Boy have I had a week. And now I get to finish writing a post on the Ten Commandments…

The Ten Commandments (the movie, not the moral code) depicts God as handing these down once Moses goes up the mountain. But in the text itself, God yells these down from the mountaintop, and it terrifies everyone so much that they make Moses go up and get the rest of the laws in God’s six-inch voice (v 18-21). Thus they’re not the entirety of the divine Law, just the parts God wanted to mention first.

This post is going to be long, divided into two parts, and is going to delay the last 5 verses, which start what the NCT calls “The Book of the Covenant,” until next chapter.

All right, part one: how do you number these things? There are three main lists:

  1. Philo’s Division. It’s used by the Orthodox Church and by non-Lutheran Protestants. It treats verses 1-2 as a prologue and considers “have no gods” and “make no graven images” as separate commandments (#1 and 2).
  2. The Talmudic Division. Used by Jews, it treats verses 1-2 as the first “declaration” (versus commandment) and combines “have no gods” and “make no graven images” into the second declaration.
  3. The Augustinian Division. Used by Catholics and Lutherans, it combines “have no gods” and “make no graven images” into Commandment #1, and divides the “you shall not covet” into commandments #9 and 10.

It should also be noted that there are two different versions of the Ten Commandments. There’s the list given here, and another in Deuteronomy 5:4-21. They’re virtually identical until the “do not covet” portion. Catholics and Lutherans, who divide this coveting section, follow different versions. Catholics prefer the Deuteronomy list, and Lutherans prefer the Exodus. But I’ll talk about the differences between Exodus and Deuteronomy whenever I finally get to Deuteronomy. For right now I want to focus on the numbering.

As a Lutheran, I often hear it said that we Lutherans and Catholics merge what’s #s 1 and 2 on the Philo list because we like graven images. I.e. traditions that are image-heavy will try to downplay the graven image idea.

But if you look at the list I just gave you can see the big problem with that. The Orthodox Church, for whom icon veneration is incredibly important, treat that as a commandment on its own (they just believe the incarnation makes it mostly irrelevant). Meanwhile Jews, who are very anti-image, merge the two into #2 (mostly because they don’t consider them “commandments” so much as “sayings,” a preface to the rest of the law).

I won’t deny that Luther wasn’t an iconoclast. He liked religious art, and the Germanic Lutheran tradition is very big on decorations, filling churches with story-telling images (the Scandinavian tradition tends to be more austere). But there’s another reason why I think Luther opted to go with the Augustinian division. You see, in his Catechisms, he liked to rephrase the “thou shalt nots” into “thou shalts.” Thus “You shall not misuse the Lord’s name” also means “you shall call upon the Lord in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.” The two sections of the coveting verse are very different. The former refers to inanimate objects, the latter to living beings. Thus the “thou shalts” are different. For the former, rather than scheming “to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way which only appears right”*, we’re supposed to “help and be of service to him in keeping it.” With living beings, it becomes a matter of encouraging loyalty. It’s a shame that Luther opted for the Exodus version, since Deuteronomy separates “wife” from “slaves” and “animals,” which would make this distinction even clearer.

(*Luther, in one of his occasional side-with-the-masses moments, considers these commandments to exist primarily to keep wealthy people with lawyers on retainer from feeling morally superior to the poor, who might be tempted to steal by more conventional means out of poverty.)

I don’t particularly care which list you prefer, so long as you don’t try to stick it in front of a court house. But in the spirit of interfaith peace, allow me to propose an alternative. Looking at the verb command forms in the NRSV, why not have twelve commandments?

I know, that violates more than two thousand years of tradition, as well as Ex. 34:28 and Deut. 10:4, which refer to the “ten words” that Moses receives on Sinai. But here me out before you dismiss it!

  1. “You shall have no other Gods before/besides me.” (v 3)
  2. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (v 4)
  3. “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (v 5)
  4. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” (v 7)
  5. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” (v 9-10)
  6. “Honor your father and your mother.” (v 12)
  7. “You shall not murder.” (v 13)
  8. “You shall not commit adultery.” (v 14)
  9. “You shall not steal.” (v 15)
  10. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (v 16)
  11. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (v 17a)
  12. “You ou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (v 17b)

Though, yes, I prefer Deuteronomy’s version of #11 and #12:

11. “Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.” (Deut. 5:21a)
12. “Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female     slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

I like not being considered a man’s belonging.

I know, this will never actually fly, but I guess I’m making a point that where you draw the lines is actually pretty arbitrary, and distracts from actually looking at the content of the verses.

Which brings me to part 2: the Japanese. I’m going to be looking at translation differences in detail here, and what they made me think about the commandments.

Let’s start with what they’re called” juukai. Juu is “ten,” and kai is, well, the Precepts. As in, the religious laws to be observed by Buddhist monks and laypeople. For the monastics, there were hundreds, but for the laity there were five:

  1. Refrain from taking a life (that includes animals as well as people).
  2. Refrain from taking what is not given.
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct (vague, but traditionally Asian Buddhism had similar positions to the modern Catholic Church on appropriate sex).
  4. Refrain from false speech (lies, slander).
  5. Refrain from intoxicants.

Note how 1-4 resemble 7-10. The Five Precepts aren’t a bad parallel to the Ten Commandments.

Move a few verses in, and you get to an interesting difference. The NRSV translates verse 5 as “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” The NCT opts for netsujou, “passionate” or “fervent.” It’s worth noting that “jealous” comes from the word “zealous,” which is a similar concept to netsujou. Obviously “jealous” makes sense in context – God doesn’t want you worshiping any gods other than him, he wants exclusivity. But “passionate” sounds better. God doesn’t want exclusivity because he’s petty and needs the ego boost, it’s because he’s so serious about you guys. And when you’re faithful, that counts to your credit 250 times more than when you’re not (v 5-6).

Now, how about “take the Lord’s name in vain?” The NRSV has this traditional rendering as “you shall not make wrongful use” of God’s name (v 7). The NCT says midari ni “without good reason, unnecessarily” and rather than “use” has tonaeru “to recite, chant, or call upon.” So to translate, “You shall not recite the name of God for no good reason.” The ritual context of tonaeru works well with what was likely part of the reason for this commandment back when the Bible was redacted. The LORD’s true name was not supposed to be used in spells and curses, nor were you supposed to make frivolous vows calling on his name.

For remembering the Sabbath (v 8), the NCT once more uses kokoro ni tomeru, remembering in the sense of keeping something in your mind and never forgetting.

When you “honor your father and mother,” (v 12), the NCT uses uyamau, which can also mean “revere,” and gets used for God sometimes in the Bible. The Jesuits used this verse to justify allowing peoples in East Asian to continue rites for their ancestors after they converted. I know some of the people in my church still do. And around O-Bon, we have a graveside service for the dead.

The NCT translates verse 13 as “you shall not kill.” The Hebrew can be translated that way. It can also be translated as “you shall not commit violence.” But of course the Bible advocates a lot of killing in certain situations, which we’ll be looking at starting in the next chapter. So the NRSV opts for “murder,” which is defined as “any kind of killing that we’re not going to say is okay for the next couple of books.”

Verse 16 says to not commit perjury (gijou). The Ten Commandments don’t say anything about lying, per se, just not doing so in such a way that would subvert justice. “Don’t lie to hurt people,” is one way I’ve seen it interpreted.

For coveting, the NCT just uses the plain-old “want” or “desire” of hossuru. Why we don’t use “desire” instead of “covet” is, I think, convention.

The other Japanese: ikanaru “any” (v 4), inamu mono “those who refuse or deny” (v 5), mitsuun “dense clouds” (v 21). wakai “reconciliation, peace, compromise.” (v 24), kakushi tokoro “hidden place,” or perhaps given the context “where the sun don’t shine” (v 26).