Bible Review 10:6, December 1994

Counting the Ten Commandments

By Ronald F. Youngblood

Some readers may have noticed that two beautiful paintings of the Ten Commandments in a recent BR picture them differently.aIn the Rembrandt painting, the Sixth Commandment runs “You shall not commit adultery.” In the Rembrandt painting, the Tenth Commandment includes all the prohibitions against coveting. But in the de Champaigne painting, the coveting prohibitions are divided into two parts: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” in the Ninth Commandment, and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that belongs to your neighbor” in the Tenth. Why the differences? Let there be no doubt—the number of commandments is indeed ten, neither more nor less. The text of the Bible refers to “the Ten Commandments”—literally “the Ten words” (c aseret haddevarim)—three times (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4). “Decalogue,” a Greek term often used to refer to the Ten Commandments, also means “ten words.” The number “ten” may have been chosen as a mnemonic device, since the commandments could then be counted on the fingers of two hands. There may also be other indirect indications that the number should be ten: The Hebrew word davar, “word, thing, matter,” appears in Exodus 18 exactly ten times in the singular and once in the plural.1 Various forms of the cognate verbal root dibber (“speak”) and of the noun form of this word davar appear exactly ten times in the narrative of the revelation of God at Mount Sinai leading up to the promulgation of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1–20:1). This hardly seems coincidental in light of other similar number schemes and related phenomena in the Torah2 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.3

Both Rembrandt and de Champaigne took the number “ten” for granted; they differ only in their enumeration of the commandments.

The Ten Commandments are recorded twice in their entirety: in Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21. Their double appearance attests to their supreme importance as the quintessential distillation of what God demanded of his people. The Ten Commandments summarized their religious beliefs and practices, as well as their moral attitudes and conduct.

In Exodus the Ten Commandments are set in the context of the recent deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, locates the people of Israel in the land of Moab many years after their exodus from Egypt: They are assembled at the border of Canaan, preparing to enter and conquer it. With few exceptions, the members of the exodus generation have now died. The time has therefore come for teaching a refresher course—call it Divine Mandates 102—to bring the people up to date on what God expects of them. The renewal of a covenant in ancient times frequently modified its earlier form, and the Book of Deuteronomy is in essence a covenant renewal document.4 The very word “Deuteronomy” means “second statement of the law” and is derived from the Greek translation of the Hebrew phrase rendered “copy of this law” in Deuteronomy 17:18.

It is thus appropriate that Deuteronomy adds “as the Lord your God has commanded you” to the first sentence of the Sabbath-day commandment and inserts the same clause in the middle of the command to honor fathers and mothers.

Nor should we be surprised to find that different reasons are given for keeping the Sabbath in the two versions. In Exodus 20:8, God’s people were to “remember” the Sabbath day because “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11). In the Book of Exodus, the promulgation to keep the Sabbath is based on creation itself. God made everything in six days and rested on the seventh, and therefore his creatures are to do their work in six days and rest on the seventh.

In Deuteronomy 5:12, however, God’s people were to “observe” the Sabbath day for two reasons: (1) “so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do” (Deuteronomy 5:14), and (2) so that the people would remember that they had been slaves in Egypt and that the Lord their God had brought them out “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). Here the reasons for keeping the Sabbath day have to do with (1) a concern for the health and safety of one’s servants and (2) the miraculous redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The first reason refers to present time, the second to past events. Forty years of wandering in the Sinai desert might have dulled the memory of the people; so they are exhorted to “remember.”

Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments also reflects other changes. The people are about to move from an essentially nomadic economy to a more complex economy that will add farming and trade to their ways of making a living. In Deuteronomy 5:14, therefore, oxen and donkeys are specifically named, and the people are expected to have easy access to fields where crops can be grown and harvested (Deuteronomy 5:21). The new behavioral code is written down so that “it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16) in the land of Canaan.

The Ten Commandments are thus not a set of universal statements existing in a vacuum. They are part of a particular historical context involving the uncertain future of the people of Israel.

As George Mendenhall has pointed out, the structure and wording of the Ten Commandments resemble those in Hittite suzerainty covenants (international treaties) dating from about 1450 to about 1200 B.C. (a period contemporaneous with that of Israel’s national beginnings).5 The Hittite covenants have a three-part structure containing (1) a preamble that identifies and describes the author of the covenant (“Thus [says] X, the great king, the king of the land of the Hittites, son of Y…the valiant one”); (2) a historical prologue that summarizes the benevolent deeds the suzerain has performed for the vassal; and (3) stipulations—that list the obligations imposed on the vassal, such as the ban on alliances with powers outside the Hittite empire or the prohibition against taking hostile action against any groups under the sovereignty of the “great king.” In Hittite treaties, the stipulations—like the Ten Commandments—are designated by the term “words.”

These elements of the Hittite treaties have clear parallels in the Ten Commandments.6 The preamble consists of Exodus 20:2a (“I am the Lord your God”), the historical prologue is found in 20:2b (“who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”), and the stipulations—the “words”—are listed in 20:3–17; . In effect the Great King is saying: “On the basis of who I am (‘the Lord your God’), and on the basis of what I have already done for you (‘brought you out of Egypt’), here now is what I command you to do for me (‘You shall/You shall not…’).”

It is no accident that the Ten Commandments are introduced by the term “words” (Exodus 20:1). The commandments or “words” (stipulations) of God’s covenant with Israel are carefully distinguished from their elaboration into specific “ordinances” (mishpatim)” or laws (Exodus 21:1–23:19). When Exodus 24:3 refers to “the Lord’s words and laws (mishpatim),” it is making a real distinction between the Ten Commandments (words) and their elaboration (laws).

Another aspect of Hittite treaties involved provisions for their safekeeping and periodic public reading. In this connection, a few words about the Bible’s frequent reference to “two” tablets are in order (Exodus 31:18; 32:15; 34:1, 4, 29; Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22; 9:10, 11, 15, 17; 10:1, 3; 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10). According to rabbinic tradition, the purpose for having two tablets was to divide the Ten Commandments under two rubrics. The first tablet, we are told, contained the so-called religious commandments, describing obligations owed to God. The second tablet contained ethical or moral commandments, describing obligations we owe to one another as creatures of God and as fellow human beings.

To divide the Ten Commandments into religious commandments and moral/ethical commandments is both logical and natural, as long as we remember that it does not distinguish two different phases of human activity, but merely separates two complementary areas of human responsibility. Apparently Jesus had some such twofold division in mind when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ [quoting Deuteronomy 6:5]. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ [quoting Leviticus 19:18]. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:3–40). Love for God (exemplified in the religious commandments) and love for neighbor (encapsulated in the moral/ethical commandments; see especially Romans 13:9) is one way of summarizing what the Ten Commandments oblige God’s people to do.

But using the twofold division described in the last paragraph as an argument for the existence of two tablets is unwarranted. What we now know about ancient covenant practices provides a more likely explanation for there being two stone tablets: Two complete copies of the stipulations of a covenant were always made. One copy was provided for the vassal, and the Suzerain retained the other.

That this procedure was followed with respect to the Ten Commandments is virtually certain.7 First, the tablets were “the work of God” (Exodus 32:16), the Great King. Second, the tablets were “inscribed on both sides, front and back” (32:15); one would hardly need four sides (two tablets) for an inscription as brief as the Ten Commandments.

We can safely assume that each of the tablets contained all ten of the commandments. One copy was the Suzerain’s, the other belonged to the vassal (Israel). Under ordinary circumstances the human Suzerain’s copy of the covenant stipulations would be kept in his strongbox and the vassal’s in his. In the case of the Ten Commandments, however, the Lord of the Universe required no strongbox to preserve a copy of the “words.”

Both copies of the Decalogue—the Suzerain’s and the vassal’s—were stored in a safe-deposit box, a wooden chest made especially for the purpose and known as the Ark of the Covenant or, more technically, the ark of the “Testimony” (Exodus 25:22; 26:33, 34; 30:6, 26; 31:7; 39:35; 40:3, 5, 21; Numbers 4:5; 7:89; Joshua 4:16). The Hebrew word translated “Testimony” (‘edut) is cognate to the Akkadian word adu, which was an agreement “drawn up in writing between a partner of higher status (god, king, member of the royal family) and servants or subjects.”8 It is fitting that the Ten Commandments, the “tablets of the Testimony (Exodus 31:18; 32:15; 34:2)—or, simply, the “Testimony” (Exodus 16:34; 25:16, 21; 27:21; 30:6, 36; 40:20; Leviticus 16:13; Numbers 17:4, 10)—should be kept in the ark of the Testimony, an ark that served also as the throne of the invisible Lord of Israel (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6; Psalm 80:1; 99:1; Isaiah 37:16).9And it is equally fitting that the ark of the Testimony should be kept in a portable, prefabricated shrine alternately called the “tabernacle of the Testimony” (Exodus 38:21; Numbers 1:50, 53; 10:11) and the “tent of the Testimony” (Numbers 9:15; 17:7, 8; 18:2; 2 Chronicles 24:6).

Rembrandt and de Champaigne, along with all the other artists who depicted the Ten Commandments divided into two sections, or two tablets, were misled by a tradition not of their making.

But what of the other matter—the question with which this article began? Why do our two artists differ in the way they number the Ten Commandments? The answer is that they were following different religious traditions that enumerate them differently.

Jewish tradition tends to designate Exodus 20:2/Deuteronomy 5:6 (preamble and historical prologue: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery”) as the First Commandment, and Exodus 20:3–6/Deuteronomy 5:7–10 (prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry) as the Second. The Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican Churches also tend to combine the prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry (which are, admittedly, closely related to each other) but designate them as the First Commandment, excluding “I am the Lord your God….” And they divide the coveting commandment (Exodus 20:17/Deuteronomy 5:21) into the Ninth and Tenth. The Greek Orthodox and Protestant Reformed Churches, on the other hand, tend to number the prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry One and Two respectively and, in accordance with most Jewish traditions, leave the coveting commandment undivided, calling it the Tenth.10

In his painting, Rembrandt chose the Orthodox/Reformed enumeration. Philippe de Champaigne, however, decided to include the preamble and historical prologue, “I am the Lord your God…,” with the prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry (as the Catholic/Lutheran/Anglican tradition sometimes does) and to divide the coveting commandment.

There are cogent arguments against dividing the coveting commandment. Exodus 20:17 reads: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…” Deuteronomy 5:21, changing the order of “house” and “wife,” reads: “Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house…” If the coveting commandment is divided, the Ninth Commandment in the Exodus version prohibits coveting a neighbor’s “house” and the Tenth his “wife,” while in the Deuteronomy version the two are transposed. References to the coveting commandment in the New Testament (Romans 7:7; 13:9) appear to consider it a single commandment.

On the other hand, dividing the coveting commandment into two separate commandments can be defended by reference to the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretes, medieval Jewish scholars who standardized the punctuation, pronunciation and accentuation of the Hebrew Bible, divided it both in Deuteronomy and in Exodus (although the Leningrad Codex [c. 1008], the oldest complete Masoretic manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, did not do so in Exodus). Indeed, while Exodus 20:14 of the Hebrew Bible reads “You shall not covet [h\md]…. You shall not covet [h\md]…,” Deuteronomy 5:18 reads “You shall not covet [h\md]…. You shall not set your desire on [‘wh]” Those groups that divide the coveting commandment usually, follow the wording of Deuteronomy (as de Champaigne essentially does).

Dividing the coveting commandment, moreover, goes back at least to Saint Augustine in the fifth century. True, dividing it entails transposing the Ninth and Tenth Commandments in moving from Exodus to Deuteronomy, but various alternative arrangements of the moral/ethical commandments are attested in the Bible (as in Jeremiah 7:9; Hosea 4:2; Matthew 19:18–19; and Mark 10:19, among other instances). Especially common is placing the prohibition against adultery before the commandment against murder (some Masoretic manuscripts of Exodus and Deuteronomy; some Septuagint manuscripts of Exodus and Deuteronomy; the Nash Papyrus; Philo; Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9; James 2:11).b

By the same token, there are plausible arguments both for and against including the preamble and historical prologue of Exodus 20:2/Deuteronomy 5:6 (“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”) as part of the First Commandment.

Those who argue against including Exodus 20:2/Deuteronomy 5:6 as part of the Decalogue proper point out that the passage does not follow the parallel “You shall/You shall not” format characteristic of the verses following. Furthermore, in the Hittite suzerainty treaties discussed earlier, “words” is a technical term for stipulations; it does not refer to the other parts of the treaty, the preamble and historical prologue. This historical evidence suggests that Exodus 20:2/Deuteronomy 5:6 belongs apart from the commandments proper.

Yet there is also evidence indicating that Exodus 20:2/Deuteronomy 5:6 does constitute the First Commandment or part of the First Commandment (as some traditions have it). The preamble and historical prologue are preceded by the statement, “God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1), making the preamble and historical prologue inseparable from the Ten Commandments.

There is a long history of numbering Exodus 20:2/Deuteronomy 5:6 as the First Commandment. Paragraph notations in the Masoretic text favor it—although they seem to combine the preamble and prologue with the prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry. This traditional Jewish division, furthermore, is already found in the Tannaitic midrashim (rabbinic literature, composed through the second century C.E., on biblical and other topics).11

The enumeration adopted by Greek Orthodox and Protestant Reformed churches, for whom the prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry constitute the First and Second Commandments and the undivided prohibition against coveting constitutes the Tenth, also has a long history. It was preferred by Philo, Josephus, the early Church and Origen, and it was “perhaps also that of Rabbi Ishmael b[en] Elisha”12 Since this numbering has the virtues of simplicity and logic, it is not surprising that most commentators on the commandments tend to use it.

At the same time, it is clear that none of the three main ways (or variants on them) of enumerating the Ten Commandments—placing the preamble and prologue as the First Commandments and the prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry as the Second, as in Jewish tradition; combining the prohibitions against polytheism and idolatry in the First Commandment and dividing the coveting prohibitions into the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, as in the Catholic tradition; and separating the prohibitions on polytheism and idolatry into the First and Second Commandments but leaving the prohibitions on coveting undivided as the Tenth Commandment—compels assent by everyone. And it seems unlikely that a consensus will develop in the future.