Ten Words, Nine Commandments

Jews and Christians have long recognized the words recorded in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 as the heart of the Old Testament’s moral law. But for nearly as long, Jews and Christians—and various Christian traditions—have disagreed about how these words ought to be divided. You and I call them the Ten Commandments. They are the words God spoke at Sinai. And there are ten of them. But they are not all commandments.

The Jewish tradition understands God’s first words at Sinai as, well, his first “word”: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). Most Christians consider that merely the prologue. It is a failing of the Heidelberg Catechism that, unlike its Presbyterian cousin the Westminster Catechism, it nowhere comments on this so-called prologue. But it is not merely prologue; it is God’s first word.

The Jewish tradition—as well as the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions—then combines what the Reformed tradition counts as commandments 1 and 2. In the Jewish tradition, this is God’s second word; in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, it is the first commandment:

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

There is good reason to consider this God’s second word and the first commandment. First, all the other initial commandments contain a reason or a promise—for example, “the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (v. 7). It makes sense, then, that “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” is the reason given for the single command that we have no other gods before him nor make or bow down to idols.

Second, the grammar requires that this be one word from God. We are forbidden from bowing down to them or worshiping them. The pronoun’s antecedent is not idol but other gods, as in “you shall have no other gods before me.”

What the commandment forbids is not making an image of God, as the Reformed tradition has long taught, but making images (or idols) of other gods. The commandment against idolatry is just that—a commandment against idolatry, not against iconography. (Other passages in Scripture, such as Deut. 4:15-18, speak more explicitly about images of God.)

The Jewish and Reformed traditions enumerate the final eight commandments the same way. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions divide what is in the Jewish and Reformed traditions the tenth word or commandment into commandments 9 and 10: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” But such division is problematic. For one thing, both commandments forbid the same thing: covetousness. For another, the catch-all phrase “anything that belongs to your neighbor” implies a single commandment. We are not to covet anything. The commandment’s list of objects is illustrative, not exhaustive.

In summary, then, the Jewish tradition most faithfully enumerates the Ten Words God spoke at Sinai. His first words were not merely prologue; they were his first word: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” It is a word of neither instruction nor command, but a word of grace.

And that’s just the point. God spoke all these words—ten words, nine commandments. His first word was, is, and ever shall be a word of grace.

For Discussion

  1. How is it significant that Exodus 20:1 calls these ten statements God's "words"? See, for example, Psalm 119:103-105; Genesis 1:3, 6, 9; John 1:1. Do you view these "ten words" as negative or positive? Why?
  2. What do you think of the author's charge that the Heidelberg Catechism fails to include the first "word":  “I am the LORD your God . . . "? Is that merely a prologue, or is it an important and integral component of the Ten Commandments? Explain.
  3. Review the ways in which the Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions divide up these "ten words." Which makes the most sense to you?
  4. Has the article’s author convinced you that we should speak of "ten words" but only "nine commandments"? Why or why not?
  5. Reread the closing paragraph. Why is it important that “God's first word was, is, and ever shall be a word of grace”? What does that say about our motivation for following the nine (or ten) "words" that follow?

About the Author

Rev. Ryan Faber is pastor of worship and administration for Faith Christian Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa.

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