Brief remark on the Ten Commandments


My discussion of the “metaphysics of decency” did not directly follow my “semiotics of the crucifix,” and was indeed intended largely to tie up some loose ends in previous discussions on ethics. And before continuing, I’ll reduce that discussion to its practical basics: That all humans are human and deserving of like respect on that basis, it would seem to follow that decency requires that in social situations we should set our ‘selves’ aside; that is, one should be able to bear in mind, “my self is not primary here, my desires need not be met here,” and treat others as though they shared the social spotlight with us equally, with their own needs and wants requiring at least respect, even if not satisfaction. When I shake another’s hand in greeting, when I ask after another’s show of sorrow and offer my support, when I listen thoughtfully to complaints, or when I applaud another’s success – even in the seemingly unnecessary but socially expected use of verbal decorations like “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome” – these moments signify my willingness to remove myself from the center of attention, and recognize the validity and importance of another’s existence. These are not simply social formalisms (although many perform them as such, undoubtedly); they signify the source of decency per se, which I have remarked in my previous discussion.

I bring that up here, because the dialogue of the two Evangelists John and Mary that I reblogged here, reminded me that I long wanted to make complaints concerning the Ten Commandments. These Commandments are widely held, even by some liberal theists, to be the foundation of Western morals. I doubt any claim could be further from the truth. I have just set down, above, a remark for a possible foundation of ethics. Wrong or right, it’s premises are intelligible, there is an ontology implicated, social contingencies are accounted for, basic assumptions and possible directives for living a reasonably ethical life are all clear. And one can find similar clarity in a great many much more elaborate, and more precisely reasoned, ethical texts, from Aristotle to, say, John Rawls. One can certainly find such from even briefer ethical dicta, such as the famous Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Unfortunately, one cannot find any of this in the Ten Commandments.

Here is their original presentation:

Exodus 20:1-17 (King James Version):

“20 And God spake all these words, saying,
“2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
“3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
“4 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.
“5 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;
“6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
“7 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.
“8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
“9 Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work:
“10 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:
“11 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 Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
“13 Thou shalt not kill.
“14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
“15 Thou shalt not steal.
“16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
“17 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 thing that is thy neighbor’s.

Now, there is a lot to be said here. Unfortunately, most of it has already been said. While my reading of the Crucifix had some claim to originality (I hope), I can make no such claim here. The great journalist, critic, atheist and political gadfly Christopher Hitchens, made brief work of the Commandments in his God Is Not Great (Twelve/Hatchete Book Group, 2007; pages 98-100). I can also recommend a fuller reading by Austin Cline, “Analysis of the Ten Commandments” (

So, what can I add here?

First, let’s remark the obvious: Only four of the Commandments involve direct ethical injunctions recognizable outside of their immediate cultural context. That is, if one had no idea of the history narrated in Exodus, no idea of the Jewish religion, only the commandments concerning killing, adultery, theft, and bearing false witness, would seem to suggest any practical activity (or avoidance of same). The injunction against graven images clearly concerns idols, and dovetails into the injunction against having other gods. The injunction to rest on the seventh day seems to enjoin a practice, but this doesn’t really mean anything outside of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (JCT). Indeed, It should be noted that the ‘seven day week’ is an rather arbitrary periodization of experienced time. The hours can be said to signify the passage of the sun; the month originally signified the motion of the moon; the year joins seasons that are needed to remark for agricultural reasons. But the week seems largely a social construct, in the West dependent on the JCT myth of creation.

As for the final Commandment, the injunction against “coveting,” Hitchens has cogent remarks on the matter: “Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts. (…) One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much.” (Hitchens, above, pg. 100) There is nothing practical about such a demand. Indeed, given our animal natures, living up to such an injunction is simply impossible. This is just another moment in the conditioning of guilt: ‘Stop being human (and feel bad because you can’t do this).’

So the first thing we note here is that there is not much practical ethics here. And if we take the four practical proscriptions (killing, theft, adultery, false witness), just by themselves, is that we don’t really find any underlying ethical principle that can be applied to other ethical questions. I suppose one could extrapolate some ‘respect for others’ from the injunctions against killing and theft; but then again, there’s no injunction against beating some one up, nor against rape (as long as adultery is not involved), against insults and rudeness in general, etc. In other words, there’s too little to work with here in order to extrapolate a general ethical principle. As for adultery, this really only has meaning in the context of a culture where the wife is considered property of the husband. I can easily imagine a culture, such as Victorian England, where adultery would be the only choice for some trying to realize their own sexual fulfillment despite archaic and unforgiving laws against this.

And if you’re keeping a Jewish refugee in the attic and the Nazis show up at your door, you had better be willing to present false witness, if you want to retain your dignity and sense of decency.

So what is the foundation to these injunction, if there is no general principle to be found among them? But of course we have the answer, in the first four Commandments – god.

The Ten Commandments are all about god, they’re not about people, and so cannot be about ethics.

There does seem to be some attempt to provide the constitution for a theocratic society – there are laws implicated here (e.g., the ‘coveting’ injunction implicates censorship laws, since even the representation of such bad thoughts would not be allowable). However, even this interpretation does not find any foundation of such a constitution beyond – god.

In discussing Divine Command Morality (DCM) that rigid fundamentalists advocate (‘do it because it’s god’s will’), liberal theists distance from this position because it clearly cannot function to define the right or the wrong of any ethical situation. DCM advocates extrapolate ethical behavior from injunctions in the Bible (read literally), because they can’t get claim on ethical behavior any other way. Whatever there is to do or not do, it must be god’s will; and the only way to determine this is recourse to the Bible (since god hasn’t had much to say to anyone but psychotics for the past 2000 years).

Liberal theists counter this by claiming that much of the Bible must be read metaphorically; thus ethical values are extrapolated by tropologic analogy. We don’t really give the poor our shirts and jackets, but we may clearly do what we can to cloth the poor; we don’t need to turn the other cheek in a culture where we are rarely slapped, but we can forgive various slights while standing our own ground. And so on.

But there is no metaphorical reading for the Ten Commandments. There is no poetry in it, it’s not a parable of anything. God is ‘it,’ and he tells us what to do. There isn’t any other reason for this other than that god will have it so.

Thus, I think a good case can be made, beginning with further consideration of the Ten Commandments, that all morality in the JCT must be found, on final analysis, to be DCM – all of it is grounded – and exclusively so – on the claim that god exists, there is only the one god, and “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

The implications of this are catastrophic to attempting a comprehensive – and compassionate JCT ethics. Those familiar with the later narrative will know that god ordered his chosen people to commit to break every one of the four practical commandments – he commanded them to kill, to steal the property of other tribes, to give false witness against non-believers, even to commit adultery. Apparently these “commandments” were only a matter of whim, because their performance surely depends on the will of the Almighty. If god commands you to break the commandments, you must do so, it is his will.

Liberal theists will make every denial in order to avoid thinking this matter through – the Bible has to be read metaphorically, a good god would not command an evil act, the law of the old testament has been fulfilled by the appearance of the merciful christ, etc., ad nauseum.

Again, there is nothing metaphorical in the Ten Commandments. And, again, it has no moral principle to it beyond the will of god.

There is an intriguing moment in the Gospel that does raise some interesting questions here. This is when Jesus is asked to discuss the Commandments and says that “the greatest of these is to love your brother as yourself.” Intriguing, because 1) it’s not one of the Commandments, nor is it clearly implied in any of the Commandments; and 2) Jesus may be paraphrasing Hillel or one of the other liberalizing Talmudic scholars who preceded him.

But this doesn’t assure us that JCT morality is not, at its base DCM; rather it reminds us that no society can live morally on the basis of the laws asserted in the Pentateuch. The art of interpreting the old laws against themselves has been practiced for many centuries; because these laws are irrational and for the most part inhumane. They are the remnants of an ancient tribal theocracy that could not sustain itself, and so must be hermeneutically tortured recurrently, to be made somehow meaningful to people living in an entirely different world, and with many more choices and possibilities than the ancient authors ever imagined.


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