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The Ritual Decalogue is a list of ten commandments in the book of Exodus 34:10-26, identified in Biblical criticism as the Ten Commandments mentioned by the Bible. In this context, the traditional Ten Commandments are known as the "Ethical Decalogue". The Ritual Decalogue appears in the text at the point where the Ten Commandments are inscribed into the second set of stone tablets. Thus it seems that it is they, rather than the Ethical Decalogue, which are there identified as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28).

The name decalogue (δέκα λόγοι) means ten terms (Hebrew עשרת הדברים aseret ha-dvarîm), that is, the terms of the Covenant with Israel. They have minor social significance today compared to the Ethical Decalogue.

The commandments

The following is a paraphrase of the Ritual Decalogue. (See Ten Commandments for the actual wording.)

  1. Make no covenant with the inhabitants of other lands to which you go, do not intermarry with them, destroy their places of worship.
  2. Do not cast idols.
  3. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days in the month of Abib in remembrance of the Exodus.
  4. Sacrifice firstborn male animals to Yahweh. The firstborn of a donkey may be redeemed; redeem firstborn sons.
  5. Do no work on the seventh day.
  6. Observe the Feast of First Fruits and the Feast of Ingathering: All males are therefore to appear before Yahweh three times each year.
  7. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice with leavened bread.
  8. Do not let the Passover sacrifice remain until the following morning.
  9. Bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple of Yahweh.
  10. Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk.

Biblical context

After Moses destroyed the original two stone tablets in anger at the incident of the golden calf, he re-ascends Mount Sinai to obtain a second set of tablets. While orthodox Judaism and Christianity hold that both sets contained the Ethical Decalogue, a number of scholars believe that the Torah identifies the Ritual Decalogue as the commandments of the tablets, based on the following biblical text:

[…] Yahweh said to Moses, Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. […] I hereby make a covenant.
[ritual commandments of Exodus 34]
Yahweh said to Moses, Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. […] And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments [עשרת הדברים aseret ha-dvarîm].

This is the only place in the Bible where the phrase aseret ha-dvarîm is directly associated with a set of commandments.

Documentary hypothesis

The commandments in the Ritual Decalogue are expanded upon in the Covenant Code, which occurs prior to it in the Torah, and thus have the impression of being a summary of the important points in the Code. The Covenant Code is believed by most scholars of biblical criticism as having originally been a separate text to the Torah, and thus there is much debate as to the relationship between the Ritual Decalogue and Covenant Code. There are essentially two positions, neither of which is decisively supported, either by evidence, or by number of scholars:

  • Either the commandments of the Ritual Decalogue were originally indistinct commandments in the body of a much larger work, such as the Covenant Code, and were selected as being the most important by some process, whether gradual filtering or by an individual,
  • Or the Covenant Code represents a later expansion of the Ritual Decalogue, with additional commandments added on, again either by gradual aggregation, or by an individual.

The documentary hypothesis identifies the Ritual Decalogue as the work of the Jahwist, from the Kingdom of Judah, and the Covenant Code as that of the Elohist, from the Kingdom of Israel, both writing independently. It does not however answer the question of how these texts were related, merely that the Ritual Decalogue circulated in Judah, and the Covenant Code in Israel. What the documentary hypothesis does partly explain is the relationship of the Ritual Decalogue to the Ethical Decalogue, and why, instead of the Ethical Decalogue, it is the Ritual Decalogue which is written on the two tablets when Moses ascends the mountain to have the Ethical Decalogue inscribed for a second time.

The documentary hypothesis claims that the Jahwist and Elohist texts were first combined by a redactor, producing a text referred to simply as JE, in such a way that it now read that God dictated the Covenant Code, which was written onto stone, Moses subsequently smashing these stones at the incident of the golden calf, and thus having to go back and get a new set, with a set of commandments, the Ritual Decalogue, resembling the first. Under this reconstruction another writer, the Priestly source, later took offence at parts of JE, and rewrote it, dropping the story of the golden calf, and replacing the Ritual Decalogue with a new (ethical) decalogue initially based on it, but taking commandments from elsewhere as well, and replacing the Covenant Code with a vast new law code, placed after the Decalogue for narrative reasons, most of which forms the greater part of the mitzvot in Leviticus.

The reconstruction then suggests that a century later yet another writer, the Deuteronomist, objected to the Priestly source, and rewrote it yet again, but in a different style: that of a series of flashbacks, producing a second slightly different copy of the Ethical Decalogue, and re-introducing the golden calf. Presented with such divergent versions of the same event, a later redactor is thought to have combined all three versions — JE, the Priestly source, and Deuteronomist, together. JE and the Priestly source were interleaved together, altering JE so that it was now the Ethical Decalogue which was written on the first set of tablets and subsequently destroyed. The alteration, by careful juxtaposition, subtly implied that the second set of tablets also received the Ethical rather than Ritual Decalogue, despite the text saying, immediately after the Ritual Decalogue,

The LORD said to Moses, Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. […] And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments [emphasis added]

Academic interpretation

Due to the lack of religious importance placed on the Ritual Decalogue in modern times, the majority of discussion concerning it exists within academic circles. While a portion of the decalogue, discussing the position of other gods, idols, and a day of rest, is similar to the Ethical Decalogue, the majority of the commandments are quite different.

The Ritual Decalogue exhibits particular concern with religious contamination by ostensibly Canaanite practices such as Asherah poles. These scholars believe the pillars to be phallic symbols of one or another god. In Genesis, Jacob is described as setting up a pillar at Bethel, and dedicating it to Yahweh by anointing it, a common practice by the pagans in the religious worship of phallic stones which has survived into modern times for example in Hindu worship of a lingam. Thus, these scholars contend that the pillars described in the Ritual Decalogue were representations of Yahweh's divine law for all of Israel.

The commandment prohibiting the cooking a goat in its mother's milk is generally believed to be behind the broader Jewish dietary law prohibiting the mixing of meat and milk. However, this commandment is believed by some academics, such as Robert Gordon, to condemn a specific religious ritual, differing from that of the Temple in Jerusalem and described in the Ugaritic Ras Shamra tablets, that involved cooking a goat kid in this manner. The majority of critical scholars, for example Richard Hiers of the University of Florida, support the idea that the commandment derives from a concern for the welfare of the mother. This concern is thought to stem from a belief, common also among herding societies in East Africa such as the Kaguru, that cooking an animal in its mother's milk will have a harmful sympathetic effect on the mother, causing her to cease lactating, to fall ill, or even killing her. (See the works comparing African beliefs to the Torah commandments by David Felder, a professor of African philosophy.) Thus this commandment would be a protective injunction in a largely herding society such as Canaan in the early first millennium BCE.

One of the commandments is believed by critical scholars to be a political attack. Under the documentary hypothesis, the commandments are believed to have been written down around the time of Jeroboam, and thus the commandment condemning 'molten gods' (cast-metal idols) is thought to be a condemnation of the religious practice of Jeroboam in casting two golden calves set at the ends of his kingdom as rival shrines to the Temple of Jerusalem. The story of the golden calf of Aaron, which the Torah appears to be referring to here, is an Elohist attack on Jeroboam (and on Aaron), and thus originally not present in the same work as this commandment. The golden cherubim of the Temple in Jerusalem were not formed from molten gold, but only gilded, and thus the commandment specifically excludes them from its condemnation.

The Ritual Commandments also indicate that some older religious practices were to be continued. The harvests of this agricultural community were to be the subject of three religious Feasts, which only later lost their strong agricultural overtones and were renamed. It is notable that even though the ancient practice of sacrificing firstborn children to God by Moloch had been banned, the belief that the firstborn belonged to Yahweh persisted, and thus still required that they be redeemed. The cost involved in redeeming a son is given repeatedly in the Priestly source, but that of a donkey is given in the commandments, indicating that it had become fixed by this point. The belief that the essence of life resides within the blood, and thus that blood should not be eaten, shows up in the commandment prohibiting the mixing of blood with bread, and the related belief that fat stores evil is apparent in the command to burn it away quickly and not leave it until the morning.

Several scholars believe that the commandment numbered 8 above is a later addition, for here Passover called by its modern name. Elsewhere none of the feasts have their modern names; Passover, for example, is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread in commandment 3.

Further reading

  • Levinson, Bernard M. (July 2002). "Goethe's Analysis of Exodus 34 and Its Influence on Julius Wellhausen: The Pfropfung of the Documentary Hypothesis". Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 114 (2): 212–223. doi:10.1515/zatw.2002.011. ISSN 0044-2526. 
  • Mendenhall, George E. (2001). Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction To the Bible In Context. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 0-664-22313-3. 
  • Friedman, Richard Elliott (1987). Who Wrote the Bible?. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-671-63161-6. 
  • Mendenhall, George E. (1973). The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-1267-4. 
  • Kaufmann, Yehezkel (1960). The Religion of Israel, From Its Beginnings To the Babylonian Exile. trans. Moshe Greenberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

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