The Irrelevant Wisdom of the Ten Commandments

The Irrelevant Wisdom of the Ten Commandments March 19, 2012

atheism and christian apologeticsFew Christians can list the Ten Commandments in order, but almost all are familiar with them:

1. Have no other gods before me
2. No graven images
3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain
4. Keep the Sabbath day
5. Honor your mother and father
6. Don’t kill
7. No adultery
8. Don’t steal
9. Don’t lie
10. Don’t covet

These are the well-known Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. What could be ambiguous about this list? Stay tuned as we run through the story.

It takes 11 more chapters for God to finish giving all his secondary commandments, first rules for how the people should conduct themselves and then rules for the temple and priests.

After weeks of waiting for Moses to return from Mt. Sinai, the anxious Israelites make a golden calf in chapter 32. Moses is furious when he finally returns. He smashes the tablets, has the calf ground up and force-fed to the faithless people, and orders the Levites to slaughter thousands of their fellow tribesmen.

Then follows an indeterminate amount of time during which God descended on Moses’ tent as a pillar of smoke and “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.”

As a side note, it’s interesting that this appearance of God to Moses (Ex. 33:11) as well as that to Abraham (Gen. 18:1–2) is denied in other parts of the Bible. We’re later told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18) and “No man has seen or can see [God]” (1 Tim. 6:16).

Back to our story: Moses goes up Sinai a second time in Exodus 34. God says, “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered,” so we know that this nothing new, just a replacement set of commandments. But the contents are very different:

  1. Make no covenant with the Canaanite tribes
  2. Destroy their altars
  3. Make no idols (“molten gods”)
  4. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread
  5. “The first offspring from every womb belongs to me”
  6. Rest on the seventh day
  7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks
  8. No leavened bread during Passover
  9. Bring the first fruits of the soil to the Lord
  10. “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk”

The chapter ends with these words: “And [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is the first time this label is used in the Bible.

You want to display the Ten Commandments in public? Go for it, but put up this list. It’s the official list, after all.

Contrast this with the story of the first tablets, which concludes at the end of chapter 31, “[God] gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.” There is no mention of a “ten commandments,” and these stone tablets presumably contain all of the rules given in chapters 20 through 31.

Another detour: chapter 34 has this savage claim, “[God] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 34:7). And yet, three books later, we get this contradiction: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).

I guess this too can be rationalized: Deut. 24 is talking about what man must do. Man needs to treat people fairly and punish only the wrongdoers. Ex. 34 is talking about what God will do. God has a long memory and will hold a grudge against you to punish your descendants.

Speaking of punishments, the Ten Commandments list crimes without giving punishments. For you traditionalists who like the “thou shalt not” set of commandments, “Positive Atheism” has handy list of the corresponding punishments. God has a pretty limited imagination, and you can guess what they are: “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed” (Ex. 22:20), “the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 24:16), and so on.

Display the Ten Commandments in public, just put up the correct ten. I dare you.

Say what you will about the Ten Commandments,
you must always come back to the pleasant fact
that there are only ten of them.
— H. L. Mencken

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • Josh Igbinijesu

    Yes, it would seem that way, but it isn’t. There were actual prophecies about him.
    This entire article seems like a convincingly & well constructed piece of shit to me.

    • Lotsa talk; not a lot of content.

      What are these prophecies that have come true? I’ve written about a few of them already here.

      • Josh Igbinijesu

        Are you asking for the prophecies that came true?! Well, let’s see, there were about his death, the number of miracles he performed, his characteristics & etc. All of which are detailed in the most accurate book in history, The New Testament.

        • You’re an easy guy to please, Josh.

          When the author of the fulfillment also informs us about the “prophecy,” most folks would be skeptical. This isn’t how prophecy is usually done.

          Does this fit any of the ones in the NT? If so, I want something better.

        • Josh Igbinijesu

          What? Ok, assuming your statement, ‘when the author of the fulfillment also informs us about the “prophecy” actually makes sense, why wouldn”t most folks be skeptical. And if this isn’t how prophecy is done how is it?
          Please explain to me how this makes me easier to please.
          And be more specific with your request.
          Anyway while you get on to that, let me mention something else to you. The probability of Jesus fulfilling all the prophecies made about him can be likened to that of filling all of America with silver coins & picking the sole gold ones within 8 tries.

        • assuming your statement, ‘when the author of the fulfillment also informs us about the “prophecy” actually makes sense

          Why? Is it confusing?

          How do we know that Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection? From the gospels. How do we know that the prophecy was fulfilled? From the gospels.

          See the problem?

          Please explain to me how this makes me easier to please.

          Because this is a pathetic “prophecy.” Most of the rest of us want an actual prophecy.

          I’m pretty sure that you demand a reasonable prophecy for the other guy’s religion just like I do. Here’s a reminder in case you’ve forgotten what a good prophecy sounds like. Tell me if this is not how you do things.

          The probability of Jesus fulfilling all the prophecies made about him can be likened to that of filling all of America with silver coins & picking the sole gold ones within 8 tries.

          Been there, debunked that.

        • Truth Bringer

          The “most accurate book in history”? Color me incredulous – you, sir, are an incredibly dumb bastard.

        • Josh Igbinijesu

          Name one ancient book more accurate than the NT! You can’t can you?

        • Like the NT, the Book of Mormon is also an old book. Do you say that it’s also accurate?

        • Josh Igbinijesu

          No, Bob. And I wonder why? This is, of course, ignoring the fact it’s barely even ancient. The Book of Mormon is, to me, as old as its true origins.

        • The Book of Mormon has a far better pedigree than the NT. But you say the NT is more accurate? Show me.

        • Josh Igbinijesu

          Pedigree?! Ha ha ha! You’re hilarious Bob. A non-ancient book created by a man who believes angels spoke to him in a more modern era is more accurate than a compilation over 2 millenniums old that, when compared to Greek manuscripts, proved to be more than 99% accurate? Are wolves now allowed to compete in dog shows?!

        • Golly–you’ve got it all figured out. I feel like you’re undressing me with your mind.

          My summary of the argument is here. Go.

        • Josh Igbinijesu

          What happened? No more truth to bring, Truth Bringer?

    • Rudy R

      “piece of shit to me” wasn’t a convincing response. Any other helpful facts?

  • Josh Igbinijesu

    And how can only you see they weren’t.

    • Please be clearer.

      • Josh Igbinijesu

        How can you see that the first tablets weren’t identical to the first or had the same words written on them.

        • They weren’t. Read the Bible (Ex. 20 and Ex. 34). Different text.

          Perhaps God is forgetful. He’s only human.

        • Josh Igbinijesu

          I read it, apparently your right.
          How can you call an omniscient being forgetful. What exactly makes him helpful.

        • Yes, good point. Doesn’t sound like anyone capable of creating the universe.

        • Josh

          Besides, a difference in the Ten Commandments doesn’t mean He’s forgetful.

        • hector_jones

          How can you call a forgetful being omniscient?

        • Josha

          Maybe people call Him that because they disbelief He’s forgetful. Hmm? Genius isn’t it?

  • Arlizz

    Contemporary scholars are thankfully more critical of history than their predecessors. Scribes of the first century up until the middle ages were more concerned with fulfilling prophesies and pulling sneaky apologetics than doing real, critical history. You could say the same of many other non-Biblical historians of the time.

  • Perseus Wong

    Was hoping to get your take on the anthropological origins of the ten commandments. Specifically, how much of the ten commandments was appropriated from the Egyptian 42 principles of Netjer Ma’at. If by the Hebrew’s own tradition/admission that Moses was raised as an adopted member of Ramses household, then its a stretch to say that he was NOT the least influenced by the culture and religion of Egypt.

    It’s also interesting to note that while many Christians today can barely recite TEN of the commandments (be it the original or popular version), children of the ancient Egyptian court were required to memorize and recite a list of 42 principles concerning righteous conduct as a prerequisite for entering the afterlife. A practice that predates the time of Moses.

    • Worrying about Moses’ specific influences seems less interesting than the influences on early Hebrew culture. Moses could easily be legendary.

      I know little about the contemporary Egyptian culture. Perhaps other commenters will have more information.

  • John Smith

    @The conversation on fulfilled prophecy: Maybe God, if he exists, wants people to go by faith. In other words, prophecy about Jesus would’ve been specific, but to a degree. (Like psalm 22.) I’m not interested in getting involved in a discussion on the matter, though.

    This website is extremely laggy on my phone.

    • I can imagine it’s tough commenting by phone. I’ve never tried.

      To your point: you could imagine that God wants everyone to believe by faith and not evidence for his own unknowable reasons, but why imagine that? Does it make sense? Is there any evidence pointing there? If not, we reject the hypothesis.

      • MR

        And it doesn’t help that the evidence so often runs contrary to what we’re to believe on faith.

  • John Smith

    I don’t know. I see the word ‘faith’ mentioned a lot in the bible. If there is a god, and if he wants us to go by faith, then I suppose there would never be evidence. (Maybe sort of like being a denizen of a virtual reality world and only being able to use the tools within that world to prove the existence of the computer running it.)

    Of course, having a religion based around such a god is a pretty convenient thing.

    • You do see faith, but many Christians today are quick to argue that this is not “blind faith” but rather faith build firmly on evidence. That’s good for making them look sensible in the 21st century, but I don’t see the evidence.

      And keep in mind that the Israelites seeing God as a pillar of fire and smoke didn’t need much faith. Neither did the disciples who saw Jesus raise the dead. Many Christians today don’t seem to realize that those stories (if true) would’ve been useful for those people, but they do nothing to provide solid evidence today.

      • John Smith

        I’ve been swinging back and forth between atheism and theist for the last several months. I’ve always been agnostic, so I don’t feel particularly invested in either side at the moment.

        On the one hand, I see the Torah as a collection of stories the Jews stole from Babylonian mythology during the Second Temple period in order to give their people a legitimate history. It all seems like a bunch of silly BS. There’s no evidence of any exodus, or King David, or even a First Temple having been built. The same criticism can be levelled at the New Testament, too. Various contradictions exist between the Gospels’ accounts of the Resurrection and the Last Supper, and every NT writer seemed to view the OT as a sacred revelation of God, even though part of it clearly has its origins in ANE mythology.

        But, on the other hand, I read about apparitions like Our Lady of Zeitoun, where thousands of people–including Muslims, Jews, atheists, newspaper photographers, police, and even the President of Egypt–saw the event, and all of the skeptics’ attempts at explaining it boil down to either “mass hallucination” or accusing the church of hoaxing it, which reminds me of the way creationists’ use dishonest science to convince themselves.

        I feel like remaining agnostic. The topic of religion is fascinating to me, though.

        • From my standpoint, the burden of proof is on the believer. Once Zeitoun or the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima or any similar tale has become vetted by the relevant scientific consensus, I’m on board. Until then, I’ll reject it.

          Otherwise, you put yourself in the position of being on the verge of rejecting the whole thing and some Christian saying, “Wait–you haven’t considered this miracle claim.”