My Return to South Africa

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 26 December 2007 0 Comments
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I have read several of your books and as a result have changed my
thinking I believe to a more rational approach to Christianity
and the Old Testament.

With regard to the Old Testament, I don't recall having read your
opinion regarding Moses and the birth of the Ten Commandments.
Did God speak to Moses via a burning bush and dictate the Ten
Commandments? I think not. It seems to me Moses and perhaps a
group of Jewish elders wrote the Ten Commandments after a great
deal of thought and discussion. The idea of course was for the
purpose of developing guidelines for the people to follow for the
betterment of all concerned. I believe it was decided Moses
would spend time in the mountains and then return with the Ten
Commandments stating they were given to him by God via a burning
bush. The chance of the people following these guidelines was
much greater than if Moses told the people he and the elders
wrote the Ten Commandments after much thought and discussion and
felt as civilized people they should be followed as law.

If they had followed that path, there would have been endless
discussion about what should and should not be included. Why Ten
Commandments? Should there be more? Perhaps less, etc. The Ten
Commandments as we know them probably would be nonexistent today.

The power of religion cannot be over estimated. One only has to
look today at what some radical Muslims have been taught from
childhood, i.e., to hate and kill Jews and "infidels" truly
believing it is God's will to do so.



No! God did not dictate the Ten Commandments or the Torah to
Moses on Mt. Sinai. There are in fact three different versions
of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. The oldest one is from the
oldest strand of the Torah, and was written around the year 950
BCE. It is found in Exodus 34. It is quite cultic with the last
commandment of the ten being "thou shalt not boil a kid in its
mother's milk". To my knowledge I have never even been tempted
to break that commandment! The familiar version of the Ten
Commandments is in Exodus 20 but it represents at least two
sources, one from the 9th century or about 850 BCE and one from
the period of the Exile, in the 6th century or about 560 BCE.
Keep in mind that Moses lived around 1250 BCE.

The third version of the Ten Commandments is found in Deuteronomy
5 and comes from the late 7th century, or about 625 BCE. This
version is similar to the Exodus 20 version, but with one
striking difference. In Deuteronomy 5 the reason for observing a
day of rest on the Sabbath was that the people must remember that
they were once slaves and even slaves need a day of rest. In
Exodus 20 the reason for the Sabbath observance was to follow
God's example since God rested from the work of creation on the
seventh day. This explanation, we now know, is part of what we
identify as the addition of the priestly writers to the Exodus
version of the Ten Commandments. The priestly writers did their
work during the Babylonian Exile 586-500 B.C.E. and among their
other contributions to the biblical text was the six-day creation
story with which the Bible now opens. That story was not written
when Deuteronomy was composed so the author of that book had to
have another reason for the Sabbath.

Other parts of the commandments have been changed in human
practice over the years. Christians have, for example, abandoned
the seventh day as the Sabbath of rest in favor of the first day
of the week as a weekly celebration of the resurrection. The
commandment about taking the name of the Lord in vain originally
had nothing to do with profanity or swearing. It had to do with
the fact that business deals were secured by the two people
clasping hands and swearing in the name of the Lord to be true to
their word. If they broke their word, they had taken the name of
the Lord in vain.

The commandment against murder excluded legal executions, the
killing of prisoners of war and killing in warfare itself. The
commandment against adultery was coupled with the practice of
polygamy as the style of marriage for centuries. Stealing is
hard to define since private property was all but unheard of in
those days.

The Ten Commandments were in fact the laws of the community.
They grew out of the life of the community and the community
invoked God to get them established and obeyed. If one broke the
law, they said God would punish. In fact it was the community
that punished and enforced the rules.

It seems that Jesus transformed them all when he summed the
commandments up by saying love God and love your neighbor as

John Shelby Spong




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