April 23, 2007

Tough Questions - Skipping the Second Commandment

Today, I'm answering a "tough question" about our understanding of the Commandments. This one is related, also, to my last answer.
"Why do Catholics not only ignore the second Commandment about making graven images, bowing down to them and serving them but also rearrange the Biblical order of the Ten Commandments to reduce their culpability in the breaking of this commandment as an integral part of their teaching."
Wow. Bowing down and serving graven images. That's a biggie.

It's not a translation issue; we can eliminate that. A comparison of the KJV and RSV, for example, shows no doctrinal differences. The issue is one of summary; there are ten key points to the commandments, but Catholics and Protestants summarize them differently.

Here is the RSV version of Deuteronomy 5:6-21, with the uncontested text trimmed down for brevity. (It's worth noting, also, that a similar list appears in Exodus 20:1-17.)
You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;

you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God....

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you....

Honor your father and your mother...
You shall not kill.
Neither shall you commit adultery.
Neither shall you steal.
Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.
Any statement of the Commandments, no matter the origin, is a summarization, unless it quotes directly from Scripture. The Commandments are not numbered in Scripture, so any numbering is on the part of the person writing that summary.

Most (perhaps all) denominations understand the middle Commandments as individual items:
  • Observe the sabbath day
  • Honor your father and mother
  • You shall not kill
  • You shall not commit adultery
  • You shall not steal
  • you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
That gives us six commandments, with the remaining text - before and after - left to make up four more.

The first group:

The Protestant Ten Commandments count off three separate prohibitions from the beginning text: those against having other gods before the Lord, creating or worshiping graven images, and not taking the name of God in vain.

In many cases, the wording is not taking directly from the Bible but is paraphrased. The Second Commandment is sometimes written as "You shall not make yourself an idol", "You shall not worship false gods", or, using the popular King James-like language, "Thou shalt not carve graven images". In any case, the prohibition is the same, even if all the words of Scripture are not included.

This shortening occurs with Catholic renditions of the Commandments, as well, of course. Rather than draw that text into three parts, the Catholic Commandments only use two:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God....

  2. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
The first is often shortened, simply, to "You shall have no other gods" or a similar expression. The implication is that "no other gods" includes any "god" - a false deity; another heavenly creature, such as an angel; and earthly things, such as statues and icons, money, sex, drugs, and so on.

The last group:

Finally, in order to reach a total of ten, the Catholic Ten Commandments include two the deal with coveting:

  1. Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife;

  2. ...you shall not desire your neighbor's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's
The Protestant version collects these into one tenth Commandment.

Conclusion:

What we encounter here is a problem of summary, not of translation or intention. The cause is the very human problem (remember the Tower of Babel?) of misunderstanding each other. The Catholic Church never "removed" a Commandment; we have a different arrangement only because we summarize or group them in a different way. The Scriptural text is identical in meaning and nearly identical in phrasing. Most importantly, there is no reason to conceal that Commandment, because the Church does not worship anyone or anything but God.

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