Is it a coincidence that the set of commandments in Exodus 34 happens to number ten, like the better known 10 commandments of Exodus 20? -- Steven C. Yacconi

Like you, every time I read Exodus 34 I too wonder what the significance of these "ten commandments" is. At the Biblical Archaeology Seminar (in Boston, 2000), I attended a lecture on the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue ("ten words")--including Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 34--by Michael Coogan. (He was in fact one of my Hebrew teachers at Harvard twenty years earlier.) Coogan maintained that the 10 commandments originally circulated in different forms. Scholars sometimes call the Exodus 34 list "the Ritual Decalogue," as opposed to the "Ethical Decalogue" of chapter 20. In other words, your observation has not gone unnoticed by scholars. But why is this Decalogue so similar--and yet so different--to that of the original chapters earlier?

A good rule of thumb whenever we are "stuck" in our understanding of a Bible passage is this: Examine the context! After the earlier giving of the law in chapter 20, along with its amplification in the chapters which follow, Israel had fallen into gross idolatry in chapter 32. Moses had shattered the first covenant. Chapter 34 is a sort of "renewal" of the covenant, a strong warning against returning to the temptations of Canaanite idolatry. This section of Exodus deliberately imitates the original Decalogue: ten words of warning to urge moral, doctrinal, and religious purity in undivided devotion to Yahweh. From chapter 35 to the end of Exodus we read of the obedience of Moses and the Israelites in constructing the Tabernacle, faithfully and "according to the book."

Thus this second edition of the covenant serves a triple function: a rebuke after the idolatrous incident of chapter 32 (the golden calf/bull), a recap of God's distinctive covenant requirements, esp. by reminding them of the original Decalogue through its ten-part list, and a reminder to holy living, which anticipates Leviticus in its gravity and specificity.

Incidentally, many scholars recognize the reason there were two tablets to be not that they would not all fit onto one tablet, but that covenants were normally written out in duplicate: one copy for each party. In this case, one copy was Israel's, one was God's--which he graciously allowed Israel to keep.

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