"The" Ten Commandments

We were in a local store the other day and there, prominently displayed, was a copy of the ten commandments. It was carved into a tablet made of wood, rather than the biblical stone. But then again, it wasn’t necessarily the ten commandments either.

I know, I just said it was. But I must waffle a little bit about it. I know that it was supposed to be the biblical decalogue, but then there is some confusion about what these commandments actually are.

The various religious orders that subscribe to the commandments differ in their enumeration, if not their wording and meaning. So to post one version is to choose it over the others. Therefore, there can’t be “the” ten commandments. The table below will show this better than I can do any other way.

Then there is the matter of the bible being a little more than simply obtuse as to what the commandments actually are. Written in the alleged words of Moses himself, there are two major variations, and one more minor one. But if one is correct, the other two are incorrect, and how is one to know?

Even Jesus was confused as to the correct commandments. In Matthew 19:16-19 he tells a man that we must keep the commandments. When asked which ones he said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Nothing about coveting, false idols, or the sabbath. And he threw in as a commandment one which doesn’t appear anywhere in the Old Testament, to love your neighbor as yourself.

Moses smashed the tablets in Exodus 20 and god said he would rewrite them with the words that were on the first. The version of the tablets listed in Exodus 34 are almost totally different. The version in Exodus 34 has commandments such as, when to keep the feast of the unleavened bread, feast of the first of the wheat harvest, and the feast of the ingathering at the end of the year. It also has god laying claim on all first born children and all the first fruits from the trees. It also commands the Israelites not to seethe a kid in it’s mother’s milk.

Deuteronomy 5 is mostly in agreement with Exodus 20, though it gives a different reason for observing the Sabbath. Exodus has it that it is to be observed because that is the day god rested after creating the earth. Deuteronomy has it that they are to keep the Sabbath because god brought them out of Egypt and that they are to remember him on the Sabbath for that reason.

The commandments that are generally recognized as “the” ten commandments are those enumerated in Exodus 20. They are held up as the imprimatur of morality and the basis of our Constitution, and consequently, our law. But are they particularly moral, and whether they are or not, are they the basis of secular law?

We don’t find a commandment that can be called an example of morality until we get to the one dealing with honoring one’s mother and father. All the commandments before that have to do with worshiping god, not having false gods or idols, not blaspheming, and observing a Sabbath. Those are not commandments teaching morality of any sort. They are order to fealty, worship, and honor of an insecure god who needs to be recognized for all the great things he has done.

The rest of the list are arguably teachings in moral principles, though all parents may not be worthy of honor or respect, and coveting is not necessarily an immoral act unless acted upon in a manner that would otherwise be immoral anyway. We all know, whether we believe in a ten commandments or not, that it is wrong to kill, steal, and lie, and in some form or other these all are prohibited by nearly every culture and every legal system.

As to whether the ten commandments are the basis of our Constitution, it escapes detection to me as to how this could be case. That document has no religious claim or content in it, other than to prohibit religious allegiance of any sort in order to hold political office. The Bill of Rights, as an adjunct to the original Constitution, only mentions religion as something that is not to be codified for or against by the government.

The Constitution also does not mention any of the topics contained in the commandments. It has nothing to say about honoring parents, killing, stealing, or coveting. It does mention the swearing of oaths which could be compared to not bearing false witness. The Constitution also mentions counterfeiting which could be a form of stealing, but then it also mentions treason which has no parallel in the commandments.

Curiously, the commandments, which are supposed to be our moral guide, do not mention child abuse, slavery, misogyny, racism, torture, and a whole panoply of other acts that rest firmly in the bailiwick of moral issues. Think how much human misery may have been saved if god, instead of spending all that time about worship and idols and such, had thrown in a commandment about not having, using, or trading slaves. How much more moral would it have been to throw in a prohibition about child abuse instead of commanding people to take a day off every week?

A much more detailed, and I would argue, more moral set of laws, was introduced by Hammurabi of Babylon, in what is now Iraq. Hammurabi’s Code consists of 282 laws, each with specific punishments. He was supposedly given these laws by the god Marduk who chose him to be the deliverer of the laws. They covered everything from moral issues to criminal law, and even contract law. This is also one of the first examples of a presumption of innocence and rules that mandated evidence to be gathered before guilt could be established.

But, you might say, Hammurabi merely expanded what the ten commandments had started. Nice try but you’d be wrong. Hammurabi lived circa 1700 b.c. and Moses is dated at circa 1300 b.c. If anyone was to copy or build upon another, it would have been Moses who had that opportunity since he came along 400 years after Hammurabi.


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