How Many Commandments Make up the Ten Commandments?

For some, the question “How many commandments make up the Ten Commandments?” will seem odd, if not outright ignorant. The answer is “Ten,” naturally! Perhaps the careful reader of the Hebrew Bible will answer “Twenty,” noting that the Ten Commandments appears both in Exodus at Sinai and in Deuteronomy forty years later on the plains of Moab. But a third answer is possible, namely “Somewhere between eleven and fifteen.”

The discrepancy arises when one considers what constitutes one of the Ten Commandments. Strictly speaking, there are fourteen grammatical imperatives in Exodus and fifteen in Deuteronomy. One could, however, reasonably reduce this number to eleven if some imperatives are subordinated to a primary imperative or conceptually combined into a single commandment. The prohibitions “You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them” are best understood as subordinate to the imperative, “You shall not make . . .” which introduces the antecedent for the subsequent prohibitions, “an image resembling anything. . . .” Furthermore, the prohibition “You shall not perform any work” makes most sense in light of the imperative to “Remember the day of rest” in Exodus. Likewise in Deuteronomy, the prohibition “You shall not perform any work” and the imperative to “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt” fall in between the imperative to “Keep the day of rest” and the summary statement, “Therefore Yahweh, your god, has commanded you to observe the day of rest.”

One cannot, however, subordinate or combine the imperatives such that one arrives at ten clearly distinct commandments. All traditions of which I am aware accomplish this by subordinating/combining either the imperatives “There shall not be . . .” and “You shall not make. . .” or “You shall not covet (chamad) . . .” and “(And) You shall not covet/crave (chamad/‘awah).” Each option is initially promising, but ultimately problematic.

Regarding the first option, one must address a difficult exegetical question: How similar/dissimilar are these prohibitions? Both concern the worship of a deity or deities, and on this basis one might consider them a conceptual unit. However, the first prohibition is semantically flexible, and necessarily introduces the threat of “other gods.” The semantic options for the second prohibition are restricted, but need not necessarily concern “other gods.” If one subordinates the prohibition against iconic worship to the prohibition against there being “other gods before me,” this could delimit the interpretive options of the latter and create an interpretive straightjacket—for there to be other gods before Yahweh is to make and worship images resembling anything. Does not the prohibition suggest more than iconic worship? Moreover, if the prohibition against iconic worship is subordinate to the prohibition against there being “other gods before me,” this could limit the prohibition against iconic worship to “other gods” and create an open door for the iconic worship of Yahweh. Does not the prohibition intend, however, to include the construction and worship of all images, even if they represent Yahweh (in the form of some celestial or terrestrial being)? This demonstrates the complexity of the issues involved, and the degree to which one’s decision about the relationship of these two prohibitions affects how they might be interpreted.

Regarding the second option, the similarity of the final two commands—particularly as they are expressed in Exodus “covet/covet (chamad/chamad)”—suggests a conceptual unit. They are distinct only insofar as the object of the first prohibition is a non-living possession, whereas the objects of the second prohibition are living possessions. However, Deuteronomy separates the two prohibitions with an “And” and distinguishes them lexically “covet/crave (chamad/‘awah).” Moreover, one could argue that the movement of the neighbor’s wife from among his chattel in the second prohibition in Exodus to an independent entity separated from his chattel in the first prohibition in Deuteronomy marks a change of status that suggests two different kinds of prohibitions must now be delineated (hence the lexical diversity). The neighbor’s wife is still a possession of sorts, but not a possession equivalent to one’s chattel. If one combines these two prohibitions, particularly in Deuteronomy, one may be resisting the intentional move to delimit two prohibitions.

What may at first seem to be an overly simplistic question, “How many commandments make up the Ten Commandments?” ultimately proves to be a challenging question, even to the most careful reader. If posed to me, I would respond “Somewhere between eleven and fifteen, depending on what you consider a commandment.”

To facilitate the study of the Ten Commandments, particularly for those who are unable to read Hebrew, I have developed fresh translation and diagram for English readers to use that will help them to see the similarities and differences between the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy. There is a significant lacuna in all English translations for attention to verbal congruency, especially where congruency (or the lack of it) is of interpretive significance. This translation is aimed to correct this problem. The diagram also aligns the commands in Exodus with their companion in Deuteronomy. As I continue to develop this diagram, I welcome any advice for improvement in translation or design. Click on the picture below for a PDF copy of the full diagram (with bonus material and copyright information on the back page).

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