I’m no longer the note-taker for the Hirshleifer-Rosett Â FacultyÂ TanakhÂ Study Group, so I haven’t been reporting on its activities in this space, but it continues to flourish; we’re now reading Exodus, and today we hit Chapter 20, the Ten Commandments.
Or, as it turns out, not.
It’s news to me, as no doubt to most of you, but that phrase does not occur in the Biblical text. In Exodus 32:28, when the original pair of tablets is replaced, the new tablets are referred to as containing “the words (×“Ö¼Ö´×‘Ö°×¨Öµ×™, divarai)Â of the covenant, the ten words (×¢Ö²×©×‚Ö¶×¨Ö¶×ª ×”Ö·×“Ö¼Ö°×‘Ö¸×¨Ö´×™× , asheret ha-devarim).” (For reasons utterly obscure to me, the later tradition usesÂ debrot,Â the feminine plural, rather than the masculine pluralÂ devarim.)
There’s no ambiguity here. “Commandment” Â (×žÖ´×¦Ö°×•Ö¸×”, mitzvah) is a key-term in the text, and in Jewish tradition. Its root is the word for “command,” or perhaps it would be better rendered as “instruction” or “guidance.” Â AÂ mitzvah is that which one is commanded or instructed or guided to do; the Talmudic rabbis counted 613 of them in the Torah.
Devar, by contrast, means “word” or “statement” or “speech”: thus the Greek “Decalogue.”Â Â In particular, what the Jewish tradition has always counted as the first of the asheret devarim -Â “I am HaShem your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” – is not a command, but a statement of fact. It serves as the first of ten clauses making explicit the covenant to which the Children of Israel had already assented (Ex. 19:8).
I’m not sure when or how the mistranslation happened. But once again we see the great wisdom of the founders of Harvard College (as a Congregationalist seminary) in requiring entering students to know Hebrew.
UpdateÂ Commenter Raghav Krishnapriyan corrects my Hebrew. (Only in America!):
14 thoughts on ““Ten commandments”? Ain’t no such thing in the Bible.”
I knew that.
It's also interesting that even Christian traditions don't agree on what the 10 Commandments are. (Catholics split "you shall not covet your neighbor's stuff" from "you shall not covet your neighbor's wife"; most Protestants put those two together, and split "You shall have no other gods before me" and "You shall not make any images."
These discussions always remind me of Mel Brooks as Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai.
Wonderful, I'd forgotten that. Thanks!
Perhaps your study group heard the old anecdote of the Jewish couple staying in a Howard Johnson's in the Midwest, where the wife was puzzled by the sign that said "Remember the Seventh Commandment."
"Wouldn't that kind of cut into some of their business?" she asked her husband.
He replied, "They aren't Jewish. They just don't want people to take their towels."
I pretend to no erudition on this and particularly not on the Hebrew terms. In my JPS translation from 1966, the replacement tablets contain "testimony" that's "written" on both sides (but the verse is 32:15). My Webster's gives first use of "Ten Commandments" as 13C, though I don't know on what authority.
I can say, though, that going back to and actively teaching Hebrew was a distinguishing feature of certain Protestant sects, mainly I think starting in the 17C and possibly influenced by easy access in Holland to the Sephardic exiles. Earlier and contemporary translators (eg James's crew) knew it, but these (Reformed churches, I believe) were distinguished by teaching it widely to their ministerial students. Harvard got it from them, being strongly influenced at that date by the different Reformed churches of northern Europe. Of course, at least as important to their understanding of the text as knowing Hebrew was their Christological foundation for reading it.
Oops! Those were the original ones in 32:15. The JPS says "words of the covenant, the ten words" in 34:28. KJ says "words of the covenant, the ten commandments." Webster's dating of the phrase to the 13C follows the Britannica, which says that they weren't particularly important until a 13C confessional manual made them key in defining sins. Protestants made them and presumably the phrase central in catechisms. So the phrase itself would have originated in Latin and become formulaic by the time of the KJ.
The OED gives as its earliest citation of "The Ten Commandments" this:
c1280 Early Eng. Poems & Lives Saints (1862) 16 Of þe x commandemens..þe first comondement is þis, O God we ssul honuri.
My old Oxford college, Corpus Christi, taught Hebrew from its founding in 1517: a Renaissance rather than a Reformation impulse. The Reformation of course made the study of Hebrew vastly more important. Tyndale studied at Oxford a little earlier without benefit of Hebrew, and apparently had to learn it in Germany.
On the post itself: perhaps we should reword the song from Porgy and Bess –
A couple of grammatical nits to pick:
(1) ×¢Ö²×©×‚Ö¶×¨Ö¶×ª should be transliterated /aseret/. The dot on the upper-left of the shin turns it into a sin.
(2) Dibrot (not debrot – under most circumstances, you can't have two consecutive shvas at the beginning of a word: http://goo.gl/rs0Lo2) isn't a feminine plural: it's the plural of a different word, diber (×“×™×‘×¨), meaning "utterance." While dibrot looks like it should be feminine, it's actually part of a class of masculine nouns that have feminine-sounding plurals. You can find a list of other such words here: http://www.safa-ivrit.org/irregulars/pluralfm.php
Oh, and ×“Ö¼Ö´×‘Ö°×¨Öµ×™ should be transliterated /divrei/ or something similar, since that's a shva under the vet. It's simply devarim in the construct state (smikhut).
Fascinating. Feel free to take a stab at translating the whole Ten guidances/whatnots, if possible. Sometimes it's good to get back to the basics.
So what you're saying is that god actually DID call them the Ten Suggestions? 🙂
Using "shalt not steal" to shoehorn into this thread:
Yglesias is one of the few with courage to take on the rampant predation of the 'financial planner' industry. He's gone as far as saying we must prevent parasites from getting their hands on people's money.
According to the think tank DEMOS (link below), as relayed by Yglesias and David Dayan, nearly 2/3 of the gain from retirement savings is being skimmed away by the professional you thought was helping you invest wisely. $155,000 skimmed away from the average two-earner couple.
The good news is, I got Him down to ten. The bad news is, He won't budge on adultery.
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