The Ten Commandments . . . in Context
When the Law stele of Hammurabi and other collections of legal sayings from the ancient world were found, it was noticed that there were parallels to many of the specific sorts or laws that were scattered through the Pentateuch, but that most of them were phrased in an "If … then" sort of formulation. Nothing was found anything like the Ten Commandments in these documents. The use of negative prohibitions seen in the Ten Commandments, however, can be observed in the treaty stipulations. This suggests that the Ten Commandments are functioning less as law per se and more as stipulations to the Covenant between God an his people. At the same time, other sorts of documents were identified that had content that paralleled the Ten Commandments. In his ZIBBCOT entry in Exodus, Bruce Wells writes:
There are no exact parallels to this list from other ancient Near Eastern societies, although a few texts present similarities. Such texts are not legal texts, however. One (the Sumerian wisdom text known as the Instructions of Shuruppak) offers advice on how to conduct a happy and productive life. Its various maxims include the following:
Don’t extend a house too close to a public square; it will cause obstruction. …
Don’t steal anything; don’t kill yourself! …
My son, don’t commit murder. …
Don’t laugh with a girl if she is married; the slander (arising from it) is strong! …
Don’t plan lies; it is discrediting. …
Don’t speak fraudulently; in the end it will bind you like a trap.
Don’t have sexual intercourse with your slave girl; she will neglect you.
Don’t drive away a debtor; that man may turn hostile toward you. …
Don’t rape a man’s daughter; the courtyard will find out about you.1 …
Another text comes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Spell 125) and describes how a man might obtain a blissful life after death. The deceased is to declare his innocence by naming nearly eighty actions he did not commit. These include actions proscribed by the Ten Commandments: "I have not robbed … I have not been envious … I have not killed people … I have not copulated with a man’s wife … I have not debased the god in my town."2 They also include an array of other actions: "I have not deprived an orphan … I have not made suffering for anyone … I have not added to the weight of the balance … I have not trapped fish in their marshes … I have not masturbated … I have not been impatient."3 As with the Ten Commandments, such lists summarize a number of basic principles believed to be characteristic of one who has led a just and upright life.
As a result of this comparative study we can see that people in the ancient world maintained the same sort of ethical system that is familiar to us in the Bible and expressed in the Ten Commandments. We must also note two important differences. First, the parallels are only to commandments 5-10. There are no parallels in ancient Near Eastern literature to commandments 1-4. Second, we must differentiate between the principle itself and the motivation for adhering to the principle. The Old Testament places these principles in the context of being holy as God is holy. In the ancient world that is not part of the picture at all.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
1 B. Alster, Wisdom of Ancient Sumer (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 2005), 60–69.
2 COS, 2.12:60–61.
Photo: Instructions of Shuruppa. Credit: The Schøyen Collection MS 2788, Oslo and London