Revise the Bible? Sacrilege! Or is It?

Virtually every modern nation is governed by a constitution, or some fundamental principles that establishes precedence and guides governance. Sometimes a constitution is unwritten (uncodified) as practiced in the United Kingdom, Canada or Saudi Arabia. Or it could be written, the common method in a majority of countries. Whether all rulers abide by their constitutions is a separate matter. A commonality in all constitutions is an established mechanism to ensure that the documents are ever responsive to the changing needs of their constituents. In this way, a constitution serves as a bridge between the past, present and future self-identity of a community. This function is preserved through amendments to previous rules or precedence, or by enactment of new laws. In the United States it took constitutional amendments to end slavery (#13) and give women the right to vote (#19).

Government constitutions are like scriptural religions in that scriptures contain rules and principles to guide members’ behavior. Let’s keep this apparent similarity between secular and religious “rule books” in mind as we probe the reluctance of post-canonical religions to amend the biblical “constitution”. In practical terms, constitutions are human attempts to deal with and manage change.

Consider how Old Testament (OT) Israelis dealt with change. Biblical Israelites were never fully comfortable with their beliefs. They questioned the premises on which their identity was built, despite a seemingly unshakable self-understanding that they were “God’s chosen people”. Because what they believed about themselves was always in flux, they let their lived experiences correct, or at the very least moderate, their belief excesses. They did this by interpreting and reinterpreting their experiences, in the process retelling their stories in multiple ways. Then they preserved them, often side by side, apparently unconcerned that the particulars did not always match.

These reassessments resulted in repetitions of their most important oracles. The reiterations manifest as double accounts of the same events and stories, found throughout Genesis, but occasionally also noted in other books. For example, the rape story in Judges 19 tracks a parallel account in Genesis 19. Most adherents of all three Abrahamic scriptural religions embody this phenomenon and generally live with these different versions by ignoring those that do not serve their interpretive interests. But when pressed they attempt to fuse the accounts together into awkward unities. Perhaps a better and more honest approach to these double narratives is to recognize them for what they are: different versions of original accounts, transmitted by different traditions, left intact by redactors who valued the nuances in the individual accounts and preserved them for posterity.

Though the two Creation accounts of Genesis 1-2 are the most celebrated double stories, there are others, and they raise their own intriguing questions. Genesis 10 and 11 are two versions of the earliest recorded migration stories in the OT. A little further on, in chapters 15 and 17, we find two different accounts of God’s covenant with Abram/Abraham. One of the clearest confirmations that some biblical stories have gone through revisions is the two Decalogues found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. To insist that these two versions of the 10 Commandments are independent one has to imagine that God gave two different collections to Moses on two separate occasions during their desert sojourns – a position unsupported by the OT. But for my purposes here, I will concentrate on two subtle differences in the fourth and tenth commandments, as recorded in the two books, to illustrate my argument that OT writings, often in significant but sometimes in minor ways, were subject to editorial revisions.

Compared to Exodus 20, we Adventists treat Deuteronomy 5 like a drunken uncle we’d rather lockup in the basement away from prying eyes. Except in this case the drunken uncle is also the identical twin of the family favorite. The problem is that the uncles’ mannerisms are so similar it’s often difficult to tell them apart. Perhaps we accord Exodus 20 privileged status because it predates Deuteronomy 5, but more likely because it affirms the interconnectedness of two of our most important doctrines – Creation and the Sabbath.

In Exodus, the Sabbath commandment begins with Remember. The operative word in Deuteronomy is Keep. The difference is significant because remembering and keeping connote different expectations. It is interesting though that Exodus required the newly emancipated slaves, who had no proper understanding or established history of Sabbath observance, to remember, while Deuteronomy asked another generation to keep it.

Below, laid side by side for assessable comparison, are the two versions of the fourth commandment, and the starkly different reasons offered for its institutions:

Exodus: For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day.

Deuteronomy: And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord, your God, commanded you to keep the Sabbath day

There is little doubt that the Deuteronomy version is an intentional revision of Exodus. What is not so clear, but could be inferred, is their reasons for the change of rationale. Why did the redactor(s) select slavery as justification for Sabbath observance? And what does this process tell us about the development of the biblical text?

If the rationale change, from Creation to Slavery, has connections to the exiles, then the reference to slavery makes sense on several levels. First, because of their recent exilic experience, the revisionist(s) identified with their ancestors who were themselves once slaves in Egypt and were liberated by God and given the Sabbath law in the desert. For the exile community, their status as former “slaves” became a badge of honor, an experience etched in their communal memories because it helped them to value and not take freedom for granted.

But a better lesson, gleaned from their slavery background, was the awareness that slaves neither owned their time nor space. The master, at his whim, could and often did intervene in how the slave used either. Therefore, they surmised, it is only in the context of freedom that Sabbath rest is assured, and only then is reflective contemplation of the divine and his Creation possible or meaningful. The redactor(s) critiqued Exodus for co-mingling the Sabbath and Creation on practicality grounds. One can’t properly worship God in chains. Therefore, now that we’re free, the exilic/post-exilic revisionist(s) seems to argue, we should never forget that we were once slaves who could not spend time with our God where we wanted to be.

This bold redaction teaches then that the OT text was not treated or approached as a closed document. It was amendable to revisions that reflected contemporary, lived experiences and understandings. When the Israelites found a better reason for an old practice, they incorporated it into their belief-sets and deprecated what no longer seemed as germane. Usually this was done to clarify their teachings, but sometimes old positions were repudiated outright. For example, it was long assumed, within the Israeli community that, though the Lord was slow to anger, he would not hesitate to punish innocent children for their parents’ sins, even “to the third and fourth generation”. (Numbers 14:18) But when the citizenry rose up one day in protest of the inherent unfairness of this concept, a new ethic emerged: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.” (Ezekiel 18:12) So through the mechanism of redaction their religious experience was ever current and responsive to changing circumstances.

Another key difference between the two Decalogues is evident in the tenth commandment. As with the fourth, the Exodus version is the original, which Deuteronomy revised. But here, the revision is so subtle it comes across as a slight-of-hand maneuver. The two opening phrases of this commandment are identical: “You shall not covet your neighbor's....” In Exodus however, the next word after neighbor is house, followed by “You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.” Here’s where you’ll miss it if you blink. Consider what the Deuteronomist(s) does. [W]ife is substituted for house, so that the comparable first sentence now reads: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

The reader almost has to deliberately read the two versions side by side to catch it. In Exodus the prohibition against covetousness is the neighbor’s house – a neighbor is a stand-in for a man, of course – meaning his possessions. The things that constitute possessions are then listed: wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, donkey, etc. The original law obviously considered women as men’s property and men treated them as such for a very long time.

That is, until a different generation, likely during or after the Babylonian captivity and exile, came along that saw things differently. Whether this generation was influenced by a progressive attitude of their captors towards women is only conjecture, but they felt strongly enough about the negative conception of women inherent in the prevailing law that they did something ingenious about it. They transposed two words – house and wife – in the existing law to make their point. So in the new revised version, the law bars coveting his neighbor’s wife. A wife is a person. A stand-alone person. Unowned. Unpossessed. Separated from the man’s household possessions.

Again, as with the fourth commandment, the redactor(s) who made this course correction thousands of years ago did so on the basis of their experiences. They had mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. They lived with and among them. As they related to women in their different capacities, they saw nothing that merited their classification with oxen and donkeys. That’s why they changed the law. It is only as we lengthen our proximity to our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, that we see them as “other” to be reclassified the Exodus way – with beasts of burden.

So what do true revisions entail? The willingness, even freedom, to acknowledge without obfuscation or doublespeak that there are some wrongs, obvious wrongs – genocide, women as war booty, slavery – which need not be defended. These are wrongs because they are unacceptable, regardless of whether men or their gods promoted them in the past. Small beginnings that could restore our children’s faith in a God worthy of worship.

As the foregoing examples demonstrate, scripture is not hostile to revision. Some of the most important OT writings have gone through revisions, often to align with evolving sensibilities or heightened moral awareness. That post-canonical scriptural adherents no longer subject our sacred text to this important exercise is a sad self-imposition that serves no theological need, only self-glorifying self-importance. What we lose by this unnecessary restraint is an inability to credibly adjust to changing new moralities. In the process we’ve become spectators, while our youth, out of exasperation, slowly but steadily consign our hallowed texts to the heap of irrelevance because they cannot relate to some of its backward positions.

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10099
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Some people think that “prosperity gospel” is a revision of scripture. Anyone is free to revise scripture if they so desire. The key requirement is having a readership that is willing to embrace the revision.

{To the discussion limiting tyrant :wink:. One measly week for a subject like this?!}


Isn’t the ostensibly second decalogue in Deuteronomy expressly declared to be the first:?

The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. (Dt 5-3).

And shall we continue forever to pretend that the Ten Commandments in Ex 34 don’t exist?
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Ten Commandments according to Exodus 34

Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.

All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male.

But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.

Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.

And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end.

Thrice in the year shall all your men children appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel.

For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the Lord thy God thrice in the year.

Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.

The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk. (Ex 34:17-26)
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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 tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.* (Ex 34:27,28)

I wonder how many SDAs realize there is not so much as a whisper about the Sabbath in Genesis.

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For the ancient Hebrews, and for contemporary Jews, the covenant people were given two signs to observe. The initiation to the covenant, a one time event thankfully, was circumcision on the 8th day. There was also a perpetual observance signifying continuance in the covenant; the sabbath.

In Pauline thought, there is a new covenant which has supplanted the old covenant. It too has an initiation act, that being baptism. One becomes a member of the new Israel with the one time performance of submitting to baptism. The new covenant also has a perpetual sign of observance of continuance; the supper.

This should cause anyone to question whether or not the signs of the old covenant should remain normative to those in the new covenant. On what basis would the sign of entry be obsolete while the perpetual sign would carry over to the new covenant?

By way of disclaimer, I don’t have a dog in this hunt; just pointing out a theological conundrum for SDA’s.

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Harry, I’ve never seen this version of the 10C in Exodus. Wow, thank you! Awesome!
And thanks to Matthew for showing us the benefit of scriptural revisions.

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I’ll take this opportunity to spring a “how comes?” riddle about sabbath and circumcision:

If a baby boy is born on a Saturday, Othodox parents will normally obey the commandment to observe the 7th day sabbath on the following Saturday and simultaneously obey the commandment to observe the 8th day brit milah–on the exact same day. How comes?

I’ve got to admit I invented this riddle, so if you are, or know, an Orthodox Jew, please double check its premise for me. If it’s correct, it proves that a 7th-day sabbath can fall on any day of the week. (As far as the Bible is concerned.)

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Didn’t know about it? Not an accident, I’m afraid.

This is the premier appearance of the term, “Ten Commandments” in the Bible, the only time it appears in Exodus. This is not only not called attention to in the SDA Bible Commentary, there’s no comment at all for the verse that contains it!

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Actually, there are four 10 Commandments in the OT. However, only two are complete: Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, which can be compared head to head. Both Exodus 34 and Leviticus 19 are partial lists with additional laws than are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 19.

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I think we can find a ton of repeats since the Jews count 613 altogether. We might call Exodus 20 partial, since Exodus 34 has commandmnts not foud in Exodus20, and ironically the ones in 34 are called the ten commandments and the ones in 20 are not.

One thing I consider important is the fact that the god that Aaron made was a “molten” image, outlawed by 34, while 20 rejected “graven” images. Exodus 34 says that the commandments Moses wrote on the stone tablets were the ones given in Exodus 34. That’s embarrassing because what non-Jew asks the waiter how the lamb chops were cooked?

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One more stab at clarifying this then we can move on. There are only two lists of Ten Commandments. Neither Exodus 34 or Leviticus 19 lists ten. There are 613 laws in the Torah which includes the Ten Commandments. The discussion references the only two in the Bible the satisfy this definition. Exodus 21, for example, has a list of laws, but we don’t use the adjective ten to qualify them.

How about yet another stab?:slightly_smiling_face:

It’s pretty much accepted that it takes a bit of determination to count exactly ten in any of the lists, but Ex 34 and Dt are the ones that use that number. Ex 20 doesn’t. Some of us think that’s interesting.

In Paul’s writings, he uses the word “law” a lot, but never in the plural. Like the rest of the Bible, he does not ever acknowledge breaking the law into two laws, moral and ceremonial. Think of all the man hours–oops, I mean resource hours–our church could have saved if only.

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Well, I read the passage before, but I’ve never thought of it as one 10C version.

By the way, I don’t fit in the SDA box that your post implied: I don’t read the SDA BC. Can’t blame the SDA Bible Commentary for my ignorance, it’s all my fault :upside_down_face:

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Jesus didn’t seem to be concerned with the variations in wording. Why should I?

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Yes, there is no mention of the Sabbath in the bible until Horeb. Abraham never went to temple or took a sabbath rest. He and God had a different covenant.

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How perfectly stated!

Yes, there have been several covenants in the bible, each supplanting the last. Each approprite for a different period, a different people:

God made covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and finally through Jesus for his followers.

It’s not that complex, really, but Adventists just can’t let go.

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I’ll have to go read Leviticus 19. But I know what Exodus 34 states very explicitly the words contained there, quoted by @Harry_Elliott in a post above, are the commandments, and they are the words Moses set to stone the second time:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words [the words God spoke just before in the text], for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you [Moses] and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words [recorded just before in the text] of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

It couldn’t be clearer. So while you write that it is an incomplete list, the bible seems to quite literally disagree.

It’s likely that the idea that there have to be 10 is a mistake. Some traditions find 13. Some start the commandments at the beginning of God’s statements which makes sense:

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quote=“Harry_Elliott, post:3, topic:19509”]
I wonder how many SDAs realize there is not so much as a whisper about the Sabbath in Genesis.
[/quote]

What do you think Genesis 1 is talking about when he rested on the 7th day and hallowed it? That isn’t a whisper, that’s a cyclone.
Just because he did not call it Sabbath, it still was THE SABBATH.

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Maybe you will learn something new? A fresh perspective? A deeper understanding? Matthew mentions several reasons in his article. You don’t have to be concerned with revisions, but if you notice them in the Books, then Matthew gives you several reasons not to panic but actually to dig deeper, and maybe find a treasure.

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I enjoyed this article. I believe that this has implications for how we are to view issues such as the abolition of slavery that took place long after the close of the NT, backed by Christians who argued on biblical grounds and principles, against a chapter and verse citing of passages that support the provisions and allowance for slavery in both testaments.

This also extends to the role of women in the church and society, and what a coherent Christian position upon such is. To me, the SDA church’s position of citing proof texts against WO is akin to doing the same to support slavery from the bible. It is morally and biblically incoherent. A deeper ethic must be held in view, one that is in line with the entire tenor and arc of Christ, his values and work, and how that is seen in the deepest principles of freedom, love, and equality that are articulated throughout the rest of the NT.

This leads to the idea of the lens through which the entire bible is viewed. This article stops in the OT. But, the NT reveals Christ as the ultimate unfolding of God, not written code, law, regulations, that were the definers of life as the covenant people of God. Christ, and his self giving love, is the definer of the life of the new creation/new covenant people of God. His Spirit is to move the community to bear his image, and his love, that brings freedom, love, and new life to all, (to those under law, or to those apart from it) into the world.

The fact that we continue to quibble over sabbath keeping and OT law reveals that we don’t get the seismic shift that happened through Christ, and the outpouring of his Spirit. We don’t get what Paul and the other NT writers were really saying about how the revelation of Christ, while witnessed to by the law and the prophets, was the culmination of that revelation, and surpassed it. We get stuck in the cookbook while the Messiah has put the meal on the table and calls all to come and eat together with no distinction based on law/not law, race, ethnicity, or gender. Nor are his gifts doled out based on these distinctions.

The Adventist church is truly not biblical in the deepest sense of the word. Neither is much of Christianity. We need to catch up to the NT and even more fully, with the Spirit and his moving in the world.

Thanks…

Frank

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This quite literally brought tears. This is the gospel that keeps being ignored in favour of a whole bunch of man-made explanations and instructions.

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