How to List the Ten Commandments? It’s Up for Debate.

Image: Moses and Aaron with the 10 Commandments, Aron de Chaves (1674)

One of the most enduring elements of the Bible and the Judaeo-Christian worldview within Western culture is the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Even if one can’t recite them all, most people have seen the fiery finger of God etch the commandments into two stone tablets as Moses—for many of us, Charlton Heston—watches in awe.

It seems to go without saying that the list of the Ten Commandments is something that Judaism and Christianity have always agreed upon. Well, that is not exactly true.
Historically speaking, Jews and Christians—and even denominations within Christianity—have disagreed on exactly how the Ten Commandments should be listed and expressed. In fact, how to precisely spell out the commandments was an issue of considerable importance during the Protestant Reformation. (Editor’s note: You can explore these differences for yourself in an interactive experience included in Logos 7  Starter.)

The difference concerns how many commands are to be found in the first six verses and last two verses of Exodus 20:2–17, the initial listing of the commandments received by Moses at Sinai. One point of context is required before we can understand the thinking behind the differences in the listing and expression of the commandments.

Any listing of the commandments must result in a total of ten, because three other passages of Scripture fix the number of commandments at ten. Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4 each clearly tell us that God gave Moses ʿasereth hadvarim (“ten words”; “ten statements”) at Sinai.

Interestingly, the Jewish tradition treats the statement in Exodus 20:2 (compare Deut 5:6) as a command when the wording has no imperative force to it at all.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (ESV)

This latitude arises from the fact that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament exclusively uses ʿasereth hadvarim (“ten words”) instead of ʿasereth hamitsvot (“ten commandments”) with respect to the contents of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. After regarding Exodus 20:2 as the first “word” of the ten, verses 3–6 are then thematically understood as speaking to a single prohibition: making idols for worship.

There are actually three imperative statements in this group of verses (“You shall have no other gods before me”; “You shall not make for yourself a carved image”; “You shall not bow down to them or serve them”), but to consider them as separate commands would move the total beyond ten.

Christian perceptions of Exodus 20 are not rooted in the Hebrew terminology ʿasereth hadvarim (“ten words”), and so Christian formulations do not regard verse one as the first point of the Decalogue. As a result, all of Exodus 20:2–6 is considered the starting point, and the imperative wording (“You shall not”) prompted the “commandment” terminology so widely known and used today.

The enumeration adopted by Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism originated with Augustine. While they prefer it, the enumeration of Augustine is not a point of dogma. Section 2066 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is representative of the acknowledgement that “The division and numbering of the Commandments have varied in the course of history.” Reformed Protestants and Greek Orthodox Christians also reject verse 1 as a command, but distinguish verse 3 from verses 4–6 as the first and second commands. This position is likewise not dogmatically taken.

The last two verses are the other major point of divergence in expressing the number and contents of the commandments. Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism divide Exodus 20:17 into two commands to achieve the number ten, a necessity in view of seeing Exodus 20:2–6 as the first command. This dichotomy is perhaps puzzling, since the entirety of the content of verse 17 speaks about one’s household and possessions, and in light of the thematic grouping at the beginning of the Decalogue. Thematic grouping at the beginning of the Decalogue and thematic splitting at the end doesn’t make sense—unless one keeps in mind the need to wind up with ten!

Despite the numerical disagreement over how to count the commandments, the moral core of the Judaeo-Christian ethic has never been in doubt among those Jews and Christians who take the Bible seriously. A lack of certainty on how to count the Ten Commandments is no impediment to understanding their importance for honoring God and our fellow human beings.

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

See how to sort the Ten Commandments

Logos 7 includes an interactive experience that lets you understand and sort the Ten Commandments yourself. Check out the video below to see how it works, and get it for yourself in Logos 7 Starter and above.

Get the Ten Commandments interactive in Logos 7 Starter and above.. Or give Logos a test run with our new free version—Logos 7 Basic. (Logos 7 Basic does not include the Ten Commandments Interactive.)

Comments

  1. This was interesting! Learned that different traditions break down commandments differently.

  2. Ian Carmichael says:

    And then there’s the different order in the Greek OT (LXX) compared to the Hebrew. (I’ve known about this for weeks! thanks to the recent seminar in Tasmania from William G Loader.)

  3. Michael R says:

    Actually, Anglicanism doesn’t divide verse 17 into two commandments. The recital of the commandments in the Lord’s Supper of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) groups verse 2-3 together as the first commandment, and vs 4-6 as the second commandment.

  4. Even more interesting Deuteronomy is Greek the original text was simply called Dabarym or Words/Statements. So in effect none are commands but instead a frame work concerning our interaction with God. Going where the words lead, the first tablet included 3 statements, the second 7. The 7 are written in the imperfect, and should have been translated into English as Do not make a habit of… For example not Do not steal, lie, murder, buy instead Do not make a habit of stealing, lying, murdering.

    • John Smolka says:

      So am I to understand by this alleged clarification that the Hebrew imperfect tense makes about not making a habit of such moral abberations, that we may behave this way at times. That does not fit the context in the narrative, nor does it serve the purpose of the text whereby God is setting down some expectations in the relationship with the people that they are to abide by.
      What of the Son of God, Jesus, of whom it was said by Himself, that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Matthew 5:17.
      The perfect and sinless lamb of God who knew no guile, did not, to some degree fulfill the law so that we might be justified in Him by faith. Rather he fulfilled the Law in every respect Hebrews 4:15. So He could point out to the rich young ruler his ommision and suggest (but what is the alternative to following Him) that he give up His idolatrous lifestyle, give to the poor and follow Him.
      I understand that we fail at times and do not fulfill the commandments and have a recourse to forgiveness, but this is quite different to not making a habit of it. I think this is an eisegetic hope that may lead to improper conclusions. God wants us through our transformed character to resemble the Holy Son of God and keep the commandments as best we are humanly able. The only habit we are asked to form is to follow Gods words even if it may be imperfectly in our humanity.
      To suggest to not make a habit of doing so leaves an opening for sin to steal our joy and exploit us for our lack of sobriety in dealing with words that the Creator God Jesus wrote Himself.

      • Dennis Treacy says:

        I’m not alleging anything, the verse clearly states not to make a habit of these behaviors. Do you believe lying, stealing, murdering, or any one of these human behaviors is an affront to God? Making a habit of any one of these behaviors is counterproductive to living in a just society.
        The context of the narrative was created by the English bible translators, as the Hebrew clearly does not call these instructions ‘Commandments’ nor is there a word in the Towrah, Prophets, and Psalms that can be properly translated to mean ‘obey’. How could there be laws to obey? If this law (towrah) is so important why aren’t all that was said equally important?

        Christians routinely ignore God’s eternal 7th day of rest. Christians and Jews do not know or use the name by which the creator Yahowah stated He was to be called by forever and on every occasion.

        I find it interesting you quote Matthew 5:17 and for some reason the words are not understood. Specifically the verse states; 17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (towrah) or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.
        As a Christian do you believe all has been fulfilled in the Towrah and Prophets? If so why are you all awaiting His return?

        18 For I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

        Just on a side note if all has been accomplished why are the heavens and earth still in place?
        Using basic logic if the heavens and earth are still in place all has not been accomplished if all has not been accomplished then Christianity and rabbinical Judaism are both false religions because not a single part of the smallest letter in the Towrah, or Prophets should have been changed or from the perspective of Yahowah could or will be changed.
        Logic dictates there cannot be a ‘New’ path to salvation.

        For Yahowsha (errantly known as Jesus) to have walked perfectly in the ways of the Father he would be Towrah observant. Interesting Christianity has thrown out the Towrah of the Father and replaced it with faith and believing both which are counterproductive to coming to know the Father.

        I suggest you ponder the inspired words including the Hebrew words with their definitions of David in Psalm 19:7 Yahowah’s (YHWH יהוה) Towrah (torah — teaching, guidance, direction, and instruction) is complete and entirely perfect (tamym — without defect, lacking nothing, correct, genuine, right, helpful, beneficial, and true), returning and restoring (suwb — transforming) the soul (nepesh — consciousness). Yahowah’s testimony (‘eduwth — restoring and eternal witness) is trustworthy and reliable (‘aman — verifiable, confirming, supportive, and establishing), making understanding and obtaining wisdom (hakam — educating and enlightening oneself to the point of comprehension) simple for the open-minded and receptive (pethy — easy for those who are receptive).

  5. i would say that to many protestants that the breakdown of the Decalogue is a dogma in practice at least. they see idolatry as statues and paintings not as tradition or the jewish state.

  6. A.T.Lockhart says:

    The division of the last commandment into two by some traditions is a lot more involved than “the need to make 10.” Especially as reflected in Deut. 5:21, one sees that ‘wife’ is lumped in with a neighbor’s possessions in the ‘traditional evangelical’ view while other traditions separate the two – do not covet 1) your neighbor’s wife or 2) his possessions. A wife is not a possession, and the Catholic/Ang/Lutheran view respects that.

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