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The Problem with the Ten Commandments August 2, 2010

Posted by John Salerno in Christianity, Religion.
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The problem with the Ten Commandments – as I see it and as I believe most other people express it – is rather simple: what is taken to be the moral foundation of the Jewish and Christian religions is really a list of amoral (and perhaps in at least one case, immoral) directives. Granted, my point of view presumes an independent consideration of what constitutes moral behavior rather than assuming, as many religious apologists seem to do, that whatever directives are found in the Ten Commandments are moral by virtue of their being in the list at all. In other words, there should be no argument about whether these commandments are moral because they are being defined by God as being moral.

However, a rational person cannot help but wonder whether these are truly the moral guidelines by which a society should live. It is only reasonable that we should take a look at these commandments and assess their value in our lives, as well as consider whether other, just-as or more appropriate moral guidelines could or should be included in the list.

In undertaking this endeavor, the problem that faces us is how to define moral behavior. At the very least, I think it is a fair starting point to assume that the morality of an action can be measured by the action’s effect on other sentient creatures – specifically, creatures that can suffer either physically or psychologically. But I will not attempt to define morality in this discussion. It would be a rather trivial argument on my part if I simply defined morality in such a way that purposely excluded many or all of the Ten Commandments. Rather, I simply want to take a look at the commandments as given and conduct a common-sense assessment of their moral value in our lives. In doing so without a strict definition of morality, I am hoping to appeal to our innate sense of what is and what is not moral.

Let’s begin by quoting Exodus 20:1-17 (New American Standard Bible):

1Then God spoke all these words, saying,

2 [1] I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

3 You shall have no other gods before Me.

4 [2] You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

7 [3] You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

8 [4] Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,

10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.

11 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 made it holy.

12 [5] Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.

13 [6] You shall not murder.

14 [7] You shall not commit adultery.

15 [8] You shall not steal.

16 [9] You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 [10] You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Between Judaism and different denominations of Christianity, the commandments are divided differently, so I will use the general Protestant division, which I have indicated above via the alternating shades of text and bracketed numbers.

The first four commandments can be considered together, as they all deal with humanity’s relationship with God. This particular theme already presents a problem because it has removed nearly half of the commandments from the discussion of how we should interact within human society. As far as I can tell, the directives not to worship other gods, not to create idols, not to profane God’s name, and not to work on the sabbath day have no moral content. Again, we have not strictly defined what it means to be moral, but if we operate with the basic assumption given above (that a moral or immoral action is defined as such by virtue of how we interact with other sentient creatures), then the first four commandments do not seem to have any moral value. Does it really make sense for us to say that it is immoral to speak the words “God damn it”? Whether you feel it is disrespectful to one’s religion or to one’s god to say such a phrase is a separate matter that should not in itself determine whether an action is immoral. It makes as little sense to say that it is immoral to work on a Friday/Saturday or a Sunday (whichever day happens to be the sabbath day for your particular religion). In order for these actions to be immoral, it would be necessary to say that humans have a moral relationship with God. But what does this statement mean? It seems rather obvious that to commit an act against a fellow human that physically harms him or her in some way would be an immoral act, but how do we define what constitutes an immoral action against God? For a rationalist I suspect the question does not make much sense or suggest an obvious answer. For the religious apologist I would imagine the answer is as simple as the suggestion with which I began this discussion: by virtue of the actions’ appearances in the list of Ten Commandments, they are immoral actions. In other words, they are immoral because God has declared them to be. But this argument presents a problem: what if God had included in the Ten Commandments the directive to sacrifice a family’s first-born daughter? Would this action be moral simply by its appearance in the list? If you make the claim that these ten commandments are moral by virtue of them being the Ten Commandments, then you would have to accept that newborn sacrifice could possibly have been a moral action dictated by God. The response that “God would never have given such a commandment” only leads to further problems. If morality is what it is because God made it so, then God could have made any action moral or immoral on a whim. To say that God would never have made newborn sacrifices a moral action is to imply that morality exists independently of God’s decisions. In other words, if God would not have made newborn sacrifices moral because it is immoral, then by what standard are you calling it immoral, if not by the standard of God’s own preference?

I also feel it is important to single out the first commandment and highlight the very substance of the commandment itself. I won’t make much significance of the wording of the commandment, as the issue of translation may factor into that discussion. I will simply note that it says “You shall have no other gods before Me” as opposed to something along the lines of “There are no other gods besides Me.” It seems to be an important difference in the message being conveyed. The latter statement asserts that there is but a single god; however, the commandment as written seems to confirm that there are, in fact, multiple gods, and that the directive being issued is simply to worship the Judeo-Christian God more than, or perhaps instead of, any other gods. Yet the fact remains that polytheism seems to be validated in this commandment.

If we consider who wrote the commandment, this point will become almost trivial. Let’s first assume that the commandment was spoken and/or written by God himself, as the Bible asserts. In that case, it seems fairly self-evident that God would have said something like the latter phrase above (i.e., “There are no other gods besides Me”). It would have been a simple but firm declaration that the God of the Bible is the only god there is. It is also interesting to note that a declaration of this sort, rather than the directive that the commandment is, would not have made sense as a “commandment” for how to behave. It would need to be reworded as “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall worship Me.” It would make no sense even to say “You shall worship only Me,” because the use of “only” in that context still implies that there are yet more gods that could possibly be worshiped.

The other possibility for authorship is simply a man (or multiple men) writing with his own bias and agenda, without divine inspiration. Biblical scholarship refers to the source as “E” (although “J” also occupies some of Exodus and other parts of the Torah/Pentateuch and frequently tells the same stories as E, with differences). If it had been this man’s agenda to establish Judaism as a monotheistic religion in competition with the polytheism of the day, what better way to begin a list of the most important tenets of the faith than to assert that its followers are not allowed to worship any other gods. Implicit in this assertion, as mentioned above, is the understanding that there are other gods to worship, or at least that the belief in other gods was dominant at that time and needed to be immediately addressed. I don’t know what it says for a god that needs to demand singular worship, but it seems rather obvious that the best way for a human to enforce that kind of monotheistic worship is to list it as the first commandment. In other words, when viewed as a commandment from God, the first commandment (and indeed the following three) seem rather trivial and pathetic as far as moral directives go, but when viewed as the writings of a man who had the interests of his people and his religion in mind, it makes perfect sense to begin with the command to worship no other gods.

The next five commandments offer better guidelines for how to live, but it seems questionable to call most of them “moral” behavior. Is it really immoral to disrespect your parents? That is an irresponsible use of the word, and it essentially puts disrespecting ones parents on the same level as murder. Furthermore, I have my doubts that adultery, stealing, and lying are necessarily immoral actions. They are certainly dishonorable and disrespectful actions that in most cases do not need to be done, but I would at least argue that it depends on the severity of the action as to whether it should be considered immoral. Lying and stealing are repulsive to me, but perhaps a determination of how the particular action relates to my tentative definition of moral behavior would help decide whether it is truly an immoral action. Lying to your parents about going to a party or stealing food to feed a starving family are most likely amoral actions at worst. As far as murder is concerned, I will certainly grant the proposition that murder is an immoral action. Unless you specify such a situation as killing enemy combatants during war, then it is valid to make the claim that murder is immoral.

As far as these nine commandments go, I have written off four of them as being irrelevant to moral behavior. The remaining five are generally good guidelines by which to live, but I have my reservations about calling most of them moral or immoral. However, when considering the tenth commandment, it seems fair to make the claim that the commandment itself is immoral! Read it carefully and you will notice that while the other commandments direct one’s behavior, the tenth commandment directs one’s thoughts! It is, essentially, a law against thoughtcrime. Moreover, it is both sexist and provincial to the point of revealing the very human origins of these commandments. It specifically forbids the coveting of one’s neighbor’s wife, not husband or spouse in general. It was clearly written by a man, for men, in a patriarchal society. I’d like to think, had God issued the commandment “himself,” that he would have been more inclusive. Furthermore, the commandment forbids the coveting of one’s neighbors’ “servants” (most likely referring to slaves) and their “ox” and “donkey.” These are supposed to be the words of God issuing the most important moral directives by which humanity should live? God is telling us not to covet our neighbors’ oxes and donkeys? I don’t suppose a religious apologist sees any problem with the fact that almost none of us today have oxes and donkeys in our backyards. This commandment was clearly written in an agrarian society by people who had a vested interest in keeping their farming equipment safe from the hands of others. In no way does it reveal any wisdom or authority from a divine being, and as I stated above, it does not even offer a moral directive by which to live – it forbids the mere thought of wanting something that someone else owns.

I will now briefly turn to the point I raised at the start – that of deciding whether there are any other moral directives that could have been added to this list. As has been mentioned by others, why does the Ten Commandments not forbid slavery? That is easily answered by the fact that these people did have slaves and were certainly dependent on them for their living. In several places in the Bible God endorses slavery – a simple example is the tenth commandment itself. Rather than forbid slavery, God simply declares that people should not covet others’ slaves. More importantly, why is there no commandment forbidding the abuse of children? Either God didn’t find that rule important enough to include, or the very human authors of the Bible simply did not see that as a priority. Either way, the absence of such fundamental guidelines (and the inclusion of such trivialities as not working on the sabbath) degrades the very claim that these commandments are the most important moral guidelines by which humanity should live.

Finally, I feel a clarification of the title of this discussion is in order. Whenever criticism is made of the Ten Commandments, invariably a religious apologist will use the tired argument of “So you think ‘thou shall not murder’ isn’t a good rule to live by?” It is an ignorant and dishonest question that does not deserve an answer. I suppose the point of the question is to get the critic to admit that at least one of the commandments is a good one, but it certainly does not follow from that admission that the other nine are just as moral (or are moral at all). To say that we should not murder is not an endorsement of the Ten Commandments, and to say that we should reject the Ten Commandments is not an endorsement of murder. To reject the Ten Commandments is to reject the belief that humans would have no basis for morality if God had not defined moral behavior for us.

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