What Is the Bible’s View?
Which ‘Ten Commandments’ Do You Go By?
THE Ten Commandments have been highly praised, and rightly so. Well has it been said of them: “These commandments . . . in themselves appeal to us as coming from a superhuman or divine source . . . They easily stand at the head of our whole moral system, and no nation or people can long continue a happy existence in open violation of them.”—Biblical Law, H. B. Clark.
Some have tended to liken these Ten Commandments to the Code of Hammurabi, even claiming that they were derived from it, but nothing could be farther from the facts. To begin with, emphasis in the Ten Commandments is upon the obligation to Jehovah God; the emphasis of the Code of Hammurabi and similar ancient pagan codes is on the obligation to man. In fact, the Code of Hammurabi is not a “code” as defined by lawyers today, for it merely applies general moral principles to specific cases. Thus each of its rules begins with the formula: ‘If a man does this then the following penalty applies.’
This is in striking contrast to the Ten Commandments, which are termed “apodictic” in that they are absolute, categorical, brief imperatives or prohibitions, complete in themselves, needing no explanation.
There is general agreement that there are just ten of these commandments that Jehovah gave through Moses to Israel, writing them upon tablets of stone. This is clear from the inspired account, which speaks of the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, meaning “the Ten Words.” However, there are four ways in which they have been numbered.—Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4.
The differences in these four ways of numbering relate only to the first, second and the last commandments. The numbering by Josephus and Philo, noted Jewish writers of the first century C.E., made the First Commandment the prohibition of worshiping other gods; the Second Commandment, the prohibition of making images and worshiping them and the Tenth Commandment the prohibition of coveting per se, that is the coveting of anything that one’s neighbor might have. This method of numbering gives due importance to the various things forbidden and is the method used by most Protestant churches as well as by the Christian witnesses of Jehovah.
Modern Jews follow the division given in the Talmud. It lists as the First Commandment what is actually the preamble, namely: “I am Jehovah your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” By what kind of logic or reasoning this preamble is supposed to be a commandment is hard to determine. Because of counting this as the First Commandment, the Talmudists were obliged to include both the command against worshiping other gods and the command against making images and worshiping them in the Second Commandment.
Roman Catholics count the command against worshiping other gods before Jehovah, and the command against making images and worshiping them, as the First Commandment. Then they number the command against coveting the wife of one’s neighbor as a command separate from that against coveting other things a neighbor has. The basis for this is said to be the way Deuteronomy 5:21 reads: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, you shall not set your heart on . . . anything that is his.”—The Jerusalem Bible.
Martin Luther followed the Roman Catholic method as to the First Commandment. However, he counted the coveting of the house of one’s neighbor as the Ninth Commandment and the coveting of the neighbor’s wife or anything else a neighbor has as the Tenth Commandment. He based this numbering on the way Exodus 20:17 reads: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet . . . anything that belongs to him.”—New English Bible.
Thus we have four ways of numbering the Ten Commandments: The Talmudist, the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran, in addition to the one most widely accepted.
A footnote at Deuteronomy 5:21 of the 1971 large-print edition of the New World Translation shows on what grounds the Roman Catholic scholar St. Augustine divided the Tenth Commandment into two commandments. This was to make up for counting the command against worshiping other gods and against making images and worshiping them as one commandment. The apparent pretext for this was the fact that two different verbs are used. The Jews were forbidden to covet a neighbor’s wife, but were commanded not to “set your heart on his house,” and so forth. But this distinction appears only at Deuteronomy 5:21; it does not appear at Exodus 20:17, which contains the words that Jehovah God himself wrote. This very fact, that the Tenth Commandment does not read exactly the same in the two accounts (the one putting the neighbor’s house first and separately and the other putting the neighbor’s wife first and separately), would certainly seem to indicate that no distinction should be made between what should not be coveted.
Surely there is a far greater difference between the commandment forbidding the worshiping of any other god and the commandment not to make any image or likeness and worshiping it, than there is between the commandments not to covet a neighbor’s house or his wife and not to covet whatever else a neighbor may have. The fact is that great harm has been done by counting the first two commandments as one. How so? In that the abbreviated versions usually found in Roman Catholic and Lutheran catechisms leave out entirely the ban against making images and worshiping them.
In support of this it is interesting to note what the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. 4, page 7, has to say: “The Christians who follow the tradition of Exodus seek to maintain the tradition of ‘ten’ by splitting the two commandments—Ex 20.3 and Ex 20.4-6—by what is considered as one commandment by the tradition of the [Roman Catholic Church], namely, Dt 5.7-10. Such a split is considered to represent the more original form of the Decalogue. . . . This opinion, that Ex 20.4a was originally a separate commandment, seems to be a satisfactory solution, especially if it is maintained that it represents a prohibition against making idols of Yahweh, since it would then conform to the nature of apodictic law by regulating a matter different from that of the first commandment.” Compare Exodus 32:4, 5; 1 Kings 12:28.
Clearly, the commands against worshiping other gods and the command against worshiping idols must be considered as two separate commandments in spite of what the Talmudists, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians might say.