The Same Ten Commandments?

If you are talking to someone who tells you that he is being strongly tempted to break the sixth commandment, you might want to inquire about his faith expression:  As a Lutheran you might assume that he’s thinking about cheating on his wife – which is very bad, of course.  But if he’s a Jew or from the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition of Christianity, it could mean he is thinking about killing you – which you might find even more alarming!

The Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the ‘Old Testament’) speaks of the Asereth ha-D’bharîm (e.g., Exodus 34:28) which literally means “ten words” and which English Bibles have translated as “ten commandments” since Shakespeare’s time.  The original Hebrew texts didn’t include numbering (and our paragraph and verse divisions were later additions), so different groups have imposed their own ways of organizing to come up with the required ten.  The following chart shows how Jews, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed groups break down the verses of the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 texts (which are almost, but not quite identical):

Jew RC Luth Ref Main Statement Ex. 20 Dt. 5
1 1 (1) I am the Lord your God 2 6
2 1 1 No other gods before me 3 7
2 No idols (‘graven images’) 4-6 8-10
3 2 2 3 Do not misuse God’s name 7 11
4 3 3 4 Observe the Sabbath day 8-11 12-15
5 4 4 5 Honor your parents 12 16
6 5 5 6 Do not murder 13 17
7 6 6 7 Do not commit adultery 14 18
8 7 7 8 Do not steal 15 19
9 8 8 9 Do not give false testimony 16 20
10 10 9 10 Don’t covet house (land) 17a 21b
9 10 Don’t covet neighbor’s wife 17b 21a
10 Don’t covet servants, cattle, etc. 17c 21c

Modern rabbinic Judaism doesn’t think of these as being ‘commandments’ as such, but rather as ten categories of the 613 specific commandments (mitzvot) that they find in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).  For Jews, the ‘Ten Words’ (Decalogue in Greek) are a concise summary of their obligations under the covenant that God established with the Jewish people, and thus they take Exodus 20:2/Deuteronomy 5:6 as the first ‘word’ since it identifies the One True God.  Lutherans and other Protestants follow an ancient tradition of regarding this verse as a preamble rather than an actual commandment, while Roman Catholics roll it into their rather lengthy statement of the first commandment.

The prohibition against idol worship found in Exodus 20:4-6/Deut. 5:8-10 is merged by Jews with “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (verses 3/7) as their 2nd statement.  Catholics bundle it into the first commandment as Lutherans implicitly do too (though it’s not specifically spelled out in Luther’s Catechisms).  The Reformed churches see “no graven images” as a separate commandment which they call the 2nd (and thus take a dim view of crucifixes and other representations of God).

These variations at the start of the Decalogue mean that Jews and Reformed start out with one extra commandment right off the bat, and Lutherans and Catholics have to play ‘catch up’ at the end to get to ten.  We do this by making two commandments out of Exodus 20:17/Deut. 5:21, which deals with the general topic of ‘coveting.’  But the interesting thing is that in this case the Exodus and Deuteronomy texts differ in the order in which they express things.  Catholics follow the Deuteronomy ordering, so that the ninth commandment is about coveting your neighbor’s spouse (understood as sexual desire) and the tenth is about coveting other property (understood as greed/envy).   Luther followed the Exodus ordering and makes the 9th about cheating your neighbor out of his property, and the 10th about depriving him of the affection and services of his wife, servants, and cattle (which is an ‘interesting’ grouping).

At the end of the day, it’s not how we number these injunctions, but how we live them!

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