The Bible demonstrates diversity which is something I find very interesting, although it is also something that many Christians are fearful of. For example, we find diversity in how Samuel-Kings and Chronicles differ in their historical recollection of certain events, almost as if they present alternate histories (this will be reviewed in a subsequent post). Likewise we find some theological diversity in the 10 Commandments. But if there is any place in our Bible where we would not expect to find diversity it would be in the law. But this is exactly what we do find no matter how some Christians would like to claim otherwise (such a Christian would probably claim that the law only appears to be inconsistent for if it was really inconsistent that would mean God is inconsistent – this is an assumption I would like to challenge).
This diversity comes to the fore when realize that the Ten Commandments are recorded twice; once in Exodus 20:217 and again in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. However, although there are no differences in the order and content of the commandments, there are noticeable differences in the wording of the 4th, 5th, and 10th commandments. Does this suggest that God is inconsistent? Why is this the case?
We must remember to let the Bible speak for itself (not impose our worldviews on it) and since it demonstrates diversity we should ask “what does this tell us about the nature of Scripture and the nature of the God who reveals himself through it?”
We shall look at these differences in the Ten Commandments (Bold Italics represents differences between the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts):
Exodus (20:8-11): “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but 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 our animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.”
Deuteronomy (5:12-15): “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but 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. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that 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.”
Exodus (20:12): “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”
Deuteronomy (5:16): “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”
Exodus (20:17): “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (20:17)
Deuteronomy (5:21): “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Here we can now see the noticeable differences. We ought to note that these differences do not affect the basics of the laws themselves. The differences in the 5th commandment, for example, are rather insignificant. In the 4th commandment to “Remember the Sabbath” (Exodus) and “Observe the Sabbath” (Deuteronomy) is hardly a big dilemma. So, although the differences are inconsequential they are, in fact, there. Why then are there any differences between the wordings of the commandments? And what about the rest of the 4th commandment where it appears that the motives differ? For instance, Exodus has the motive for keeping the Sabbath because God rested on the seventh day of creation. Deuteronomy, however, has the motive being the intention for the Israelite servants to rest just as the Israelites themselves did.
An important clue is the way the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy are given/introduced. In this context we do not have the direct revelation from God as was the case with on Sinai in Exodus (where God gives the commandments himself). Instead, the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy have Moses recounting that experience for the Israelites who are now 40 years removed from the Sinai event. It also does not matter what theory of Pentateuchal authorship we subscribe to because the simple fact of the matter is that Deuteronomy presents Moses as someone who, forty years after the fact, recounting God’s words differently than they were given in Exodus. This is a clear case of diversity. But now that we know it is there, why is there?
There is no clear-cut answer to this question but we can provide educated guesses. Biblical scholar Peter Enns explains:
“One explanation for this difference is that the speech of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy expands Exodus by making more explicit Israel’s obligation to make sure that all those who work—whether children, servants, or animals—get their proper rest of one day in seven” (1). Enns goes on:
“One can also appeal to the different settings of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the latter having in view the more immediate occupation of the land” (2).
What this tells us about God is that he is willing to allow his law to be adjusted over time. For example, Israel may very well have been very close to the Promised Land in Deuteronomy, and needed to hear the fourth commandment differently. The context thus differs where in Exodus they lived in the desert and now, in Deuteronomy, they were about to inherit their land. Enns articulates:
“In other words, there seems to be a situational dimension to law, just as we saw with wisdom literature. Law is God’s revelation, but does that necessarily imply that it is static and unbending? Perhaps God himself understands—and in fact shows us—that even the law has a situational dimension. For any biblical law we can think of, obedience is much more than simply “Do what it says.” One must also understand whether the present situation calls for that law and then how that law is to be kept. Few Christians would have any argument against the sixth commandment, but believing it in principle is very different from acting upon it. Is capital punishment murder? What about abortion? What about protecting your family against an intruder?” (3)
I find this to be a very reasonable explanation. We are required to think for ourselves in specific circumstances that we find ourselves within. God has given us his law but there is also a wisdom dimension to it, and thus keeping the law is not a mechanical, legalistic process. Enns concludes:
“Even the Ten Commandments are open to diverse handling depending on the situation being addressed. To acknowledge such diversity is not to dismiss the law but to uphold it in the manner in which the Old Testament does” (4).
We will be reviewing more cases of Biblical diversity.
1. Enns, P. 2005. Inspiration and Incarnation. p. 145 (Scribd ebook format).
2. Ibid. p. 146.
3. Ibid. p. 147.
4. Ibid. p. 149.