The Ten Commandments – they form the centerpiece of the Mosaic law of the Old Testament. They are one of the best-known parts of the Bible, immortalized by Hollywood, well-known even to nonbelievers. To hear certain fundamentalists tell it, they form the basis for the laws of Western society, served as the inspiration for American democracy, have the power to end school shootings and other violence (if hung conspicuously on classroom and courthouse walls), and generally deserve the credit for the existence of civilization as we know it.
So it only seems fair to examine them.
The Ten Commandments run as follows:
(1) Do not worship any god other than Yahweh.
(2) Do not make molten gods.
(3) Keep the feast of unleavened bread.
(4) The firstborn offspring of every cow and sheep is to be sacrificed to God.
(5) The seventh day of each week is set aside to rest.
(6) Observe the feast of weeks.
(7) All male children must appear before God three times per year.
(8) The blood of a sacrifice shall not be offered together with yeast, nor shall the sacrifice of the Passover feast be left until the next morning.
(9) The “first of the firstfruits” of the land are to be brought before God.
(10) Do not boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk.
Though cries of protest may be arising at this point, the fact is that the laws listed above are the Ten Commandments. Of all the various sets of laws God gives to Moses, this set is the only one ever actually given that name in the pages of the Bible.
Why is this set different from the one everyone knows? That’s a very good question.
The set of laws that everyone knows as the Ten Commandments is given in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5, though in neither place is it referred to as such. As a quick recap, these laws run as follows:
“And God spake all these words, saying,
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
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.
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.
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.
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”
As mentioned already, this is the first time this set of laws is given, and they are not on stone tablets: God speaks them to Moses. The next time they are mentioned is in Exodus 31. After spending eleven chapters dictating more laws to Moses, including ridiculously precise details about how to build the tabernacle, how to clothe the priests, how to butcher animals for sacrifice and how to burn incense to him, God engraves these commandments (with a finger) on the two familiar tablets of stone. Tablets in hand, Moses returns from Mt. Sinai – only to find that in his absence the Israelites, under the direction of their divinely appointed religious leader Aaron, have made a golden calf and are sacrificing to it and worshipping it. Furious over his people’s idolatry, he smashes the holy tablets of the law to the ground and breaks them into pieces.
What follows is a bloody inquisition in which Moses orders the Levite priests, in God’s name, to go through the Israelite camp killing everyone who worshipped the calf – or as Exodus 32:27 puts it, “Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” At least three thousand people are slaughtered in the ensuing bloodshed; God also sends a plague on the people for their crime, although Moses does talk him out of exterminating them altogether. (Why did God threaten to do this when the text makes it clear that not all the Israelites had worshipped the calf?) Aaron seems to gather no blame for this incident, however, and is not punished in any way.
After the killing is finally over, chapter 34 tells how Moses makes two new stone tablets, and God promises to “write upon [them] the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest”. Moses brings the new tablets up to Mt. Sinai, and under God’s direction he “wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” and brings them back down again. But the words he brings back this time are completely different! The new tablets do not contain the laws listed above, the ones everyone knows as the Ten Commandments. Instead, they now contain the first set, the ones listed at the beginning of this essay – despite God’s promise that he will “write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest”.
What in the world is going on here? Why does God give completely different laws the second time and yet specifically say they’re the same laws he gave before? The Bible offers no explanation for this discrepancy. Did God change his mind? Did he forget what he said the first time?
But let us, for now, file this under the list of inconsistencies in the Bible and turn our attention to analyzing the commandments themselves.
The most striking fact that immediately arises when studying these commandments, and one of the most serious problems for people who propose displaying them publicly, is this: there is not just one set of Ten Commandments. The three major Judeo-Christian traditions – Jewish, Christian Catholic, and Christian Protestant – divide the same verses three different ways into three different sets of Ten Commandments!
For example, the Protestant ten run as follows: (1) no other gods; (2) no making or worshipping of idols; (3) no taking of God’s name in vain; (4) remember the sabbath; (5) honor your father and mother; (6) do not kill; (7) do not commit adultery; (8) do not steal; (9) do not bear false witness; (10) do not covet your neighbor’s belongings. However, the Roman Catholic version of the Ten Commandments combines the first two commandments into one, downplaying verse 20:4 – which prohibits the making of graven images or “likenesses” – and makes up the difference by splitting verse 20:17 into two commandments, one which forbids coveting a neighbor’s wife and one which forbids coveting his goods. (The Catholic predilection for statues of saints may explain this omission. Catholic theology claims that making likenesses is allowed as long as one does not worship them in the way only God deserves, but this clashes with the clear intent of 20:4, which is to forbid all representational art whether made specifically for worship or not.) The traditional Jewish version of the decalogue, by comparison, makes verse 20:2 the first commandment and combines verses 3 through 6 into one overarching prohibition against graven-image-making and idolatry. The rationale for this is that God’s reminder of his absolute sovereignty and his special relationship with the Jewish people constitutes the first and greatest commandment, though in what sense this is a “commandment” is unclear, since it does not actually command anything. The Jewish version, strictly speaking, should be called the Nine Commandments and One Reminder.
Nevertheless, these three major traditions differ in how they divide up these verses, and also in how they translate them. Some Protestant Christians believe that the only acceptable translation of the Bible is the King James Version, but since this translation does not include several books that they believe to be canonical, Catholic Christians generally do not accept this version, and have their own translation which they prefer to use. Therefore, whenever a theist proposes posting the Ten Commandments in a public place, the immediate response should be, “Which Ten Commandments?” To post any one religion’s set is a direct attack on the others that divide the text differently – it says that their interpretation is wrong. This flatly contradicts the argument of those who claim that posting the decalogue in public places is a simple “acknowledgement of God”; it is, instead, a government endorsement not just of religion over atheism, but of one specific religious tradition over all others. And this is true regardless of which version is posted and regardless of which translation is posted. It is not the government’s place to take sides on an issue such as this; it is not the government’s place to declare that one interpretation is approved and others are not. Such interdenominational minefields are precisely why America’s founders saw the wisdom of separating church and state.
The remainder of this article will now turn to analyzing the Ten Commandments themselves. For purposes of this essay I will examine the Protestant version of the decalogue, as that is the one most commonly suggested for public display.
First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
Those who say it does not violate the separation of church and state to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings clearly have never read the Ten Commandments. The first one explicitly commands us to worship the Judeo-Christian deity and no one and nothing else; for the government to endorse this message by displaying it in classrooms or courthouses would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment. How can this not be considered an establishment of religion?
This sort of intolerance stands in direct opposition to the principles of freedom of conscience and religious liberty upon which America was founded. Not only that, it speaks poorly of whatever deity or belief system would enshrine it as a high principle. Why, an atheist might ask, does God care about this? Why is he so concerned that he get all the credit? Why does it anger him so much when people worship things other than him? For a benevolent creator, would it not be enough that people admire the beauty and the grandeur of his creation, even if they call him by a different name when they praise him?
It strains credulity to believe that the infinite creator of the cosmos would be so petty, so small-minded. Far more likely is that this set of laws reflects not the wishes of a divine being, but the beliefs of the culture that created them, a culture which believed in a cruel and jealous god that mirrored the primitive state of their own moral development. The Ten Commandments themselves give evidence of their thoroughly human origin.
Second Commandment: “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.” (Exodus 20:4-6)
The second commandment is essentially a continuation of the first one. However, in its prohibition against making representations of “any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”, it further shows how Western democracy is not built on the Ten Commandments. To the contrary, the Ten Commandments are fundamentally opposed to the individual rights that form the basis of all modern democratic societies. While the first commandment is against religious freedom, this one is also against freedom of expression. Michaelangelo’s David, the Mona Lisa, even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – all the famous works of art that have become iconic to our society would not exist if the second commandment had been universally obeyed.
This commandment also says much about the personality of the biblical god. In the space of one verse, he identifies himself as jealous – a quality generally agreed to be negative among human beings, though he seems almost proud of it – and proclaims that he punishes people for the crimes of others. Are these characteristics of a good and moral being? Is this justice?
Third Commandment: “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.” (Exodus 20:7)
Continuing with the religious commandments, this one contradicts yet another of the inalienable rights granted to the citizens of progressive nations – this time, the freedom of speech. For God to threaten punishment for those who use his name in vain (i.e., in ways he decides it should not be used) would be like the U.S. Congress passing a law that made it illegal to speak badly of the government. This commandment is not in accord with the principles of democracy; like many of the others, it is against them.
Fourth Commandment: “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.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
Like the first three, the fourth commandment has no secular intent whatsoever. It is, instead, a rule about how a specific god is to be worshipped within the context of a specific religion. It would be an obvious establishment of religion, and a glaring violation of separation of church and state, for the government to enforce this commandment by law or display it on public property in a way that conveys endorsement. Furthermore, this commandment contradicts the principles of capitalism and the free market that America and the other First World nations so faithfully abide by in other areas. Why shouldn’t people be able to work whenever they choose?
Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12)
After four commandments that are purely religious in nature and intent, serving no purpose other than dictating how to worship a specific god, we finally come across the first one that has anything to say about matters of secular behavior. However, while this one is generally a good idea, it is too broad and too vague to be a law. Should we honor neglectful or abusive parents? Should we honor parents who aren’t prepared for the responsibility of parenthood and do a poor job raising their children? Should we honor parents whose religious beliefs cause them to beat their children, deny them an education or withhold needed medical treatment from them?
Loving, caring, competent parents certainly deserve to be honored. But no one automatically becomes worthy of respect merely by having a child. Being a parent is a great responsibility, and respect comes from living up to that obligation. As one of the Ten Commandments, this one could be improved upon, or replaced entirely. How about “Honor your children”?
Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13)
Some theists say Western society’s laws are based on the Ten Commandments, but the sixth one is the very first that could even possibly be taken as substantiation of that claim. It is a good general principle, although it strains credulity for anyone to claim this is evidence of divine origin. Human beings figured out that it was wrong to kill each other independently in many cultures throughout history without the Bible; this idea can be justified on purely human grounds, and we need no divine revelation to see why it is a good idea.
But the problem is this. As a general principle to live by, this isn’t bad, but as a law such a brief dictate cannot stand on its own. It needs elaboration. Does this mean we’re not allowed to kill animals and plants for food? Does this mean we’re not allowed to kill in self-defense? What about abortion, euthanasia or capital punishment?
If this law is to be understood, as the plain meaning would seem to indicate, as a blanket order forbidding all killing, then the Bible clearly breaks its own rule numerous times. The Old Testament prescribes death as the penalty for even the most trivial offenses – blasphemy, disobedience in children, picking up sticks on the Sabbath – and more notably, God himself orders the Israelites to wage war on their enemies on many occasions, often explicitly instructing them to wipe out foreign tribes to the last man, woman and child, a crime which today we would call genocide. If such actions do not fall within the boundaries of the Sixth Commandment, then what actions can it be understood to forbid?
Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14)
The claim that Western society is built on the Ten Commandments grows increasingly farfetched. How many countries prosecute adultery as a criminal offense today?
Whatever one might say about adultery as a violation of marital vows, a cruel and selfish betrayal of someone who loves you, or unfair to one’s family – and one can say all these things – it is still a consensual act between two adults. Given that the Ten Commandments are supposedly the most important list of laws ever codified, it seems as if there would be other things more deserving of inclusion. Why not a prohibition on the much more serious crimes of rape or child sexual abuse instead?
The Bible’s stance on both of the above is also worth examining. According to Deuteronomy 22:28-29, if a man rapes a woman who is not betrothed, the only repercussion is that he must marry his victim. (The woman is apparently not given a choice in the matter.) In some circumstances, when a rape is committed the woman faces punishment. The situation for pedophilia is even worse. While chapters such as Leviticus 20 give long lists of sex-related crimes, prohibiting sex with in-laws, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, sex with a menstruating woman, and so on, nowhere – not once – does the Bible ever set a minimum age of consent; nowhere does it ever say that sexually molesting children is wrong. This seems like a serious omission, to put it mildly.
Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” (Exodus 20:15)
Stealing in almost all cases is indeed wrong. I will therefore only note that in several instances (Exodus 3:22, Exodus 12:35-36, Ezekiel 39:10; Luke 19:30-34), the Bible approves of the faithful stealing from and plundering others.
Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16)
A commandment against lying is, in general, a good moral principle. But like the commandments against stealing and killing, this one is too absolute and not detailed enough to be a law governing behavior. What if one can prevent a greater crime by lying – such as the Germans during World War II who hid Jewish families from the Nazis, or Rahab the harlot who did something similar with Joshua’s spies in Jericho? Or, more simply, is it right to lie in situations where the truth would needlessly hurt a person’s feelings?
And again, few if any Western nations have laws forbidding lying (except in certain restricted circumstances, such as perjury). However wise such a principle might be, democracy is not built on it.
Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)
The final commandment seems redundant. Do we really need commandments against stealing and coveting? Doesn’t having one make the other unnecessary? Furthermore, it seems as if it would be impossible to obey this one even if you wanted to. The others prohibit actions, but this one apparently forbids a state of mind. A person chooses to steal, but does anyone really choose to covet? Wouldn’t prohibiting this be like, as the saying goes, trying not to think of a white elephant?
Additionally, this commandment further illustrates the point that Western society is not based on the Ten Commandments. In fact, the free-enterprise economy that America and other nations run on is fundamentally dependent on coveting – it is what inspires them to work hard, to make money and to succeed. If people didn’t covet, capitalism wouldn’t work.
As a final aside, it is revealing what this commandment says about the mindset of the authors of the Bible. Within the space of one rule, it shows that they had no problem with slavery (the Hebrew words here translated as “manservant” and “maidservant” carry that connotation) and saw wives as the property of their husbands. Wives are included along with slaves and cattle on the list of things “that [are] thy neighbor’s”.
In summary, what do we have? Of these ten laws, the first four are purely religious in nature – they serve no purpose except to dictate how to worship a specific god, and in their exclusivity they contradict some of the fundamental individual rights that modern democracy takes for granted. Three (5, 7 and 9) are generally good moral principles, but they are not among the laws of behavior that Western nations use. Two more (6 and 8) make good general rules for behavior that Western nations do use, but they are too broad and not detailed enough to be comprehensive laws, and in any case they are moral principles so simple and obvious that societies came up with them and knew to abide by them long before the Bible was ever written.
One of them stands in direct opposition to the principles of free-market capitalism that have made First World economies so successful. Two forbid freedom of religion; one forbids freedom of expression; one prohibits free speech. And for what is supposedly the most important list of laws ever created, the Ten Commandments fail to prohibit several very serious crimes that all progressive nations do have laws against. It seems as if much better commandments could be substituted in place of several of the existing ones. (For a more fundamental reimagining of the decalogue, see “The New Ten Commandments“).
Nowhere do these laws establish the rights and institutions that are fundamental components of Western society, such as a constitutional republic, democratically elected government, freedom of speech and religion, separation of powers, trial by jury, inalienable human rights, and so on. The conclusion is inescapable: These laws are not, as they are claimed to be, the foundation of modern society. In fact, just the opposite is true; humanity had to break away from these absolutist, theocratic decrees before we could establish free societies where leaders are elected and people have rights.
Where these laws are original, they are entirely religious in nature; where they are not religious, they are not original. People knew not to steal from and kill each other long before the Old Testament was written, and we don’t need it now to know not to do those things. The Ten Commandments simply have nothing to do with the laws and order of modern civilization, and being a religious document, they deserve no place on government property. To do so would be a clear and blatant violation of the vital principle of separation of church and state. On a private citizen’s property, or on a church’s, believers can display them to their heart’s content – but not on public property in a state whose government represents citizens of all faiths and of none.
Though members of the religious right are prone to making pompous claims about how the Ten Commandments are the basis of Western society, they never give specifics; they never explain in detail which fundamental principles of our society were inspired by the Judeo-Christian decalogue. As this essay has shown, that is small wonder. Why, then, are fundamentalists so determined to post them in classrooms and courthouses? Do they really believe that the mere sight will prevent further school violence or motivate criminals to mend their ways?
The most likely answer is that their true motivations are not spiritual, but political. The push to post the Ten Commandments in public places has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with asserting their perceived superiority over those who believe differently. They want to send the message that their religious beliefs are favored by the government, and intimidate others into accepting less than full equality, less than full citizenship and participation in society. And they want to impose their vision of an ideal society on everyone else, one in which the government stamps their beliefs with the seal of official approval and helps promote and disseminate them. Some go even farther and see posting of verses from the Bible as the welcome first step toward a theocratic state, reminiscent of the Dark Age theocracies, in which people’s beliefs would be dictated by law. (The most prominent advocates of such a philosophy are commonly known as Christian Reconstructionists.) For the sake of humanity and our descendants yet to come, we must all – atheists and liberal theists alike – prevent this from coming to pass. We must fight this insidious tyranny and ensure that the human race will never sink back down into the darkness it only so recently began to escape. In this way, we can all work toward the day when we, as a species and as a people, can step into the light together for all time.