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The Ten Commandments

June 30, 2005

With the Real True Christians™ fighting to have the Ten Commandments posted, well, everywhere they can, and the confusing SCOTUS ruling that just came out (that public Decalogue posting is sometimes OK, but sometimes it isn’t OK) I thought I’d take a look at the Ten Commandments themselves.  The list itself, along with the claim that it constitutes the foundation of our entire legal system, deserves close examination.

You know the story: Moses went up on the Mount to meet with God, and was given these commandments which were written in stone by the hand of God himself.  And what does Moses do when he hauls these precious deifacts down the mountain only to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf?  He smashes them (the commandments) on the ground.  He was pissed.  That is almost the only realistic part of the story.

Anyway there is not one universally agreed-upon list of the Ten Commandments; different sects have different lists.  Most of the differences are stylistic, some are substantive.  What follows is blended from a mixture of Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  Click the Biblia link in the notes below to see an excellent source document on the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments:

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.

This is God’s letterhead.  “Listen up! The following message is brought to you by your major benefactor!”

1   Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Here God is showing his jealous, insecure side (more of that to come.)  Right away we’re in deep water, constitutionally speaking.  The first commandment is not sectarian in the sense of “Lutheran vs. Catholic”, but it plainly commands monotheism.  This excludes a heck of a lot of people in the US, not to mention around the world. 

2   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.

Do you know anyone who keeps graven images for religious reasons?  Of course you do.  Whether it’s Ganesh or the plastic Jesus on your dashboard, this is an extremely common practice.  Is this “the foundation of American legal tradition?”

Thou shalt not adore them, 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;

Do not screw with God!  He’s serious!  And sectarian.  There is no secular purpose here – it is religion.

And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Interesting that He shows “mercy” on those who love Him.  Apparently He’d just as soon blast everybody.  I seem to remember a story about a flood and a boat which supports this.

3   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.

Most places I have heard this applied to the use of God’s name in profanity (in fact, that’s what profanity means)… but I suppose it could equally apply to invoking His name for our own causes and purposes.  I wonder if the religious-Right (RR) ever lies awake at night thinking about this one?  They use God’s name the way most advertisers use sex – as an all-purpose way of getting attention.

God is saying even misusing His name means you’re not one of his “thousands.”  (That’s a class of relatively small numbers, by the way.  Against all the people who ever lived it means your chances are not good, no matter how pious you are.)

Anyway, it fails the secular-purpose test.  In fact, offensive speech is specifically protected by the first amendment.

4   Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

…again, some constitutional problems here.  Lots of religions (and even some Christian sects) have different holy days.  Some people have no specific holy days.  Our constitution is supposed to be for everyone.

  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.

“…nor the stranger that is within thy gates.”  I don’t hear the RR talking much about this one but it seems to support theocratic rule.  Anyway, commandments one through four fail to pass the nonsectarian test.

One could argue for a secular purpose to the sabbath – it may be good labor policy, but it is hard to connect the dots between God’s will and the US constitution.

  5   Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

I’d like to see a double-blind study of this proported health benefit. And does it only apply to God-given land?  Will we make out just as well if we’re paying a mortgage?  More importantly, is it a foundation for constitutional law? 

  6   Thou shalt not kill.

This is really a mistranslation – in the original language it pretty much says; “Thou shall not murder.”  Moses had no problem with killing as long as there’s an approved reason, like eating shellfish.  And while this rule (the one about murder) in its original form does make a lot of sense, it does not make much sense to say it comes from the Decalogue. 

But doesn’t it seem odd we wade through five other commandments before getting to anything this universal?

  7   Thou shalt not commit adultery.

We’re back to dubious territory here.  Finding a constitutional definition and rationale for this one could be difficult as marriage customs differ.  Anyway, it’s a private matter.

  8   Thou shalt not steal.

I like how the Buddhists cover this ground: you can’t take “that which is not given.”  Your paycheck, a discarded toaster, and a birthday present are all “given”, but in no sense is the money in the till “given” to you until the boss says so.  So: would Buddha’s teachings be a good basis for constitutional law?

  9   Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

This is red meat for constitutional law.  You can really screw someone over by telling lies against them; either in the marketplace or in court.  Good rule, and which requires no invisible super-being to support. 

  10   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.

Yes, your wife is property.  If you are a woman, your status is that of a thing somewhere between a house and a maidservant.  But cheer up!  At least you’re above an ox, an ass, or a Craftsman variable-speed 1/2-inch electric drill.

Now we’re through the entire list and there are some glaring omissions.  For example, we may not covet but it is apparently OK to own slaves.  At least, it isn’t mentioned at all here, which is odd considering how common slavery was in the ancient world.  Didn’t God feel that slavery was wrong?

I’m not trying to tar Christianity with slavery – it was common in the ancient world and no Christian I have ever met approves of slavery.  But in the entire Bible, slavery is just a fact of life.  There’s no prohibition of it at all despite the endless minutia of food preparation, fabrics, and so forth.

Since no Christians approve of slavery, why bring it up?  To show that our morality – even the morality of people who claim that God’s word is unchanging – evolves.*  We do learn important moral lessons that are not even touched upon by the Bible.  What’s more, everyone practices situation ethics.

You remember situation ethics – it was big news in the ‘60’s.  The basic idea is that you don’t get a simple answer to big moral questions – God isn’t letting us off that easy.  You will have to weigh the good and evil effects of your actions yourself, and carry the burden of the outcome.

Conservative ministers railed against situation ethics as if it were the last beach head of Christianity.  God’s word is unchangeable!  It was during this time period that a lot of stonecutters started carving simplified decalogues when they weren’t busy with gravestones.  It was good for business.

But we do practice situation ethics.  Jesus authorized as much in the “golden rule,” and presented an example with the case of the ass down a well on the Sabbath.

Once a test case is found for situation ethics, you’re making decisions and drawing lines.  So much for the immutable Word of God.

Want more examples?  If you would tell a lie to protect an innocent person from violence, you’re practicing situation ethics.  In effect, you’re bearing false witness in favor of your neighbor.  So shut up about all that “unchanging law of God” stuff already.

Commandments one, two, three and four are specifically sectarian and have no secular purpose.  The more secular application the rest have, the less unique they are to the Ten Commandments.

I think the basic gist of the court rulings was that public-funded displays which have context in jurisprudence history are OK, but those which stand alone (and by that, above) are not.  I’m reminded of George Bush’s stem-cell ruling: existing lines are OK, but new ones must be privately funded.  Feel free to correct me because I was a little confused by the wording.

The Decalogue fits well into the history of three major religions.  But clearly it is not a good foundation for US constitutional law.

My own preference would be for the Decalogue to be shown (where tax dollars are involved) only where it is part of the continuum from ancient law to modern.  Where it is elevated to some stand-alone status that is clearly sectarian and therefore unconstitutional.  But by some oversight I wasn’t appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States of America.


I am probably going to be struck by lightning for this.  At the very least I risk offending some good friends who, in a moment of boredom-driven web-wandering, actually read my blog.  All I can say is; “Just don’t kill me – that would break one of the commandments” …

* This idea does not originate with me – I read it somewhere just recently.  If I find it, I’ll give credit and link to it of course.

The Decalogue is a big part of our culture even if it isn’t a good legal foundation.  At some point every blogger will probably touch upon it.  I’ll keep the links on this subject here:

  1. Kent Ashcraft
    July 5, 2005 at 11:05 | #1

    I must hereby tell you I have changed my mind on the Ten Commandments. As an ACLU member and First Amendment supporter, I used to believe that they should not be displayed on government property, in order to help preserve the separation of church and state. But now I feel they should be seen as many places as possible, for the simple reason that so many Republicans have no idea what they do and do not contain.

    The evening after Justice O’Connor announced her resignation, an acquaintance of mine and I were discussing it. He said he hoped the president nominates a “real conservative” to the bench, so that we would be able to “hang the Ten Commandments everywhere.” He emphasized that he was not particularly religious, but it should be done because America is in “such a state of moral decline.” I asked him to be more specific, and he said, “Well, gay marriage, pornography, you know.” Rather than point out to him that the Commandments mention neither of those things, I simply asked him if he could name all the Commandments. He declined to even try, blaming his failing memory on an elevated blood alcohol level. My experience is that very few people can name all ten, much less in order.

    We’ve all heard people of a certain theocratic political persuasion describe the Ten Commandments as “the moral basis for all of our laws.” Whether they have never read them or they are hoping nobody else has, the fact is they could not be more wrong. The first four Commandments are strictly religious instructions and do not appear in American law. The fifth (honor your parents) and the tenth (you shall not covet) are excellent advice but not reflected at all in the law. Only the sixth through ninth (killing, adultery, stealing, and false witness) have analogs in any of our laws, and only killing and stealing are criminal matters.

    Considering even those four Commandments, it is illogical to conclude that our laws against killing, stealing, etc. are derived from them, because there is virtually no society on Earth that condones those behaviors. Most of the people therein are not Judeo-Christian and have not read the Bible. The reality is that the sixth through ninth Commandments reflect basic human ethics, common to all civilized people. And even though in the time of Moses it may have been necessary to remind people murder is wrong, everyone knows it today.

    If the Ten Commandments truly were “the moral basis for all of our laws,” It would be illegal to use the Lord’s name in vain or wish you had a car like your neighbor’s, but perfectly legal to own slaves, beat your wife, or deal drugs. So I say display them conspicuously, so it will be clear to all what they are and what they are not.

  2. July 5, 2005 at 19:20 | #2

    Wonderful!  Thank you Kent.
    You reminded me of this cartoon (click image to see whole cartoon)

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