Counting Commandments

Why does the list of the Ten Commandments published in Jewish writings differ from the common biblical one? There also seems to be a disagreement among some Christian denominations on how to identify them.

There is general agreement on the fact that there are 10 commandments, because in Deuteronomy 4:13 they are called "the ten words." Some Bible translations have rendered the phrase "ten commandments," but the Hebrew text reads "words," that is to say, 10 divine legal sayings.

According to Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, the first commandment is contained in Exodus 20:2, 3, stating that Yahweh is one ("I am Yahweh") and the only one to be worshiped ("You shall have no. . ."). The second would be the prohibition against worship of images, and so forth. This division was the one accepted by the Church Fathers and is basically the prevailing one today.
The common Jewish division of the Decalogue, which is probably the one you found, considers verse 2 to be the first commandment, a command to believe that there is only one God, Yahweh. The second one, recorded in verses 3-6, would command the exclusive worship of Yahweh. The rest of the commandments would follow the conventional order. This organization of the first and second commandments overlooks the fact that verse 2 seems to function as an introduction to the commandments. In fact, it is rather surprising that it is interpreted as a commandment because it lacks the imperative force or tone present in the other commandments.

The theological significance of the short historical prologue recorded in verse 2 tends to set it apart from the first commandment. It states the source of this particular law and the historical and theological relation that already existed between this Being and the Israelites. This law comes from "Yahweh, your God," who is the one "who brought you out of the land of Egypt." The clear implication is that the demands of the law are preceded by God's gracious act of redemption on behalf of His enslaved people. Grace comes before law. Obedience to this divine law is a response of gratitude from loving hearts to the Lord for the redemption already performed on behalf of His people. Verse 2 is an extremely important introduction to the Decalogue.

There is a third way of grouping the Ten Commandments, usually followed by Catholics and Lutherans. According to this interpretation, the first commandment is recorded in verses 2-6 and includes the oneness of God and His exclusive worship. The second commandment is against false oaths, and the third is the Sabbath.

In order to end with the required number 10, the tenth one was divided into two: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house," and "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife." It would appear that since the commandment is basically a law against covetousness; dividing it into two commandments cannot be supported.

One should be willing to recognize that although there are some difficulties in identifying each of the Ten Commandments, it is certainly not that complex. The major problems are located in verses 2-6. If we are willing to accept verse 2 as an introduction to the Decalogue, we should start counting from verse 3 onward.

The next problem is the relationship between verse 3 and verses 4-6. Are both of these sections dealing only with the worship of the true God? In that case we would have there only one commandment. In a sense that seems to be true, but a closer look reveals a significant difference. The first one rejects the worship of foreign gods, and the second prohibits making any image of God or of any god. This radical rejection of any other god except Yahweh was unique to Israel in the ancient Near East. The rejection of an image of God was also unique. These two commandments contributed directly to the singularity of the people of Israel.

In conclusion, it really doesn't matter how we count the commandments as long as we do not modify in any way their sacred content.