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The nine commandments

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 Bible'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 10. This provoked many emails and letters, including one from L., a reader in Wisconsin, and another from R, of Pittsboro, N.C., who's having a big dispute with his brother-in-law, D., about when the mistranslation of the 5th/6th commandment occurred. J., of Long Island, just wanted the right numbering, right away.

So here we go into the jaws of the Big 10. (For the full text, which I don't have room to include, 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

6. Don't murder

7. Don't commit adultery

8. Don't steal

9. Don't commit perjury

10. Don't covet anything

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

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 your neighbor's wife

10. Don't covet your neighbor's things

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

So this is what I think (I hope you're sitting down because this may shock you.): 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: Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; Deut. 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.

If you really want 10 commandments -- so that there are five on each tablet -- how about adding this one: "Don't cut ahead in a line." Please send me your suggestions for a new 10th commandment.