Friday, 13 July 2012

What Is It With The Ten Commandments?

To hear Christians talking about the 'Ten Commandments' you would think they imagine they form some sort of framework for morality and law and the foundations of Western civilisation. Of course, apart from a few basic rules which are common to just about all societies, and general ideas of good neighbourliness which no urbanised society could succeed without, there is almost nothing in them.

They read more like the dictat of some insecure, petulant little despot who feels he needs to reinforce his authority.

The full lists (there are two slightly different ones in the Bible - God seems to have had a rethink on one of them later) are:

No.VerseExodus 20:2-17VerseDeuteronomy 5:7-21
13Thou shalt have no other gods before me.7Thou shalt have none other gods before me.
24-6Thou 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; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.8-10Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto 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, And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
37Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.11Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
48-11Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.12-15Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.
512Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.16Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
613Thou shalt not kill.17Thou shalt not kill.
714Thou shalt not commit adultery.18Neither shalt thou commit adultery.
815Thou shalt not steal.19Neither shalt thou steal.
916Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.20Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
1017Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.21Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.

The first three have nothing whatever to do with human interactions, which is the proper domain of morality, but are all about this god's insecurities and fears that it may be losing its influence, probably reflecting the insecurities and fears of the priest who came up with list and dictated it to the hapless scribe charged with putting his ranting into words. Indeed, the first, with it's talk of plural gods, looks like someone wasn't even sure if there was just one or whether this was merely some sort of tribal god they were writing about.

And who in the West takes any notice of the second commandment anyway? (Contrast Western art, and the output of the advertising industry, with that of the Islamic world, where the second commandment is normally fairly strictly observed). Even Catholic and Orthodox churches are packed with 'graven' images and Christians routinely bow down before images of saints and gods.

Christian graven images.

Top left: Russian Orthodox icon
Above: Stained glass church window
left: Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican
What sort of moral message is it giving to say it's right to punishes our great great grandchildren for something we do? Unless there has been a marriage between close relatives, we all have sixteen great great grandparents. Are we really to be punished for them drawing a picture or making a worm out of Playdough?

Really? And this is morality?

For that matter, what sort of morality is it that says, "do what I say because you've seen what I can do if you don't"? This is the 'morality' of the playground bully, the protection racketeer and the mobster.

Then we get to number four. Well, at least your slaves get a day off, but no one seems quite sure why. In Exodus it was because God had a day off after working for six, allegedly. By the time someone decided they needed revising, this had changed to something to do with Egypt. Or did some later scribe realise that if you were going to impose these rules on other people the reason had to be more general and not one which applied exclusively to the Hebrews? Maybe at the time they just needed something new to celebrate. Some sort of group identity thing.

Then we get to a few rules which no one would seriously question as good things, though the honouring of your father and mothers is a bit strange. It is reinforced with some OTT threats a bit later on with:
And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.

Exodus 21:5

And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 21:7
which seems curiously at odd with this statement some years later, supposedly by Jesus:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Matthew 10:34-37
Numbers six and eight are pretty obvious really. Can you imagine how successful as a nation the Hebrews would have been, or any human group for that matter, if killing and stealing had been considered okay?

Number seven, forbidding 'adultery', is rather vague. It's quite obvious from the later events in the Bible where sex with concubines and 'maidservants' (slaves) was fine, that adultery meant something different then than it does today. Now, of course, many people see absolutely nothing wrong with pre-marital sex. Indeed, in the West, this is now the norm and for most of history, probably always was. No one would expect a woman to be a virgin when married and it would be astonishing for a couple not to have had a sexual relationship before marriage.

All this rule is, is meddling in people's private lives. It has nothing to do with morality, which is about whether inter-personal relationships are consensual and non-coercive. As people's fear of God has lessened, this has been one of the first rules to be ditched as unwanted, unneeded and unnecessary, if it was ever given more than a passing nod by sanctimonious hypocrites in the first place.

So to number nine - bearing false witness. Why the clause 'against thy neighbour'? Is this meant to limit this rule? Is it okay to bear false witness against anyone who isn't thy neighbour, or is bearing false witness always wrong? What use is a rule which is so ambiguous and ill defined? Of course, telling lies to deceive for personal gain against another, or to falsely incriminate an innocent person is unequivocally wrong, so why not spell it out?

And yet what do we find when we try to debate religion with all fundamentalists, no less so with Christians, and especially creationists who purport to believe in a literal interpretation of genesis, especially? We find them making:
  • False implicit claims of expertise which they manifestly don't have.
  • Unsubstantiated claims to have evidence to support false arguments.
  • Denial of presented evidence and false claims to have provided supporting evidence.
  • Unverifiable claims to have had personal contact with a god.
  • False claims to be able to heal the sick with prayer.
  • False claims to have disproved inconvenient science.
  • Arguments clearly designed to deceive people, especially for money.
  • Deliberate attempts to control through guilt, fear and ignorance.
  • Styles of preaching and proselytising designed to appeal to the credulous, gullible and vulnerable, almost always accompanied by an open hand.
And this list is not exhaustive, as a brief spell following the #TeamJesus, #Atheist or #Evolution hash tags on Twitter will show and where honest Christians are as rare as hen's teeth.

So we come to number ten, observance of which would close down the advertising industry, the TV stations and Internet sites which rely on it, the consumer society on which western capitalism is entirely dependent and indeed the entire motivation for social advancement.

So much for the utter irrelevance of most of this list, but what is more significant is what it doesn't contain. If it were indeed any basis for a just and moral society and a system of laws designed to produce one, where are the rules concerning:
  • Equal opportunities?
  • Human rights?
  • Democracy and political freedom?
  • Freedom of speech and conscience?
  • Child abuse?
  • Rape?
  • Respect for other religions or none?
  • Slavery? (Two of the Ten Commandments actually seem to endorse slavery!)
  • Taxation?
  • Entitlement to education?
  • Right to fair trial and habeus corpus?
  • Right to free association and assembly?
  • Freedom from hunger?
  • Health care?
  • Redistribution of wealth?
  • Employee rights and employer responsibilities?
  • Environment and animal rights?
  • Peace?
  • Limits of state power?
And so on...

Quite simply, they are not there because the people who wrote the Bible saw no value in these things because they are for ordinary people and protect ordinary people against abuse of power, and yet these things are the things which separate a civilised society from an uncivilised one.

The Ten Commandments were about maintaining the power and privilege of the priesthood and the rulers, property rights rather than human rights and keeping the people under control rather than liberating them from it.






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5 comments :

  1. I think George Carlin got it pretty much right: http://youtu.be/p-RGN21TSGk

    ReplyDelete
  2. By "neighbour" they meant fellow Jews. That's why the Old Testament has no problem with genocide, rape and loot when visited on non-Jewish peoples; YHWH in fact demanded genocide, rape and looting of his True Believers.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice article, but of course the bible doesn't refer to either of these two lists as the "ten commandments", something few Christians seem to realise. Instead, the list of commandments in Exodus 34:14-26 is specifically called the "ten commandments" in verse 28. My favourite is undoubtedly "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk."!

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Anonymous
    Actually, that's incorrect. Read Deut 5 untill verse 22.
    It might be mythical and illogical, but Jews and Christians are not THAT stupid...

    ReplyDelete

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