[Editorial notes: (1) As I discussed previously, the “Ten Commandments” which people commonly refer to by that title are not the actual Ten Commandments, according to the Bible. Nonetheless, since most people consider them the real ones, today’s post is about the set popularly called the “Ten Commandments,” which is found in Exodus 20:2-17. Also, if you have any issues with what I’ve written, please be sure to read my Caveats page.]
The Ten commandments are revered by many, who consider them the most primary of God’s laws, the essence of our morals, and the foundation of Western law. And yet, I characterized them in a previous post as “profoundly flawed.” Today, I’ll go through them and share some of my thoughts about them.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
You shall have no other gods before me.
First, mentioning that He brought people out of Egypt and liberated them from slavery loses its cachet when one recalls that this was only necessary because He previously brought people into Egypt and into more than 400 years of slavery, before finally freeing them. (Genesis 15:13) This would be like me stealing your car, getting in a wreck with it, and then returning the damaged car to you, while boasting about how I am your great benefactor for giving you a car.
Second, saying “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” indicates that these commandments were intended exclusively for the ancient Israelites of a particular place and time, and were not intended to be universally applicable to all people, forever after. He didn’t bring you and me out of enslavement by the Egyptians.
Third, “You shall have no other Gods before me”? All God would have to do is unambiguously show that He exists as claimed, and people would naturally put Him before all the other gods which do not, without any need for this commandment. And if He can’t or won’t even do that, then there’s literally no reason people should take Him seriously.
Fourth, make no mistake, God is not a proponent of free will, freedom of choice, or freedom of religion. He commands people to worship him, and commands people not to worship others. The options given in the Bible were (A) worship, follow, and obey Yahweh and only Yahweh, or (B) be put to death.
Fifth, this commandment has nothing to do with treating each other rightly, nor behaving honestly, nor with not harming each other. In other words, it’s irrelevant to morality. It’s the first and foremost of God’s laws for humanity, with higher priority than all else, and there is no moral principle whatsoever, here.
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
First, not making any kind of likeness of anything — no illustrations, paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, etc. — would cripple the ability to convey any kind of visual information, and would thereby have catastrophic consequences for education, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine, navigation, the economy, art, entertainment, journalism, and much more. Furthermore, to disallow making any likeness of anything, in order to prevent idolatry, is excessive and superfluous; people can make uses of likenesses without falling into idol worship (and they do, every day). This commandment is simply not reasonable and not feasible — which is perhaps why this commandment is rejected and ignored by almost everyone, no matter how religious they profess to be. Whenever you see Bible thumpers on television, enshrining the Ten Commandments, keep in mind that you’re watching them break the second commandment.
It’s also utterly preposterous. He’s the all-powerful ruler of the universe, creator of about one-hundred-octillion stars, and yet He gets grievously affronted whenever anyone doesn’t put him before all others. He’s perfect in every way, yet he’s so vain, insecure, and needy that he covets absolutely every last crumb of adoration in the entire cosmos, and he’s so vindictive that he’ll even curse your great grandchildren if you deprive him of the acclaim He feels He’s due. The “jealous God” idea is laughable, and an obvious sign that this God is an invention of mankind.
Third, He visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation? God is purported to be perfectly just, and yet here He is explicitly proclaiming that He’ll punish people for the wrongdoings of others. This is the very antithesis of justice.
Additionally, saying here that He’ll visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children directly contradicts what He says elsewhere: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:20)
Fourth, “…showing steadfast love to — thousands?” Not billions, nor paltry millions? Not even to a trifling one-tenth of one percent of those who worship Him? This looks to me like the supposedly all-knowing God was too limited in His outlook to imagine how many followers He’d have through future generations. Or, those who made up this God and ascribed their words to him were too limited in their outlooks.
Fifth, as with the previous commandment, this one has nothing to do with moral guidance.
Sixth, as with the first commandment, this second commandment would be unnecessary if God would simply show that He exists as claimed. The entire problem stems from the fact that He has not.
Seventh, commanding people not to pray to idols was already covered by commanding people to have no other gods before Him. The second commandment is redundant with the first.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
This fits well with the one and only sin that the Bible flatly states will never be forgiven, blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29) — but it speaks tellingly of God’s psychopathic egocentrism that He can forgive any wrongdoing from child rape to mass murder, but the one single thing He absolutely will not ever forgive is speaking badly about Him.
Or, alternatively, it shows that the people who made this God up took extra measures to try to make people take Him seriously.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
These last two are the third and fourth in a row that focus on appeasing God’s bizarre neuroses, and have no bearing on treating people fairly and kindly. We’re now up to a full forty percent of the supposed top-ten most important things God has to say to mankind that’s been wasted.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
Most parents love their children beyond measure, and do everything they can to raise their children right and ensure them the best futures they can. Such parents deserve to be honored. In this sense, I’m more sympathetic to this commandment than the first four.
Unfortunately, some parents are hateful, abusive, and neglectful. Such parents should not be honored by their children. Thus, a commandment to categorically honor your parents — regardless whether they’re the best or the worst — is a mistake. Honor your mother and father if they merit it, but not if they don’t. Mindless obeisance does not make a good rule.
The second half of this commandment, “…that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you,” is awful. Not just because the proposition (that you will live longer if you honor your parents) is often false, and not just because the assertion (that God gives you the land) is unsupportable. Rather, for the deeper reason that it shifts this commandment from morality to bribery. Instead of honoring our mothers and fathers because our hearts tell us to, because it’s the right thing to do, because they’ve earned our love and respect, because we truly want to be good to them — now we’re to honor our parents specifically so that we may get the reward of a long life.
Also, this commandment doesn’t jibe with Jesus’s directive that you must hate your father and mother (Luke 14:26).
Moreover, this commandment is too vague. Does “honoring” your mother and father mean standing when they enter a room, or seating them at the head of the table, or remembering them on their birthdays, or defending their honor in a duel against those who dishonor them, or always obeying them, or taking care of them in their dotage, or speaking deferentially toward them, or what? I imagine that the ancient Israelites would’ve understood what it meant in their culture, but, once again, the allegedly omniscient God was seemingly too limited in perception to write the fifth commandment with future generations in mind.
You shall not kill.
Not a bad commandment, but — between all of the killing God does in the Bible, and all of the killing He commands his followers do in the Bible — it’s surprising He could spare a moment to tell people not to kill. To put this in perspective, Moses’s first order of business when he came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments was to kill 3,000 of his brethren on God’s command. (Exodus 32:25-29) We’re talking about the God that boasted that He will make his arrows “drunk with blood” and that His sword shall “devour flesh.” (Deuteronomy 32:39-42). The God that slaughtered so many of His own Chosen People that they lamented, “We are perishing. We are being destroyed. All of us are being destroyed. Anyone who approaches the Lord’s dwelling will die. Are we doomed to perish?” (Numbers 17:12-13) This is Yahweh, the Master of Disaster, who slaughtered 14,700 more Israelites for protesting that He was unnecessarily killing too many of them. (Numbers 16:41-49) This is the God that, in the story of the Great Flood, wasn’t content to kill only the wicked or criminal, nor even content to “merely” kill all of humanity (including all the innocent newborn babies), but instead chose to flood the whole planet and kill every living thing. If there is one area where the God of the Bible truly stands out as the most superlative, it is the area of wanton killing.
It seems like a strange decree from the God who commanded and helped his followers to kill the people of Ai, and the Amalekites, the Ammonites, the Anakites, the Aradites — and that’s just a few of the Bible genocides starting with the letter A. So… sometimes he gives orders to kill non-virginal brides, witches, blasphemers, beastialists, false prophets, fortune-tellers, non-believers, followers of other religions, people who engage in homosexual acts, people who don’t listen to priests, people who work on weekends, and a variety of other kinds of people who have harmed nobody — and other times he orders “You shall not kill”?! Really?
Anyway, while there are instances where killing is justifiable (such as to protect your child), I don’t have a lot of trouble with the sixth commandment. However, it should be noted, for those who think we need God, the Bible, and the Ten Commandments for our morality, that people figured out rules against killing each other long before Moses ever went up Mount Sinai. For example, the Code of Hammurabi, from 1754 B.C.
You shall not commit adultery.
This commandment is more complex to assess than it initially appears. Due to the very different cultural context — where men could have multiple wives and concubines, women were sometimes treated like chattel, and no-fault divorce didn’t exist — I don’t feel competent to fully assess and critique the seventh commandment. So, I’ll keep it to a couple brief comments.
First, while an injunction not to betray your partner in life may be commendable, it would be better framed as a matter of contract law with civil liabilities than as a divine decree with a death penalty attached.
Second, there’s some redundancy between this and the tenth commandment, since there can be no adultery without first coveting someone’s spouse. With minor tweaks, either this or the tenth commandment could be deleted without any loss.
You shall not steal.
This is a fine commandment. My only comment is to point out that, as with number six, nobody needed God giving the Ten Commandments to learn not to steal. Many legal codes from before the Ten Commandments, such as the Laws of Eshnunna and the aforementioned Code of Hammurabi, had laws against stealing.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Like the eighth commandment, this is a good one — and most of the cultures in the area figured it out on their own and wrote it into their laws long before the Ten Commandments, such as the Code of Ur-Nammu.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
This last commandment is distinctly different in kind from all the others, and not in a good way. Whereas the others are about your actions, this one is about your thoughts. Since mere thoughts without actions cannot alone directly cause harmful consequences, they are outside of the legitimate scope of legal codes and moral imperatives.
Moreover, as I’ve touched upon previously, we do not have full volition over our thoughts. This commandment holds people responsible for something outside their control.
Furthermore — envying your neighbor’s ox? Are you kidding? This commandment is far too trifling to belong on a list of the top ten most critical moral rules. Where is the sense of priority?
Beyond the ego-stroking, absurdity, hypocrisy, contradictions, injustice, unoriginality, redundancy, and the triviality of these commandments, we must also take note of everything that could have been on this list, perhaps should have been, which is not. Here are a few examples of possible commandments that would have been better than at least half of the ten we have:
Do not possess slaves. You shall not own another human being, shall not force others to your will, shall not exploit others as your property, shall not treat people as work animals, and shall not fail to fairly compensate those who work for you.
But instead of a prohibition of slavery, the Bible gives us enthusiastic advocacy of slavery with all of its horrors, as I’ve discussed before.
You shall not engage in any sexual activity of any kind with anyone against their will.
But instead of stern prohibition of rape and molestation in the top ten list, the Bible gives us psychotic commands that a rape victim and her rapist must marry and never divorce. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
You shall not harm children, neither beat them nor mentally abuse them.
Do not torture anyone for any reason.
But instead of a prohibition of torture, the Bible gives us the example of a purportedly benevolent and just god who tortures people for all eternity over even a single minor infraction, thereby tacitly endorsing the morality of torture. (Revelation 20:10, Revelation 20:15, and Revelation 21:8; etc.)
It must also be noted that all but one of these ten commandments tell you what not to do, but this list could likely have been improved by commandments of what you should do, instead. Here are a few examples:
Treat others as equals, regardless of their sex, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, or creed.
— or perhaps —
Help anyone in mortal need that you meet.
— or —
Preserve the environment that those around you need to survive and thrive, and that future generations will need to survive and thrive.
If we further extend the commandments beyond moral guidelines (as God does), there are many other possibilities that would be better than at least half of the Ten Commandments, which would’ve decreased unnecessary suffering and death, and would’ve sped up human progress. For examples:
Protect yourselves from pathogens. Wash your hands before preparing food or eating it, and boil the water you collect before drinking it.
— or —
Invest a portion of your time and income into education, research, and development.
— or —
Test your ideas, hypotheses, and beliefs as rigorously as you can, and dismiss those that fail testing.
The Ten Commandments are not impressive and do not warrant reverence. Almost anyone could come up with a better list off the top of their head, in five minutes or less; and any God who would create this list would be a fool, undeserving of respect.