Book Review: What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong?

What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong? by Erick Tokajer

A parishioner gave this to me to read and I was immediately captivated by the title. Not that I really expected I was going to find out that 3500 years of understanding about the Ten Commandments was incorrect, but still. What a curious assertion, at the very least! The back cover info on the author only increased my curiosity. Tokajer is a rabbi in Florida and apparently a Messianic Jew – a Jew who believes Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). I believe this strongly influences his hypothesis and goal. He interprets the Sinai event that start at Exodus 19 in terms of prophecy regarding The Messiah/Jesus. This seems to be his primary purpose, to show how Jesus is the prophesied fulfillment of all the Law and in particular the portion of the Law indicated as the Ten Commandments.

He begins be referencing what he calls Biblical Fables – false ideas or impressions people improperly credit Scripture with. Facts that aren’t actually in Scripture at all but have been repeated for so long many believers are convinced are in Scripture. This premises his basic assertion – the Ten Commandments as we have come to know them are wrong, and another Ten Commandments are actually the right ones. That’s a pretty strong assertion – here’s how he lays out his argument.

Chapter 1 – Tokajer claims the only reason Exodus 20 is associated with the Ten Commandments is because of the helpful headers most Bibles have, quickly summarizing what happens in the following section. These are different than the chapter and verse designations. These headers are not part of the Biblical text, but are added by publishers to make it easier to read through the text. He argues the actual text of Exodus 20 nowhere uses the Hebrew for ten commandments (or more accurately, ten words). This is the crux of his theory – the text doesn’t designate what we know of as the Ten Commandments (vs. 1-17) or otherwise set these instructions aside as special or unique in any way. Therefore, we have been incorrect in doing so.

It’s an interesting approach. True, Exodus 20 doesn’t – in the text itself – specify or designate or separate vs. 1-17 as the Ten Commandments linguistically. However the structure of Exodus 20 does. Verses 1-17 are the only words God the Father speaks directly to the people of Israel. At the end of this section the people freak out and ask God to just talk to Moses and have Moses tell them what was said because they can’t handle the power and majesty of the presence and voice of God the Father. The remainder of God’s instructions to his people are carried through Moses, not voiced directly from God to the people. This is a pretty interesting separation of vs. 1-17, the traditional Ten Commandments, without designating them as such textually.

Chapter 2 – Tokajer here deals with (somewhat) what I just pointed out above. Going back to chapter 19 (based on how Chapter 20 begins, with the English equivalent of then – meaning what follows is directly tied to or a continuation of what happened before. He notes how God is calling the people together to enter into a covenant with them, and that this process is interrupted by the people themselves because of their fear. God then continues through 31:18 sharing with Moses what to say to the people, and concludes at verse 18. Nowhere is there any textual indication of the Ten Commandments, but rather this forms the beginning of 613 commandments, roughly organized into commandments, judgments and ordinances (p.23). Tokajer doesn’t see the break at v.18 as significant to the uniqueness of vs. 1-17. Verses 1-17 are simply the beginning of a very long list, according to Tokajer.

Chapter 3 – The major point here is two different sets of covenant terms and tablets. In Exodus 24:1-4 Moses reads to the people of Israel what God has spoken to him and writes it all down. Then again it is read in 24:7. In both cases, the people of Israel unanimously agree to abide by the terms stipulated there.

However in 24:12 God invites Moses up to the mountain to give him additional information – tablets of stone written by the finger of God. These are referred to as the Tablet of Testimony as distinct from the Torah or the Book of the Covenant, which is what Moses read to the people in 24:1-4 and 24:7. Tokajer goes off course at the end of the chapter, linking to Revelation 13:8ff.

Chapter 4 – Tokajer now goes on to 34:1 and a discussion about the second set of tablets God provides to Moses after Moses smashes the first set in Exodus 32:19 during the Golden Calf incident. Tokajer rightly points out the grace of God in providing this second set. Unlike the first set, which God provided both the stone and the writing for, Moses will provide the stone for the second set and then God writes his words on them again – the same words that He inscribed the first/smashed stones with.

It is here, 34:14-28, Tokajer argues, that God lays out the terms of the covenant relationship – the real ten commandments as indicated in the text itself. In 34:1 God indicates that what is to follow is the same as what was said before, and in 34:28 God uses the term Ten Commandments/Words for the first and only time. In other words, everything from vs. 14-27 are the real Ten Commandments as indicated by God, rather than a Bible publisher trying to make the text easier for people to read.

These commandments are:

  • You shall have no other gods/idols
  • You must keep the Feast of Matzah (Passover)
  • You must redeem your firstborn sons
  • You must keep the Sabbath
  • You must observe the Feast off Sukkot and the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
  • You must assemble all the men before God three times a year
  • You must not offer the blood offering with yeast
  • You must not have leftovers from the Passover meal
  • You must honor God with your firstfruits
  • You must not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk

Just a little different than what we’re used to thinking of as the Ten Commandments!

Chapter 5 – Tokajer now goes into these Ten Commandments in a bit more depth, and particularly from the prophetic aspect. He sees each of the commandments as pointing towards the Messiah, and links each command to New Testament verses to create connections he feels validates his interpretation. While I question some of his exegesis, it’s a curious path to wander down.

The first command against other gods boils down to a marital fidelity command, in Tokajer’s interpretation. 34:14 says don’t worship other gods and 34:15ff specifies not entering into covenants with pagans. Tokajer asserts the type of covenant meant here is a marriage covenant, and this is important because the covenant God enters into with Israel at Sinai is a marriage covenant. Israel is already married to God, and therefore is not eligible for a marriage relationship with anyone else. He then connects Revelation 19:6-10 to this passage, with the marriage celebration of the Lamb foreshadowed in this command.

Tokajer doesn’t bother to substantiate his interpretation of the covenant language in Exodus 34 or Exodus 19-24 being marital in nature. Perhaps it is, but I haven’t seen other literature that would bear out this assertion and therefore hold it as suspect. He jumps through a lot of hoops in order to link this command prophetically to the Messiah, but this is hardly necessary as the very command against worshiping another God presumes God exists and is more than adequate to provide for his people, including providing salvation.

The second commandment also points forward to the Messiah, Tokajer argues, because Jesus was executed on the Passover Sabbath.

He links the third commandment to Jesus as the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). While this is true, of course, it seems like a thin stretch.

The fourth commandment is linked to Hebrews 4:4-11.

For the fifth commandment he links the feast of Shavuot to Jeremiah 31:30-32 and Hebrews 8:8-10 that speak of a new covenant (the Feast of Shavuot [Pentecost] is celebrated as the day God gave the covenant to Israel). However he doesn’t at all attempt to find explanations for why the feast of Sukkot is also included in this command.

The sixth commandment he claims is linked directly to the pilgrimage requirements to appear in Jerusalem at the Temple for the three major festivals each year. Of course, there is no Temple and Jerusalem won’t be conquered and made into the capital of God’s people for another 500 years or so, but the fact this isn’t dealt with in the text doesn’t cause Tokajer nearly as much difficulty as the words the Ten Commandments not appearing in the text in Exodus 19-20.

For the seventh commandment Tokajer goes to 1 John 3:5 to show that yeast represents sin and therefore this commandment is a prophecy regarding the sinless nature of Jesus. It is true that Scripture sometimes refers to yeast or leaven as a metaphor for sin. But this ignores the reality that Jesus in Luke 13 and Matthew 13 uses leaven as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. So perhaps Tokajer is stretching here in his interpretation.

The eighth commandment has significance because it prophesies how Jesus’ body would be taken down before the end of Passover and the beginning of the Passover Sabbath.

The ninth commandment is symbolic of how Jesus is the greatest firstfruit of all.

The tenth commandment is a reinforcement of the first commandment, acccording to Tokajer, who asserts boiling a kid in it’s mothers milk was a pagan fertility ritual designed to help a young woman become pregnant. Again, I haven’t heard this before so I can’t verify whether it’s true.

Finally, Tokajer succinctly summarizes the purpose and point of his hypothesis at the end of the book (p.63): I believe that these Tablets of Testimony and the real Ten Commandments were not intended to be a list of things to do or not do. The Ten Commandments and the entire Torah was given to us for the purpose of leading us to Messiah Yeshua.

It’s an interesting theory. But what to make of it. I have two primary challenges to his hypothesis.

When Jesus encounters the rich young man who wants to know how he must earn salvation (Mark 10, Matthew 19), Jesus quotes the Law to him first, and it’s the Law as provided in Exodus 20. Jesus quotes nearly the entire second table of the Law – those laws pertaining to how we deal with one another (no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness) as opposed to the first table of the Law which deals with our relationship to God (no other gods, don’t use the Lord’s name improperly, observe the Sabbath). No mention of firstfruits or pilgrimages or leaven or most of the other ten commandments as Tokajer defines them.

The fact that Jesus goes to Exodus 20 rather than Exodus 34 is a pretty major argument that we haven’t gotten the Ten Commandments wrong all these years.

My second objection is a linguistic/textual one, since this is the basis for Tokajer rejecting the traditional Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy 10:3-5 Moses is reminding the Israelites about what happened back in Exodus 19-34. And in v.4 Moses describes the contents on the tablets as the Ten Commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of assembly. And as Tokajer correctly noted, the words God spoke to the general assembly – as opposed to directly to Moses – were the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:1-17, not the ten commandments of Exodus 34. So if the tablets contained the words God had spoken to all the people, and those were the Ten Commandments, then Exodus 20:1-17 is not just the traditional source for that material, it’s the correct source.

His premise is interesting but has very little support in my opinion, either textually or, more importantly, in Scripture as a whole.

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