09/10/2012 08:11 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Ten Commandments You Never Knew

"Of course I know the Ten Commandments," I hear you muttering. "Worship only God, no idols, observe the Sabbath, don't kill, steal, lie, cheat on your spouse..."

Yeah, that's not them. It's a common mistake, and before I did my homework, I, too, was blissfully unaware that the Ten Commandments we were taught as good, God-fearing Christian kids are actually not the rules that were called the Ten Commandments in the Bible!

But a little background first. There are 95 uses of the word "commandment" in the five books of Moses. Well, that's in the King James, anyway. In the TNIV ("Today's New International Version"), this number drops to just 10. The others have been changed to "commands" in any place that doesn't refer to the "Ten."

Significantly, Yahweh talks about keeping commandments three times before the Ten make their appearance in Exodus 20. See Exod 15:26, 16:28 and, yes, even way back in Gen 26:5, where Abraham "kept my commandments, statutes and laws." The TNIV changed this to "commands, decrees and instructions." In a Hebrew Torah, it's the same word in all locations. It's easy to see that in some bibles, the translators don't want any hint that "commandments" or "laws" existed prior to the Mt. Sinai event.

This subtle alteration of words is common in modern translations and serves to lend desired (but previously non-existent) emphasis to particular passages. Another classic example is "messiah" (Hebrew), "christ" (Greek) and "anointed" (English); they actually all mean the same thing. I'll write more on this "selective translation" in the future.

In Exodus 20, after the Ten Commandments that we all know and love, there's a quick segue about how scared the Israelites were, and then Yahweh drones on for fully two more chapters with non-stop rules. There's not even a break in dictation between Exodus 20:22 and 23:33. Only then does the Good Book tell us that Moses "wrote down everything the Lord had said" (Exodus 24:4). So the "Ten" is actually more like the "Fifty-Two." After that, we're told that Moses then went up the mountain and spent 40 days with the Big Guy.

But it doesn't stop there. While Moses is up-top, more instructions ensue from chapter 25, right through to 31. At the very end of what is now 11 chapters of Yahweh barking orders to Moses, "He gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of Elohim" (Exodus 31:18).

Chapters 32 and 33 describe how and why Moses broke the first two tablets, and then we get down to business. Chapter 34 opens with Yahweh instructing Moses to make two more tablets and hike back up the mountain to allegedly write the same rules. But instead, Yahweh issues the following 10 rules, and only these 10:

  1. Worship only Yahweh, whose other name, we learn, is Jealous. Take the hint.
  2. Don't make idols.
  3. Celebrate the Pita Bread festival.
  4. Every first-born belongs to Yahweh, including humans.
  5. Never go to church without an offering.
  6. Observe the Sabbath.
  7. Celebrate the Festivals of Weeks and Ingathering.
  8. No yeast in sacrifices, and don't save Passover food for the morning.
  9. Offer only good fruit to Yahweh (look what happened to Cain!).
  10. Don't boil a goat in the milk of its own mother.

The Bible then tells us that Moses "wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant -- the Ten Commandments" (Exodus 34:28). This is the first time the phrase "the Ten Commandments" appears in any Torah or Bible. Some, though have even changed this occurrence of "commandment!" Young's Literal Translation has "the Ten Matters" and The Message has "the Ten Words."

This Ten is today commonly called the "Ritual Ten Commandments" to distinguish it from the so-called Ethical Ten Commandments. So how did the Ethical Ten become "the" Ten?

Well, to find out, we need to exit Exodus, pass over Leviticus and Numbers, and delve into Deuteronomy, where we find the next occurrences of the phrase "Ten Commandments." Deuteronomy 4 has a couple of hints, in that it confirms that ten commandments were bellowed by Yahweh and written on two stone tablets. The Ritual Ten don't seem to have been shouted, as the Ethical Fifty-Two were.

Deuteronomy 5 lists the Ethical Ten in almost identical words to Exodus 20, except they're just called "words." Few bibles even use "commandments" at this juncture. Plus, Moses claims that Yahweh said only those rules and nothing else, which kind of erases a baker's dozen of chapters from Exodus, and we can't have that; how will we know if we should kill witches?

Moving on, then, we get to Deuteronomy 10, which, although not actually listing the Ritual Ten, otherwise confirms everything else in Exodus 34, including that the second set of tablets held the "Ten Commandments."

With these three being the only mentions of "Ten Commandments" in the whole Bible, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that someone decided to "adopt" the phrase for a different set of rules. If the Ten were the Ethical Ten, then even Jesus got them wrong. Twice (see Matthew 19:16-19 and Matthew 22:34-39).

Any Christian will tell you that the Ten Commandments, and not our mutual empathy for each other, are the only things stopping us from chaos, and now it turns out they're the wrong commandments! All this time, I could have been killing, lying, insulting my parents and stealing stuff! Boy, is my life going to change now!!

Naturally, I'll immediately stop using my mother's recipe for milky goat broth; a Commandment's a Commandment, after all.