“One’s religion is whatever he is most interested in.” —J.M. Barrie
In A Nutshell
Even if we’re not religious, we’ve all heard of the Ten Commandments. They’re a cornerstone of modern America, printed on the sides of churches and the insides of public buildings. Only problem is, there are really 14 of them.
The Whole Bushel
The scene of Moses descending the mountain in the middle of a storm, carrying the 10 laws of God written in stone is an iconic moment in human history. It has inspired paintings, music, novels, and even a Charlton Heston film—and none of them get even the most basic detail right.
Open Exodus 20 and try and count the commandments listed there: It’s not as easy as it sounds. Rather than being displayed in a numbered list, several of the commandments are written in paragraph form. Here it gets tricky: Within these longer commandments lie other orders that could be sub-commandments or whole new laws. The section on not worshiping false idols, for example, contains four separate commands: not to worship other Gods, not to make images of them, not to bow down to them, and not to serve them. Same with the section on the Sabbath: We’re ordered to both keep the Sabbath holy and not to work on it.
To add to the confusion, Exodus 20:18 is traditionally seen as the end of the commandments. However, it’s really more of a break. After describing how the Israelites cowered with fear, the author starts commanding again in Exodus 20:22. Some of these new decrees are repetition, but some—such as a prohibition against having your genitals on display as you approach the altar—are a whole new ball game.
In short, the actual number of commandments is probably anything but ten. Some guess 14, while certain Jewish sources put the number at over 600. The confusion is thought to arise due to other parts of the Bible referring explicitly to the “Ten Commandments” and people trying to work backward to make the original chapter fit that description.