Ten Commandments Commentary

Ten Commandments FAQ

James Underdown is the Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry-West, and the Chair of the Independent Investigations Group.

The 10 Commandments and the 11 Strong Suggestions
By James Underdown

The Commandments

The 10 Commandments appear in the bible three times. You’ll find them in different forms in Exodus 20, 2-17, in Deuteronomy 5, 6-21, and in Leviticus 22, 31. Apparently, the inspired and inerrant word of God changes in the various drafts of authors.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll use the ever-popular Exodus 20, 2-17 from the King James Bible.

The Commandments are thought to be derived from a code of laws written by King Hammurabi of Babylon (written in 1700 BCE), and were written somewhere around the 6th Century BCE.

The 10 Commandments Monuments in the U.S. – A Brief History

In the 1940s, a juvenile court judge in Minnesota, E. J. Ruegemer, inaugurated what he called the Youth Guidance Program. Disheartened by the growing number of youths in trouble, he sought to provide them with a common code of conduct. He believed that the Ten Commandments might provide the necessary guidance. Judge Ruegemer originally planned to post paper copies of the Ten Commandments in juvenile courts, first in Minnesota and then across the country.

To help fund his idea, he contacted the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE), a service organization dedicated to promoting liberty, truth, and justice. At first, FOE rejected Judge Ruegemer's idea because it feared that the program might seem coercive or sectarian. In response to these concerns, representatives of Judaism, Protestantism, and Catholicism developed what the individuals involved believed to be a nonsectarian version of the Ten Commandments because it could not be identified with any one religious group. After reviewing this version, FOE agreed to support Judge Ruegemer's program.

Around this same time, motion picture producer Cecil B. DeMille contacted Judge Ruegemer about the program. DeMille, who was producing the movie The Ten Commandments, suggested that, rather than posting mere paper copies of the Ten Commandments, the program distribute bronze plaques.

Judge Ruegemer replied that granite might be a more suitable material because the original Ten Commandments were written on granite. DeMille agreed with Ruegemer, and the judge thereafter worked with two Minnesota granite companies to produce granite monuments inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Local chapters of FOE financed these granite monuments and then, throughout the 1950s, donated them to their local communities.

Some of the monuments left over from this program have been the center of First Amendment legal battles. Many were placed on state or municipal property and give the appearance of government endorsement of certain religions.

So What’s the Problem?

There are many reasons why it’s legally inappropriate to display the 10 Commandments on government property, but I’d like to suggest that the content of the Commandments ought to give us pause, and not only motivate us to reconsider the value of these antiquated dictates, but inspire us to find ways to be decent to each other without losing our sense of reason.

Let’s have a look at the Commandments one by one, and see if they’re really all they’re cracked up to be.

First, I think there’s a PR problem with the word commandment itself. It’s a little harsh, don’t you think? One may ask, request, suggest -- even insist -- but don’t command. Nobody wants to be commanded to do anything.

Think about the difference between a boss saying, “Henderson, it would really be a great help to the company if you could finish that report by Friday”, and “Henderson, I command you to finish that report by Friday.” I can take orders if they’re worded right, but don’t come around commanding me to do anything, jack. That’ll get my back hair up. So right off the bat – bad title.

#1 "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

What? There were other gods? Whoa! What happened to monotheism? This sure sounds like an acknowledgement of other deities. If God (the big guy) didn’t want any competition from the Ra-Thor-Vishnu-Zeus crowd, why did he create them in the first place? Or at least he should have made the choice so obvious and simple that no sane person could possibly even consider those sand-lot gods.

#2 “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. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

Wait a minute. Jealous? What does the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the UNIVERSE have to be jealous about? He’s so far above the other gods and us humans that jealousy should be out of the question.

God experiencing the human emotion jealousy would be like:

1. Luciano Pavarotti watching Roseanne Barr sing the national anthem saying, “Man I wish I could sing like that!”
2. A guy in a Ferrari glancing enviously over at a ‘72 Pinto.
3. William F. Buckley feeling simpleminded as he listened to President Bush pronounce the word nuclear.

Let’s not let that other section slip by unnoticed…

“Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

That’s a little harsh, isn’t it? Four generations? Is there an American out there who really feels responsible for something his great grandfather did? I don’t feel responsible for anything that happened before I existed. Punishing me for my actual crimes seems fair though. Does this God seem angry to you?

#3 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."

God damn, how does he expect us to stick to all of this?

I say goddamn all the time. Obviously, since I don’t even believe in any gods, I’m not actually asking the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe to take time out of his busy day to condemn to everlasting fire some joker who cut me off in traffic. So I don’t even really mean it. Atheists should get a pass on the whole goddamn thing.

Besides, why does it even have to come out of my mouth? Can’t god read minds? Aren’t you pretty much screwed the second you think it? Save your breath, I say. I'm thinking godammit is adequate.

#4 “Remember 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."

Anybody keeping score here? Did you notice who DIDN’T get a day off? The wife!

“…thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.”

Ok, so some bum off the street who hasn’t worked since the Carter Administration can cruise by Sunday and get a cold drink, but who has to fetch it for him? The wife! “Honey, step over those napping cattle, the kids, and the slaves and crack open a beer for the panhandler within our gates.”

And what’s this about resting? The all-powerful creator of the universe doesn’t need rest. He doesn’t get out of breath. Are we supposed to imagine him after a rough week creating the universe all sweated up in a tank top and a bandana saying, “Damn, my feet are killing me. Let’s call it a universe – I need a drink”? He’s incorporeal, for crissake! There’s no body to tire out! Even Superman didn’t get tired unless somebody hung some kryptonite on him. It’s crazy.

#5 "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee."

This one sounds good…in theory, but it certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. What if you happen to be the bastard son of Cardinal Richelieu? Should young master Hitler honor his genocidal vater? Do we want John Wayne Gacy Jr. honoring dear ol’ dad? This Commandment is clearly conditional.

Six, seven, and eight I’ll consider together…

#6 "Thou shalt not kill."

Let’s assume this means murder, because anyone who’s ever eaten a hamburger or even a stack of pancakes has indirectly had a hand in killing something.

#7 "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
#8 "Thou shalt not steal."

These three are pretty obvious. Do you really need some sacred book to figure out that murdering, stealing and adultery are wrong? Of course not.

It seems to me that some apes already abide by these rules. That’s right, mess with the alpha male’s old lady and he’ll kick your ass—and probably get his pals to help. Steal an ape’s lunch -- you better watch your back. So apes know right from wrong despite the fact that most of them never even heard of the Ten Commandments.

By the way, the writers of the bible didn’t invent these ideas. Neither did Hammurabi. People all over the world know this stuff instinctively, whether you were raised in a Judeo-Christian culture or not. Evolutionary psychologists are making good arguments now that cooperation among social species gives an advantage to all the members of the species. We’re probably hardwired to get along – at least to some degree. It’s instinctive.

So I wouldn’t get too excited about placing monuments containing rules that everyone already knows, and that apes thought of first.

#9 "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."

Here’s another one that sounds good at first, but there are zillions of exceptions. I list a few to make a point:
ii. The check is in the mail
iii. I like your new haircut, new dress.
iv. You don’t look like you gained any weight.
v. I’m sorry.
vi. I was wrong.
vii. I read your script and it will make a great movie.

#10 "Thou 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."

The act of coveting is the cornerstone of the U.S. economy. Without coveting, General Motors, the entire city of Las Vegas, and every plastic surgeon in the country would be out of business. No one would ever wax his car, get braces, or volunteer her Rolex when asked for the time. A healthy amount of covet oils the gears of progress.

Also, notice that this is the second time the Commandments mention manservant and maidservant (see #4.) Since there wasn’t really a lower middle class around when these Commandments were written, we can safely assume that what it’s talking about is slavery. But the 4th and 10th Commandments aren’t condemning, prohibiting, or even criticizing slavery; they are only mentioning it as de facto part of the landscape. This tacit approval of one of the most unjust practices in the history of the species is glossed over twice in the laws of God himself.

Makes you think…

So, In Summary:

  • Commandments numbers 1-3 exist merely to appease God’s gargantuan ego.
  • Number 4 declares a day off for entire world – except for married women.
  • Five insists you be nice to mom and dad – even if they’re sociopaths.
  • Six through eight seems to be common knowledge among all people, and some of the animal kingdom (despite it’s high rate of illiteracy.)
  • Nine has so many exceptions it’s almost worthless
  • Ten would destroy the world economy, unless we reverted to slavery.

Now far be from me to destroy without building, so I humbly propose another set of rules to live by better suited to modern people, easier to read, and not quite so angry or egomaniacal. I give you


Underdown’s 11 Strong Suggestions

1. Leave a place as good or better than when you got there.

This applies to your room, your job, the world. You get extra credit if you improve things.

2. Be nice.
The modified Golden Rule is to do unto others as they would have done unto them. If lots of people buy into this, life gets a little more pleasant. I personally don’t care if the toilet seat is up or down, but if someone else in the house does, the small effort is usually worth it.

3. Suck it up and quit bitching.
Correct that which can be corrected; live with that which can’t. Nobody wants to be around a lot of whining. We all have problems.

In fact, some people have real problems – like those dealing with the rule of 3s. The rule of 3s says that generally, you can live without air for 3 minutes, without water for 3 days, and without food for 3 weeks -- before you’re in big trouble. Those problems earn you grumble rights.

4. Live within your means.
Hey, debtors, if you don’t have it, don’t spend it. Forget about keeping up with the Jones’s. Screw the Jones’s.

5. Take responsibility for what you do.
This one eliminates all kinds of lying and cheating and yet is elegant in its simplicity.

6. Stop watching so much TV and live a little.
Watching sports is not the same as playing sports. Tuning into the Travel Channel is not traveling. Playing video games does not simulate war. Go on, get out there and live a little!

7. Try to see the other person’s point of view.

Most of the world happens in shades of gray. People who disagree with you probably aren’t evil, and may not even end up in hell.

8. Don’t believe everything you hear.
Some people can be very sincere, but wrong. Some folks are liars. A dash of science and skepticism here and there will probably lengthen your life, or at least smooth it out a bit…

9. Keep your brain and body active
Physical and mental health open the door to a full and potentially happy life. A little exercise now and then will make you feel better and cut into all that bitching you were about to do.

10. KMA
Life throws us all curves. We all experience stress, frustration -- even anger -- now and then. Now and then, you have to draw the line at what you’re willing to put up with. Now and then you should stand up for yourself and not take any crap -- from anyone. Once in a while, when appropriate, tell someone to kiss your ass.

Saying that maintains self respect, and it probably relieves stress.

Try it here, now. I’ll cue you. You respond with Kiss My Ass.

a. After 2 hours at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, when the lady says, “Sir, if you leave the line to go to the bathroom, you lose your place.” KMA
b. At the front desk when you check out, M’am, we have to charge you $1 each for all the calls you made even though they were 800 numbers.” KMA
c. “If you let that wine pass your lips, the Lord Almighty will condemn you to everlasting torment.” KMA

Feels good doesn’t it?

11. Take a moment every day to be grateful.
Remember that in the grand scheme of things, most of us are pretty lucky. Half of the world is illiterate, and over 90% does not own a car. Ninety nine percent of all species that ever lived are extinct. The odds of you ever being born and living a long life are infinitesimal.

And yet… think about how bad it could be.

Think about that large group of unfortunates who’ve been cursed with a disease like no other, a chronic illness untreatable for nigh on 98 years now. Realize to yourself that no human under the age of 98 has ever seen the Chicago Cubs win a World Series. (Realistically you need to be 102 to remember – and by then your memory is shot!)

You could be dead, never born, or a Cub fan. Be grateful, be grateful…