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Why the Ten Commandments Suck

For as long as I can remember...even, truth be told, back when I was a kid and still religious--I've always had a problem with the Ten Commandments.

People hold them up like they are some sort of amazing moral code that would make the world a better place, if only folks would follow them. And some of them are not bad, really. But honestly? If you set out to make ten rules of conduct that'd make the world a better place, the Ten Commandments really aren't very good. They read like a hasty and poorly-thought-out first draft, scribbled on the back of a napkin at a greasy all-night diner rather than handed down from the divine lips of a burning bush and carved by an act of supernatural will onto tablets made of stone.

So let's look at 'em, shall we?

#1: I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.

Okay, fine, we get it. The god of Abraham is a jealous god. In fact, the formal name of that god is not "Jehovah" or "Elohim" or "YHVH" but "Jealous," according to Exodus 34 ("Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other god: for The Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God").

Now, one might argue that this commandment, if it were followed, would make the world a better place, or at least one less fraught with religious warfare; if everyone is following the same god, there's no religious strife, right?

Well, no. Protestants and Catholics, Catholics and Jews, Protestants and Jews, Protestants and Muslims, Muslims and Jews--they all find plenty of reason to beat one another up even though they nominally have the same god.

And what's so great about a god who's insecure, anyway? I'd give this one a miss completely.

#2: Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth.

This is the one that everyone gets wrong. The Catholics, who have a rich and proud tradition of idolatry, ruled that this rule applies only to idols, but the language is pretty clear...no likeness of any thing. The original intent was to prohibit ALL representational art--an intent that portions of the Muslim community still follow today.

No representations. Virtually the entire Western world totally ignores this. Lose it. Next:

#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.

Another one that nobody gets right.

The ancient Israelites had a very deep set of beliefs about the power of a name (why do you think the Genesis story features Adam naming all the animals so prominently? It was a symbolic way of giving Adam power over them.) To "take the name" of someone is to call yourself that thing; if I take the name of my neighbor, it's identity fraud. Vanity is pride. If I take the name of the Lord in vain, it means to call myself god (or, presumably, an agent thereof) out of pride.

It does not mean to say "goddamnit," goddamnit.

But even if it did, seriously, there's a lot more evil done in the world than folks saying "goddamnit." Wasting ten percent of the entire moral code on this seems quite a waste to me. Lose it. Next:

#4: Remember to honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy.

Except that the Sabbath is...err, Saturday.

But what exactly does this mean? In Atlanta, it means you can't sell beer on Sunday until the afternoon, because Jesus don't drink beer 'til twelve o'clock, but that's about it. Now, I can get behind the notion of having a day that's reserved for not working, especially in a Bronze Age slave society--hell, everyone needs a day or two off. But again, reserving 10% of a universal moral code for this?

#5: Honor thy father and mother that thy days be long in the land which the Lord gives thee.


Seriously, no. Even as a 5-year-old, I thought this was a terrible rule. Now, as an adult, I think it's even worse.

Honor and respect are always earned. They are never automatic. I've met waaaaaay the fuck too many parents who do not deserve honor--parents who abuse their kids, parents who neglect their kids, parents who rape and sexually violate their kids.

This becomes ESPECIALLY odious when you consider that it's a one-way street; parents are nowhere commanded to treat their children with respect, and not, y'know, rape and abuse them. Any just system of morals has to apply both ways. It cannot place bounds on the behavior of one group toward another while also tacitly permitting the second group carte blanche with the way they treat the first. This rule is fucked-up and poorly conceived from the get-go. More on it in a bit.

#6: Thou shalt not kill.

I have no problem with this one.

Nobody I know actually takes it as a given; everyone I've ever personally met, without exception, carves out exceptions and limitations. Like in self-defense, for instance, or defense of another. Or in war. Or if the other person is gay, or has brown skin. Or if the other person has been convicted of a capital crime, or has brown skin and lives in Texas, which is pretty much the same thing. Or when the spirit of the Lord fills him to plant pipe bombs in women's clinics, that the Lord may blow people into bloody scraps, in His Divine Mercy.

I think the world might be a better place if people applied fewer exceptions to this rule, actually.

#7: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Back in the days of the ancient Israelites, only women could commit adultery; if a married man slept with a woman not his wife, that was considered fornication, not adultery. The Ten Commandments were written by--err, handed down by men. They condemn only adultery specifically. Coincidence? I think not.

In any event, I can get behind the notion that it is wrong to betray the trust of a person to whom you have pledged your love. Betraying the trust of another person sucks, and it's wrong.

But adultery, whether narrowly or widely defined, isn't always a betrayal of trust. There can be and are people who genuinely don't mind if their lovers have other lovers. I'm one of them. Any reasonable universal code of morality has to recognize that not everyone is the same, seems to me. More on this one in a bit, too.

#8: Thou shalt not steal.

A good start. I'd like to see language that makes it plain this applies not only to direct theft, like at the point of a gun, but also to any deliberate attempt to defraud, either a person or a group of people, through direct or indirect means (I'm looking at you here, Enron). This can and should explicitly be extended to contract fraud, price-fixing, securities fraud, pension-skimming, Ponzi schemes, bribery, counterfeiting, forgery, license fraud, kickbacks, insurance fraud, investment fraud, and so on, which are all theft in my book, and deserve to be explicitly identified as such.

#9: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Thou shalt not bear false witness period. Police officer who lied under oath at zaiah's traffic court hearing, I'm especially looking at you.

It's interesting to me that Biblical morality does not prohibit lying; only bearing false witness, a very narrow and specific type of lying. While I am reluctant to go so far as to outlaw every form of falsehood, I think this rule could be expanded a bit.

And finally:

#10: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house or fields, nor his male or female slaves, nor his ox or ass, or anything that belongs to him.

You know, the notion of thought crime has always smelled a little rancid to me. I can see not stealing one's neighbor's goods, but not wanting them? That's reaching. First, because we don't really have a good grasp on controlling what we want; I desire an iPhone 4, but I hardly think that makes me a menace to society. Second, because detachment from desire as a general principle leads, I think, to stagnation; sometimes it's desire that gives us the impetus to accomplish something.


So out of ten commandments, we have five that I'd lose completely, a couple more that have serious problems, and some fine-tuning on the rest.

Just as important as what the Commandments say is what they DON'T say. For a list of supposedly divinely inspired moral absolutes, they sure do leave a lot of room of some pretty reprehensible stuff.

Like using violence, torture, or threat against another person, say. Or unlawfully depriving other people of what is theirs without actually stealing it...say, by burning down someone's house. Or depriving other people of their life, property, or dignity on the basis of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and so on. Or engaging in corruption as part of a civic, religious, social, police, or government institution.

Or running forced labor camps like those in North Korea, where people convicted of a crime are punshed "to the third generation."

Or, y'know, engaging in slavery, that appalling and horrific institution of evil which the Bible nevertheless accepts and condones.

So here's a Ten Commandments as I might find it more palatable:

#1: Thou shalt not have, keep, or deal in any slaves; nor indentured servants, nor any other kind of unpaid serf; nor shalt thou traffic in human beings as chattel for any purpose.

#2: Thou shalt not deprive any person of the liberties thou claims for thyself, on the basis of that person's religion, nor race, nor creed, nor ethnicity, nor language, nor sex, nor sexual identity, nor gender identity, nor parentage, nor occupation, nor caste.

#3: Thou shalt not hold the transgresses nor infractions of the law against any individual save for those who committed those transgresses, or caused by act of will the transgresses to be committed; thou shalt not hold the sins of the father against the son, nor of the aunt against the niece.

#4: Thou shalt not use torture, nor threat of torture, in any way for any means, whether to interrogate or to coerce any statement from any person.

#5. Honor thy family, and treat them with respect and compassion, if thou expects respect and compassion in return. Thou shalt not commit any abuses upon those in thy care, nor abuse others, but shall instead seek to treat all persons with the respect and compassion thou feels is thy due; and to acknowledge that we are all family.

#6: Thou shalt not kill, nor justify killing in the name of any god who thou dost worship; for surely any such god does not deserve thy worship. Thou shalt not commit violence upon another. Thou shalt return violence for violence only as a last resort, and only to the extent necessary and no more.

#7: Thou shalt not betray the covenants of thy relationships with thy spouse or spouses, or thy lovers or romantic partners.

#8: Thou shalt not steal, nor deprive of others their possessions or property by any unlawful means, direct or indirect. Thou shalt not extort, nor seek through violence, trickery, coercion, graft, extortion, falsehood, scam, or misrepresentation to obtain that which belongs to another.

#9: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor, nor seek through falsehoods or misrepresentation, direct or indirect, to manipulate, control, or coerce other people.

#10: Thou shalt not deprive unlawfully thy neighbor or any other person of his property, his money, or anything else which belongs to him, by taking it for yourself, by destroying it, or by otherwise maliciously preventing him from using it. Thou shalt not poison nor pollute thy neighbor's land or his fields, or the air he breathes.

Honestly, I think my version is a lot better than the first draft in the Bible.


( 47 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 1st, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
Wow~ Very nicely done :D I'm impressed!

I have to wonder about the Graven image thing tho. Did the hebrews not have any representative art? I thought I remembered reading a description about eagles being on the Ark of the Covenant? Or am I channeling Indiana Jones?

And would Graven Images also apply to video tapes? CD's? Video Games? It seems like it would rule out TV and the Internet entirely except for live performances.

Edited at 2010-07-01 01:12 am (UTC)
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:08 am (UTC)
As far as I know, the Hebrews banned all representational art across the board. (I'm not aware of any descriptions of the Ark, so I can't comment specifically on that.)

And yes, that prohibition would seem to outlaw photography, videotape, and television, if taken literally. In fact, the Taliban in Afghanistan banned things like magazines and TV using exactly that justification, though the cynic (realist?) in me suspects the real reason had more to do with controlling the flow of information.
(no subject) - chaos5023 - Jul. 1st, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:15 am (UTC)
Nobody I know actually takes it as a given; everyone I've ever personally met, without exception, carves out exceptions and limitations. Like in self-defense, for instance, or defense of another. Or in war.

I've read some commentary that suggests that "kill" is a bad translation, that the original reads more like "murder". That means whacking someone in self-defense or to save the lives of others, is okay, but that whacking someone because he stepped on your toe isn't. ("Involuntary manslaughter" vs. "murder", e.g.....)

Be careful about which translations you use (some are more accurate than others), and which set of Commandments (not everyone, oddly enough, uses the same 10).
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:40 am (UTC)
I've read that as well. Also that #3 is properly translated as "thou shalt not carry the Lord your God's name in vain" - which the commentator interpreted (approximately) as "Don't use God as justification for your evil acts." Or, alternately, "Don't do that shit and say I told you to."

I can get behind those.
(no subject) - petite_lambda - Jul. 1st, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Jul. 1st, 2010 11:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - icedrake - Jul. 2nd, 2010 04:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - chaos5023 - Jul. 1st, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Jul. 1st, 2010 11:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - chaos5023 - Jul. 2nd, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:17 am (UTC)
Dude. Is it ok if I use your set of commandments? Cuz they make a heck of a lot more sense than the first one (not that I follow those either, but the thought of having my own Ten Commandments offers enough opportunity to make mischief that I'd be willing to actually claim them).

BTW, came here from the email list. :)
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:19 am (UTC)
Oh, and didn't anyone think that worshipping a non-corporeal entity named JEALOUS was a bad idea?
(no subject) - tacit - Jul. 1st, 2010 03:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kitrona - Jul. 1st, 2010 05:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:12 am (UTC)
Okay, shoot! I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:35 am (UTC)
I'll respond to this at some point when I've slept. Possibly by posting my own blog entry I've been working on for who knows how long. Mine's shorter ;)
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:09 am (UTC)
It's always bothered me too that the bits of the bible which DO say "don't be dickheads to your kids so that you are worthy of their respect" are never quoted. Admittedly, my mother stopped quoting Commandment #5 at me (with specific reference to my relationship with my father) when I told her that I was honouring my father by treating him the way he wanted to be treated (please note that the narrow definition of 'respect' has no part in this treatment; we get on well and he is an acknowledged ratbag jokester).
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:27 am (UTC)
I like your version a lot. OK if I print this out and hang it up somewhere (I mean like in my house)?

I never interpreted "to covet" as simply to desire something, but to desire it *and* not want anyone else to possess it, because you're greedy and envious. M-W's definition #2 is, I think, the applicable one: "to desire (what belongs to another) inordinately or culpably" (Definition #1 is "to wish for earnestly," pretty innocent, but the commandment specifically says "your neighbor's".)

To covet your neighbor's ass, then, would mean not only to want it, but to begrudge them their ownership of the ass, and to feel like it should rightfully be yours. I trust that's not how you feel about the iPhone 4? :) Sounds to me like a caution against being greedy and possessive, which is kind of cool.
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
Makes sense to me, though I think the original version could probably use some clarity on that point. And by all means, that's fine with me!
(no subject) - vermithrx - Jul. 1st, 2010 04:09 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:33 am (UTC)
Better, yes. I have a few objections, though.

#2: I would prefer that long clause at the end read, "for any reason (including, but not limited to...)."

#'s 3, 8 & 10: I have a problem with commandments that reference other commandments, yet leave them undefined and open to abuse. These cannot be universal until you define precisely what you mean by law, especially its limitations.

#6: "...and only to the extent necessary and no more." Necessary to what end? A loose interpretation of this could be used to condone genocide in response to aggression.

How about, "...and only to the extent necessary to escape it and no more."
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:36 am (UTC)
Much better. Could still leave some scope for the involvement of people bearing the female pronoun though.
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
What a wonderful revision! Just think how different the world would be if _this_ were the the set of rules religions enforced....
Jul. 1st, 2010 04:12 am (UTC)
Even worse, the Sabbath begins Friday sundown and ends Saturday sundown. The Jews and Seventh-day Adventists have that right, but not most Christians.
Jul. 1st, 2010 04:46 am (UTC)
That's because the Christians didn't want their day to be the same as those dirty, evil, heathen Jews.
(no subject) - chaos5023 - Jul. 1st, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - addiejd - Jul. 1st, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - 6_bleen_7 - Jul. 2nd, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2010 04:44 am (UTC)
Although overall a significant improvement, I take issue with a few things in your commandments.

1. All of your commandments are about what you shouldn't do. What about what you should, such as charity, first aid/cpr, being an honest person, etc?

2. I think the scope of some of your commandments is too narrow, such as #s 5, 9, and 10. I know neighbor is a traditional biblical term, but it is also one that may be narrowly defined when to someone's advantage. As for 5, it should say that you should treat everyone with decency, not just family, regardless of whether or not they have your respect, which most people consider something that is earned.

3. I'd scrap #7 altogether. If you include honesty in #5 (which I think has room for it) then #7 is superfluous; I would put in a commandment that says that you should not cause harm or hardship to another person unless in the defense of self or others. This would allow for things like justifiable homicide for an acute situation or prison for chronic ones, but prison would only be used if it was necessary to prevent further violations from repeat offenders, anyone not a danger to society could have rehabilitation.

4. I think #s 2, 8, and 10 could all be combined into one longer commandment, as they all have to do with depriving someone of rights or property; I would also add age and especially ability/disability (the most marginalized subset of society) to #2.

5. I would add commandments that say that you should always strive to be a productive member of society, and that you should try to make your life improve and not lessen the existence of others, and that you should strive for increased awareness and tolerance of everything around you and to increase the awareness and tolerance of others.
Jul. 1st, 2010 07:50 am (UTC)
#2 ...nor for any other self-serving rationalizations that thou mightst come up with to evade the clear intent of the commandment.

#4 ...except when it's safe, sane, and consensual.

#6 Nor shalt thou through irresponsible lack of action permit harm that is in thy power to prevent, for thou art thy brother's keeper.

#8 And thou shalt not pride thyself on thy good fortunes, but remember that the favor of circumstance trumps thy personal merits, lest chance teachest thou the error of thy ways.
Jul. 1st, 2010 08:32 am (UTC)
Your revision makes a lot more sense in many ways.

I agree with the commenter who suggested adding things a person SHOULD do, not just things they shouldn't, and with the one who suggested condensing several into one, thus making room for same.

This is what I use:
Matthew 22:37-40 "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

FYI, a passage for parents does exist:
Colossians 3:21 "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged."
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:47 am (UTC)
I have nothing brilliant to say. This is fantastic.
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