Today is a Jewish holiday called Shavuot; a day in which Jews celebrate the revelation of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, to Moses on Mount Sinai. For reasons that are still a little fuzzy to me, Jews in Israel celebrate this holiday by hanging palm branches in the grocery store, staying up all night studying the Torah, and eating a lot of dairy foods. (Unless they’re Yemeni Jews, in which case they don’t eat dairy at all today.) My best bet is that you’ve never even heard of this holiday; apparently, it’s not so well known outside of Israel. So in honor of your first Shavuot, let’s talk a little about the Ten Commandments in three faith traditions: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant.
(Here’s a warning: I’m about to go off the theological deep end here. So if you’re not in the mood for a whole bunch of detailed interreligious theological analysis (and my first attempt at an HTML table), how about you go make some delicious traditional food for this holiday instead. Tip: try the blintzes. They’re delicious, I promise.)
Ahem. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
A few yards northwest of the Texas state capital building in Austin, near the Tyler Rose Garden where I used to sit with a friend and eat my lunch in the spring, sits a large stone plaque of the Ten Commandments. I must have passed it dozens of times, but I never looked that closely at it. While I was a college student in that town in 2005, it came up as the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court Case that ultimately ruled it Constitutional, but other than that I never stopped to look too closely, just like I never looked too closely at the various monuments to veterans and civic organizations and volunteer firemen elsewhere on the grounds. The Ten Commandments are often heralded as basic moral code and a foundation of commonality between Jews and Christians. But do we really have them in common? The answer, interestingly enough, is both yes and no.
As it turns out, taking a closer look now, from eight years and 11,000 miles away, the monument on the Texas state capitol grounds really is a work of genius. It manages to reconcile the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant traditions in a single document. But it actually takes twelve Commandments to do so. Let me back up a second.
The Ten Commandments in all three faith traditions are based on a passage that is repeated three different times in slightly varying forms in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The first of these occurrences, in Exodus 20, reads as follows in the New American Bible (with the verse designations):
2. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3. You shall not have other gods beside me.
4. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth;
5. you shall not bow down before them or serve them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation;
6. but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7. You shall not invoke the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes his name in vain.
8. Remember the sabbath day—keep it holy.
9. Six days you may labor and do all your work,
10. but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God. You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates.
11. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
12. Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
13. You shall not kill.
14. You shall not commit adultery.
15. You shall not steal.
16. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
As you can see, there is a little problem here. The so-called “Ten Commandments” are actually a prose essay that contains 14 imperative (or “commanding”) verbs in the English translation. It is not a succinct list neatly rounded out to ten laws delineated with Roman Numerals, as they often appear. But the Bible itself, in Exodus 34:28, refers to this passage as the “ten words of the covenant” or the “ten commandments” without telling us exactly how this prose piece is supposed to be divided up into a nice round list of Ten. Also, keep in mind that chapter and verse designations in the Bible were a medieval addition and are unrelated to the commandments themselves.
Now take a moment to look a little closer at that monument on the Texas capital grounds. As I mentioned before, if you count them, you’ll realize that there are actually 12 commandments on this list, and they’re not enumerated.
For clarity’s sake, I will re-list the 12 statements on the tablet here and then explain how this tablet reflects the differences in the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant faith traditions. Here is the list:
- I am the Lord thy God.
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images.
- Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
- Honor thy father and mother, that thy days may be long on the land which thy Lord hath given thee.
- Thou shalt not kill.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
The ingenuity of this monument is that it gives all 12 statements equal weight without trying to twist them into an even Ten enumerated Commandments as each faith tradition does.
Let’s start at the top. In Jewish teaching, “I am the Lord thy G-d” (considered something of a general prologue to the Commandments by Christians) is interpreted as a commandment itself: the commandment of knowing that there is a God. This is considered the first Commandment, and in many ways, the most important. And, actually, it is considered to be the first of 613 Commandments, not just Ten.
In Judaism, the Mosaic Laws (“Mosaic” as in coming from God through Moses, not as in a larger picture made up of smaller pieces), include 613 mitzvot, or joint commandments-and-blessings spread over the first three books of the Bible. These 613 commandments include the Ten Commandments, but from a Jewish perspective, referring to the commandments in Exodus 20 as “The Ten Commandments” negates the importance of the other 603 commandments, which include widely varying rules regarding kosher food, daily lifestyle, interpersonal relations, ritual purity and sacrifice, and manners of dress and grooming.
And, interestingly enough, according to Jewish teaching, non-Jews are not actually bound to the Ten Commandments as a universal moral code (as it is often viewed in Christianity). Jews have a separate universal moral code known as the Seven Noahide Laws (or laws that camefrom God through Noah) that all “children of Noah,” that is, all humankind, not just Jews, are expected to follow. These include laws regarding prohibition of idolatry, prohibition of murder, prohibition of theft, prohibition of sexual immorality, prohibition of blasphemy, prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it was still alive (often expanded to include any form of animal cruelty), and a requirement that courts of law be established. So, there is a bit of an overlap, but not entirely.
In regards to the way that the rest of the Commandments are broken up to turn twelve basic statements into an even Ten Commandments, here, for clarity’s sake (in my first attempt at creating an HTML table: Ta-da!), I will show you how each faith tradition pairs them up, followed by a more detailed explanation. The numbers in the chart correspond to my numbered re-listing of the 12 general statements as they appear on the monument in Texas.
After regarding the first statement as the First Commandment, Jews then link the second and third items (“no other gods before me” and “no graven images”) as the Second Commandment, as well as linking the twelfth and thirteenth items (“not covet thy neighbor’s house” and “not covet thy neighbor’s wife…”) as a single Commandment against any form of coveting. This forms an even Ten.
In Protestant tradition, the first and second statements are linked to create the First Commandment, the third stands alone, as it does in Judaism, and the eleventh and twelfth statements are linked into a single Commandment as in Judaism.
Meanwhile, Catholics link the first, second and third items as the First Commandment, while splitting up the eleventh and twelfth items into two separate Commandments, in order to delineate the difference between the sins involved in coveting the two different things: the sins of lust and objectification in coveting your neighbor’s wife and the sins of envy and greed in coveting your neighbor’s house, servants or belongings. (And interestingly enough, Lutheran tradition, the oldest Protestant tradition, follows the same form.)
It is a common misconception outside the Catholic faith that Catholics have conveniently eliminated the “no graven images” Commandment because of their requirement that imagery of “the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saints, in accordance with most ancient tradition of the Church, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful” in every church (see #318 here). That commandment is definitely not eliminated, it is just lumped together with the other two under the heading of “proper worship of God” and is often truncated in simplified forms, the way that all traditions truncate the commandments to shorter forms in simplified versions. (The topic of imagery in Catholic churches is a complicated discussion I’ll save for another day, but you can read here for more information.)
The Catholic Church also teaches that each of the sins outlined in the Ten Commandments is an “umbrella sin” that can manifest in many different ways. For example, when the Bible tells you to not bear false witness against your neighbor, that includes any kind of lie, even ones without a direct victim, like your neighbor. To Catholics, the Eighth Commandment, not to lie, covers everything from cheating on a test to needlessly embellishing a story. Similarly, the Commandment against adultery covers a wide variety of sins related to chastity, from pornography use to sex outside marriage or using birth control, and the Commandment against killing covers everything from abortion to killing someone’s social status or friendships through gossip. For this reason, guided Catholic Examinations of Conscience are often quite overwhelmingly detailed.
Catholics also have a number of other sources as guides for sin; for starters, the Seven Capital (or “Deadly”) Sins (pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth) and the Seven Cardinal (or Catholic) Virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity). But the Ten Commandments are considered more important.
However, all Christians hold as most important the Commandment that Jesus issued in Matthew 22: “‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.’”
Catholics particularly take these words of Jesus to heart. For this reason, when the Ten Commandments are actually pictured in Catholic imagery, they are often depicted on two stone tablets, as in the biblical story and in Jewish and Protestant tradition, but rather than putting an even five commandments on each tablet, there are three on the first tablet and seven on the second tablet. This shows how the Ten Commandments line up in parallel to Jesus’ ultimate Commandment: the first three regard loving God with all your heart, soul and mind, and the following seven regard loving your neighbor as yourself.
So, regardless of how you split up the twelve commandments into the Perfect 10, we all have the same general interests at heart. Love God, and love one another.
But, here, I’m going to add a Thirteenth Commandment:
13. Seriously, try the blintzes. You won’t regret it.