The Ten Words

During the middle five Wednesdays of Lent—between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week—we are considering the Ten Commandments at evening services. If we can average two per week, we’ll make it. But on the first Wednesday (February 21), we didn’t even get past the First Commandment. Part of that is because the First Commandment is, by far, the most important. But there’s another reason too.

How many commandments are there in the Ten Commandments? Read Exodus 20:1-17, and count them.

For some time now, there has been a mild controversy in the Church over how to number the commandments. It’s actually kind of hard to come up with ten, but we have to, because the book of Deuteronomy references “the Ten Commandments” (Deut. 4:13; 10:4). I call this a “mild controversy,” because, regardless of how we divide them, the content is the same. Depending on how you divide the commandments, you might come up with nine, or you might come up with eleven or twelve. The most natural way of counting comes up with nine. To solve this dilemma, Christians have traditionally divided the last of these into the Ninth and Tenth Commandments. This is what Lutherans do, following the ancient practice of the Church. Other theological traditions that emerged from the Reformation divide the First Commandment into two, and they slide the rest of the commandments down one slot.

But there’s probably a better solution. The traditional Jewish understanding is not to refer to them as the Ten Commandments, but as the Ten Words. And this is literally the way Deuteronomy references them. The word isn’t really “commandments,” but “words.” And they take the first word to be, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). So if this is the First Word, then what we think of as the First Commandment is really the Second Word, and the other eight commandments slide down neatly.

Martin Luther seemed to have understood this when he wrote the Small Catechism, because he included this First Word as the Introduction. But the reformers made it a point to not change anything that didn’t need to be changed. And since they could still teach the entire content of the Ten Words, without renumbering them and confusing everyone, they left them and simply included the First Word as the Introduction.

This might seem trivial, but there is a point to recognizing the Introduction as the First Word. When the Ten Words begin with, “I am the Lord your God,” it tells us who God is and who we are. Before God even gives us the Ten (or nine) Commandments, he first makes himself to be our God. In the Old Testament, God did this at the Red Sea, when he brought the Israelites out of Egypt. This foreshadowed the cross—the New Testament event of God’s deliverance.

We learn from this that God’s relationship to us is based, not on our obedience, but on his grace, his choosing, and his action. So we obey his commandments, not in order to become his children, but because he already has made us his children through his saving deliverance. We obey because God has already made himself to be our God.

The peace of Christ be with you all,

Pastor Dan