3 Ways to Number the Ten Commandments (& Which Is Right)

The numbers 1 through 10 in different places representing the numbering of the ten commandments

The Bible is explicit that God revealed ten Words to his people at Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13, 10:4),1 and it stands to reason that we should know how to number them, especially given the unique status these Words bear in Scripture.2 Full lists of the Ten Words occur in both Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21.3 Throughout the history of interpretation, scholars have itemized the commands in three ways. This study will survey the three views and then argue for a modified Catholic–Lutheran numbering of the Ten Commandments using observations from textlinguistics, stylistic analysis, and semantic content.4

1. 3 different views in the history of interpretation

The three major views on the Decalogue include the Majority Jewish view, the Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox view, and the Catholic–Lutheran view. The Counting the Ten Commandments interactive in Logos displays these in a convenient format. Each colored column shows the way a given view divides the Ten Words (Jewish is blue; Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox is green; Catholic–Lutheran is orange):

A screenshot of the Logos Bible study app showing how the Ten Commandments are divided up.

Notice that the primary areas of disagreement among these three lie in the numbering of the first three Words and the last two.

1.1. The first 3 Words

With respect to the first three Words, the majority Jewish view holds that the clause “I am Yahweh your God” (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6) is the first of the Ten Words and that statements two and three make up Word two: “There shall never be other gods” through “those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod 20:3–6; Deut 5:7–10).

A screenshot from the Logos Bible study app showing the majority Jewish view of the first three of the Ten Commandments

In contrast, the Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox and Catholic–Lutheran perspectives both regard the clause “I am Yahweh your God” as a prologue to the whole list.

A screenshot from the Logos Bible study app showing the Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox view of the first three of the Ten Commandments
A screenshot from the Logos Bible study app showing the Catholic/Lutheran view of the first three of the Ten Commandments

The latter two views then differ on Words one and two, with the Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox view distinguishing as two Words the charge against having other gods (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7) and the ban against shaping a graven image (Exod 20:4–6; Deut 5:8–10). In contrast, the Catholic–Lutheran view sees the rest of the section in which God speaks in the first person (Exod 20:2–6; Deut 5:6–10) as the first Word.

1.2. The last 2 Words

Regarding the end of the Decalogue, both the majority Jewish and Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox views read the two statements on coveting (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21) as the tenth Word, seeing no exegetical basis for separating the final two prohibitions.

A screenshot from the Logos Bible study app showing the majority Jewish view of the last two of the Ten Commandments
A screenshot from the Logos Bible study app showing the Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox view of the last two of the Ten Commandments

However, the Catholic–Lutheran perspective distinguishes the final prohibitions “You shall never covet your neighbor’s house[/wife]” and “You shall never covet[/desire] your neighbor’s wife[/house, field, etc.]” (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21) as discrete Words.5

A screenshot from the Logos Bible study app showing the majority Jewish view of the last two of the Ten Commandments

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2. Learning to number the 10

Primary in determining the boundaries of each debated Word is the type of discontinuity implied by the lack of formal connection (asyndeton) between the Hebrew clauses. Linguists have long recognized that asyndetic Hebrew clauses signal discontinuity in a text, often to mark apposition or explication. However, asyndeton can also signal a fresh beginning in discourse, and context alone determines which function is at the fore.6 Thus, what is at stake in counting the Ten Words is whether the various asyndetic clauses provide a fresh beginning to a distinct Word or whether they clarify, expand, or fill out a previous Word.

2.1. Numbering words 1 through 4

The beginning of the Decalogue contains six asyndetic statements that demand attention:

  • “I am Yahweh your God” (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6).
  • “There shall never be to you other gods” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7).
  • “You shall never make for yourself a carved image” (Exod 20:4[–6]; Deut 5:8[–10]).
  • “You shall never bear Yahweh’s name in vain” (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11).
  • “Remember(/Observe) the Sabbath.” (Exod 20:8[–11]; Deut 5:12[–15]).
  • “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16).

Historically, interpreters have agreed that the last three of these statements make up discrete Words. The debate, therefore, centers on understanding the relationship among the first three. I argue that the declaration “I am Yahweh your God (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6) serves as a prologue to the first Word and that the asyndetic commandment against a sculptured image (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8) expands and clarifies “There shall never be to you other gods” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7). Therefore, the entire series of initial prohibitions is interpreted as a single Word, the first of the Ten. In other words, I take a modified form of the Catholic–Lutheran view—for three reasons:

1. Yahweh speaks in the first person

First, Yahweh speaks in the first person in each of the statements from “I am Yahweh your God” (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6) to “showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod 20:6; Deut 5:10). The rest of the Decalogue, however, portrays Yahweh in the third person.7 Moreover, each first-person address is held together by an inclusio through the repeated use of the phrase יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶ֫יךָ (“Yahweh your God”) in the initial declaration (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6) and in the ground clause following the charge to guard what one worships and serves (“for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God,” Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9).8 The personal perspective in the text, therefore, calls readers to view as a single unit the prohibitions against other gods and the injunctions against crafting an image and worshiping the wrong object.

2. Pronominal references

Second, pronominal references bind these statements together in two ways.

The first-person common singular pronominal suffix at the end of the prepositional phrase עַל־פָּנָ֫יַ (“before me”) in Exodus 20:3 and Deuteronomy 5:7 grammatically binds the prohibition against other gods to Yahweh’s self-presentation (“I am Yahweh your God”) in Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6. Thus, the command to worship Yahweh alone is only understandable when linked with the identification clause that precedes it, creating a grammatical unit. Two conclusions naturally follow:

  • The statements “I am Yahweh your God” and “There shall never be to you other gods” (Exod 20:2–3; Deut 5:6–7) are likely not distinct Words.
  • The presentation statement “I am Yahweh your God” is best understood as an introduction to Word one and not as a covenantal historical prologue to the whole Decalogue.9

The third-person masculine plural pronominal suffixes in Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 (“You shall never bow down to them or serve them”) grammatically link the asyndetic command against sculpted images to the prohibition against other gods. While it is possible to find the antecedent in the singular פֶּ֫סֶל (“sculptured image”) or כָּל־תְּמוּנָה (“any likeness”) of the previous verse (Exod 20:6; Deut 5:8, the Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox view), the phrase אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים (“other gods,” plural) in Exodus 20:3 and Deuteronomy 5:7 provides the most likely antecedent.10 Outside the Decalogue, the word pair “to bow down and serve” (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9) is a stereotyped expression that always has as its object “other gods” or “the host of heaven”—never explicitly physical images.11 Furthermore, the designation of Yahweh as אֵל קַנָּא (“a jealous God”) in Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 elsewhere refers directly to the threat of evil influences or rival deities competing for Israel’s allegiance, with no explicit reference to manufactured idols.12 Consequently, the proper referent for the third masculine plural suffixes in Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 seems to be the אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים (“other gods”) of Exodus 20:3 and Deuteronomy 5:7, resulting in the grouping of all three initial prohibitions as a single Word.13

3. Motive clauses

Third, each of the first four Words appears to be guided by an intentional commandment plus a motive clause. God’s people must retain allegiance to Yahweh because (כִּי) he is jealous for their affection (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9). They must faithfully bear witness to his name because (כִּי) of the threat of punishment (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11). Yahweh redeemed them from Egypt and therefore (עַל־כֵּן) commanded them to keep the Sabbath (Exod 20:8–11; Deut 5:12–15). And the Israelites must honor their parents so that (לְמַעַן) they may enjoy well-being (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). Each of these four Words includes only one motivational rationale, thus suggesting the likelihood that all three initial prohibitions should be read as a unit bearing a single ground clause. Israel must never perceive other gods in God’s presence, which implies they must not craft an image or worship and follow other gods, “for I Yahweh your God am a jealous God” (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9).14

2.2. Numbering words 5 through 10

Turning to the end of the Decalogue, the six final prohibitions form a clear grouping (Exod 20:13–17; Deut 5:17–21) signaled by their pithy nature and by the lack of any direct reference to “Yahweh your God” or of any expressed motivations. At stake here is whether the final two injunctions against coveting/envy are to be read together as a single Word (the majority Jewish and Reformed–Anglican–Orthodox views) or separately as distinct Words (the Catholic–Lutheran view).

All six prohibitions in the Exodus version are asyndetic, lacking any connector. Interpreters who see the final two injunctions as one Word often argue that Exodus 20:17b expands or clarifies בַּ֫יִת (“house”) in Exodus 20:17a, which they define as “household”:15

You shall never covet your neighbor’s house—that is, you must never covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Author’s translation.)

Those holding this view also argue that the repetition of the verb חמד (“covet”) in Exodus 20:17ab demonstrates a topical parallel between the two clauses that requires treating the whole as a single Word. However, Deuteronomy 5:21 makes it impossible to read 5:21b as an explication of the preceding clause, because it both alters the second verb from חמד (“covet”) in Exodus 20:17b to the Hithpael of אוה (“desire, crave”) and isolates the commandment against coveting a neighbor’s wife.

A screenshot of the Logos app showing the word "neighbor"

Moreover, after the prohibition against murder in Deuteronomy 5:17, Moses includes the conjunction waw (וַ) before each of the following five prohibitions in 5:18–21b. The result is a text block of six prohibitions (לֹא … וְלֹא … וְלֹא … וְלֹא … וְלֹא … וְלֹא). Waw, with its allomorphs, is a coordinator that by default expresses a single meaning of logical connection and links elements of equal syntactic value, resulting in a chain of grammatical units that are to be read together.16 Therefore, since none of the six prohibitions that end the Decalogue in Deuteronomy (including 5:21b) explicate what precedes, the default interpretation is to read 5:21b as a new, final element in the series of commandments beginning in 5:17.

Two further considerations strengthen my inclination to view the final two prohibitions as distinct Words. First, in the Exodus version, one must ask why both the verb חמד (“covet”) and the noun-phrase רֵעֶ֫ךָ (“of your neighbor”) after “wife” are repeated at all if indeed Exodus 20:17b merely explicates the initial coveting prohibition.17 The list of wife, servants, livestock, and material goods, each with a third masculine singular pronominal suffix, could have simply been placed directly after the noun בַּ֫יִת (“house”) to express apposition.

A screenshot of the Bible open in the Logos app with the word neighbor highlighted in English and Hebrew

Additionally, the inclusion of שָׂדֶה (“field”) after “house” in Deuteronomy 5:21b suggests that in the Decalogue בַּ֫יִת simply means “physical dwelling place” and not “household.” Although land can be connected to household inheritance (e.g., Judg 11:2), the household itself only includes members and moveable property.18

So while servants, livestock, and material goods could be considered part of one’s household, there is no evidence that suggests a field could be. As such, the list (at least in Deuteronomy) should likely not be seen as explicating “house.” Therefore, Words nine and ten make up the final two prohibitions against coveting in Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21.

2.3. A supporting pattern

Norbert Lohfink has noted that when the initial declaration and three prohibitions are recognized as the first of the Ten Words and the final six prohibitions are viewed as a unit (conjoined by waw in Deut 5:17–21), the Decalogue as a whole expresses an alternating arrangement of length (long-short-long-short-long).19 This structure highlights the centrality of the Sabbath command, which stands as the sign of the Mosaic covenant (Exod 31:16–17).20

Table 2: The Centrality of the Sabbath in the Alternating Arrangement of the Decalogue

 

 

Long

Worship Yahweh

Word 1 (Exod 20:2–6; Deut 5:6–10)

Short

Bear Yahweh’s name

Word 2 (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11)

Long

Keep the Sabbath

Word 3 (Exod 20:8–11; Deut 5:12–15)

Short

Honor Parents

Word 4 (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16)

Long

Love neighbor

Words 5–10 (Exod 20:13–17; Deut 5:17–21)

3. Conclusion

Historically, people have numbered the Ten Words in three different ways. This essay has argued for a modified Catholic–Lutheran view of numbering the Decalogue, with the only change being that Yahweh’s initial declaration to be Israel’s redeemer is the foundational prelude to the first Word and not a covenantal prologue to the entirety of the Ten Commandments. Features of discourse grammar, style, and semantic content give greatest support to viewing the entire first-person section (Exod 20:2–6; Deut 5:6–10) as Word one and the final two injunctions against coveting as Words nine and ten (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21). God gave us Ten Words, and they can now be numbered correctly. However, knowing how to count the Ten Words means nothing if we fail to make them count.21

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  1. The present article is a condensed version of Jason S. DeRouchie, “Counting the Ten: An Investigation into the Numbering of the Decalogue,” in For Our Good Always: Studies on the Message and Influence of Deuteronomy in Honor of Daniel I. Block, ed. Jason S. DeRouchie, Jason Gile, and Kenneth J. Turner (Winona Lake, IL: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 93–125. I thank my research assistant Daniel Graham for his help on editing this essay.
  2. On this, see especially Daniel I. Block, “Reading the Decalogue Right to Left: The Ten Principles of Covenant Relationship in the Hebrew Bible,” in How I Love Your Torah, O Lord! Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 21–60.
  3. On the authentic Decalogue being found in Exod 20 and Deut 5 and not Exod 34, see “Appendix A. The Real Decalogue: Exodus 20 || Deuteronomy 5, not Exodus 34,” in DeRouchie, “Counting the Ten,” 123–24, and DeRouchie, “You Asked: Which Is the Real Ten Commandments?,” TGC, August 27, 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/you-asked-which-is-the-real-ten-commandments/.
  4. The following contemporary studies have wrestled with the numbering of the Decalogue: L. Hartman, “The Enumeration of the Ten Commandments,” CBQ 7 (1945): 105–8; W. L. Moran, “The Conclusion of the Decalogue (Ex 20,17 = Dt 5,21),” CBQ 29 (1967): 543–54; Bo Reicke, Die zehn Worte in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Zahlung und Bedeutung der Gebote in den verschiedenen Konfessionen (Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1973); M. D. Koster, “The Numbering of the Ten Commandments in Some Peshiṭta Manuscripts,” VT 30.4 (1980): 468–73; M. Breuer, “Dividing the Decalogue into Verses and Commandments,” in The Ten Commandments in History and Interpretation, eds. B.-Z. Segal and G. Levi, trans. G. Levi (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985), 291–330, esp. 309–14; P. L. Maier, “Enumerating the Decalogue: Do We Number the Ten Commandments Correctly?” Concordia Journal 16.1 (Jan 1990): 18–26; N. Jastram, “Should Lutherans Really Change How They Number the Ten Commandments?,” Concordia Journal 16.4 (Oct 1990): 363–69; H. D. Hummel, “Numbering the Ten ‘Commandments’: A Response to Both Jastram and Maier,” Concordia Journal 16.4 (Oct 1990): 373–83; P. L. Maier, “A Response to Nathan Jastram,” Concordia Journal 16.4 (Oct 1990) 370–72; L. Smith, “Original Sin as ‘Envy’: The Structure of the Biblical Decalogue,” Dialog 30 (1991): 227–30; R. Youngblood, “Counting the Ten Commandments,” BR 10 (Dec 1994): 30–35, 50, 52; B. Arnett, “Counting to Ten: Enumerating and Interpreting the Decalogue of Exodus 20,” Journal for Biblical Ministries (spring 2009): 58–74; R. R. Hutton, “A Simply Matter of Numbering? ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Holiness’ in the Decalogue Tradition,” in Raising Up a Faithful Exegete: Essays in Honor of Richard D. Nelson, eds. K. L. Noll and B. Schramm (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 211–23; D. I. Block, “How Shall We Number the Ten Commands? The Deuteronomy Version (5:1–21),” in How I Love Your Torah, O Lord!: Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 56–60; and The Gospel according to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), 169–73.
  5. For examples of the three historic views as well as a discussion of the significance of the two cantillation systems in the BHS, see DeRouchie, “Counting the Ten,” 95–101.
  6. On asyndeton in Hebrew as a marker of disjunction, see F. I. Andersen, The Hebrew Verbless Clause in the Pentateuch (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1970), 28; F. I. Andersen, The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew (New York: Mouton, 1974), 27; Stephen G. Dempster, “Linguistic Features of Hebrew Narrative: A Discourse Analysis of Narrative from the Classical Period” (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1985), 42–47; Jason S. DeRouchie, “Waw and Asyndeton as Guides to Macrostructure in Biblical Hebrew Prose,” in Like Nails Firmly Fixed: Essays on the Text and Language of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, Presented to Peter J. Gentry on the Occasion of His Retirement, eds. Jonathan Kiel, Phillip Marshall, and John Meade, BET 115 (Leuven: Peeters, 2023), 129–50. See also Jason S. DeRouchie, A Call to Covenant Love: Text Grammar and Literary Structure in Deuteronomy 5–11, GD30 BS 2 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2007), 120–32, 225; Duane A. Garrett and Jason S. DeRouchie, A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2009), 284–85; Jason S. DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 103–09.
  7. Most likely, the shift from first to third person represents the precise timing of when the tribal heads and elders drew near to Moses and requested that God speak only to him and that he as the covenant mediator then speak to them (Deut 5:23–27; cf. Exod 20:18–19).
  8. N. Jastram, “Ten Commandments?” 364. The Exodus version may suggest that this phrase occurs only once per command, but the Deuteronomy account uses the phrase “Yahweh your God” (יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶ֫יךָ) multiple times in the Sabbath commandment and the charge to honor parents, showing that there was no explicit intention to only use the phrase once per Word.
  9. Contrast, for example, Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 370. While I agree that many elements of Hittite treaties are present, the text grammar suggests that the Decalogue is employing the general pattern in a unique way.
  10. For a further discussion of the possibilities for these referents, see DeRouchie, “Counting the Ten,” 116.
  11. W. Zimmerli, “Das Zweite Gebot,” in idem, Gottes Offenbarung: gesammelte Aufsätze zum Alten Testament, TB 19 (Munich: Kaiser, 1963), 235, n. 3; 236–38. (See Exod 20:5, 23:24; Deut 4:19, 5:9, 30:17; 1 Kgs 9:9; 2 Kgs 17:35, 21:3; Jer 22:9; 2 Chr 7:22, 33:3.)
  12. See Exod 34:14; Deut 4:24, 6:15, 32:16, 21; cf. Josh 24:19; Ezek 39:25; Joel 2:18; Zech 1:14, 8:2. So Block, “How Shall We Number the Ten Commandments?” 60; and Block, Gospel according to Moses, 172. The only potential text I find that may suggest otherwise is Ezekiel 8:3, which uses the ambiguous phrase סֵ֫מֶל הַקִּנְאָה הַמַּקְנֶה (“the image of jealousy, which provokes jealousy”).
  13. See the comments on Exodus 20 in E. Nielsen, The Ten Commandments in New Perspective, trans. D. J. Bourke, SBT Series 2.7 (Naperville, FL: SCM, 1968), 11–12.
  14. Zimmerli, “Das Zweite Gebot,” 237–38; Jastram, “Ten Commandments?,” 364.
  15. The term בַּ֫יִת (“house”) can refer to the structural dwelling inhabited by but distinct from its inhabitants, the inhabitants themselves (i.e., one’s family or “household”), or simply the biological offspring on the father’s side. See “I בית,” HALOT, 124–25.
  16. For similar structures with each prohibition expressing a new thought, see, e.g., Exod 23:24; Lev 19:11; 25:11. For the meaning of waw expressed here, see See R. C. Steiner, “Does the Biblical Hebrew Conjunction -ו Have Many Meanings, One Meaning, or No Meaning at All?,” JBL 119 (2000): 249–67; Andersen, Hebrew Verbless Clause, 28; Andersen, Sentence in Biblical Hebrew, 27; Dempster, “Linguistic Features,” 40–41; DeRouchie, Call to Covenant Love, 107–20, 225; DeRouchie, “Waw and Asyndeton as Guides to Macrostructure in Biblical Hebrew Prose,” 129–50. Clauses fronted with waw can explicate preceding thoughts (subordination), but there must be other elements in the context that override the default meaning of coordination. Andersen (Sentence in Biblical Hebrew, 27, 186–91) discusses the various ways “deep relations” are realized by surface structures. Note also the discussion of generative-transformational grammar in D. Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics, 5th ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 199–200, 471–73, along with D. W. Baker, “Further Examples of the WAW Explicativum,” VT 30.2 (1980): 129–36.
  17. Jastram, “Ten Commandments?,” 366.
  18. Dictionary of Classical Hebrew 2:151 suggests that a household can include territory, but none of the examples cited make this statement certain.
  19. Norbert Lohfink, “The Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5,” in Theology of the Pentateuch: Themes of the Priestly Narrative and Deuteronomy, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 257.
  20. For more on the Sabbath, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Good-Bye and Hello: The Sabbath Command for New Covenant Believers,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, eds. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2016), 159–88; DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 449–453; Beau M. Landers, “Christ Will Give You Rest: A Biblical Theology of the Sabbath” (PhD diss., Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2022).
  21. As a step toward this end, see Jason S. DeRouchie, “Making the Ten Count: Reflections on the Lasting Message of the Decalogue,” in For Our Good Always: Studies on the Message and Influence of Deuteronomy in Honor of Daniel I. Block, eds. Jason S. DeRouchie, Jason Gile, and Kenneth J. Turner (Winona Lake, IL: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 415–40. See also “The Christian and Old Testament Law” in DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 427–59, and “Part 4—Living Well: How Jesus Makes Moses’s Law Matter,” in Jason S. DeRouchie, Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and for Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024), 191–278.
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Jason S. DeRouchie

Research professor of Old Testament and biblical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; content developer and global trainer at Hands to the Plow Ministries

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