God by the numbers: What's in the 613 Commandments?

19 Jun 2013

The Ten Commandments! They're so famous they got their own movie. And they're justly famous, because they're the most awesome laws ever – so awesome that Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland, who wants to mandate the public display of the Commandments in the US, can name as many as three of the Ten

Hmm... you'd think Rep "The 10C 4eva!" Westmoreland could have done a little better with the commandment shout-outs, especially when the Bible conveniently offers multiple versions of the Ten Commandments to choose from. But let's crank the stone tablets up to Eleven (just kidding, Yahweh!) with an all-new law: Thou shalt not go getting all smug just because thou canst nameth most or all of the rules. Ten is a piffle. How well do you think you'd fare against the 613 Commandments?

Oh, I saw that double take you just did! Meet the Mitzvot, the full 613 commandments that make up the "Law of Moses". If the Ten Commandments are the basic rules from God, think of the Mitzvot as the fine print. Among the 613 are all the laws you've heard of that failed to make the Big 10 ("Circumcise the male offspring"), and laws that may be new to you ("Break the neck of a calf by the river valley following an unsolved murder"? Huh. Who knew.). They span the eminently sensible ("Anybody who knows evidence must testify in court") and the... well, less obvious, shall we say ("Not to put frankincense on the meal offerings of wrongdoers"? Great, now you tell me.).

You'll find a list of the Mitzvot at website Judaism 101 and a list with nice overview on Wikipedia. It's a lot to take in, though; even a cursory look at the significance, interpretation, and categorization of the 613 Commandments would – and does – fill books. Given limited time (and no doubt limited reader interest), all I'm going to do here is draw a little inspiration from that great big numeral – the Ten Commandments times 61, plus change! – and point out a few numbers of interest in the Mitzvot.

Some choice commandments and their numbers

Commandments forbidding the naughty: 25

Judaism 101 lists a family- and marriage-related category that specifies which women eunuchs may not marry (10 points if you guessed "a daughter of Israel"!), addresses accusations of unchastity before marriage, and touches on a couple of adultery-related items. Setting those aside, what we're interested in here are the full-on, down-and-dirty laws about doin' it. These number 25, with a very interesting breakdown: Yahweh expends only 1 law each to prohibit castration, adultery, menstrual sex, and sodomy (though only specifying "with a male"... hmm...), and then doubles down on bestiality with 2 laws, first prohibiting it in general and then clarifying that the rule applies to the ladies, too.

With those succinctly out of the way, the Mitzvot is free to lavish 19 (!) laws on breathily nixing every incest pairing you've likely (n)ever imagined. Forget the tired old Appalachian redneck jokes; Mt Sinai and its neighborhood were apparently the real nexus of hot intrafamiliar action. (Can't wait to see that movie: Patriarchal Poundings: The 10 Cum-mandments! Rated Triple X-odus, of course.)

Commandments prescribing what to eat and not eat: 27

The Mitzvot has plenty to say about what you can and can not put into your mouth. (Quit snickering, teenagers; we already covered that stuff above.) Setting aside food- and drink-related laws that fall under categories concerning tithes, sacrifices, special observances, and Nazarites*, the kashrut dietary laws number 27. These include prohibitions against eating tallow-fat, unclean fowl, "the thigh-vein which shrank", a beast that is torn, the limb of a living beast, and blood. (That latter prohibition is the one that's bizarrely mangled by Jehovah's Witnesses into suicidal refusal of blood transfusions.)

Need a polite way to pass on "the vermin of the earth" at an outré luncheon? Don't worry: just invoke kosher backed by Lev. 11:14, and you're good!

*Yahweh really has an issue with Nazarites and grapes. I don't know what that's about. Something serious must have happened. Come on, Yahweh. Can you tell us? Act it out with the dolls if that helps.

Commandments banning idolatry: 45

That "jealous god" thing really comes through in the Mitzvot. It seeks to rules-lawyer every possible manifestation of idolatry, to the point of massive repetition: "Not to turn one's attention to idolatry", "Not to adopt the institutions of idolaters nor their customs", "Not to worship an idol in the way in which it is usually worshipped" (what, so it's okay if I do the chicken dance or something?), "Not to bow down to an idol, even if that is not its mode of worship" (okay, but my chicken dance isn't bowing, so I'm still not clear), "Not to make any figures for ornament, even if they are not worshipped", "Not to make idols even for others", "Not to love the enticer to idolatry", "Not to give up hating the enticer to idolatry", "Not to save the enticer from capital punishment, but to stand by at his execution", "A person whom he attempted to entice to idolatry shall not urge pleas for the acquittal of the enticer", "Not to settle idolaters in our land", and on and on.

Judaism 101 places no less than 45 finely-detailed laws under the idolatry heading. Let it not be said that Yahweh doesn't cover all the bases!

Commandments detailing ritual observances: 213

Hoo boy. Judaism 101 offers several categories that can be grouped under this broad header. Lumping all commandments concerning symbolism (5 commandments), prayers (4), sacred places and objects (33), sacrifices and offerings (102!), ritual purity (16), Sabbatical/Jubilee years (17), and other holy observances (36), I count no less than 213 laws that micro-manage the minutiae of worship services and devotional accoutrements.

The size of this über-category – particularly sacrifices and offerings, by far the largest of Judaism 101's categories – makes clear what it is that's most important to Yahweh: our plying Him with the hosannas and the burnt offerings that He craves. Praise God and fire up the Weber grill!

Commandments prohibiting slavery: 0

Sure, there are commandments in the Mitzvot dealing with slavery. You're not to enslave a Hebrew, or compel one to work like a slave. All other humans are fair game. (Canaanite? You must keep him a slave forever, says the Mitzvot.) Other passages in the Bible further detail rules for owning slaves (including Hebrews; I guess you can't enslave one, but you can buy one already enslaved). These include the lowdown on what you need to do to hang on to the wife and children of a freed slave, to sell women as sex slaves, and to beat or kill your slaves without fear of punishment. (Incidentally, what's the deal with yet additional Old Testament laws like these that apparently aren't included among the Mitzvot? I'll need to ask a rabbi about that.) 

But is there a commandment saying "Thou shalt not own human beings"? Nope! That's not anywhere in scripture.

So tell the meat in your basement dungeon to stop whining. The Bible says it's all cool.

And the rest

There's a lot more to the Mitzvot. General laws about honoring God and the Torah, some good common-sense laws about decent treatment of others (or at least fellow Jews), mandates concerning marriage and family, rules to promote charity, plenty of societal administrative items (covering business practices, employment, court procedures, tithes, taxes, criminal laws, punishments, property rights, etc.), and a whole lot of stuff I'll file under miscellanea (rules concerning vows, prophecy, farming, clothing, firstborn, priests, lepers, kings, Gentiles, and, yes, those Nazarites).

Preceding the Geneva Convention by millennia, Yahweh even sets down rules for war, reminding His people to wipe out Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites, and "the seed of Amalek", as well as to "deal with a beautiful woman taken captive in war in the manner prescribed in the Torah". (Quite the Casanova, that Yahweh.)

Let's note that there is good among the commandments. "Not to slay an innocent person" mirrors the basic human "do not murder" decency that exists in cultures worldwide. You'll find it in the Mitzvot, buried somewhere among its varied commandments to kill blasphemers, put to death false prophets, wipe out foreign tribes, execute witches, and slay "pursuers", as well as to carry out all manner of capital punishments via decapitation, strangulation, burning, and stoning. (Followed by the hanging of the executed corpse (Deut. 21:22). Though never overnight (Deut. 21:23). Total faux pas.)

And let's not belittle the seriousness of those good bits in the 613 Commandments. Sure, a lone "Not to slay an innocent person" may seem terribly perfunctory when seen alongside, say, a hundred-plus rules for offering meat and stuff in a way that pleaseth the Holy of Holies. But rest assured that God takes the murder matter seriously. Other scriptures such as Gen. 6:9 clearly prescribe death for the crime of murder. That's the heaviest punishment there is – in fact, it's the same one that God demands for unforgivable sins such as picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36) or not protesting loudly enough when being raped (Deut. 22:23-24). Or putting a hand on the Ark of the Covenant (Num. 4:15, 2 Sam. 6:6-7). So take heart, o believers: God values your precious life no less than He values fingerprint-free temple furnishings!

"Wait, let's go back to slavery for a second..."

Oh, give Yahweh a break already. Yes, a single "Not to own other human beings" would have drastically alleviated thousands of years of human misery in bondage. But the 10 Commandments are full; to shoehorn in another law, you'd have to combine redundant items like "No other gods" and "No graven images". Or drop meaningless and universally ignored items like "Keep the Sabbath". Surely that sort of reorganization would have been exhausting for a Deity all tuckered out from that burning bush and Red Sea stuff. (See someone more energetic give it a shot anyway, if you must.)

Or would you wedge "Don't own other human beings" into the Mitzvot? Oy vey, it's already bursting at 613 items; 614 is way over the line. What are you going to do, start consolidating things like the 102 procedures for sacrifices or the 19 varieties of incest? Or just toss out divine commandments like "That the breastplate shall not be loosened from the ephod"? Come on, if it weren't important, God wouldn't have put it in there. (Note to self: look up "ephod".)

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this look at God by the numbers. I heartily suggest you read the 613 Commandments yourself (here's the link once more) and, in doing so, better understand God by seeing what He does and doesn't consider important for us humans. You just might be surprised.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go give my slaves another (Biblically sanctioned!) beating. How many times do I (and God!) have to tell them not to eat the second tithe of cereals outside Jerusalem (Deut. 12:17)?


Slavery in the old testament was almost always a form of punishment like probation or community service would be today. They were bondmen, and women, or servants, which all the Hebrew terms for "slave" seem to always be synonymous with. People are evil, so slaves would be treated bad. That's not God's fault. He did not tell them to enslave people for wrong reasons, or treat servants poorly, or anything like that. I think that God makes it clear that all are created equal. He doesn't say to have slaves, but he doesn't say to not have servants (employees) as well. Don't all or most of us have jobs? So there will always be servants, per say. As for slavery, before racism came around, it was most commonly used for punishment.

defaithed's picture

Sorry, that' just not going to convince anyone. The God-condoned slavery in the Old Testament was NOT similar to probation or community service. The Bible isn't entirely fuzzy platitudes that can be interpreted this way and that; sometimes, it actually is perfectly clear on things. And on these things it is clear:

  • God says you may purchase men, women, and children. God says you may treat these humans as property, and pass them along as property to your own children. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
  • God says that when a male slave is to be set free, you still get to own his wife and children. And if the male slave decides he doesn't want to leave his wife and childrem, i.e., with your hostages, then you get to keep them all, for life. (Exodus 21:2-6)
  • God says you may kill your slaves, without punishment. (Exodus 21:20-21)

"Community service"? Come on, you don't believe that any more than I do. On the matter of slavery, the Old Testament God is flat-out evil.

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