The Ritual Decalogue versus the Ethical Decalogue Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Ritual Decalogue versus the Ethical Decalogue

1 Conversation

The Bible.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a well-known part of the scriptures of three great religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there are two very different candidates within the Bible for the title of 'The Ten Commandments'. These are known as the Ethical Decalogue and the Ritual Decalogue. The Ethical Decalogue1 is the more familiar of the two, with its injunctions against killing and covetousness. The Ritual Decalogue2 is far less known, and - as the name suggests - is mostly concerned with sacrifices and ceremonies.

What the Bible Actually Says

There is no clear story of Moses going up the mountain and being handed the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. The phrase 'Ten Commandments' appears just twice in the Bible, and on neither occasion is it directly linked to the Ethical Decalogue. Here is a list of all the verses relevant to the Ten Commandments, in the order in which they appear:

  • Exodus 20 has God speaking the Ethical Decalogue from Mount Sinai to the assembled Hebrews, but makes no mention of anything being written down and does not refer to them as the Ten Commandments.
  • In Exodus 24, Moses writes lengthy laws, then God calls him up the mount to give more laws, but in fact gives several chapters of ritual bumph on technical specifications for the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle. At the end of this, he gives stone tablets written 'with the finger of God' in Exodus 31. Moses then descends, sees the Hebrews worshipping a golden calf and smashes the tablets.
  • In Exodus 34, God tells Moses to carve two tablets 'like the first'. God gives the Ritual Decalogue and tells Moses to write the Ten Commandments on the tablets3.
  • In Deuteronomy 5, Moses gives the Ethical Decalogue to the Hebrews, saying God wrote it on two stone tablets - but does not mention the Ten Commandments by name.
  • In Deuteronomy 10, the story is repeated with slight variations. Moses is again told to carve two new tablets 'like the first', which God will carve the same words on. God proceeds to do this; this is referred to as the Ten Commandments, but it is not stated which Commandments are being referred to.

The Ritual Decalogue comes midway through a section describing the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the text immediately after the Ritual Decalogue reads:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

The phrase 'Ten Commandments' is used just twice in the entire Bible, and neither of those occasions is close to a list of the 'ordinary' Ten Commandments, the Ethical Decalogue.

From all this, the natural reading is that the Ritual Decalogue is the Ten Commandments, although with some confusion over what is carved in stone and by whom. However, natural readings can be misleading and there are other interpretations that have been put forward with the aim of proving that the Ethical Decalogue is the real Ten Commandments.

Popular Views on the Ethical Decalogue vs the Ritual Decalogue

If the Ethical Decalogue is to be considered the Ten Commandments, it is necessary to show that the Ritual Decalogue is not. There are several possible ways this might be done.

Two Sets of Tablets

The story makes clear that there were in fact two sets of stone tablets. Moses smashes the first set in anger, and has to climb the mountain again for a replacement. You can almost guarantee that some bright spark will suggest that the Ritual and Ethical Decalogues could be from the first and second sets of tablets. However, this is a non-starter; it is explicit that the words of God are unchanged, and are the same on both sets of tablets4.

The Number of Commandments

One argument in favour of the Ritual Decalogue would be that the Ethical Decalogue does not seem to consist of ten distinct Commandments. There are at least four different ways of breaking the text up into ten chunks, depending upon whether coveting houses is the same as coveting wives; whether 'I am the Lord your God' is a Commandment, part of a Commandment or preamble; and whether making idols constitutes worshippping other Gods. However, this last point applies equally to the Ritual Decalogue, which could also be said to have only nine Commandments.

There is a Break Between the Ritual Decalogue and the Phrase 'Ten Commandments'

The main - indeed, only - cause to suggest that the Ritual Decalogue is the Ten Commandments is that it seems to be described as such in the text. If it could be shown that the phrase 'Ten Commandments' is not referring to the Ritual Decalogue, then the case would be closed.

In the original Hebrew text, there is a subject break at the end of the Ritual Decalogue, just before Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain and, crucially, before he is told to carve the Ten Commandments. Thus, a line of argument dating back at least as far as the 13th Century Jewish scholar Nahmanides suggests that in the intervening period, God gave many other instructions to Moses, including the Ethical Decalogue. The confusion over whether Moses or God carves the stone tablets has frequently been used to support this5. God, it is claimed, wrote the Ethical Decalogue, but told Moses to write the Ritual Decalogue.

There are some problems with this idea; firstly, the Biblical text makes no mention of what, if anything, God said to write other than the Ritual Decalogue, so it is based on an assumption. The text does also seem to flow across the subject break; the Ritual Decalogue begins by describing itself as a covenant, and immediately afterwards Moses is instructed to carve 'this covenant' in stone as the Ten Commandments. The argument over who carved the second set of tablets is also problematic, as both Moses and God are explictly said to have done so6.

Nevertheless, this continues to have some support. Richard E. Friedman has even suggested that Moses was instructed to write the Ritual Decalogue on the back of the tablets containing the Ethical Decalogue.

The Ten Commandments are Given 'Out of the Fire'

As well as distancing the title 'Ten Commandments' from the Ritual Decalogue, it is also necessary to associate it with the Ethical Decalogue. This is tricky, as nowhere in the Bible is the Ethical Decalogue directly described as the Ten Commandments.

The only other place that the phrase 'Ten Commandments' is used is in Deuteronomy 10, where they are said to have been given 'out of the midst of the fire'. The only set of commandments given from a fire, the claim goes, are the Ethical Decalogue from Exodus 20. This therefore links the phrase 'Ten Commandments' with the Ethical Decalogue. The Ritual Decalogue has God in the form of a cloud, and therefore cannot be the Ten Commandments.

Naturally, it is not quite so simple. Exodus 19 does indeed mention God speaking to Moses from fire, but this is not where the Ethical Decalogue is given. Moses then descends the mountain and God gives the Ethical Decalogue to the Hebrews as a whole in the form of a thunderous smoke. God is also said to speak in fire and cloud and write on tablets of stone in his long speech from Exodus 24 to Exodus 31, so it would seem more natural for these to be the tablets being referred to, yet the orders given mostly concern the Ark of the Covenant and are clearly not Ten Commandments at all.

In fact, references to 'clouds', 'smoke', 'fire', 'thunder' and 'lightning' are used seemingly interchangably throughout this section to describe the appearance of God throughout the Exodus from Egypt. This raises problems in trying to connect two verses simply by their use of one of these words.

Scholarly Views on the Two Decalogues

Each of the opinions given above answers some problems with understanding the Biblical text, but raises others. However, the largest problem with all of them is that they work on the basis of an assumed inerrant text, something that non-fundamentalist experts have long since abandoned. Scholarly opinion on the Ritual Decalogue largely disagrees with all the theories given above.

It is generally accepted among historians that the whole story of Moses is historically inaccurate, with the Exodus, wandering in the wilderness and invasion of Canaan all contradicted by archaeological findings. It is, therefore, doubtful that there ever were any tablets, so it's not really meaningful to ask which set of Commandments is the 'real' one handed to Moses. Nonetheless, an explanation is still required for how two such different lists of Commandments came to be in the same holy scripture.

The Ritual Decalogue is a shorter version of the immediately preceding section of the Book of Exodus, known as the Covenant Code. It is not clear whether the Decalogue is a synopsis of the Code, or the Code is an expansion of the Decalogue, or if both are taken from a now-lost document. It does seem, though, that the two are closely linked.

The most widely-accepted explanation of how the Old Testament came to be written, the Documentary Hypothesis, posits four separate authors for the first books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch or Torah), spread out over time. It states that the Jahwist (from Judah) produced the Ritual Dialogue, while the Elohist (Israeli) tradition used the more complex Covenent Code. Again, it is not clear whether one was based on the other or whether both came from a third source, now lost, but both were combined to give a single document called the Jahwist/Elohist source. The Ritual Decalogue was replaced with the Ethical Decalogue by a later author, known as the Priestly source. By this hypothesis, the modern text was produced by a fourth writer, the Deuteronomist, who tried to combine both the Jahwist/Elohist document (containing the Ritual Decalogue) and the Priestly document (containing the Ethical Decalogue), giving us the combined text we have today (containing both).

This would explain why we have three slightly different accounts of the giving of the replacement tablets. Towards the end of the twentieth century, many variations on the Documentary Hypothesis were proposed, with assorted datings for each source and many of the elements being broken down further into sub-sources. The impact of this on our understanding of how the two Decalogues came to be in the same scritpture is fairly minimal.

For several reasons, all these variations agree that the first five books of the Old Testament reached their current form in the years surrounding the Chaldean (or New Babylonian) invasion of Jerusalem and the Exile of the Hebrews in Babylon (c. 586 - 537 BC). Both Decalogues bear a surprising resemblance to Old Babylonian laws, which were displayed in numbered lists carved in stone7, and there is other evidence of Babylonian and Mesopotamian influences in the Old Testament. Thus, it is likely that both the Babylonian empires were an influence on Jewish scripture, directly or indirectly. Some scholars also feel that the repeated references in the Ritual Decalogue to cattle and crops indicates a settled culture, not the nomadic people described in Exodus.

It is unlikely that we will ever find the exact truth of the origin of this scripture. For now, the Ethical Decalogue is likely to stand as one of mankind's earliest and greatest attempts at a synopsis of morality, however imperfect. The Ritual Decalogue has become a footnote to history and a boon to triviaphiles.

1In fact there are two very slightly different versions of the Ethical Decalogue, given in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 10.2From Exodus 34.3Exodus 34:28.4Deuteronomy 10:2-4.5For example in the 1899 Encyclopedia Biblica6In Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 10:4. 7The Code of Hammurabi, now on display in the Louvre, was discovered in 1901 and contains nearly 300 laws; it dates from around 1760 BC.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Edited by

h2g2 Editors

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more