We were all taught the story of Moses going up on Mount Sinai with trembling legs to meet with God and getting the ten commandments that the Big Guy himself had fashioned out of stone tablets. But when Moses brought the commandments back down, he discovered that the Israelites had started worshipping a false god, a golden calf that Moses’s brother, Aaron, of all people, had made. (How could they be so stupid?) Moses was so mad that he smashed the stone tablets against the rocks. Then he had to go back up the mountain to get a second set. This time God made Moses carve out the tablets himself before God again wrote out the commandments.
We were also taught that the ten commandments were meant not just for the Israelites and for that time. They were, rather, the fundamental rules by which everyone was to act for all time. Of course, there were many other, more detailed rules of conduct laid out in the Pentateuch, but we didn’t spend much time studying those. In fact, most of them were ignored or in many cases intentionally buried, and instead we focused on the Big Ten.
When I abandoned my religious beliefs, the ten commandments got dumped along with everything else, and I didn’t give them much further thought. From a remove of 50-some years, I realize that many Christians understand that the commandments were from a time when God was, shall we say, a bit more demanding in what he expected of his followers. And it’s also true that a lot of who I call “New Testament Christians” prefer the golden rule as the fundamental guide to personal morality. Even so, the ten commandments continue to occupy a prominent role in traditional Christian beliefs. After all, they are the Ten Commandments.
So I thought it was time to take a fresh look at them to see how I feel about them at this point. Well, not so good, in my view.
First, a couple of general comments.
(a) It’s not even clear that there are exactly ten commandments or specifically what they are. Though it may be a later convention, the Bible is divided into relatively short verses, and one would think that there would be one verse for each commandment. But this is not the case. There are 16 verses in the original version of the commandments in Exodus 20 and 15 verses in the second version in Deuteronomy 5. Moreover, Protestants and Catholics differ in how the commandments are counted. Catholics combine into one commandment what Protestants consider the first two. To get to ten, Catholics split into two what Protestants consider the tenth commandment, separating the prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s wife from the prohibition against coveting anything else of one’s neighbor’s. Seems artificial, frankly, but whatever. I presume there are ten commandments because we are blessed with a total of ten fingers.
(b) Most of the commandments are worded negatively. They’re “don’ts” rather than “dos.” Only two, the fourth and fifth, using the Protestant method for counting, are positive directives. What does it say about a deity--or a moral code--that focuses primarily on what we should not do rather than on what we should?
Beyond these general reflections, I thought I would comment on each commandment in turn, using the King James Version and the Protestant counting system, which I’m most familiar with from my youth.
I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
This has always raised the question in my mind of who these “other gods” were. We were taught that God was the only true god and that the others were just idols, false gods. But that’s not really what the commandment says. The prior verse, sort of a preamble, states, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This was at a time when societies were moving from polytheism to monotheism, and, arguably, the statement is really a recognition that God was simply the god of the Israelites, the one that had protected them and was the one that they were to worship, their personal god, if you will. Put into this context, the wording makes a lot more sense. But, assuming a full blown monotheism, which is where the Israelites wound up, wouldn’t it have been better and simpler to have said something like, “I am the one true God. Worship me and only me.” The fact that it doesn’t is some indication that there were other deities around that God was competing with.
II. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Maybe the Catholics were right to combine this with the first commandment. It’s really saying much the same as the first one, that nothing other than God should be worshipped. But again, the commandment is arguably broader than than, forbidding not just the worship of idols but their manufacture. A lot of pre-monotheistic gods were “specialized,” presumably having dominion over such things as the winds or crops or fertility. It took a long time for cultures to evolve a “super god” that was supreme over the other deities and an even longer time for that god to eliminate all the others. It seems evident that the ten commandments were written at a time when God was still working to out-muscle the other deities.
Things turn dark in the second part of this commandment. God admits to his “jealous” nature and his intolerance for competition—a further indication of God’s recognition of other, lesser gods. In effect, the commandment is saying that, not only will God punish those who fail to pay him allegiance, but he will continue to punish their descendants, even unto their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Yikes. A little harsh, don’t you think, but an indication of how vengeful God could be.
III. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Frankly, this commandment seems a little nit-picky, but it is interesting that we seem to have had profanity with us for as long as we have had gods to profane. Reading between the lines, perhaps it is saying that, not only do we need to worship God on a formal basis, we also need to give him proper respect on a day-to-day basis.
As an aside, one of my parochial high school English teachers contended that words such as “gosh,” “gee whiz,” and even “goodness” represented violations of the third commandment, since they were simply euphemisms for “God” or “Jesus.” For similar reasons she was also critical of words like “shoot” and “fooey.” The only expletive that she permitted herself was “pshaw,” which she claimed had a separate, non-euphemistic origin.
That brings up another point, namely, that the commandment seems only to forbid vain uses of God’s name. It doesn’t seem to say anything about other words that are considered coarse or in poor taste. But that is not what we were taught.
The comment about not holding someone guiltless appears redundant, since the whole point of the ten commandments would seem to be a list of those things for which God would punish you. Just another indication of what a strict disciplinarian God was.
IV. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist church, we considered this the real biggie, the commandment that reflected one of the fundamental doctrines that distinguished the SDA religion from the other Christian faiths. Of course, now I see that it is premised on a literal interpretation of scripture, particularly the creation story of Genesis 1.
As I read it, the commandment contains two rules. One is not to do any work on the sabbath and extends that rule to everyone over whom you may have control, including “man servants” and “maid servants” (slaves?) and even cattle and strangers. The other rule is to keep the day holy, and the SDA church interpreted this to mean that not only were we not to labor on the sabbath but we were to think of and engage in only those activities that would glorify God, such as Bible study or nature walks. Just thinking about what you were going to do after sabbath was over (sundown Saturday) was forbidden, a violation of the commandment. Based on this analysis, as far as I could tell, everyone broke the fourth commandment every week. It says a lot that we always knew the timing of sundown Friday and Saturday, down to the minute.
In other respects, though, I would have to admit that the commandment is well structured. It is worded positively rather than negatively and it is relatively detailed in laying out the parameters of the rule. And I don’t mind that it includes a rationale for its origin. Too bad it’s based on a myth and is virtually impossible to obey.
V. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
This commandment too is worded positively and is the first of the commandments that relate to conduct toward our fellow humans rather than toward God. Both are positives in my view. On the other hand, if it is intended as an admonition to respect and take care of family, it is way too narrow. What about parental responsibilities? Responsibilities toward siblings and other relatives? More generally, why doesn’t the commandment address non-relatives? Why not talk about respect for others generally, not in a negative sense (killing, stealing, etc.) but in a positive sense of responsible citizenship?
And the commandment again brings up the notion of God being responsible for the land that the Israelites have. As a technical note, this clause seems anachronistic, as God supposedly handed down the commandments shortly after the Israelites escaped from Egypt and some 40 years before they would enter Canaan. So it’s hard to know what this clause is referencing.
VI. Thou shalt not kill.
Who could criticize this commandment? Except, while it is the very model of brevity, it leaves too much unsaid. What about the hundreds of thousands of rival tribespeople that the Israelites slew—under God’s direction or with his help—in the course of establishing their rights to their “promised land”? Is this command meant strictly to apply on a personal level as opposed to, say, during battle? What about intentional injury of another? What about bullying or inflicting psychological pain on another? Are these to be assumed as extensions of the prohibition against killing?
VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Talk about a can of worms. Although this commandment addresses sexual mores, it covers only a small slice of potential issues. There are myriad other rules set out in the Pentateuch that address other sexual practices, including homosexuality (punishable by death: Leviticus 20:13) and bestiality (also punishable by death, both for the human and for the animal: Leviticus 20:15-16). What about polygamy? That apparently is not a problem. Why does the commandment focus on just one issue? I do like, though, that the commandment does not reference fornication, recognizing, perhaps, that the real issue is not the sex act itself but a violation of the most fundamental of interpersonal commitments.
VIII. Thou shalt not steal.
IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Not much to criticize here. I could quibble with the ninth commandment as being too narrowly drawn, but I’m going to assume that it was meant in a broader sense of lying and deception of others. The idea of fairness in dealings with others is probably culturally universal, and prohibitions against theft and against lying are, perhaps, a way of encapsulating those standards.
X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
Unlike the previous two commandments, this one is something of a mess. All the other commandments concern behavior. This one involves a mental state: coveting. The term has a number of definitions, but one has to assume, I think, that the meaning intended is that of wanting something too much. Moreover, based on the examples contained in the commandment, it isn’t just wanting something too much, it’s wanting something that belongs to someone else. But is the sin wanting too much or is it taking action that would violate some other commandment—lying, stealing, adultery, or killing? There are reasons why legal systems generally don’t consider simply thinking bad thoughts a crime. Besides the obvious proof problems, there’s also the fact that others are harmed by actions, not thoughts alone.
There’s another problem here, I think. It seems fundamental to human nature to want what you don’t have. If your neighbor has a BMW, is it wrong to want (covet) one too? The sin is not in wanting your neighbor’s BMW but in actually stealing it. And those kinds of sins are already covered in other commandments. So score this one as misguided and redundant.
. . . . . . .
This has been a very long essay, and I offer my praise—and perhaps condolences—to anyone who has persevered to the end. But I’m not done. In a prior essay I argued that I could have written a better version of the Bible than God supposedly did. So in a followup essay, I intend to try my hand at a better set of commandments, let’s call then guiding principles. Anyone who feels he or she has something to offer along these lines, either in direct response to this essay or as suggestions for the next, is welcome to comment.
© 2014 John M. Phillips
© 2014 John M. Phillips