Friday, May 15, 2015

The X Commandments

Here's a graphic I saw today reposted from Political Insider's Facebook page.

What we're talking about.
This is one way they're commonly represented.
(reproduced under Fair Use for the purpose of education and political commentary)

This hits my commentary button because it opens up a lot of room for discussion... probably more room than Political Insider intended. And certainly, with conclusions that they probably don't intend.

My first response is, of course; which ten? Those who have read through the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, aka the Pentateuch or Torah) know that if you count up the commandments in those books you get a number more like 613. There's also a bit of disagreement on how to number the particular ten that are paraphrased in the graphic, or whether it's even ten. Might be eleven. Here's another common way of splitting them up, quoted in more detail:

Here's one way of splitting them up. Click to embiggen.
via Wikimedia Commons

So what's the Fifth Commandment? Is it "Thou Shalt Not Kill"? Or is it "Honor Thy Father and Mother"? It doesn't really matter; Exodus doesn't number them, and both are sound advice.

My second response is to go back to that number 613. Six hundred and thirteen. That's a lot of commandments. It raises the obvious question of what's different about these ten that inspires drum-thumping among Christians, many of whom are only casually acquainted with their own religion. Why these ten? Why not ten others? Why are these sacrosanct while the prohibition against pork is calmly and quietly forgotten? If one insists that these must be kept, isn't it hypocritical to ignore all of the others that appear in the very same books since all of them were commanded by God?

Why don't more Christians ask these questions?
Why don't more know the answers?

I've touched on some of these before [in "Skeptical about Skeptic Bias"], but it's probably worth just stating it plainly: God gave these commandments to the Jews to be kept by the Jews. The Bible states it in no uncertain terms: "And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today." (Deuteronomy 5:1-3)
(In other words, the Law was literally for those people within earshot and their direct descendents. The rest of humanity... Gentiles, including Muslims... is held to a different standard, that of the seven Noahide laws. Muslims may disagree. Heck, a good many Christians disagree; but I'm presenting my perspective here, and that's heavily weighted in favor of what's actually written in the book.)
As to why these ten are commonly singled out even though all are commanded by God, the reason is pretty clear. These commandments are actually recorded in two places (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), but they're commonly quoted from Exodus 20. When we look at the chapter just prior to that, chapter 19, we see that God told Moses that he had three days to get the people ready; that God Himself would come down in fire and cloud so that everybody could see and hear Him. After they witness the thunder and lightning and fire, cloud and smoke, these particular commandments are the ones that Moses relayed. They're the ones for which everyone was present. 

They didn't actually hear the words; that much is plain in Exodus 20, but they heard God's voice in the rumblings and the thunder. Nor are these the only commandments given at that time; Moses was also instructed to make animal sacrifice and in the proper building of an altar, and many others followed. But these ten are in a convenient group in a very dramatic passage. Other than that, they're of the same importance as all the others. As Jesus spoke to his Jewish followers:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19)
Hmm. It seems pretty clear to me that if we were held to the Old Testament commandments, then picking out ten and ignoring the rest would earn one a well-deserved charge of hypocrisy. Predictably, that's exactly what happens. And just as predictably, atheists and other non-Christians start throwing back verses about pigs and shellfish and stoning and all manner of things.

Oy veh.

But again, these are commandments given to Jews. Jesus had a broader message, applicable to both Jews and Gentiles, and it was basically in two parts, with a corollary.
Part 1: Love God. 
If you love God then surely you're not going to put others before Him; you're not going to use his name as a curse, and you'll set aside some time to honor Him.
Part 2: Love your neighbor. 
If you do this, then surely you wouldn't do any of those things that would do him harm.

When Jesus says "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" in Matthew 22:36-40, you'd think it would be obvious why. The corollary is found in Matthew 7:12. We call this the Golden Rule. You know, the one about doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you. It's a fantastic rule; a great rule; it's how you treat people you love. It's immediately obvious that it covers every bit of ground in the secular portions of the Ten Commandments. Who wants to be disrespected, murdered, cuckolded, robbed, lied about, etc.? Nobody. So nobody should do those things.

So... back to Political Insider's question: "Should the Ten Commandments be posted in public places?"

Well, as an American who values freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment, I recognize that some people have a problem with the first three (or is it four?) of those commandments, and can understand their unease at being judged by people who insist upon them. They feel that they may face the Christian analog of sharia law; and in some cases they may very well be right.

As a conscientious Christian, of Jewish descent, it doesn't bother me in the slightest if they're not posted, because they fully represent neither the inclusiveness nor the comprehensive nature of my religion. They are intended for a specific People and they list specific offenses which represent only the tip of the iceberg, whether we're talking about Old Testament Law or the kinds of offenses humans may perpetrate on one another. Given my druthers, I'd post something that far better represents both my religious faith and my secular convictions, the Golden Rule:
Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.
Whereas the Ten Commandments were intended for a People, these words of Jesus were intended for all people, to be spread as part of the Great Commission. The statement is thoroughly Christian; yet thoroughly every-other-religion-on-Earth. It eloquently defines fair treatment under the law. It leaves not a single offense behind, and not even the most die-hard atheist could reasonably object to it.

About the title: "X" is the Roman numeral ten. However, in algebra, "X" is used to denote a variable quantity. Since the un-numbered commandments in Exodus 20 might be counted as ten or eleven, I think this double-duty title is most appropriate.

Update: Just to make it clear, as a conscientious Christian, it doesn't bother me a bit to see the Ten Commandments posted, either. I do, however, recognize that by referencing "public places" we're really talking about government space, and this country is not mine alone. I'm perfectly happy to respectfully and courteously share.


  1. Can we combine the two versions of number 5 into "do not kill your mother or father, because that isn't how you should honor them"?

    1. I've seen worse: