The Ten Commandments:
How Do We Divide Them?
by Jesse Ancona
- How Many Commands?
Where do we Separate the Commandments?
- Three Major Issues
- Confronting the Three Issues
- What Difference does it Make?
- Links to Sample Divisions of the Ten Commandments
How Many Commands?
When we look at the Ten Commandments, as they were first spoken by the voice of God from Mount Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 20, we see a number of different statements, commands, and prohibitions. Various people have counted anywhere from 19 to 25 distinct commands, excluding God’s statements about Himself, or the consequences or reasons for the commands. If we do the same, and ignore anything that we cannot obey (that is, explanatory material), we can break it down into, at the most, 26-27 different logical phrases containing instruction, as shown in this example.
How do we reconcile these 25+ parts with 10 commandments? There are two questions here: one, how do we know there are ten commandments, and not 26 (I speak of the ones spoken in God’s voice, not the other commands given to Moses)? Two, how do we know where do we break these 26 down into ten?
The first part is answered simply: not only is there a consistent tradition that there are ten commandments, not nine or eleven or twelve, but the Bible makes it clear that ten is the exact number (Ex 34:28, Deut 4:13, Deut 10:4).
Where Do We Separate the Commandments?
The second part is more tricky: how do we know how to break the 25+ different commands into 10? For this exercise, we will look only at the commands as given in Exodus 20, since they were the original words spoken by God, rather than the re-iteration of them given to the people by Moses in Deuteronomy 17.
It is actually not as difficult as it might seem. Some commands are very short, and cannot be confused: the prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, and false witness each consist of one simple statement that cannot be confused with any other. Also, the Sabbath command, while it has many prohibitions and explanatory parts (and these vary with the versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy), no one disputes that it is only one commandment. So, there are five commandments clearly delineated.
Three Major Issues
Among modern and ancient Jewish customs, and various Christian customs, the commandments that are divided differently are those at the beginning and at the end.
There are three main concerns:
- Where does the first commandment begin? Some feel there is a prologue1 before the commandment proper, while others feel God’s description of Himself and his rescue of Israel from Egypt should be part of the first command.
- Does the commandment about idolatry include the making of images, or is the making of images a separate command?
- And – what I believe to be a spurious concern – is the commandment against coveting one command or two? The fact that no one breaks this command into two unless they have previously decided idolatry and iconmaking are the same command, indicates that this decision is simply necessary to keep the number of the commandments at the Biblically-stated ten, rather than nine. However, since this is one breakdown, it needs to be addressed.
Confronting the Three Issues
Let’s look at each question in turn:
- While it is technically interesting, and has a certain historical fascination, in terms of theology, it does not really matter whether God’s description of Himself is seen as a Prologue to the Commandments, or as part of the first commandment. Even if it is a Prologue, then the first commandment is understood to refer to this particular God who delivered Israel, and that He alone is to be worshipped. I do not see that any particular difference in belief or practice can or has originated over this issue. So, interesting as it is, particularly in the light of the theories about the similarities to the suzerainty treaties (which would argue for it being a prologue), versus the fact that God spoke the words Himself, which bind this part to the rest, there does not appear to be a practical consequence to Bible believers, regardless of what opinion they take in this matter. In other words, "a difference that doesn’t make a difference is no difference." So, for the purposes of this introductory article, I would like to leave this alone. Since the "suzerainty treaty" concept is associated with some aspects of "higher criticism," not everyone is comfortable with this concept of the Prologue, and it appears that more fundamental or evangelical Christians are likely to include this material in with the first commandment.
According to data compiled by B.A. Robinson of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance2, current Judaism includes Deut 20:2 in the First Commandment, while ancient Judaism, and modern Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox tend generally to treat it as a Prologue – though there are many exceptions in every camp.
- The most important controversy involves the nature of idolatry, and this does indeed have a major effect on the method of worship allowed in various communions. There are those who divide the command against idolatry (worshipping other gods) from the command against making religious images for use in worship (which I will call "iconmaking," with the understanding that both statuary and flat representations are included)3, and those who combine the two. When they are separated, it is obvious that one not only cannot worship Baal or any other god, but one cannot worship the true God with an image. When they are combined, only images of false gods are forbidden, and the true God may be worshipped using images.
You might expect that those who use religious images, statues and icons in worship do tend to combine these commands into one, while those who do not, separate them – but this does not always seem to follow. Modern Judaism, which is completely against images of deity, combines these two commands, having what others see as the Prologue as their First Commandment. The Eastern Orthodox church, which uses many icons and statues, separates these two, as do most Protestant churches, some of which use pictures or crucifixes, but most of which use images of Christ, at least in books, but also often in pictures that are hung on the wall. More logically, Catholics and some Lutherans, who make much use of imagery in their worship, do combine these two commands.
It seems that it is not only the combining or separating of the idolatry and iconmaking commands that is paramount, but just how the iconmaking command is interpreted. There are those who see it as forbidding only images of false gods, those who see it forbidding images of the true God, those who see it as only forbidding worshipping an image, and even those who believe that the use of art should be very restricted, even outside a religious setting – some strict Protestant sects see art itself as being a temptation to idolatry, as does much of the Islamic world.
- The consequence of combining the commands against idolatry and iconmaking is to naturally reduce the commandments to nine. This is a difficult problem to get out of in any commonsensical way (except the modern Jewish one of making the Prologue the First Commandment): the most common solution is to divide the commandment against coveting into two. While there is a difference between worshipping strange gods, and the method of worship, either approving or disapproving images, and these commands can logically be separated, there is a severe difficulty with breaking up the coveting command: one is logical, the other is textual.
Logically, coveting is coveting, whether you want someone’s lovely wife or his beautiful house, or his hard-working servant. To divide coveting the wife from coveting the rest of your neighbour’s blessings does violence to the command, since coveting itself is the focus, not what is coveted. And, textually, there is no way to break the commandment there, since in Exodus, the commandment was given with the house mentioned first, then the wife, then the servants, then the animals, then the general statement about anything else of the neighbour’s. To break this command requires transposing the words as they were spoken by God from the smoking Mount Sinai, making the wife first, before the house: the difference in the order of the command against coveting is shown in this example. Those who want to divide the command against coveting into two are relieved that, when Moses reiterated the Law, he transposed these himself, putting the wife first, and then the others, so people who divide this commandment much prefer the version in Deut. 17:21 to that in Ex. 20:17.
And what value is there in dividing this commandment? When one is coveting one’s neighbour’s wife, one is not really indulging in anything different from coveting his house – coveting is not quite the same as lusting: that is covered by the commandment against adultery, as Christ made clear (Mt 5:27-28). This is most easily seen if you think of a rich man with a beautiful red Ferrari, a gorgeous mansion with pool, Jacuzzi, and servants, and his lovely "trophy wife" just newly retired from a modelling career. Coveting the trophy wife is not for the purposes of lust, but for the purposes of showing off, and being able to strut around and provoke envy – just as coveting the car or the house would be. In effect, the wife is seen as a thing, a possession, and is not even valued enough to lust after for her own attractiveness, but only for the status and "bragging rights" that would go with "possessing" her. Paul also treats this commandment as a single one (Romans 7:7; 13:9).
As you would expect, only the Catholics and some Lutherans so divide the coveting command into two, as they are forced to do by their combining of the commands against idolatry and iconmaking, in order to maintain the count of Ten Commandments.
What Difference Does it Make?
What are the consequences of these different divisions of the Ten Commandments? In a word: confusion. Firstly, there is confusion when those of different communions try to discuss the commandments, and have to remember to add or subtract one from the number of the commandment. Secondly, some divisions make it more difficult to make logical sense of the commandments -- particularly with two commandments against coveting.
Other than that, the combining of the commands against idolatry and iconmaking does make it easier to argue for the acceptance of images used in worship. In practical fact, though, except for those following the Catholic tradition, there appears to be no relation between whether these commands are combined or divided and whether that communion uses images of deity.
The major difference, in this case is that, when discussing such things with a person who believes the two commands are separate, it is easier to make a case against using religious images, as those who combine the two have the drop-dead answer of, "Oh, no, that’s only to prevent people making images of false gods," which seems to answer the question before it is even raised.
Still, however the commandments are divided, what is commanded is commanded, what is forbidden is forbidden, and those who look into the commandments for guidance can learn, if they have an open mind and a willing heart, what God has intended them to learn, regardless of how they divide and number them.
©2002, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at email@example.com. No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.
1 This separation of the "Prologue" is based on the analogy of the Ten Commandments with suzerainty contracts, such as those of the Hittites. This is discussed by the Reform theologian, Dr. Meredith Kline, in his Treaty of the Great King, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), a book I have seen reference to, but not had the opportunity to read. It appears to be out of print.
2 Robinson, B.A., Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_10c4.htm, [accessed January 19, 2002]. The general breakdown of the commandments given here are based on the information given in his article. Mr. Robinson’s article is, good, thorough, and goes into greater detail regarding the various traditions of dividing the Ten Commandments, and religious leaders who have espoused them, including various texts with different divisions. The notes give reference to a number of scholarly works that may be of interest for further research.
3 I am here using the terms "idolatry" (for the first commandment) and "iconmaking" (for the second commandment) instead of the more common terms "polytheism" and "idolatry," for the following reasons:
a) The command against worshipping other gods does not necessarily imply that the God of Israel will be one of them, or that more than one god will be worshipped, so while polytheism would break this command, so would following Baal or Aten, or any other god or goddess, alone. Most modern Bible believers understand "idolatry" as meaning "worshipping a false god or gods," whether or not this is strictly correct – though most other gods are normally worshipped through images of some kind, so it is easy to see how this confusion has arisen.
b) The command against making images is one that many people who use religious images either in worship or education do not see as "idolatry," so using that term is not only begging the question, but is also inflammatory, and creates a mental barrier against objective examination of the issue. The more neutral term, "iconmaking," indicates the use of an image that is a reminder of the divine being: it normally implies an image used in worship rather than education, though it follows logically that if an image is forbidden to be used in worship, its educative value is questionable.
c) I also use the term "icon" because of its use in computers, which acts as a good metaphor for the religious use: an icon is a way of accessing the program, and the image represents the program, so that the icon is the means by which a person uses the program. In this sense, religious icons are also images used as "aids to worship," and most people who use images do not claim to worship the image itself, but use it as a means of focussing the mind on the deity concerned. By this terminology, I want to leave open the question whether such use of images is appropriate in the worship of the God of the Bible.
d) The term "icon" brings to mind a two-dimensional image, since, in artistic terms, icons are usually paintings, though often with bas-relief elements. Whereas the images referred to in the Decalogue are almost certainly sculptures, modern religious imagery is much more commonly two-dimensional than three-dimensional, so is more relevant to modern religious practice. The distinction between sculptures and paintings in this regard is, to my mind, irrelevant – if one is allowed, both should be allowed; if one is forbidden, both should be forbidden – though some people have made much of the idea that two-dimensional images are allowed, whereas three-dimensional images are forbidden.