How Do We Know What We Think We Know About the Ten Commandments?

The picture of a white-bearded Moses holding two inscribed stone tablets is such a clear and iconic image, it fails to convey just how slowly the Bible reveals its details about the Ten Commandments. When I was developing my book, I deliberately ignored all I thought I knew about the commandments, so I could freshly read the Bible’s account to see what I would learn from this alone. It took a lot of reading to assemble a picture as comprehensive as the iconic image. Here is the sequence by which the details of the Ten Commandments emerge:

Exodus 20:2-17
God speaks a set of commands to Moses that is divisible into ten topical areas. The chapter heading in your Bible probably says, “The Ten Commandments,” but scripture does not yet use this phrase.

Exodus 31:18
God gives Moses two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. What is written on the tablets is not yet specified. There is no basis yet for assuming that the Exodus 20 content is written there, because God has been speaking for 11 more chapters since giving these words. (See also 32:16.)

Exodus 32:15
The tablets were inscribed on front and back. Most representations of the two tablets are inaccurate in this detail.

Exodus 32:19
The tablets are smashed in Moses’ reaction to his people’s idolatry. This loss of the tablets was not the punishment for idolatry—the punishment was 32:27.

Exodus 34:1
The Lord promises to write on the new tablets what was written on the previous ones.

Exodus 34:27
God commands Moses to write on the tablets. Is this God fulfilling the promise above through the hands of Moses?

Exodus 34:28
Here is the first time scripture uses the phrase, “The Ten Commandments.” However, Exodus 34:10 through 34:26 contain commands different from Exodus 20, and these commands could also be grouped into a set of ten. Thus, it is unclear at this point what “The Ten Commandments” consist of!

Deuteronomy 5:22
Here is the first clear statement that the Ten Commandments written on the tablets were the commands from Exodus 20.

Deuteronomy 5:30-31
The Israelites heard only the Ten Commandments, not the rest of God’s commands to Moses. (See also 9:10.)

Deuteronomy 6:10-12
Consider this description of the sort of blessed people who ought to follow the Ten Commandments. Does this description sound like any people you know?

Deuteronomy 10:2
The second set of tablets was the same as the first set (as promised in Exodus 34:1), but these new tablets were placed in an ark. To be held there for safekeeping until people were ready to live them?