God Squad: By his count, 9 commandments

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday. ...

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I've received many questions about the Ten Commandments over the years, and I always try to indicate that the numbering of the commandments differs depending on the religious tradition.

Recently, I referred to the commandment, "Thou shalt not murder" as a better translation than the King James Version's "Thou shalt not kill." I also said that it's either commandment No. 5 or No. 6, depending on how you count The Big Ten. This provoked many emails and letters.

So here we go into the jaws of the Big Ten. (For the full text, check out Exodus 20:1-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.):

1. I am the Lord your God

2. No idolatry

3. Don't take God's name in vain

4. Keep the Sabbath

5. Honor your parents

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6. Don't murder

7. Don't commit adultery

8. Don't steal

9. Don't commit perjury

10. Don't covet anything

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This is the numbering used by Judaism and by most Protestants and Greek Orthodox Christians. In this listing, "Thou shalt not kill/murder" is commandment No. 6.

However, in the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, the numbering of the commandments looks like this:

1. No idolatry

2. Don't take God's name in vain

3. Keep the Sabbath

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4. Honor your parents

5. Don't murder

6. Don't be an adulterer

7. Don't steal

8. Don't commit perjury

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9. Don't covet your neighbor's wife

10. Don't covet your neighbor's things

In this version, the murder/killing commandment is commandment No. 5 because the first commandment combines the first two commandments in the previous list.

So this is what I think: There are only nine commandments, not 10. I think it's absolutely correct to combine the first two commandments because "I am the Lord your God . . . " is a statement, not a commandment. It does not command us to do anything. It's a prologue to the commandments. I also think that it's obviously correct to make all the coveting commandments at the end of the list just one commandment, not two. Thus, according to the GNS (Gellman Numbering System), there are only nine commandments. To wit:

1. No idolatry

2. Don't take God's name in vain

3. Keep the Sabbath

4. Honor your parents

5. Don't murder

6. Don't be an adulterer

7. Don't steal

8. Don't commit perjury

9. Don't covet anything.

This includes the best elements of the old numbering systems and also makes sense because these edicts are not specifically called the Ten Commandments in the text of Exodus or Deuteronomy. However, I admit that they are referred to as "the 10 words" in three other texts: Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; Deuteronomy 10:4

Look, I'm not optimistic that the world will come around to my way of numbering, but I'm a patient man and the truth is on my side. There are only nine commandments and if that's good enough for God, it's good enough for me.

(Please send me your suggestions for a new 10th commandment.)

Finally, as to the question of when and why the translation was changed from "Thou shalt not murder" to "Thou shalt not kill," it's hard to say precisely. We do know that by the time of the Luther Bible in 1545 ("Du sollst nicht toten"), and the King James translation in 1611 ("Thou shalt not kill"), the change from "murder" to "kill" had been made. Several modern Bible translations are, however, correcting this mistranslation and returning to the original and its wise intention to prohibit not all killing, but only morally unjustified killing.

By the way, when I teach the traditional Ten Commandments to children, here's the list I use:

1. There's just one God

2. Don't even think of having another God

3. Don't curse with God's name

4. Rest one day out of seven

5. Do what Mom and Dad tell you to do, and do it right away -- unless what they tell you to do is really bad

6. Don't kill anyone who isn't trying to kill you

7. Make love only to the person you marry

8. Don't take stuff that isn't yours

9. Tell the truth (almost always)

10. Don't want what other people have just because they have it

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