by Lawrence Downing

I do not recall when I first noticed the difference between the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 10 and the Ten Commandments recorded in Deuteronomy 5. The edit was a puzzle. As I thought about the change, a couple of ideas came floating by that I will share.

The Fourth Commandment, and the other nine, the text in Exodus states, were written by the finger of God and presented to Israel, through Moses, as the summation of God’s will for His people. It is to be expected a document with God as both author and scribe will be unalterable throughout the centuries. This was not the case. A second edition of the Ten Commandments contains a version of the fourth command that differs from Exodus 20.

12Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5(NIV).

Consider the implications and risks involved for the one who revises a passage understood to have been written by the very finger of God. Why would anyone be so bold? How would the hearers allow this liberty? Unfortunately no evidence exists to answer these questions.  We can, however, speculate. Be aware that speculation is just that, a less than satisfying and exegetically risky procedure. With this warning stated, I will venture into a speculative area and see where it leads.

Decades and generations had passed since Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel. They had been only months on the trek that led from Egypt and looked forward to reaching the Promised Land. In the plains around Sinai the Lord spoke the Ten Commandments. One of the Ten is unique among all the others. In a brief statement and within the context of the creation of a new nation, the Lord calls His chosen people to remember that in the beginning the Lord spoke and by the power of that Word made heaven and earth within a specific time. In commemoration of that creative process, the newly created nation is to keep the Sabbath as an everlasting memory of God’s creative acts. God’s creative process and its conclusion, we see in this passage, provides the context from which Sabbath arises and provides its perpetuity. Now, a generation later, comes Deuteronomy.

According to the text in Deuteronomy Moses again gathered about him the Israelites and spoke the Ten Commandments. The generation that first heard the Commandments is gone. A new generation has formed. This people had spent the last four decades wandering about the wilderness. Without their Egyptian roots, isolated from societies other than their own, dependant on God’s generosity for survival, and awaiting the fulfillment of a long-past promise that they will find a new home in a land long ago promised to Abraham. They camp now on the borders of that Promised Land.

The new nation had fought battles and won territory. They had defined their place in history and were ready to take their place among the nations. As the words of the Ten Commandments are spoken to this people Moses recites their past. As he prepared to address his people he may have realized what now gave identity to this new nation and assured them they were a special people was not creation of a world, but the creation of a people. Freedom is the cry. God had rescued them from slavery and had brought forth a political and religious power. They were by this great act of redemption made ready to venture forth to fulfill their destiny. Their recent Exodus experience was a more powerful and pertinent event than a fuzzy recollection of a far removed creation story. Moses understood his people and adapted the Fourth Commandment to make it more applicable to the immediate times. 

If the above speculative exercise is close to accurate, and if it is not, how else does one account for the audacity that is evident on the part of the one who rewrote the Fourth Command? How else to explain the modification to what God had written? But if, and it’s a large ‘if,’ the edit was made in an attempt to make the fourth command speak to the people and to their experience there is a lesson to consider. Our views and understandings change. What once was important may be less so today. Should this occur, I suggest the example of the edited Fourth Commandment provides evidence that even the words written by the hand of God can be modified in response to a changed context. It would be fascinating to question Moses on his rationale for the edited Fourth.