The main point of this post is that the order in which the Ten Commandments are listed makes perfect sense.
The Ten Commandments are listed in this order (I paraphrase and shorten them, found at Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21):
- Thou shalt have no other gods besides God.
- No idols.
- No misusing God’s name.
- Keep the Sabbath holy.
- Honor your father and mother.
- Thou shalt not murder.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thou neighbor.
- Thou shalt not covet anything of thy neighbor’s.
There are other things to be said about them, of course, first and foremost that it’s hard to improve on them, if you set out to come up with important rules for social and moral order. I’ll include some discussion of that below. I remember, by the way, when my wife and I were teaching a Sunday school class about the Ten Commandments and asked the kids if they could think of anything that was left out, and the only suggestion was (rather predictably, given the zeitgeist), “Thou shalt recycle.”
One supposes that God took care not only in choosing these ten, but also in the order He listed them. Conversely, it seems very unlikely that God would have been careless or random in the order he chose. And, when you think about it, the order does make perfect sense.
To begin with, they are grouped broadly into two categories: how we are supposed to relate to God, and how we are supposed to relate to one another. Jesus famously said that all God’s rules can be boiled down to two: love God and love your neighbor. Matthew 22:37-40; see also Mark 12:30-31 and Luke 10:27-28. And, of these two, it makes sense to start with those about loving God, because He is more important and, if we don’t have the right relationship with Him, then we have no reason to be decent to one another either.
And, sure enough, the four commandments most focused on God are the first four. Does the order in which those four are listed make sense?
Yes, rather obviously. The most important thing is to recognize that He is the one and only. If there were more than one god, then inevitably you would have to balance your allegiance and duties, and of course that will not do. Next, recognizing this god for Who He is — the great “I am” — means that you can’t reduce him to an effigy of some sort. And then it would also be wrong to use His name disrespectfully, since that would undermine your obedience to Him.
With the fourth and, I’ll argue next, the fifth commandments God begins in His list to pivot toward our relationship with other people.
Thus, keeping the Sabbath holy is certainly about God; we are told that doing so acknowledges how God created everything. Note also that, while the commandment doesn’t spell out precisely what we should be doing on the Sabbath besides not working, part of keeping it holy must be to focus more on Him than we can during the distraction-filled workweek.
But for the first time we are also told about how to treat others: Not only are you yourself not allowed to work, but you can’t require anyone else to work either: “On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.”
Now, what accounts for the spot in the sequence given to the fifth commandment? — “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” If my hypothesis is that the commandments are listed in order of importance, why would honoring your father and your mother be ranked ahead of not murdering people?
The answer, I would argue, is that this commandment is important because it ensures the transmission of all God’s laws to future generations. The importance of this transmission is obvious, and the mechanism for it will be parental teaching, as is indicated elsewhere in the Torah. Deuternonomy 4:9-10, 6:5-9, 11:19; see also Proverbs 22:6 and Psalms 78:2-4. What’s more, the focus on future generations and God’s plan for them is part of the commandment itself, “so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
As indicated before, then, the fourth and fifth commandments involve both our relationship with God and our relationship with other human beings, so it makes sense to have them sandwiched between the first three commandments that are more focused just on God and the following five commandments that are more focused just on other people.
When we turn to the commandments that govern our relationships with other people, it’s obvious that we start with not murdering one another. I’m not sure there’s much more to be said about that, so I won’t.
I think it is significant that the commandment against adultery comes right after the commandment against murder. God really, really does not like us to have sex outside of marriage; this is a common theme in the Old and New Testament alike. And He says here that of the sexual sins adultery — that is, sin outside of marriage when you are married — is the worst: worse than fornication between two unmarried people, worse than gay sex (an “abomination” meriting death, according to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13).
And it’s easy to understand why. Adultery is often devastating to the innocent partner, and often destroys marriages — and the institution of marriage is socially essential and indispensable in particular for the well-being and upbringing of children. And children that come out of adultery create problems that can’t be addressed through shotgun marriages. It is easy to see how someone, including God, might conclude that, while a society with widespread murder was worst, a society in which theft is acceptable is preferable to one in which adultery is. (Note also that murder and adultery cannot be undone, while stolen property at least can be returned.)
Stealing is bad, too, and cannot be tolerated in a society where people are expected to work and sacrifice for their families. I think murder and theft would make anyone’s list of actions that God should prohibit — except, one supposes, lists drawn up by anarchists or Marxists — I’ll just repeat one last time that it’s significant that adultery is bad enough to be put between the two of them. These three are worse in a sense than what’s addressed in the ninth and tenth commandments, since those latter two are anticipatory while murder, adultery, and theft are themselves consummate.
Regarding the ninth commandment — “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” — I think it is significant that God does not put an injunction against all lies into the Ten Commandments, but specifies only a particular kind of lie. Not all lies are equal, just as not all illicit sex is. We need to be careful about even white lies; and when we lie to our parents about being at the library, or to our boss about our availability to come in over the weekend, that’s nothing to be proud of. But to accuse someone else falsely of a wrongdoing and to make that accusation to an authority — a judge or jury, policeman or prosecutor — well, that’s much worse. For any sort of legal system to work, perjury cannot be tolerated (even if ultimately it might be disproved or disbelieved in a particular case), and any advanced and equitable society has to have a legal system.
We are commanded last not to covet what belongs to our neighbor. This does not mean that coveting is no big deal: It’s still one of the ten worst sins, after all. And it poisons the soul. But it alone among the other-people-related commandments involves no physical action: It can certainly lead to the other four — murder, adultery, theft, false witness — but it itself hurts only the coveter. Likewise, it has always seemed to me that — contrary to what is sometimes said — when Jesus taught that, if you lust in your heart or think about killing someone, you are already sinning, He was not saying that the thought is as bad as the deed itself.
So there you have it: The first three commandments focus on our relationship with God, the last five on our relationship with other human beings, with two commandments in the middle that have elements of both relationships — and the whole list is consistently and sensibly prioritized. No wonder it has held up so well.