The Division of the Ten Commandments
by James Akin
The Ten Commandments are, aside from the Two Great Commandments (“Love thy God…” and “Love thy neighbor…”), the most fundamental biblical expression of Judeo-Christian morality. Unfortunately, they have become a focus of some rather trivial controversies, including how they are to be divided and abbreviated. They have also been subject to some not-so-trivial consequences, such as the nature of their authority and whether they apply today in unmodified form. In this paper, we will take a look at the first two issues, and in another we will look at the latter two.
The Division of the Ten Commandments
One dispute concerning the Ten Commandments concerns how they are to be divided. We are told in Scripture that there are ten of them (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:4), but we are not told exactly how the text should be divided.
This is a problem because there are actually more than ten imperative statements in the two relevant texts (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21). Here is a count of them based on Exodus 20:
1 You shall have no other gods before me.
2 You shall not make for yourself a graven image…
3 You shall not bow down to them or serve them…
4 You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…
5 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
6 Six days you shall labor…
7 In it [the seventh day] you shall not do any work…
8 Honor your father and your mother…
9 You shall not kill.
10 You shall not commit adultery.
11 You shall not steal.
12 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
13 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house
14 You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…
Obviously, in order to get these to total ten commandments, some imperative statements must be grouped together. Fortunately, most of the groupings are obvious, but there are still two groupings (dealt with below) which are disputed. There is also one other issue complicating matters. The passages which refer to the Ten Commandments, do indeed specify that there are ten of them, but they don’t actually say that they are commandments. What they actually say is that there are Ten Words:
Exodus 34:28 — “And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the Ten Words (Hebrew, eser dabar).”
Deuteronomy 4:13 — “And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Words (Hebrew, eser dabar); and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.”
Deuteronomy 10:4 — “And he wrote on the tables, as at the first writing, the Ten Words (Hebrew, eser dabar)which the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the LORD gave them to me.”
Because what the Hebrew actually says is that there are ten words (dabar) rather than ten commandments, they are often (and more properly) referred to as the Decalogue (deca = ten, logoi = words).
This opens up the possibility that not all of the “words” are imperative statements (commands). Thus if we look at the actual text of what God said from the Mount (Exodus 20:2-17), we find that God begins with a comment which is not an imperative statement: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This is regarded as the First Word by one of the historic divisions of the Decalogue.
All told, there have been three historic ways of grouping the material in the Decalogue so that it comes out to a total of Ten Words. The first of these is common in Jewish circles, the second, which was popularized by Augustine, is common in Catholic and Lutheran circles, and the third is common in Eastern Orthodox and Reformed circles.
Here is a synopsis of how the group the material and what they each reckon the Ten Words to be:
|Jewish Reckoning||Augustinian-Lutheran Reckoning||Orthodox-Reformed Reckoning|
|Introduction||And God spoke all these words, saying,||And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God.”||And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God.”|
|1st Word||“I am the LORD your God.”||“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image”||“You shall have no other gods before me.”|
|2nd Word||“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image.”||“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”||“You shall not make for yourself a graven image.”|
|3rd Word||“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”||“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”||“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”|
|4th Word||“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”||“Honor your father and your mother.”||“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”|
|5th Word||“Honor your father and your mother.”||“You shall not kill.”||“Honor your father and your mother.”|
|6th Word||“You shall not kill.”||“You shall not commit adultery.”||“You shall not kill.”|
|7th Word||“You shall not commit adultery.”||“You shall not steal.”||“You shall not commit adultery.”|
|8th Word||“You shall not steal.”||“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”||“You shall not steal.”|
|9th Word||“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”||“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”||“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”|
|10th Word||“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire anything that is your neighbor’s.”||“You shall not desire anything that is your neighbor’s.”||“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire anything that is your neighbor’s.”|
As you can see, the Jewish interpretation treats God’s opening remark, “I am the LORD your God…” as the First Word. It then groups the imperatives to have no other gods and to make no images as the Second Word, and it groups the imperatives to not covet one neighbor’s wife and not to desire anything that is one’s neighbor’s as the Tenth Word.
The Augustinian-Lutheran interpretation treats God’s opening remark, “I am the LORD your God…” as part of the introduction to the Ten Words. Like the Jewish interpretation, it then groups the imperatives to have no other gods and to make no images as a single Word — the First — but it treats the imperatives to not covet one neighbor’s wife and not to desire anything that is one’s neighbor’s as two separate Words — the Ninth and Tenth.
The Orthodox-Reformed interpretation, like the Augustinian-Lutheran one, treats God’s opening remark, “I am the LORD your God…” as part of the introduction to the Ten Words. Unlike the Jewish and Augustinian-Lutheran interpretations, it then separates the imperatives to have no other gods and to make no images as two separate Words — the First and Second — but, like the Jewish interpretation, it treats the imperatives to not covet one’s neighbor’s wife and not to desire one’s neighbor’s property as a single Word — the Tenth.
One can thus see that the question of how the material in the Decalogue should be divided historically boils down to three questions:
1. Is the statement “I am the LORD your God…” one of the Words or not?
2. Should the imperatives against other gods and idols be grouped together or not?
3. Should the imperatives against coveting a neighbor’s wife and desiring his property be grouped together or not?
If one can settle these three issues, one can settle the numbering of the Decalogue.
The Catholic Church, though it has most commonly used the Augustinian-Lutheran division, has made no formal determination of the matter and is not dogmatic about how the Decalogue should be divided. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
2066 The division and numbering of the Commandments have varied in the course of history. The present catechism follows the division of the Commandments established by St. Augustine, which has become traditional in the Catholic Church. It is also that of the Lutheran confessions. The Greek Fathers worked out a slightly different division, which is found in the Orthodox Churches and Reformed communities.
The Catechism thus states that it uses the Augustinian grouping because it is traditional, but not because it is the only interpretation or one which the Church teaches is necessarily the correct one. Catholics thus have liberty of conscience in determining which division of the Decalogue they believe best.
This is a question which can only be settled by exegetical argument — looking at cues in the text and the historical-cultural background to them. Let us now look at this:
A. Should the imperatives against coveting a neighbor’s wife and desiring his property be grouped together or not?
To support the idea that the imperatives against coveting a neighbor’s spouse and desiring his property should be treated as two separate Words, supporters of the Augustinian grouping advance the following arguments:
1. There is parallelism between these two imperatives and the imperatives to not commit adultery and to not steal, which everyone regards as two separate Words. Thus we should reckon these two imperatives as two separate words.
2. This is strengthened by the fact that in the Deuteronomy 5 version these imperatives are in the same order as the Words against adultery and theft, strengthening the parallelism.
3. The Deuteronomy 5 version of the Decalogue uses different verbs in the two imperatives. It says one must not “covet” (Hebrew, chamad) a neighbor’s spouse, but that one must not “desire” (Hebrew, avah) a neighbor’s property. Two separate verbs, thus two separate Words.
In response to these considerations, opponents of the Augustinian grouping argue that:
1. The purpose of the two imperatives is to internalize prior material — to indicate that not only is the external commission of adultery and theft sinful but also the internal setting of one’s heart on these things sinful. Because of this, they form a unified “internalization” command and there would not be much point to having a separate Word to rehearse previous imperatives in internal form when a general internalization command is given.
2. The Exodus 20 version of the Decalogue, the command concerning a neighbor’s wife is mixed in among a catalogue of his property, destroying that heightened parallelism. Also, the Exodus version is presented to us as the more primitive of the two, making it more normative.
3. The Exodus 20 version of the Decalogue uses only one verb — “covet” (Hebrew, chamad) — to refer to setting one’s heart on either wife or property. Again, the Exodus version is the more primitive, making it more normativa.
In rejoinder to these arguments, supporters of the Arugustinian grouping may reply:
1. The theory of a general “internalization” command is weakened by the fact it does not repeat any of the other commands besides adultery and theft. It could have repeated an internalized prohibition of breaking the sabbath, honoring one’s parents, killing (Jesus himself did an internalized application of this in the Sermon on the Mount), or lying about others (i.e., knowingly thinking ill of them against the facts).
2-3. The assumption that because the Exodus account is presented as the more primitive one does not make it more normative. The reverse can also be argued — i.e., that Deuteronomy restructures the material to make the division between the commands more clear. This phenomenon is found in the New Testament, where authors restructure and rephrase more primitive material to make it clearer.
B. Should the imperatives against other gods and idols be grouped together or not?
Advocates of the Orthodox-Reformed grouping argue for separating the anti-false gods and anti-idols imperatives by pointing out that, philosophically, there is a difference between worshipping a false god and using idols. One can do one without the other, as when a modern neo-pagan worships some ancient god — say Thor — without making himself a Thor idol.
In response to this, advocates of the Jewish and Augustinian-Lutheran grouping may point out:
1. This is a philosophical argument, not an exegetical one.
2. It completely ignores the historical context of the Decalogue. Modern neo-pagans who have a philosophical form of polytheism — rather than a concrete form based on physical images of their gods — simply did not exist in that time and place. In the ancient Near-Eastern mind of the second millennium B.C., polytheism and idolatry were synonymous. In their historical situation, the Jewish audience did not need to have stressed to them both a prohibition of polytheism and a prohibition of idolatry, for in their minds the two were one and the same, meaning that prohibiting one automatically prohibited the other.
3. If the imperative against false gods and the imperative against idols are separated, the latter becomes bizzarely lopsided. Idols are only of interest to God insofar as they are false gods. God has no problem with statues in general, or even religious statues (see next point). It is only because they are considered to be gods that the Lord is interested in them as this violates his territory. This creates problems.
First, by dividing the no false gods imperative from the no idols imperative, the latter would be almost eight times as long as the former; the no false gods imperative is five words long in Hebrew, while no idols imperative (only of interest since idols are false gods) is thirty-nine words long.
Second, if one divides the two imperatives there is material in the second half that raises questions, such as why does God warn the Jews not to worship idols when (in the no false gods command) he did not warn them to worship false gods. Surely they reason idols are not to be worshipped is that they are not gods. But if the two imperatives are one united injunction against false-gods/idols, then the injunction not to worship applies to both. The same applies to the long warning about God visiting punishment on those who hate him (don’t worship him) but showing mercy to those who do love him (cling to him alone in worship). Why would God only use this warning in application to idols rather than false gods if there are two commandments? But if there is only one, the warning directly applies to both (as opposed to only indirectly applicable to both).
4. If the statement “You shall not make for yourself a graven idol” (the word for “idol” and “image” are the same) is taken out of the context of polytheism — as a prohibition of making any image of “anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” rather than of making an idol in any one of these forms — then the Bible contradicts itself, for God multiple times commands the making of images of “thing[s] that [are] in heaven above, or that [are] in the earth beneath, or that [are] in the water under the earth,” as when he commands the making of the bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8) or the cherubim which are all over the Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple, or Ezekiel’s visionary Temple (see my paper, “The Court of God” for examples).
C. Is the statement “I am the LORD your God…” one of the Words or not?
Supporters of the Jewish view may point out that:
1. It is simply unthinkable that the Decalogue would begin with a prohibition of false gods without first a directive to worship the true God. Thus the statement “I am the LORD your God…” should be regarded as one of the Words.
2. In their historical situation, the Jewish audience needed to have stressed to them both the need to worship the true God, who had delivered them from Egypt, and the fact that they must not worship other gods. Thus the statement “I am the LORD your God…” should not be lumped with the prohibition of false gods.
Personally, of all these arguments, I find those for “I am the LORD your God…” being a separate Word convincing and those for the imperatives against polytheism and idolatry being one Word convincing. In order to make the number of Words total to ten (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:4), I must then tentatively assume that the prohibition on coveting a neighbor’s spouse and desiring his property should be grouped as a single Word. I thus tend to find the argument for the Jewish division of the Decalogue to be most persuasive.
Still, this is a very minor matter, and it would not be considered important at all except for one thing…
The Abbreviation of the Ten Commandments
For a couple of reasons, Christians have historically aided memorization of the Decalogue by using an abbreviation of the commandments. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes:
2065 Ever since St. Augustine, the Ten Commandments have occupied a predominant place in the catechesis of baptismal candidates and the faithful. In the fifteenth century, the custom arose of expressing the commandments of the Decalogue in rhymed formulae, easy to memorize and in positive form. They are still in use today. The catechisms of the Church have often expounded Christian morality by following the order of the Ten Commandments.
By nature, an abbreviation must leave out certain material, and since the Church has most typically used the Augustinian division of the Decalogue, the section of the Decalogue which says:
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Gets abbreviated to:
“You shall have no other gods before me.
This abbreviation has led anti-Catholics to virtually explode with rage, declaring that the Catholic Church has “hidden” or “removed” from the Ten Commandments the prohibition of idolatry. This assertion stems from two sources: (1) their misinterpretation of the idolatry command as a prohibition of all religious images (see “The Court of God”) and (2) their intense hostility toward the Catholic Church.
However, the falsity of the charge can easily be shown by pointing out that:
1. Luther himself abbreviated the no false gods/no idols commandment this way.
2. Jews — who today are even more opposed to religious representations than Protestants — abbreviate this command in this way.
3. Protestants themselves, even those who separate the two parts of the command, abbreviate them for catechetical purposes, showing that catechetical abbreviation is perfectly fine in principle and is in no way an attempt to “hide” or “remove” any of the Ten Commandments.
4. Teaching the faith to others, especially children, requires an abbreviation of the Ten Commandments for easy memorization since they are otherwise a very long block of material to memorize, longer than any of the commonly recited creeds. It would take a great deal of effort to memorize the Ten Commandments in unabbreviated form. And while God certainly wants each Christian to know the Ten Commandments, he certainly does not expect every Christian (including the billions of illiterate ones in world history) to memorize them in unabbreviated form. That is not an essential Christian duty, and thus Luther, the Jews, and Protestants in general have used abbreviations to aid in memorization.
5. Another reason — besides their sheer length — for abbreviating the Ten Commandments is that they contain a lot of historical material that is simply not directly applicable to modern Gentile Christians. Thus God tells the ancient, Jewish audience that he is the Lord, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2), that they must honor (lit., “glorify”) their parents so “that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Ex. 20:12), and that “You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Besides these, there are also numerous cultural-historical references which no longer apply to the overwhelming majority of Christians today — such as having male and female slaves, cities with gates and walls, oxen, asses, and fields — while they did apply to what might be called “the Hebrew middle class” in ancient Palestine.
6. Finally, the fact the Church is not trying to “hide” or “remove” any of Ten Commandments by abbreviating them in the memorization formula is indicated by the fact that everywhere else the Church uses them in unabbreviated form. They are there, in all their unabbreviated glory, in every Catholic Bible, including the Vulgate, which was used for a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation, as well as in all the vernacular translations of Scripture before and since the appearance of Protestantism. They are read out unabbreviated during the Scripture readings at Mass (and always have been). And, finally, when catechetics is done and people are taught the Ten Commandments, they are always read and shown the unabbreviated form before being asked to learn the memorization formula.
In short, there is simply no basis whatsoever to the charge that the Church is trying to “hide” or “remove” any of the Ten Commandments. Rather, the Church is trying to make them easier to memorize and thus help people learn and internalize them better. One may well ask in which communion an average, catechized person is more likely to know the Ten Commandments by heart. Is a catechized Catholic more likely to be able to name the commandments in order, or is a average, catechized Protestant more likely to be able to name them in order? Which communion really stresses the Ten Commandments more in its catechesis? The group that says it is a mortal sin to violate them or the group that is more prone to say, “That is just Old Testament. Today we have grace”?