For many who sincerely believe, the Ten Commandments are the keystones of all that is good. They are supposedly a set of ten direct instructions given to Moses by God.
For many, the claim is that the bible is their moral guidebook and these ten commandments are the foundation. What I find truly fascinating is that when it comes to what should be perhaps the most important and vital bits of information, direct instructions from God, there is a very distinct lack of any actual interest. You might perhaps ask …
- Where exactly in the Bible are the Ten Commandments listed?
- What are the Ten Commandments?
The answer you receive are very revealing. Many of those who claim these ten to be the source of their morality can’t tell you exactly where in the bible they are listed, nor can they tell you what all Ten Commandments are. They might manage a few, but usually not all ten. They might also successfully point to the correct book in the old testament, but few can tell you the precise reference, and yet strangely enough these same people can recite John 3:16 from memory.
Given this rather glaring gap, it is perhaps not a surprise to find a frantic dash to erect Ten Commandment monuments outside every public building. It appears that those that believe need reminding on a daily basis that killing others is a bad idea because they don’t appear to be very familiar with their supposed moral foundation.
What are the ten?
For completeness, below (from here) are the details. What very rapidly becomes apparent is that it is not clearly defined (and yes, there are two sources in the bible, not just one) …
|T||R||LXX||P||L||S||A||C||Main article||Exodus 20:1-17||Deuteronomy 5:4-21|
|1||(1)||—||—||—||—||—||1||I am the Lord thy God||2||6|
|2||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||Thou shalt have no other gods before me||3||7|
|2||2||2||2||1||1||1||1||Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image||4–6||8–10|
|3||3||3||3||2||2||2||2||Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain||7||11|
|4||4||4||4||3||3||3||3||Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy||8–11||12–15|
|5||5||5||5||4||4||4||4||Honour thy father and thy mother||12||16|
|6||6||6||7||5||5||5||5||Thou shalt not murder||13||17|
|7||7||7||6||6||6||6||6||Thou shalt not commit adultery||14||18|
|8||8||8||8||7||7||7||7||Thou shalt not steal||15||19|
|9||9||9||9||8||8||8||8||Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour||16||20|
|10||10||10||10||9||9||10||10||Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s house)||17a||21b|
|10||10||10||10||10||9||9||9||Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s wife)||17b||21a|
|10||10||10||10||10||9||10||10||Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s slaves, animals, or anything else)||17c||21c|
|—||—||—||—||—||10||—||—||You shall set up these stones, which I command you today, on Mount Gerizim.||14c||18c|
The key to understanding the numbering is below. What should now be rather clear is that the numbering used will very much depend upon your source …
- T: Jewish Talmud, makes the “prologue” the first “saying” or “matter” and combines the prohibition on worshiping deities other than Yahweh with the prohibition on idolatry.
- R: Reformed Christians follow John Calvin‘s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which follows the Septuagint; this system is also used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
- LXX: Septuagint, generally followed by Orthodox Christians.
- P: Philo, same as the Septuagint, but with the prohibitions on killing and adultery reversed.
- L: Lutherans follow Luther’s Large Catechism, which follows Augustine but subordinates the prohibition of images to the sovereignty of God in the First Commandment and uses the word order of Exodus 20:17 rather than Deuteronomy 5:21 for the ninth and tenth commandments.
- S: Samaritan Pentateuch, with an additional commandment about Mount Gerizim as 10th.
- A: Augustine follows the Talmud in combining verses 3–6, but omits the prologue as a commandment and divides the prohibition on coveting in two and following the word order of Deuteronomy 5:21 rather than Exodus 20:17.
- C: Catechism of the Catholic Church, largely follows Augustine.
What is fascinating is that there is no consensus here, no agreement on what the big ten are.
Obvious Criticism of the supposedly “perfect” rules
Much of it is not in any way either ethical or moral, but instead consists of religious directives. “You must only have one specific God“, for example. In the absence of any evidence for even one, none is a far better more rational conclusion.
The concept of a sabbath does not work in our reality. The idea of keeping one day holy, simply does not work for Nurses, Doctors , and many others, who have an ethical duty of care.
The idea of honouring your mother and father sounds fine, but once again there is clearly a higher ethical code in play when you realise that this must never apply to abusive parents, and nor should it.
I struggle to grasp what the concept of adultery means to the origin culture where men had multiple concubines? This is also the only sexual directive. Other things, such as incest or the idea of adults buggering young children does not get mentioned.
As for not coveting thy neighbour’s … house … wife … his manservant …his maidservant … his ox … his ass, etc… that’s a directive that attempts to dictate against how people think, and is not guidance on how people should act.
Can we do better than these Ten?
The rather obvious answer is not only can we do far better, but the observation is that we have left much of this behind and as a society we do indeed in practise do far better.
This is perhaps a reflection of how the legal system operates. As a community we strive to establish rules. Sometimes we get it wrong and as a consequence humans suffer, but over time we learn from such mistakes and do a bit better.
Once upon a time, in the not so distant past, we had rules regarding how we could buy and sell other people – slavery. Despite both the old and new testament being a pro-slavery text we have worked out that owning people is morally wrong and so we now live in a far better world. It is not perfect, but we are learning and doing better than previous generations.
As for a better set of rules to live by, here are seven tenants that are clearly far superior than the deeply flawed ten commandments …
- One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
- Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
- People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
- Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.