmony with the thrust of the rest of the Deuteronomic law code.

In any case, these two once separate versions of Yahweh’s ten words, have nonetheless been co-opted into a new narrative framework: the giving, breaking, and re-giving of the covenantal code. Scholars have observed that this narrative framework—the giving of the covenantal Ten Commandments at Horeb, the breaking of the same covenant as symbolized by Moses’ smashing of the stone tablets because of the people’s sin in the Golden Calf affair, and the remaking of the tablets and re-giving of Yahweh’s Ten Words—reflects the historical realities of the late 8th century BC, at least as it was interpreted through the theological lens of the Deuteronomist.

As we will soon examine, both the punishment for the Golden Calf incident and Jeroboam’s “great sin” as depicted by the Deuteronomist (2 Kgs 17) are the same: the destruction of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 BC—an event itself symbolic for the broken covenant!

That is to say, this editorial narrative framework could not have been created before 722 BC, so that the historical event of Israel’s fall to the Assyrians could be understood theologically as Yahweh’s breaking of the covenant with Israel, and conversely reestablishing it with Judah.

We will discuss these texts further as we move forward through the Elohist’s account of the giving of the laws (Ex 20-23), the Elohist’s account of the Golden Calf narrative (Ex 32), the Yahwist’s account of the ritual Ten Commandments (Ex 34), and finally the Priestly account of the Sinai event wherein no Ten Commandments are given to Moses, but only the instructions to build the Tabernacle and anoint its sole officiating priests, Aaron and his sons (Ex 25-31 & 35-40).

3 thoughts on “#169. Yahweh makes a covenant with Israel based on which Ten Commandments? (Ex 24:3-8 vs Ex 34:27)

  1. Very illustrative to put them side by side like that. I am sure the Chief Supreme Justice of Alabama would have second thoughts about hanging the Yahwist version up in his courtroom. They are strikingly different in their focus. The Yahwist version seems very selfish towards Yawheh having everything to do with paying actual tribute, including bloody (potentially very bloody if the firstborn part is taken literally) and rather “primal” sacrifices, while the Elohist version is mostly about how the people should behave to one another, a much more “civilized” code, reminiscent of Hammurabi’s with no requests for tributes at all. No small task to merge such different approaches. Is that perhaps how the very detailed and sacrifice oriented laws Leviticus is so full of with different offerings for different transgressions came about, trying to link ethics and tributes, which had the additional benefit of supporting a good life for the Aaronid priest caste?

  2. Surely apologists have responded to this at some point, right? I feel like this is a description of the problem on the surface, but that it doesn’t address other interpretations made in defense of the Bible. It seems that, if people are willing to try to defend the inerrancy of the Bible even in the face of contradictions like this–or even more glaring like Ezra 2 / Nehemiah 7–that it is worth noting why their explanation is less satisfactory than that of the Documentary Hypothesis.

    This website, for example, goes through some of the arguments attempted in defense of these discrepancies: http://h2g2.com/approved_entry/A31699344 I found that useful for understanding how these two things are, in fact, contradictory, and not just superficially so.

    1. Ryan, when you say “it doesn’t address other interpretations made in defense of the Bible” what do you mean? Ok, I see where you’re going. I’d say that those “interpretations” defending what is implied in the label “Bible” are a far cry from what I’m attempting here—defending the once individual texts on their own terms, i.e., understanding them on their own terms and each from within their own historical and literary contexts, before they were co-opted for a later interpretive endeavor. Later interpretive communities impose their own views and beliefs onto these texts through that which is implied in the title “the Book.” None of these interpretations are about the texts. That is why I don’t deal with them. They are rather about the interpretive lens placed upon these texts, and which often parades itself in the title “the Bible.”

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