Let’s look at the Ten Commandments, shall we? First of all, for the vast majority of people, what they think of as the Ten Commandments, aren’t actually the Ten Commandments. According to Exodus – which is hardly an historically accurate document – God wrote a set of rules on two tablets, but Moses smashed them before anyone else ever saw them. Later, God wrote a completely different set of Ten Commandments on two new tablets. The second set of commandments were given to the people, so they are the Ten Commandments. But they're not what you think. Those commandments relate almost entirely to the proper worship of God, containing almost no moral or ethical content. If one believes Exodus (and why would one?) the second set of commandments are the true Ten Commandments. The first set were smashed and thus were kind of an “oh by the way” first draft.
Nonetheless, it is the first set of “Ten Commandments”, described in Exodus but never actually handed down to the Israelites, that the vast majority of people refer to as “The Ten Commandments”. It is that set that people talk about, or hang on a wall, or engrave onto a set of tablets to place on the grounds of an Alabama courthouse. But even within that set, there is disagreement. Wikipedia provides a table showing the somewhat different sets of Ten Commandments held by different religious groups.
But I’m not interested in errors of understanding about which set of commandments are “The” Commandments, or even about the exact language of each commandment in the set. The important questions relate to what people think of as "The Ten Commandments" - considered to be the underpinnings of Western morality.
To talk about them in any sensible way, I have to choose one version. Since they originally appear in the Old Testament, I am going with the basic, Jewish, first-edition Ten Commandments:
1) I am the Lord thy god, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.The First Commandment isn't even a commandment. It's just a salutation. I don't understand why it is listed as a commandment. It really belongs in a preamble or a signature line. Perhaps God put it there so the Israelites wouldn't think Moses simply made up the other nine on his own.
2) Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4) Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
5) Honor thy father and thy mother.
6) Thou shalt not murder.
7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8) Thou shalt not steal.
9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10) Thou shalt not covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor.
Thinking about the Ten Commandments as an atheist, the next two are null and void. If there is no God, then they are meaningless. The Fourth Commandment fits into the same category. If there is no God, then the seventh day of the week is just the seventh day of the week; it is not “the Sabbath” and “keeping it holy” is pointless. Even if you believe in a God, then these are rules about how to worship one particular god - they are not ethical statements about how to live a moral life. They are not a guide for how to behave in society.
So, four down and six to go.
I find the Fifth Commandment to be terrible. “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Okay, sure. Of course I will honor them if they are good people, and were good parents, and did their best to raise me. But what if they were drunk and abusive? What if they molested me? What if they abandoned me, beat me, or sold me into slavery? What if they sent me to work in the coal mines at the age of 7? Am I commanded to honor them? That’s absurd.
On the other hand, if my parents were wonderful people and worked hard to raise me kindly and well, then of course I will honor them for their excellence. Doesn’t it diminish my honoring them by telling them that I was commanded to do so?
I cannot accept the Fifth Commandment, even though it sounds good at first. Honor thy father if he deserves it. Honor thy mother if she deserves it. Honor your grandparents, aunts, uncles, nannies, neighbors, mentors and teachers – if they deserve it. If they don’t, then defend yourself against them; tell them not to hurt you; tell the authorities that they are molesting you; and so on. Other than in establishing a patriarchal society, a commandment to honor your parents is worse than useless.
We’re half way through the list and there is not one that I can accept.
Number six commands that “Thou shalt not murder.” Sounds great. But did you really have to tell me that? Furthermore, if we were to believe the Bible, in Exodus 32, no sooner does Moses receive the Ten Commandments than he orders the Levites to slay the Israelites who worshiped before the Golden Calf. So, the Sixth Commandment should really read, “Thou shalt not murder unless your leader tells you to.” The juxtaposition between receiving the law from the Lord, and the murder described in the Old Testament, utterly calls into question the Sixth Commandment; arguably the one which should be most universally accepted.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery”, says Commandment number seven. Why is that a commandment? Isn’t that between you and your spouse? Wouldn’t it be better to say, “You are commanded to treat your spouse well; you are commanded to treat your spouse the way you want them to treat you.” We are told, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, but feel free to beat your wife, take your spouse for granted, henpecked them, criticize them, browbeat them, or subject them to any form of physical or mental torture. Just don’t have sex with anyone other than them. Oh, and by the way, you’re not commanded to make sure they enjoy it. I’m going to give the Seventh Commandment a qualified OK, because generally speaking committing adultery probably wont make your partner happy, but as is, I hardly think it is worth the stone its written on.
The Eighth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal”. Good. I’m good with that… kinda. Obviously I could come up with a dozen examples of when you should steal: you should steal if you’re starving to death, or if you know that someone is about to commit murder and you steal their weapon, or if someone has stolen something and you "steal" it back, etc. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Ten Commandments are generally considered to be the bedrock of Western civilization’s morality, but the eighth Commandment is just about possessions. It’s about private property. Shouldn’t the moral basis of our society be reserved for ethical statements about how to live your life and how to treat each other, rather than about material goods? This commandment is fine; it just doesn’t deserve a spot in the top ten.
Wow, only two to go and I haven’t found a single commandment that I can really advocate for.
Commandment number nine: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” All right! Finally! A real statement about how to behave in a civilized society. Thank you. The Ninth Commandment works. Whew.
The last commandment reads, “Thou shalt not covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor.” Depending upon your source, it might specify your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals, etc. Once again, other than your neighbor’s wife, this is really about material goods. [For the versions that specifically mention “your neighbor’s wife”, the implication that she is a possession presents a whole extra set of problems.] I find this Commandment to be much worse than the materialist Eighth Commandment, because this Commandment is about coveting. To “covet”, is to yearn to possess something, to desire wrongfully, or simply to wish for eagerly. But yearning, desiring, or wishing are thoughts, not actions. So the Tenth Commandment is commanding you not to think something, regardless of whether or not you’re going to act upon that thought. This is the work of the thought police. I can’t accept the Tenth Commandment at all.
[Note: if your set of Commandments includes the "your neighbor's wife" clause, it has to make you wonder if the 10th Commandment doesn't apply to (heterosexual) women - there is no commandment that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's husband. In fact, do any of the commandments apply to women? Of course I am being ridiculous. Though it's a bit late to be pointing out that the Bible is utterly patriarchal and misogynistic, it is clear that nothing in the bible applies to women, slaves (!), animals, children (even male children), unbelievers, or members of other tribes. As far as the authors of the bible were concerned, they were all sub-human.]
In summary, of the Ten Commandments, one isnt a commandment at all; three are meaningless (or if you are a theist, they are meaningful but not useful as moral precepts); two are terrible; two are OK, but morally ambiguous; one would be good if it weren’t nullified by the context of the Old Testament; and one, just one, as written in the Bible, truly deserves to be a grounding principle of our culture.
Meanwhile, in reading the Old Testament and learning the circumstances of Moses supposedly receiving the Ten Commandments from God, I have to conclude that Moses was a sanctimonious moron with serious short-term memory problems. If we are to believe Exodus 32, he went up Mount Sinai and there received the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. He was up there for a long time - God knows what he was doing all that while. Because he was gone so long, the Israelites lost faith in him and created the Golden Calf. In Exodus 32.9-10 we are told that God looked down from Mount Sinai [Huh? Isn’t God everywhere? Why does he need to “look” in any particular direction?] and saw that the people were praying to the Golden Calf. He was furious, declaring that he would destroy the people for what they had done. But in Exodus 32.11-13, Moses talks God out of it. [Huh? God is infallible and omniscient, but you can talk him into changing his mind?]
Moses then descended the mountain and saw the people praying to the Golden Calf. He became enraged. He, “hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”(Exodus 32.19) Are you kidding me? God told Moses that the people were praying to a false idol. But Moses forgot while hiking down the hill? I know Moses was old, and likely forgetful, but that sounds like something he might have kept in mind. We are told that he was so peevish that he smashed the gift that The Lord created with His own hand. Really? I don’t care if they were fornicating with the Golden Calf. Smashing God’s tablets is more than a temper tantrum. Then, having just talked God out of killing the Israelites, Moses calls the faithful to him saying, “thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin” (Exodus 32.27). Uh, Really? So Moses talks God out of his fury, then goes down the mountain and is so furious himself that he destroys the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and orders the faithful to kill “some 3000 of the people” - which, we note, is a violation of the Sixth Commandment that he just received. Did Moses have a stroke while hiking down Mount Saini? If so, Exodus doesn’t mention it. The Lord then makes what is supposed to be a copy of the first tablets, but turns out to be a completely different set of Ten Commandments. Maybe God also suffers from memory loss? Moses successfully gives the new-and-improved Commandments to the remaining people.
So that story is pretty psychopathic, but here’s the worst thing about it: The Commandment that the Israelites had supposedly disobeyed, and for which they were put to death, hadn’t yet been given to them at the time of their transgression. The first set of Ten Commandments says, “thou shalt have no other gods before me,” but when the Israelites made the Golden Calf, and prayed to it as a God, they had not yet been told that they must not do so. Therefore, wiping them out, as God had wanted to do, or killing 3000 of their number as Moses did, is utterly unreasonable. We don’t retroactively punish people for breaking newly minted laws. Why should God, or his servant, Moses?
OK. So, the Ten Commandments that we speak of aren’t theTen Commandments, and no one remembers what they are, and only one of them is worth the stone its written on, and the circumstances described in Exodus are indicative of sociopathy. Well, how have we done obeying God’s Commandments? Lousy.
Every second of every day, somewhere on earth, millions upon millions of people are breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments. Every moment someone, somewhere, is taking the Lord’s name in vain. I’m hard-pressed to believe that there is a millisecond that goes by when someone isn’t making a graven image or regarding one. Go to any city or town anywhere in America on any given Saturday or Sunday, and you will find businesses that are open. We can argue about which day is the Sabbath, but there is no questioning the fact that it has not been kept “holy”. The statistics on murder are stunning. Robbery, theft, and burglary are even more common than murder. Sociologists have shown that adultery is commonplace. People bear false witness, gossiping and lying about each other, all the time. Everyone, everywhere, (with the possible exception of the of the Dalai Lama) covets things. In most of the world, encouraging people to covet is a major industry.
So really, rather than engraving the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone, God might as well have sent a card. We would’ve read it, said, “yeah, sounds good,” and thrown in a shoebox with birthday, get-well, and sympathy cards.
The Ten Commandments? Don’t be ridiculous. Just do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and we'll all get along just fine. Or, if you want a better set of Ten Commandments, check out Ten Commandments That Would Have Changed the World.