A woman today told me that if I live my life by the ten commandments I’ll be just fine.  I thought very little of it.  After all, the ten commandments are the first thing people mention when they don’t know very much about the bible and I’m quite used to downtown preachers.  But it got me thinking about it, and when I really pressed myself I could only remember eight of the ten.  It really seems like the sort of thing one ought to remember.  So I opened up a digital bible and searched for the term “ten commandments”.  This is what I found. (Exodus 34.11-26 paraphrased).

1. Don’t make deals with the people of judea: destroy their alters, images, and crops.

2. Worship no other gods because I am jealous.

3. Don’t make deals with the people of judea because when they sacrifice to their gods they’ll offer you some and if you eat it and take a wife from among them and their children will sacrifice to their gods.

4. Don’t make cast idols.

5. Keep the seven day festival of unleavened bread in commemoration of your exodus from Egypt.

6. All the firstborn male livestock belong to me.

7. Work six days rest one.  All men have to come before me three times a year and I will expand your borders.

8. Don’t serve sacrificial blood with leaven and don’t leave the ceremony until morning.

9. Bring the best of your fruit to the house of the Lord.

10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Exodus 34.27-28 “The Lord said to moses: write these words down; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.  I was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water.  And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten-commandments.”

That is the only time the term “ten commandments” appears in the bible.  Of course that’s not what people mean when they say the ten commandments.  The usual ten commandments are as follows (again paraphrased for brevity)

1. Don’t worship the other gods.

2. Don’t make engraved images of anything in heaven, or below the sea.  Don’t worship images.  If you do I’ll punish your offspring for three or four generations.  If you follow my laws I’ll bless you for a thousand generations.

3. Don’t use the Lord’s name wrongly.

4. Keep saturday holy.

5. Honour your father and mother.

6. Don’t murder.

7. Don’t commit adultery.

8. Don’t steal.

9. Don’t bare false witness against neighbors.

10. Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, ox, ass, or anything else he owns.

Now that’s more like it.  But where does this confusion come from?  Well, moses got the tablets from god, smashed them, and went back to get them again.  The second set of ten laws given to Moses, and the first set written above, is what the bible calls the ten commandments but the first, written below, is what we call the ten commandments.  Even the most apparently simple and widely cited part of the bible is pretty complicated and the subject of intense debate.

And this is why you need to read your bible.  Regardless of your faith.  For Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Atheists alike: the bible is one of the most important and influential books ever produced by humanity.  Think it doesn’t matter cause you’re not Christian?  Well a huge part of the world lives their lives according to one book.  To understand the world we live in, you have to understand the bible.  I’ve studied it in school, I’ve studied it for enjoyment and i’ve read it cover to cover several times and I didn’t even notice that the ten commandments are all mixed up.  Bible illiteracy is a real problem.  The woman giving out free instructions on how to live a good life probably doesn’t even know how confused the ten commandments are.  I would be surprised if she could even name the ten that we’re familiar with.  And surely she doesn’t think I ought not engrave pictures.  Bible illiteracy leads people to believe that the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John even though their authorship is explained in the bible.  Besides, if anyone really believe in all ten of the commandments, we would see less of this:imagesYeah, that’s a graven image of something from beneath the sea.

Read it.  Cover to cover.  Twice.  I might be the most important book ever.  If you don’t know what’s in it, you shouldn’t be telling anyone else whether it’s good or bad.  There are 613 laws in the Old Testament which, according to Matthew, Jesus promised to defend and uphold.  How many do you know?  How many do you endorse?  There are four separate versions of Jesus’ life in the four gospels.  Do you know where they converge, where they differ?  Which history do you take as truth if any?  Do you understand the challenges of translation from the original Greek and Aramaic?  These are real and challenging questions that must be answered.  You cannot escape the challenge by reading your favourite bits out of context and ignoring the rest.  Don’t hide behind the false security of consensus.  Find out for yourself.  Read it.

Just skip the bit with all the begetting.  It’s quite boring.