Why are there two different (not duplicate) versions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible?

Q. I saw an interesting video about God telling Moses to write some additional commandments on stone tablets. The first version was given to Moses when the Israelites got to Mount Sinai. We call these the Ten Commandments, and they’re what’s etched on all the stone monuments we see. But Moses broke those tablets in anger. The Lord called him back up onto the mountain and told him what to chisel on some new stones. The Bible also calls these the “Ten Commandments.” But most of them are different. Why?

You’re absolutely right. I never noticed this until you asked about it, but there is a second version of the Ten Commandments that’s different from the first! (Moses repeats the first version word-for-word in Deuteronomy, but there’s a second, quite different version in Exodus.)

Here’s  the first list:
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. You shall not make images and bow down and worship them.
3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

And here’s the second list:
1. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land.
2. Do not make any idols (=#2 above).
3. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
4. The first offspring of every womb belongs to me.
5. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
6. Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest (=#4 above).
7. Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.
8. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.
9. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.
10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

Here’s what I think is going on. The first version of the Ten Commandments provides a prelude or overture to the whole body of law that God delivers to Moses at Mount Sinai. In Exodus, this body of law is described as the “Book of the Covenant.”

When God renews the covenant with Moses after the people have broken it and Moses has smashed the original tablets, God gives Moses a “new” set of Ten Commandments. These summarize the whole “Book of the Covenant” by citing specific laws drawn from all parts of it. So the new Ten Commandments are no longer an overture to the Book of the Covenant but a summary of it, offered through representative items. Here are links to the representative laws, scattered throughout the Book of the Covenant, that these “new” Ten Commandments are based on:

1. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods.
2. Do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.
3. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
4. You must give me the firstborn of your sons, your cattle, and your sheep.
5. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
6. Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work.
7. Celebrate the Festival of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops . . . celebrate the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year.
8. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast. The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning.
9. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.
10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

(Note that the two laws that are also in the original Ten Commandments, about not making idols and not working on the seventh day, are quoted not from the Ten Commandments themselves, but from later laws within the Book of the Covenant that repeat their admonitions.)

There’s really nothing that mysterious happening here, once you understand the principle behind each version of the Ten Commandments. As I’ve just said, the first version is an overture to the Book of the Covenant, while the second version is an overview of the Book of the Covenant, consisting of a selection of representative laws.

But it is interesting to observe that it was this second version of the Ten Commandments that was actually placed within the ark of the covenant, carried around through the desert, and finally safeguarded within the tabernacle and the temple. Nevertheless, the first version was preserved through the telling of the story of the encounter with God at Mount Sinai (as we see, for example, when Moses re-tells that story in Deuteronomy).

So we can consider that both versions are actually the heritage of God’s covenant people and that  we can continue legitimately to make use of the first version. That’s a good thing, because it expresses foundational moral principles that transcend time, place, and culture. It would be a bit strange if we had replicas of the Ten Commandments in our homes or churches that said, “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”!

Rembrandt, “Moses with the Ten Commandments.” The front tablet bears commandments 6–10 in the original version, written in Hebrew, and the suggestion is that the back tablet contains commandments 1–5. However, biblical scholars generally believe that all ten commandments were written on each of the two tablets. In keeping with the practices of the time, there was one copy for each party to the covenant, God and Israel. Both copies were kept together in the ark of covenant.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Why are there two different (not duplicate) versions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible?”

  1. Doesn’t Exodus 34:1 say that the second set of tablets had the same words as the first?

    Were the list of commands in verses 12-26 written on the replacement tablets, or written elsewhere? Doesn’t v28 just echo v1?

    1. I agree with you that there’s some ambiguity here. At the beginning of the account of the second tablets in Exodus, God says to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (34:1). However, God then says, “I am making a covenant with you” (v. 10), and after reciting the ten “new” commandments, God says, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (v. 27). Exodus then says that Moses “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments” (v. 28). It’s helpful to recognize that the Hebrew term that the NIV translates as “words” and “Commandments” here is dabar, which can mean “word,” but which more generally means “thing” or “item.” Indeed, the “Ten Commandments” are not literally just ten “words,” but ten “things” that the Israelites must do or not do. So we can understand God to be saying at the beginning of this account that effectively the same things will be written on the second tablets as on the first, that is, things that are emblematic of the covenant. God’s instructions at the end would be, “Write down these things, for in accordance with these things I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And so Moses wrote these ten things down on the tablets. The account that Moses gives in Deuteronomy of these second tablets begins in the same way: ““Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones . . . I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (10:1-2). This could be understood the same way as the virtually identical statement in Exodus: “I will write [effectively] the same things on the second tablets as on the first,” that is, an overview of the Book of the Covenant, equivalent to the original overture to the Book of the Covenant. However, as the account in Deuteronomy continues, Moses says, “The Lord wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly” (v. 4). This seems harder to reconcile with the account in Exodus. Readers will have to decide whether to interpret the Exodus account in light of Deuteronomy, or to understand Deuteronomy in light of what appears to be a description of a new version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. Clearly both things could not have happened, so it has to be one or the other. I think either conclusion would be satisfactory.

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