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Deconstructing the Decalogue
Or, How to Think About the Ten Commandments
There is arguably no better known set of moral precepts than the Ten Commandments. As an exercise in moral casuistry, in this essay, excerpted from my chapter on religion in my 2015 book The Moral Arc, let’s consider them again in the context of how far the moral arc has bent since they were decreed over three millennia ago. (The Ten Commandments are stated in two books of the Old Testament, Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21. I quote from Exodus, King James Version.) In the next essay I shall reconstruct them from the perspective of a science- and reason-based moral system.
Photo by the author. Moses with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, sculpted by the Italian High Renaissance artist Michelangelo and housed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, which the author visited in 2004. The sculpture was commissioned in 1505 by Pope Julius II for his tomb.
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I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
First, this commandment reveals that polytheism was commonplace at the time and that Yahweh was, among other things, a jealous god (see God’s own clarification in Commandment 2). Second, it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in that it restricts freedom of religious expression (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”), making the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places such as schools and courthouses unconstitutional.
II. 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. Thou shalt not 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.
This commandment is also in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of speech, of which artistic expression is included by precedence of many Supreme Court cases (“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech”). It also brings to mind what the Taliban did in Afghanistan when they destroyed ancient religious relics not approved by their Islamist masters. Elsewhere in the Bible, the word “idol” is synonymously used, with the Hebrew word pesel translated as an object carved or hewn out of stone, wood or metal.
What, then, are we to make of the crucifix, worn by millions of Christians as an image, an idol, a symbol of what Jesus suffered for their sins? The crucifix is a graven image of torture as it was commonly practiced by the Romans. If Jews today were suddenly to start sporting little gas chambers on gold necklaces the shocked public reaction would be as unsurprising as it would be unmistakable.
I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.
That might explain the genocides, wars, conquests, and mass exterminations commanded by the deity of the Old Testament. These humanlike emotions reveal Yahweh to be more like a Greek god, and much like an adolescent, who lacks the wisdom to control his passions.
The last part of this commandment—visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me—violates the most fundamental principle of Western jurisprudence developed over centuries of legal precedence that one can be only be guilty of one’s own sins and not the sins of one’s parents, grandparents, great grandparents, or anyone else for that matter.
III. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
This commandment is once again an infringement on our Constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech and religious expression, and another indication of Yahweh’s petty jealousies and un-Godlike ways.
IV. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Again, freedom of speech and religious expression means we may or may not choose to treat the Sabbath as holy, and the rest of this commandment—For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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—make it clear that its purpose is to once again pay homage to Yahweh.
Thus far, the first four commandments have nothing whatsoever to do with morality as we understand it today in terms of how we are to interact with others, resolve conflicts, or improve the survival and flourishing of other sentient beings. At this point the Decalogue is entirely concerned with the relationship of humans and god, not humans and humans.
V. Honor thy father and thy mother.
As a father myself, this commandment feels right and reasonable, since most of us parents appreciate being honored by our children, especially because we’ve invested considerable love, attention, and resources into them. But “commanding” honor—much less love—doesn’t ring true to me as a parent, since such sentiments usually come naturally anyway. Plus, commanding honor is an oxymoron, made all the worse by the hint of a reward for so doing, as in the rest of that commandment: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.” Honor either happens naturally as a result of a loving and fulfilling relationship between parents and offspring, or it doesn’t. For a precept to be moral, it must involve an element of choice between doing something entirely self-serving and doing something that helps another, even at the cost of oneself.
VI. Thou shalt not kill.
Finally, we get a genuine moral principle worth our attention and respect. Yet even here, much ink has been spilled by biblical scholars and theologians about the difference between murder and killing (such as in self-defense), not to mention all the different types of killing, from first-degree murder to manslaughter, along with mitigating circumstances and exclusions, such as self-defense, provocation, accidental killings, capital punishment, euthanasia, and of course war.
Many Hebrew scholars believe that the prohibition is against murder only. But what are we to make of the story in Exodus (32:27-28) in which Moses brought down from the mountain top the first set of tablets, which he smashed in anger, and then commanded the Levites: “Thus saith the lord God of Israel, put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.”
How can we reconcile God’s commandment not to kill anyone with his commandment to kill everyone? In light of this account, and many others like it, the sixth commandment should perhaps read thus: Thou shalt not kill—not unless the Lord thy God says so. Then shalt thou slaughter thine enemies with abandon.
VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Coming from a deity who impregnated somebody else’s fiancé, that’s a bit rich. However, the bigger issue is that this commandment, like all the others, is a blunt instrument that doesn’t take into account the wide variety of circumstances in which people find themselves. Surely grownups in intimate relationships can and should negotiate the details of their relationship for themselves, and one hopes that they’ll act honorably toward their partner out of a sense of integrity, and not because a deity told them to.
VII. Thou shalt not steal.
Again, do we really need a deity to command this? All cultures had and have moral rules and legal codes about theft.
IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Anyone who has been lied to or gossiped about can explain why this moral commandment makes sense and is needed, so chalk one up for the Bible’s authors whose insights here were spot on.
X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
Consider what it means to covet something—to crave or want or desire it—so this commandment is the world’s first thought crime, which goes against centuries of Western legal codes. More to the point, the very foundation of capitalism is the coveting or desire for things and, ironically, it is Bible-quoting Christian conservatives who most defend the very coveting forbidden in this final mandate.
The late Christopher Hitchens best summed up the implications of taking this commandment seriously, in an April 2010 Vanity Fair essay: “Leaving aside the many jokes about whether or not it’s okay or kosher to covet thy neighbor’s wife’s ass, you are bound to notice once again that, like the Sabbath order, it’s addressed to the servant-owning and property-owning class. Moreover, it lumps the wife in with the rest of the chattel (and in that epoch could have been rendered as ‘thy neighbor’s wives,’ to boot).”
After demolishing the Decalogue in his inimitable style, Hitchens proffered his own list of commandments:
Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color.
Do not ever use people as private property.
Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations.
Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.
Do not condemn people for their inborn nature—why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them?
Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and think and act accordingly.
Do not imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife.
Turn off that fucking cell phone—you have no idea how unimportant your call is to us.
Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions.
Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above.”
Hitchens caps his list in summary judgment: “In short: Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.”
Now, that is a rational prescription! In my next Skeptic column here I will offer my own “Provisional Rational Decalogue.” So you don’t miss it please consider subscribing below.
Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. Your subscription goes to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and the host of The Michael Shermer Show. His many books include Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Heavens on Earth. His new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.