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Discussion 11 to Reflections on Ethics 6
How many commandments?

by: JT

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There was an interesting article in last Saturday's newspaper[1] on the 10 Commandments. The immediate reason for this was that the Royal Ontario Museum is briefly displaying a scrap from the Dead Sea scrolls - actually the world’s second oldest fragment of the written commandments, from the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy dating to circa 30 BCE.

The author makes the point that there was no punctuation or numbering in these ancient texts; chapter and verse divisions, numbering, and punctuation are all the work of later editors. So when we talk of The 10 Commandments, we are referring to an arbitrary division not contained in the original text.

More recent scholarly attempts for a rational division come up with anywhere from 13 to 17 Commandments.

This text is from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Jewish Publication Society Bible:

1. I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

2. You shall have no other gods beside Me.

3. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth.

4. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.

5. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.

6. Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

7. Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.

8. You shall not murder.

9. You shall not commit adultery.

10. You shall not steal.

11. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

12. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife.

13. You shall not crave your neighbour's house,

(14) or his field,

(15) or his male or female slave,

(16) or his ox or his ass,

(17) or anything that is your neighbour's. [2]

It's an interesting division, but I don't see the value of splitting up the "13th" into five commandments.

A couple of interesting points here. This Jewish translation does use "murder" rather than "kill" which should satisfy those who objected to my using the KJV version of this commandment for discussion. On the other hand, note the word "slave" is used in place of "servant" which is found in most Christian versions. This suggests that the Commandments can be used to suppport the vile institution of slavery. It has been said that the word used in the original refers to "indentured servitude" or time limited slavery rather than lifetime slavery. But slavery nonetheless.


  1. Commas and commandments by Michael Valpy, The Globe and Mail, 10 October, 2009
  2. Plucked verbatim from the newspaper article.