Ten Commandments FAQ

What are the Ten Commandments?

Hold on. Why don’t those sound familiar? I meant what are the real Ten Commandments—the ones everyone knows?

So, there are three different versions? How did that happen?

I’m not convinced. Rules about boiling goats would look ridiculous in court houses, schools and post offices!

Are you saying that the nice ones weren’t written down?

Why not include them all, then? Christians believe that whatever comes from the mouth of God is wise and just.

What do you mean “plagiarized”? I haven’t heard anything about killing children or selling daughters. Are you making them up or using some weird translation? Are these in the King James Version? The Bible says God gave them to Moses.

But wouldn’t you agree that even if the Ten Commandments—I mean the nice ones--resemble other law codes, they are the pinnacles of moral perfection. After all, they come from our God, not some ancient mythical deity?

I mean, isn’t it true that these commandments are the first laws that tell human beings what they need to do to gain eternal life—that and believing in Jesus.

I’m talking about real Christianity, not Catholics and those others you mention. Wouldn’t you say that these laws are timeless and true?

How Can People Be Moral and Good if They Don’t Have Religion? 

What's wrong with posting the Ten Commandments in public/government buildings?

If not the Ten Commandments, isn't American law is based on the Golden Rule and isn't that from the Bible? 

 


Q: What are the “Ten Commandments?

A: The Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) contains lots of rules which developed over a millennium. Most of these were borrowed from earlier Near Eastern law codes, known to the Hebrews through cultural contact with Egypt and Babylonian civilization. Because of the complexity, redundancy, and inconsistency of these laws, early Judaism singled out a number of “statements”— called Aseret ha-Dvarîm, “the ten injunctions”— as a kind of summary. In the Greek translation of the Bible, used by Christians, the term employed is dekalogoi or “the ten words.”

There is no place in the Bible where the statements are called “commandments.” The phrase originates with God (in Exodus 34.11) “commanding” Moses to write them down.

There is only one place in the Bible where the number ten is given. In the single passage where the “ten words” are referred to (Exodus 34.28-29), the reference is to God “replacing” the original commandments, following Moses’ smashing the stone tablets ( in Exodus 32.19).

Literally, the Ten Commandments are the following:

 

I. Do not make deals with the Hivites, or other strange people: Demolish their altars.
II. Don’t marry their daughters or you’ll be encouraged to accept their gods. (34.11-16).
III. Don’t make gods out of cast metal (the way they do): 34.17
IV. Observe the feast of unleavened bread in the month of Abib to commemorate when you were taken out of Egypt (34.18)
V. Don’t come before me empty-handed, because the first born cattle, sheep, and even your firstborn sons belong to me. (34.19-20)
VI. Keep the seventh day for rest, even during harvest and ploughing time. Whoever works on the sabbath will be put to death (34.21; 35.2)
VII. Your males must keep the feast of “weeks” (Shavuot or Pentecost, originally a harvest festival) as a thanksgiving for God’s driving the inhabitants out of Canaan (Exodus 34.22-34)
VIII. Don’t offer leavened bread with the Passover lamb (34.25)
IX. Give God the best portion when you sacrifice. (34.26)
X. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk (34.26)


Q: Hold on. Why don’t those sound familiar? I meant what are the real Ten Commandments—the ones everyone knows?

A: These are the real ten commandments. You may mean where are the “moral” rules against stealing, killing and coveting? In Exodus 34.1, God commands Moses to cut two stone tablets and says he will “write on them the same words he wrote on the ones you broke into pieces.” Of course, they are not the same words; they are different words, with only echoes of the earler account (Exodus 20; and a later, slightly different version, Deuteronomy 5.6-21).


Q: So, there are three different versions? How did that happen?

A: Of these particular rules, yes. The discrepancy comes from disagreements, probably arising fairly early in the history of Israelite priesthood, about what Moses had actually received. By the time the variations were written down in the sixth century BCE, and in order to give them the weight they needed to be effective, all of the rules were attributed the “Sinai tradition,” meaning simply that they were associated with Moses’ getting the laws directly from God. The model for this legend among the Hebrews was probably the Babylonian king Hammurabi getting his laws from the great god, Shamash. The famous basalt stele depicting this scene dates from 1800 BCE, at least a millennium before the Hebrew code, and is displayed in the Louvre. The laws themselves are considerably older than that.

To underscore the critical importance of sacrifice, Passover, and sabbath rules among the people, the story emerged that Moses destroyed the first law tablets and preserved the second. But the literary and historical problems are apparent: Did God forget what he said the first time? Did Moses? And who would know what the demolished (and far more famous) tablets contained, since only the second were enshrined as “tokens” in the Ark (Exodus 40.20). The conflicting Exodus accounts of the commandments is really an editorial hodgepodge of attempts, carried out over a long period of time, to situate all of the Hebrew legal and ritual traditions in the revelations given to Moses.

All of the rules ascribed to God in the Book of Exodus were cult rules which were intended to govern the ritual behavior of Hebrew males. Did you ever wonder why all of the commandments — for example against “coveting” — are addressed to the men?


Q: I’m not convinced. Rules about boiling goats would look ridiculous in court houses, schools and post offices!

A: Well, there are others to choose from. Much nicer are the words God “spoke” to Moses on Sinai in Exodus 20.1-17. But, as I said, there is no mention of “ten commandments” there, and, if you add them up, there are thirteen separate injunctions – an unlucky number. Furthermore, they continue in verse 22 and run on into the so-called Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21.1-33).


Q: Are you saying that the nice ones weren’t written down?

A: No, I’m saying that the Bible is unclear about what was written down and how it was written. Exodus 24 says that “Moses wrote down all that the Lord had told [us],” which can only mean the whole content of Exodus 20 and 21, and then “read it aloud for all the people to hear.” It isn’t clear what language he might have written them in, since biblical Hebrew hadn’t been invented yet, and almost no one could have read the rules if it had. But the scribes who were writing the story in the sixth century BCE doubtless assumed that Moses could write because that’s the story they’d heard, and because by their time written laws were more authoritative than oral tradition. To underscore the importance of these laws coming directly from God, the author of Exodus 24.12-13 then presents God as duplicating Moses’ effort by “inscribing” the commandments on tablets of stone “so that you may teach them.” Again, no reference to the magical number ten. There seem to have been many more. And this is the set Moses destroyed. Many scholars believe that the story of Moses’ fury was a fiction designed to explain to later generations what happened to the “originals.”


Q: Why not include them all, then? Christians believe that whatever comes from the mouth of God is wise and just.

A: In general, in dealing with ancient texts, I like the idea that more is better. But not so fast. The humanization and cherrypicking of “commandments” began in rabinnical and early Christian times. No one would argue that rules against killing, stealing, perhaps even trespass and adultery, and in favor of caring for aged parents aren’t useful in a society. But the unabridged version of the commandments includes the following:

 

o When you buy a Hebrew slave he will be yours for six years
o A female slave may not go free as a male slave may (after six years)
o Whoever strikes, or insults, mother or father shall be put to death.
o Whenever hurt is done, you shall give eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
o When a man rapes a virgin, he will pay the bride price for her, and if the father does not accept it (in kind), the seducer will pay the equivalent to the girl’s father in silver.
o You will kill anyone who is a witch.
o You shall give me your first born sons.
o Whoever sacrifices to any god but me will be put to death. (Exodus 21)

I think you would agree that these punishments (and cases) are pretty severe and pretty obscure. It might be better to talk about which of God’s commandments “survived” the long process of theological selection and interpretation; but remember, it isn’t God doing the selecting—it’s rabbis and scholars.

As a matter of fact, the ones you seem to know best (as well as the bloodthirsty ones) are borrowed from other civilizations anyway. So, it would be wrong to blame the Hebrew authors for being unusually vicious in their apportioning of punishment for violating tribal taboos. The Hebrews didn’t make them up—they plagiarized them.


Q: What do you mean “plagiarized”? I haven’t heard anything about killing children or selling daughters. Are you making them up or using some weird translation? Are these in the King James Version? The Bible says God gave them to Moses.

A: That’s actually several questions. Most reputable biblical scholars consider Moses, at best, a composite figure who symbolizes the consolidation of Hebrew tribes under an emerging law code. While we can’t be certain whether the Hebrew scribes borrowed directly or copied from a fluid oral tradition, there were many legal and religious codes to copy from. The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Reu nu pert em hru) for example, which was already ancient during the Theban period (1500 BCE in the case of the famous Ani papyrus), already contains the following:

I have committed no evil….
I have not dishonored father and mother.

I have brought about no evil.
I have not scorned any god. [I have honored all the gods]
I have not defrauded the poor of their property.
I have not done what the gods abominate.
I have not cause harm to be done to a servant by his master.
I have caused no man to hunger.
I have made no one weep.
I have not killed.

I have not committed adultery [fornicated]
I have not stolen land.
I have not encroached on my neighbor’s property. (Ch. 125)

There are similar parallels between the biblical injunctions and the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 2130 BCE) and between the Code of Hammurabi and the Book of the Covenant, the elaboration of the commandments, given in Exodus chapter 21.


Q: But wouldn’t you agree that even if the Ten Commandments—I mean the nice ones--resemble other law codes, they are the pinnacles of moral perfection. After all, they come from our God, not some ancient mythical deity?

A: First, when you say “our God,” you are doing the same thing the ancient Hebrews would have done: you are pitting your God against the gods of other people, whose gods were equally real—even to the Hebrews! They believed their God was “lord of lords,” not the only God: monotheism arrives later and that’s why the “first commandment” is so insistent on the exclusive worship of Yahweh. And why God calls himself “jealous,” just like a lover can be jealous of other lovers—not because they don’t exist but because they do. Technically, scholars call the ancient Israelites “henotheists” rather than “monotheists”: they believed their god was the greatest of gods, but not the only god (Exod. 18.11). And I’m not sure what you mean by “the pinnacle of moral perfection.”


Q: I mean, isn’t it true that these commandments are the first laws that tell human beings what they need to do to gain eternal life—that and believing in Jesus.

A: There is nothing in these rules about eternal life and certainly nothing about Jesus. The early Christians paid almost no attention to them at all; by the nineties of the first century, one of the core commandments had been rescinded, that of keeping the Jewish sabbath in exchange for celebrating the day of the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week. The book of the covenant (Exod. 21) didn’t last even that long in Christian circles—and in the story of Jesus acquitting the “adulterous woman,” he’s clearly violating Leviticus 20.10. No theological system in the early church derives from the Commandments, which was obsessed with spelling out its doctrine of salvation in terms of Jesus as the end or fulfillment (τελος) of the law. So let me be blunt: the Ten Commandments only become famous in Christianity after the sixteenth century, primarily among Calvinists whose ideas of Christian commonwealth and law were derived more from the Old Testament than from the new. In Catholicism and the Orthodox churches, the “Ten Commandments” have never been central.


Q: I’m talking about real Christianity, not Catholics and those others you mention. Wouldn’t you say that these laws are timeless and true?

A: I think that’s exactly where we differ. First, the rules you want to come back to—the verses you are calling the Ten Commandments, are not timeless. No laws are. They weren’t even timeless for the Jews, and certainly not for the Christians. Anyone who applied Exodus 21.17 (killing a son who insults his father) today would go to prison, yet no distinction is made between the speaker of that commandment (God) and the speaker in Exodus 20.13 who forbids murder. So, along with most scholars, I think these rules belong to the early days of Israelite political and religious consolidation—sometime after the year 900—and reflect the social context of that era. I also think that you’re mistaken to talk about these rules as “moral” or “true.” The purpose of law is not to be true or moral but to enforce certain kinds of behavior, and for particular reasons. These laws regulate slavery, distinguish between murder and killing, enforce certain religious practices, control diet, and establish Yahweh as the god of the nation. By the same token, they approve of slavery, condone rape, recommend hideous punishments for minor transgressions, encourage vindictiveness (an eye for an eye) and payback, define adultery and theft as sins against a man’s right to own chattel. Compared to Greek and Roman ethics, from roughly the same period, the Hebrew laws are morally vacuous. They belong to a god who reigned (not without challengers) 3000 years ago and are not original even to that god. They are of immense historical interest in helping us to understand how we have progressed morally and ethically since that god reigned, but as “rules” they are right where they belong—between the covers of an ancient book and not enshrined in the public square.


Q: How Can People Be Moral and Good if They Don’t Have Religion? 

Dwight Eisenhower once said "People need religion—and I don’t care what kind." He was expressing a common insight: that people’s deeply-held moral beliefs shape their behaviors and make them better, more ethical beings. Eisenhower was right that our beliefs about the nature of good and evil matter. But equating "morality" with "religion" is problematic, at best. The people who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center on 9-11 were profoundly religious. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was conspicuously pious, and indicted former Majority Leader Tom DeLay frequently claimed divine inspiration for his policy preferences. Domestic policy advisor Claude Allen was a self-proclaimed Christian conservative and was arrested for felony shoplifting. We all know less prominent people who are or claim to be religious, whose behavior is neither moral nor good—and we all know wonderful, highly moral people who are not religious in any conventional sense.

Unfortunately, religion is increasingly being used as a political tool by those who would divide us as Americans, rather than as a source of personal moral guidance. We hear a great deal about "people of faith," (the good guys) who are assumed to be united against the forces of "secularism," (the bad guys) but we hear little or nothing about what those terms really mean. Whose faith is being used as a standard? What about those whose religions are works-based, rather than "faith-based"? (Equating faith with religion is a very Protestant notion; Judaism, Buddhism, even Catholicism are considered works-based religions.) Even within Protestant Christianity, denominations differ dramatically on many moral issues: divorce, homosexuality, the death penalty, our obligations to the poor, and the proper relationship between religion and government, to name just a few.

The Founders’ views of religion also varied dramatically, but they were able to identify and codify moral principles on which to base the laws of the new nation they were creating. If we look at the values that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights—values that are absolutely central to what it means to be American—we see a profoundly moral vision that is quite independent of sectarian religious belief.

  • Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.
  • We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.
  • We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging their civic responsibilities.
  • We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using "wedge issues" to marginalize gays, or blacks, or "east coast liberals" (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is both un-American and immoral.
  • We believe, as Garry Wills has written, in "critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences."
  • We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" (even European mankind).
  • We believe in the true heartland of this country, where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and value goodwill and loving kindness.
  • We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.
  • We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.

You don’t have to be "religious" to believe in these profoundly moral principles, or to be guided by them. You don’t even have to be American.    -- Sheila Suess Kennedy 


Q: If not the Ten Commandments, isn't American law is based on the Golden Rule and isn't that from the Bible? 

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or similar words, is not a Christian invention. Versions of it do occur in the Old and New Testaments (see Matthew 7:12 for one version). But versions of it also occur in many other places, including in texts that predate the New Testament and that are not part of Judeo-Christian heritage. For example, Confucius is believed to have written, about 500 years before the start of the Common/Christian era, “Do to every man as thou would’st have him do to thee; and do not unto another what thou would’st not have done to thee” (George Seldes, The Great Quotations, The Citadel Press, 1983, p. 174). And, according to The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952, Volume 7, p. 329), The Golden Rule “is not a new rule. Lao-tzu, Confucius, Plato, and the Old Testament all taught it in positive or negative forms.”

Any good anthropologist can provide you with a coherent, logical explanation of how specific moral principles have evolved in specific cultures.  And any competent anthropologist will assure you that moral ideas are specific to cultures—that what is considered abhorrent in one culture may be admired in another. There is really no good reason to believe that any moral standard is absolute or that any ethical principle is not a product of cultural evolution. The religious debaters who like to claim a God-given absolute moral foundation for morality cannot escape the fact that moral ideas change over time and from one group to another within the doctrines of any religion.

Christians in the Southern United States 150 years ago, including leading preachers, believed—with plenty of Biblical support for their ideas—that human slavery was not only acceptable but explicitly ordained by God. Few Christians today would attempt to defend the notion, though God does not seem to have issued any corrected Scriptures in the meantime. It is hard to believe that an omniscient God would not have foreseen how ambiguous his commandments are; believing that it is all up to us human beings to determine what is right, and to do it, is much easier to accept.

Conscience, the critical idea on which popular Christian apologist C. S. Lewis hung his own belief (in Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan Paperback edition, 1969; see especially Book I, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” pp. 17-39), is much more reasonably understood as the product of cultural evolution, biology, and education. The Aztec who could, in good conscience, sacrifice a virgin to the gods or the early nineteenth century Christian Southerner who could, also in good conscience, justify owning his fellow human beings both demonstrate that consciences are not divine products.  -- Ed Buckner


 

10A & 10C FAQ:  What's wrong with posting the Ten Commandments in public/government buildings?

The answer to this question is based on a simple notion that we all have trouble remembering.  As Jefferson wrote, “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803.). Only two concepts are relevant in these cases: 1.) U.S. citizens are not unanimous in their views on religion (and the differences are important ones) and 2.) Neither the majority nor any government acting on behalf of the majority has any right to make any religious decisions for any citizens.  If religious freedom is valued, it follows as a matter of straightforward logic that governmental neutrality regarding religion is necessary and desirable, as much for any Christian as for any non-Christian.  -- Ed Buckner