The Nine Commandments

May 4, 2008    By: Jacob J @ 3:14 pm   Category: Scriptures

In a book called The Nine Commandments, David Noel Freedman argues that the Old Testament contains a hidden pattern, carefully crafted and put in place by an anonymous master editor† of the Primary History (Genesis – Kings). The hidden pattern is based on the Ten Commandments. According to Freedman, the history from Genesis to Kings is structured to show that the Ten Commandments were systematically violated by Israel (one commandment per-book) until God had no choice but to unleash the covenant curses on Israel, resulting in their capture and exile along with the destruction of the temple.

This “ten strikes and your out” policy can be seen two other times in the book of Exodus, first with the ten plagues marking Pharaoh’s last chance to listen to Moses, second with Israel’s rebellions in the wilderness which lead God to swear that none of the people who witnessed God’s miracles in Egypt would be able to enter the promised land. On the occasion where God makes this declaration, he says:

All the people who have seen my glory and my signs that I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested me these ten times and have not listened to my voice, will not see the land that I swore to their fathers. (Numbers 14:20-23)

We don’t know what “these ten times” were, exactly, but God makes it clean that he has been counting and that ten is the limit. This same pattern is carried out on a grand scale with the entire Primary History counting down Israel’s violations of the Ten Commandments:

  1. (No other God’s before Yahweh): Freedman sort of cheats on this one and after discussing the widespread violation of this commandment by Israel he combines this with the story which violates the second commandment.
  2. (No idols): Aaron’s golden calf. The commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol …nor bow to [it]” (Ex. 20:4). Violation: “They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have bowed down to it” (Ex. 32:8). Notice the parallel language describing their sin in the very words of the second commandment. Second commandment is violated in the second book.
  3. (You shall not lift up the name of Yahweh your God in vain): The seemingly endless list of laws in the book of Leviticus is interrupted by a story of person who “blasphemed the Name, and cursed.” Moses and Yahweh tells Moses he must be stoned to death. (Lev 24:10-17). Third book, third commandment.
  4. (Keep the Sabbath day holy): Out of nowhere in the book of Numbers, we get the story of the man who gathers sticks on the Sabbath and is stoned to death (Num 15:32-36). Freedman suggests that the editor of the Primary History had a choice of where to include this story, and strategically placed this violation of the forth commandment in the forth book.
  5. (Honor father and mother): There is no great fit for this in Deuteronomy, but Freedman has some explanations for why this should not ruin his theory.

At this point, there is a discussion of the various ways the final five commandments are ordered in different texts. Examples are shown of nearly every possible ordering. However, Freedman believes that the Deuteronomistic Historian is none other than Baruch, who complied Jeremiah. Thus, he suggests that it is no coincidence that the ordering of the final commandments in the Book of Jeremiah (theft, murder, adultery) matches the commandments violated in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel.

  1. (Thou shalt not steal): Joshua 7 tells the story of Achan who steals booty from Jericho (contrary to the express commandment of God in Joshua 6:18-19) and causes the children of Israel to be defeated in Ai. Achan is stoned to death in the Valley of Achor after being discovered by the Urim and Thummim.
  2. (Thou shalt not murder): Judges 19-21 tells the story of a man who gives his virgin daughter and the concubine of his Levite guest to an unruly mob of men. The mob rapes the girl throughout the night and she is found dead the next morning. Judges 20:4 refers to the concubine as “the murdered woman,” using the same word used in the Ten Commandments for murder. This is the first time that word appears in the Primary History following its use in the Ten Commandments.
  3. (Thou shalt not commit adultery): Of course, the Book of Samuel contains the story of David and Bathsheba. Freedman explains that there are actually very few examples in the Old Testament which fit the technical definition of adultery.
  4. (Thou shalt not bear false witness): Bearing false witness refers to lying under oath in a legal setting. The Book of Kings includes the story of Jezebel, who brings trumped-up charges of blasphemy and treason against Naboth to get his land. She secures two witness to bear false witness against Naboth (as required by the Mosiac law) so that he and his entire family are taken outside of the city and stoned to death.

Freedman’s book is called The Nine Commandments because the tenth commandment (thou shalt not covet) is an inward sin which is at the root of all the others. You can’t really have a story in the Old Testament illustrating a person who covets without that covetousness leading to some other sin. So, he concludes by showing that after nine books, we have nine of the ten commandments violated, leading to the capture and exile of the children of Israel.

Freedman writes his book to a lay audience. He explains lots of biblical scholarship in a clear, simple, and accessible way. I know that there are several biblical scholars reading now who will be familiar with this book, and I am curious to hear whatever you have to say about it. From an LDS perspective, the idea of a master editor abridging the entire Primary History of the Old Testament seems strangely familiar. The idea that this editor put the history together in such a way as to make a larger point is a fascinating one. I admit that I like the idea, but I don’t really feel qualified to evaluate it on its merits. What do you think of Freedman’s thesis?

† Commonly designated “R” (for “Redactor”) by scholarly types. R is the guy who put J,E,P and D together, according to the Documentary Hypothesis.


  1. I, sadly, can not comment on what you are desiring to be commented on. What I can say is this idea of the 10th commandment being the root of the sins of the other 9 is not necassarily new. I have an anti-communist “10th commandment” sermon sitting on my desk now from 1962 that says something quite similar. It’s called the Root of all Evil, by Rev. T. Robert Ingram, an Episcopal minister.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 4, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

  2. Matt,

    Your comment cause me to re-read my closing paragraph and stupidly I made it sound like I am only interested in reaction to the book from experts. That was an unfortunate mistake on my part (which I will rectify momentarily). Anything anyone has to say in reaction to the post in general or Freedman’s thesis in particular is welcome.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 4, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  3. One of the Founding Fathers of our nation – sorry I don’t recall his name but I’m pretty sure he was a Minister – realated that the OT shows that God holds nations accountable for the degree of adherence to His commandments and statutes just as He does individuals. The difference being that individuals can receive the blessing or the curse in this world OR the next. Nations, however, will not exist in the next life and will, therefore, receive the blessing or the curse in this probation.

    It appears that Freedman has put together a credible and novel argument for the thesis.

    Comment by mondo cool — May 5, 2008 @ 7:17 am

  4. Found it – George Mason is whom I was quoting.

    Comment by mondo cool — May 5, 2008 @ 7:22 am

  5. I think this is a pretty good theory. For me the best part is that it gives an explanation for that absolute horrifying story in Judges 19-21.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 6, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  6. Hiya, Jacob J.!

    I see ideas like this and I go “Hmmmm” even before I read the book. Freedman is, indeed, a very serious and reputable scholar, so that’s in his favor. But I know for a fact that there are other ways to explain the points Freedman makes, as well.

    So, I outta go read the book, I guess, before I get too negative on it. I guess I wouldn’t put too many eggs in this basket, though. It would be a hard sell to actually “prove,” you know.

    Comment by Mogget — May 10, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

  7. PS. I really don’t mean to sound so negative there. Probably the best way to explain it is to say that there are a variety of ways to explain the evidence. Don’t toss it out, just keep watching the evidence and the arguments…

    Comment by Mogget — May 10, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  8. Mogget!

    Thanks for dropping by. No worries about sounding negative, I’m sure your reticence is fully justified. One of my hopes in posting on it was to hear some contrarian points of view, actually.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 10, 2008 @ 2:12 pm