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Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are "a symbol that government derives its authority from God [sic]." --Antonin Scalia

The Constitution is based on “what’s right and wrong, and what’s right and wrong is based on the Ten Commandments.” --Bill O'Reilly

"Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant– they’re quite clear– that we would create law based on the god of the Bible and the Ten Commandments, it’s quite simple." --Sarah Palin

"Jefferson Davis gave the Gettysburg Address." --Doonesbury

The Ten Commandments are rules allegedly given to Moses by the god of the Hebrews. Some of the rules should be of interest only to followers of the Hebrew religion. They require obedience of the Hebrews, but there is nothing particularly rational or universally appealing to them. Non-Hebrews would have little interest, for example, in being required to serve the Hebrew god. Nevertheless, in the 16th century at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church condemned those who claim these rules aren't binding on Christians. Jesus sanctioned the rules in Matthew 19 and in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5).* Only a few of the rules, however, seem rational enough to be rules that any society would insist on, such as the prohibitions of killing and stealing.

I didn't realize it when I was growing up and learned the Ten Commandments from the Dominican sisters that there are actually several versions of these rules. I was taught that the first commandment was "I am the lord thy god and thou shalt have no other gods before me." Exodus 20, however, states "I am the lord thy god, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." (Yet, one searches in vain for evidence the Jews were ever in Egypt in great numbers or that the Egyptians enslaved anyone.*) I suppose had we Catholics left in the bit about being led out of Egypt and bondage it would have raised some questions as to whether these Jewish rules applied to Christians. In any case, if this rule were a law it would violate the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This commandment also seems to admit that there are other gods, but they are not to be admired.

The second commandment, I was taught, was "Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy god in vain." This meant, I was taught, that we were not allowed to say things like "goddamnit" or "swear to god." I understand that Jews are taught that the second commandment is, in part, what I was taught as the first commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The Jews then add a bunch of stuff about graven images:

Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of 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 unto 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 showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love me and keep my commandments.

Of course, the Catholics couldn't have built those magnificent cathedrals with their hundreds of statues, relief sculptures, demonic rain spouts, and stained glass windows had they understood the second commandment to prohibit graven images of things in heaven or beneath the water or earth.

I understand that Protestants identify the second commandment with this passage as well and that both Jews and Protestants consider as their third commandment what I was taught was the second commandment.* In any case, it should be obvious that these first three commandments would be of interest only to the Hebrews, since they order those who follow the Hebrew god to obey these rules. I see no reason why a non-Hebrew would have any interest in these rules, much less in following them. Also, it might seem to some people that if the second commandment were made law, it, too, would violate the first amendment. However, when that amendment was passed, several states had laws against blasphemy and none of those laws was ever challenged. These days, of course, many people would consider blasphemy their god-given right.

The Catholic third commandment is to remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. Jews and Protestants call this the fourth commandment. Their rule is more detailed than the one I was taught:

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work. But the seventh day is the Sabbath in honor of the lord thy god; on it thou shalt not do any work, neither 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 the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Again, this rule should be of interest only to adherents of the Jewish religion. The rest of us should be free to have our servants or cattle working 7/24/365 if we feel like it.

I was taught that the fourth commandment is to honor thy father and thy mother. I used to think this was a very good rule. Then I grew up and discovered that not everybody had kind and loving parents like mine. Some fathers and mothers behave despicably and don't deserve to be honored in any way whatsoever. They deserve to be smitten, in fact. My fourth commandment is the fifth for Jews and Protestants, who add something about being granted more time on the land granted by the Hebrew god to the Hebrews.* The bit about getting more time on the promised land seems to invalidate the rule for non-Hebrews. (Also, given the history of the Jews, one might come to the conclusion that Jews as a nation have not honored their fathers and mothers, since for a very good part of their history their promised land was taken from them by others. Yet, the facts seem to be that Jews have been as diligent in showing honor to their parents as any other people. Go figure.)

My fifth commandment was thou shalt not kill. I tried to get classified as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war on the basis of my adherence to this commandment but my request was rejected by my draft board. They interpreted this commandment to mean that it is okay to kill as long as you are wearing the proper uniform. Jews and Protestants call this their sixth commandment. My sixth commandment was "thou shalt not commit adultery." That rule seems clear enough to me but I think the one about killing should have been a bit more detailed, like the Jewish second and fourth commandments. For example, I think the rule would be clearer if it said "thou shalt not kill another human being unjustly" or simply "Don't murder." I don't know Hebrew, however, and for all I know the rule does say that and the problem is with the translation. However, Moses Maimonides clarified this rule when he noted that it forbids killing Israelites but that it is okay to kill a heathen but if a heathen kills a Jew, even accidentally, the heathen must be put to death.*

Regarding the adultery rule: my wife tells me it is a fine rule and should be obeyed at all times. I agree but would add that adulterers have been around since the beginning of time and no society has yet disintegrated because of it. I don't advocate adultery but I don't think our society needs to make enforcing or encouraging this rule a high priority. There is an evolutionary reason why adulterers don't flaunt their behavior that we need not get into here. (For those who are interested in this issue, see Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil, pages 192-195.) In any case, the ancient Jews didn't apply adultery to men. Only women could commit adultery. Men could have concubines. They could even lend out their wives for sex to kings as Abraham did with Sarah a couple of times. Jesus made adultery apply to men and even added the new sin of adultery in one's heart for thinking about it.

I was taught that "Thou shalt not steal" is the seventh commandment. Jews and Protestants call it the eighth. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" was my eighth commandment and is the ninth for Jews and Protestants. These rules and the one about not killing human beings unjustly seem to be the only ones of the ten that have a rational basis and would be necessary for a society to enforce if it were to hope for any kind of order,  peace, and security. The prohibition against coveting thy neighbor's wife or goods - the last two commandments in my list and together the tenth rule for Jews and Protestants - seems demeaning to women (to list a wife along with goods, including cattle) might have been a fine local rule for the ancient Hebrews but it obviously doesn't have much merit today. Some might even say that coveting each other's goods is good for the economy.

So, how valuable or relevant are the Ten Commandments today? It seems obvious that most of the rules should be of interest only to Hebrews interested in obeying commands given to their forefathers and foremothers by Moses. Only a few of the rules are based on reason and apply to non-Hebrews: unjust killing, stealing, and giving false testimony. It would be difficult to prove that if it weren't for the Ten Commandments we'd allow murder, theft, and perjury. But even these rules aren't absolute. We justify killing innocent civilians in war, but surely these are unjust killings. Who would begrudge a spy who stole an enemy's plan to destroy our nation or a soldier who lied under oath in a foreign land to save his comrades? None of the ten commandments seems to be the kind of rule that will be of very much use in a time of moral crisis. Something more general, like the golden rule, would be much more valuable at such a time.

There is a widely held folk belief - and for all I know it is backed by scientific support - that posting slogans and commands on bumper stickers, lapel buttons, billboards, jail cells, and the walls of public buildings will have a profound effect on the behavior of those who come in contact with such postings. If so, I believe posting a copy of the golden rule would be more beneficial than posting the Ten Commandments. (There are several variations for the golden rule; my favorite is "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." It's not perfect, but no general rule is, and it's certainly more useful than the Decalogue.) Most people, however, behave the way they do because of the models they have had. We could require manufacturers of guns, for example, to engrave every gun handle with "Thou shalt not kill," but this would be to little effect as long as political leaders solve problems by ordering soldiers to kill. Matters are not helped when religious leaders are not outraged when homosexuals or anyone associated with an abortion clinic are murdered. Nor do social leaders set a good example regarding the prohibition to kill when they encourage - or at least don't discourage - killing fetuses. With so much modeling for killing it is difficult to conceive of a major impact by posting the fifth - or is it the sixth? - commandment all over the country.

Many Christians in the United States consider the Ten Commandments to be symbolic and on par with the American flag. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has called the Ten Commandments "a symbol that government derives its authority from God [sic]." A similar, though not identical, view was very popular hundreds of years ago and went by the name of the divine right of kings.

I didn't realize it but as a Catholic I was taught something akin to the Cliff Notes version or Reader's Digest abridged version of the Ten Commandments. There are actually three versions of the commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The version in Exodus 20 is the most commonly cited.* The Catholic Encyclopedia does not recognize Exodus 34 as a distinct version, perhaps because this was a rewrite (with a few editorial comments) of the version Moses destroyed in reaction to seeing his people dancing around a golden calf or some such thing. As I understand it, the most popular version of the Decalogue among Christians in the 21st century is an abridged version of Exodus 20. Surely, we can do better than that.

See also moment of silence and prayer.

further reading


Should Governments Fund Faith-Based Groups? by R. T. Carroll

Which Ten Commandments?

Jeff Raskin on the 10 commandments

ReligiousTolerance.org on the 10 commandments

Funk 10: Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of god in Uganda

Funk 10: February 7, 2000. Indiana House votes 92-7 in support of a law that would allow posting the Ten Commandments in schools, courthouses, and on other government property

Funk 13: Orange County posts 10 Commandments in courthouse

Funk 31: Alabama Chief Justice ordered to remove Ten Commandments

Obey or Else! (Everybody must get stoned!)

Kennedy pivotal in Ten Commandments debate

Last updated 23-Dec-2013

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