Gerald A. Larue is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Archeology at the University of Southern California and Senior Editor of Free Inquiry magazine.

Are the Ten Commandments Relevant Today?

By Gerald A. Larue

Today many people advocate using the Ten Commandments as a moral and ethical guide, particularly for teaching students.  But an examination of what the Commandments originally meant reveals values very different from those popularly associated with them.  The situation is further complicated by the fact that there is no single universally recognized version of the Ten Commandments – multiple variations exist.

Protestants generally use a version based on Exodus 20:2-17, which is part of the so-called Covenant Code that was probably formulated in the tenth century B.C.E.  The Roman Catholic version relies on Deuteronomy 5:6-21, a seventh century B.C.E. document, as well as on the commentary given by early theologians.  A third version, which will not be analyzed here, can be found in Exodus 34:12-26.

Protestant:

  • Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
  • Thou shalt not make unto thee any 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; 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 showing mercy unto thousand of them that love me and keep my commandments.
  • Thou 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.
  • Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.  Six days shalt thou labor 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, nort thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:  For in six days the Lord make 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.
  • Honor ty father and they mother: that they dayes may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
  • Thou shalt not kill.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  • Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any think that is thy neighbor’s.  Exodus 20:2-17

Roman Catholic:

  • I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.
  • Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  • Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.
  • Honor thy father and thy mother.
  • Thou shalt not kill.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  • Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
  • Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods.  (Butler’s Catechism, page 28)

It is obvious that after the first commandment the numbering of the commandments differs in Roman Catholic and Protestant versions.  This variation occurs because the Roman Catholic version omits the reference to graven images-obviously because such a ruling would impact directly on the figurines and statuary so prominent in Catholic churches.  To make up for the omission, the Roman Catholic version divides the commandment on coveting so that the wife is no longer listed among the chattel, but has a distinct identity.  The first commandment says that there shall be no other gods before the Jewish god, Yahweh.  Despite what most people assume, at the time the commandments listed in Exodus and Deuteronomy were laid down the Jews were not monotheists-they were monolatrous.  In monotheism, there is a denial of all gods except one.  In monolatry, there is a belief in the existence of other deities but only one is to be worshiped.  In Hebrew thought, Yahweh was not the only god, he was one god among many, but he was particularly the god of the Hebrews.   In Israel, as the commandment states, he was to be recognized as the foremost god, and no other local or foreign deity was to precede him in rank and status.

The biblical text makes it clear that other gods were recognized and worshiped by Hebrews.  The Canaanite god Ba’al, the god of the fertilizing rains, was a rival to Yahweh (cf. 1 Kings 18).  King Solomon erected shrines to the various deities he worshiped and these shrines remained in operation in Judah for some three hundred years.  It was not until the sixth century B.C.S> that monotheism was first expressed in Judaism (cf. Isaiah, chapters 40ff.)

In the Protestant version, the second commandment prohibits graven images.  This conforms to the Jewish practice, also followed in the very early Christian church, of prohibiting images in places of worship.  They feared that religious images ultimately led to idolatry, that is to the worship of the images themselves and the practice of the giving to the images homage properly due to the deity.

The Catholic version of the commandments, drawing on the writings of Augustine (354-430 C.E.), instead counts the regulation against graven images simply as an explanation of the first commandment.  They argue that it is not a prohibition of images of Christ or the saints, but a warning against creating images of the other gods mentioned in the first commandment.  During the Reformation, Protestants attacked the Catholic position as sophistry, but the commandment against graven images is now ignored in most Protestant churches as well as in the Roman Catholic church.  In particular, Jesus images abound in everything from creche figures to larger statuary.

The second commandment in the Catholic version and the third in the Protestant forbids taking God’s name in vain.  This does not refer, as so many think, to saying “Goddamn!”.  In Hebrew thought, each god had an identity and a name.  To utter the god’s name was to attract the god’s attention, just as calling out “Mary” or “Bill” causes Mary or Bill to respond.  Therefore, it was believed that to utter the name “Yahweh” was to prompt the god to respond-perhaps with a “Well, what is it?” attitude.  To waste the god’s time with frivolous use of his name was tantamount to calling Mary or Bill over and over again and, when he or she responded, to say “Just testing” or something of the kind.  In other words, one did not use the personal name of the god for vain or empty reasons lest the god react in anger and with punishment.

The command to honor or keep the Sabbath day originally referred to the Jewish holy day, which runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.  It is violated weekly by the majority of Christians who substitute “the Lord’s day” (Sunday) for the Jewish Sabbath.  Only a handful of Christians pay any attention to this commandment and these can be identified by their “seventh-day” identities (e.g. Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Day Baptists, etc.)

Christians also transgress the scriptural definitions of what it means to “keep the Sabbath.”  The Bible commands that no work be done on the Sabbath.  Only Orthodox Jews keep this ruling and often with considerable difficulty.  For example, Sabbath regulations forbid the kindling of fire on the holy day (Exod. 35:3).  Imagine trying to follow that regulation in below zero weather.  To solve the problem, the modern Orthodox Jew simply obeys the letter of the law, but evades its intent and spirit.  He does not light the fire himself, but hires a non-Jew to do it for him.

Most modern parents would endorse the commandment to children to “honor” their parents.  But in fact, the rule reflects ancient patterns of family life that most people would not accept today.  The commandment was meant to ensure that adult male children took responsibility for the support and protection of their aging parents.  The rule did not apply to daughters because upon marriage they became the property of their husbands and then owed their loyalty to the husband’s family.  Obviously, the law requiring the honoring of parents was produced by older males.  The very fact that such a regulation had to be included in the code, accompanied by a statement that obedience meant blessing (and therefore that non-obedience meant that the blessing would be withheld), reflects the insecurity of family bonds and loyalty in ancient times.

Jesus’ attitude toward his parents was anything but exemplary in the gospel accounts.  He never referred to Joseph as “Father” recognizing only God as his “Father.”  And neither did Jesus address Mary as “Mother” but, at the wedding feast in Cana, by the impersonal “Woman.”  Furthermore, Jesus said his purpose was to set children against their parents.  He called on those who would follow him to “hate father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life” (Luke 14:25) and to love him more than their own families (Matt 10:37).

The sixth Protestant commandment-the fifth for Catholics-orders “Thou shalt not kill.”  But this does not prohibit suicide, killing in self-defense, or killing enemies in war.  In fact, the Bible often glorifies violent killing and the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children.  The point of the regulation is not reverence for all human life.  In the commandment the word “kill” means “murder” or “unlawful homicide” so that it should read “Thou shalt not commit murder.”

The commandment against theft is more straightforward.  One might, however, argue against the rigidity of the commandment and cite instances where a more important principle would take precedence over property rights.  For example, the theft of a loaf of bread may be considered wrong in and of itself, but might, for the purpose of feeding a starving child, be excused as an act of necessity, because saving a child’s life takes precedence over not stealing.

This criticism against the absolutism and rigidity of the commandment may also be extended to other commandments.  In a complex world, such simplistic rules are sometimes contradictory or result in immoral consequences.  We must instead use our own judgment to apply moral principles in a way that is most appropriate to the particular situation.

The commandment against adultery still has relevance, even in a society where adultery seems to be rampant.  However, a commentary on the commandment, attributed to Jesus, offers insight into the understanding of the injunction in biblical times.  The statement “If a man looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27) makes the thought as bad as the deed.  Most people would reject this idea today.

The prohibition against lying or testifying falsely is one of the few commandments that held essentially the same meaning in biblical times as it does today.

The tenth commandment for Protestants prohibits covetousness.  It reflects the ancient view that some human beings may be considered chattel.  A man’s wife is his possession just as his ox (or in our society, his car) is his possession.  Further, the commandment accepts slavery as normal and natural-something our present culture recognizes as immoral and repulsive.

The Roman Catholic version of the Decalogue, which merges the first and second commandments, achieves a total of ten by arbitrarily dividing this commandment into two.  The ninth commandment prohibits coveting someone else’s wife, while the tenth forbids coveting his “goods.”

It is clear that the Ten Commandments are products of another time and place and have little or no relevance in our present culture.  Rules set down by a group of people living in a small corner of the Mediterranean world some three thousand years ago cannot meet the needs of our time.