There are two accounts of the Ten Commandments. One is in Exodus 20 and the second in Deuteronomy 5. The two differ in more than a dozen instances in the spelling of some terms, added and changed expressions, word order changes, and the insertion of explanations in the Deuteronomic edition.
An example of a modification in spelling is the use of the letter yud or vav in one but not the other rendering. An instance where words were introduced is “as the Lord your God commanded” inserted into Deuteronomy. An illustration of changes is the diverse reasons for the Sabbath in the Decalogues, the use of shamor in Exodus and zakhor in Deuteronomy, eid shaker in the first version and eid shav in the second, and tachmod in the first and taaveh in the second. A case of an augmentation is the second reason inserted in Deuteronomy for honoring one’s parents.
If both versions were given to the Israelites by God through Moses, why does one vary from the other? If one version was not a divine revelation, who originated it and why was it composed?
The midrashic and talmudic answer
The Midrash Mekhilta d’R. Ishmael, Bachodesh 7, and the Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 20b, address the matter very briefly. Both focus on only one of the many variations, the fact that Exodus 20:8 uses the term “Remember the Sabbath day” while Deuteronomy 20:12 has “Keep the Sabbath day.” Both give the same explanation, but the Talmud is more verbal: “‘Remember’ and ‘keep’ were pronounced in a single utterance – an utterance that the [human] mouth cannot utter, nor the ear hear.” These early sources posit that both versions were uttered simultaneously and miraculously by God.
The view of Abraham ibn Ezra
Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) cites many difficulties with the talmudic and midrashic view. Among other things, he notes that the sources do not address the problems adequately. There are many differences, not just one. Are these sources implying that God caused the Israelites to hear the diversity in spelling, added words, altered word order, and appended explanations in a single
scrambled articulation? This would have had to be an unusual even unnecessary miracle, he states, the like of which is never recorded elsewhere.
Why is this miracle not mentioned in the Bible? The Bible implies that miracles were performed for the sake of the people. In this instance, even assuming that such a miracle could occur, it would have been impossible for the people to understand the scrambled communication. This would have defeated the reason for revealing the Decalogue, to communicate divine laws to the people.
Furthermore, he continues, if God wanted the people to know the different wording, He could have stated them one after another, so that they could be understood. Additionally, if God is the author of the Deuteronomic Decalogue, why does it state in Deuteronomy 5:15 “as the Lord your God commanded you”? These words seem to imply that this command was given previously. Where was it stated? The only previous mention is in the Exodus Decalogue.
Ibn Ezra answers that God originated the Exodus Decalogue, but Moses was the author of the Deuteronomic version, not God. He also explains why Moses changed the wording by revealing several scriptural characteristics.
Ibn Ezra tells us that, in a general fashion, biblical style varies its presentations, sometimes stating ideas expansively, and other times briefly; but both, the short and the long versions, have the same meaning and purpose. Biblical words are like bodies and its meanings are like souls. Our focus, he says, should be on the soul (the meaning) not the body (the words), for this is how the Bible works. If two texts have dissimilar wording but the two express the same idea, they should be understood as being identical.
The Bible changes how comments and incidents are reported whenever they are repeated. The alterations include the use of dissimilar words, variations in word order, and differences in spelling, additions and deletions. This occurs frequently in Scripture. Despite these differences, the sense of the two is the same. Thus, it is unremarkable that one Decalogue version uses one word and the second another. Ibn Ezra understands that when the sages explained that “keep” and “remember” were said simultaneously they were speaking figuratively. They meant that the two words have the same meaning and intent.
Sometimes Scripture adds a reason when it repeats something. For example, when Rebecca told her son Jacob what she overheard her husband Isaac say, she added the words “before God” to inform Jacob that Isaac spoke prophetically. Moses also added explanations when he reiterated the divine Decalogue.
Mistakes in understanding
Ibn Ezra expressed exasperation with people who fail to understand these scriptural characteristics. He emphasized that people who read meaning in differences, such as when one version adds the letters vav or yud that is not in the other, they are searching for something that the Torah never intended. Both words, no matter its spelling, mean the same. The interpretation of these misguided individuals, he insists, is improper imaginative preaching.
Similarly, many commentators mistakenly see significance in the fact that each of the Decalogues begins with the first person (God speaking) and changes to the third person (someone relating what God said). Those who are accustomed to reading the Bible and understand its style know, he writes, that the Bible usually makes changes of this kind, even in the same sentence. This is done for stylistic and poetic purposes and should not be taken literally. God revealed the entire Decalogue, even the sections related in the third person.
Scripture also changes from plural to singular and past to future, and the reverse, in describing the same thing. One needs to recognize this stylistic characteristic, he insists, and not read made up “meanings” into it.
Thus, ibn Ezra concludes, the Exodus Decalogue is the words of God, while he Deuteronomic version is Moses’ personal repetition – his reminder to the people of the revelation that occurred forty years earlier. He added some explanations for the commands in his repetition. Although there are many differences in their wordings, this is nothing more than the result of characteristic biblical styles that enhance the presentation, and one can find a multitude of examples of these features in a score of scriptural passages.