The Ten Commandments of …

Have you ever noticed how often the title of Ten Commandments is used to list the most important rules of everything from buying a car to earning money on the internet?  When I wrote Ten Essential Words, I set up a Google alert to let me know what was trending online for the phrase “Ten Commandments.”  Each week I am amazed at how often this phrase is applied to any topic imaginable.  Here are just a few examples:

  • The Ten Commandments of a Happy Marriage
  • The Ten Commandments of Dating
  • The Ten Commandments of Money
  • The Ten Commandments of Twitter
  • Google’s Ten Commandments
  • The Ten Commandments of Dog Ownership
  • The Ten Commandments of Cruise Ship Buffets (for those who consider buffets a religious experience, I suppose)

You get the idea.  One way to make your list the definitive list is to attach the moniker The Ten Commandments of [insert topic here].  Atheists have even felt the need to come up with their own ten commandments.

So what makes the idea of listing ten items such an enduring one?  After all, there were many more laws and commands in the Old Testament than just the traditional Ten Commandments.  As I write in Ten Essential Words:

Oddly enough, the Bible never explicitly gives these statements the title we have given them – the Ten Commandments. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the phrase that is used is aseret devarim, which literally means “ten words.” The root Hebrew word davar, however, has a wide range of meaning from the simple idea of a word to the more encompassing ideas of statements, speeches, and commands. So our English version of the Bible interprets “ten words” as the phrase “ten commandments.”

Yet there is something exceptional about this list.  At a time when ideas were passed down orally, it is notable that God instructed Moses to write this list down – carve them in stone.  God did not want the Israelites to forget this list.  Additionally, at a time when nobody could really walk around with stone tablets to refer to, a list of ten words or phrases could be easily memorized and recalled.

Today’s modern society does not memorize much of anything anymore.  Thanks to the internet and smart phones, all we have to do is google a topic in order to recall it.   Studies show that we moderns can recall two or three main points, far less than a list of ten.  Jesus reduced this list of ten commands down to two: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.

Still, there is something enduring about taking a complex issue and reducing it down to ten bullet points.  Perhaps this explains why the label, The Ten Commandments of…, will continue to serve as the defining list for any and every topic, be it dating or cruise ship buffets.


Which way to the buffet?

Which 10 Commandments?

From time to time, I will do a search for other blog posts about the Ten Commandments.  Invariably, the results will include posts from a non-religious perspective challenging the efficacy of the Ten Commandments.  I enjoy perusing a couple of these posts in an effort to understand some of the difficulties others have with these commands.  Growing up in church, it is easy to forget some of the issues people wrestle with when giving the Bible a cursory reading.  One reoccurring argument goes something like this:

The Bible itself cannot even agree on what the Ten Commandments are, as there are different lists.  If the writers of the Bible cannot even agree on a list of ten commandments, then why should we trust anything in the Bible?

And while it may be easy to dismiss such objections as nitpicking, there is an interesting issue behind that line of questioning: Why are there different lists of what we would characterize as the Ten Commandments?

Some people of faith may even be surprised to learn that there are no less than three separate lists of what appear to be the Ten Commandments with some variations between them. It is an issue that I only briefly mention in my book, Ten Essential Words.  So what are these lists and why do they differ?

Let’s first look at each list.  The first comes from Exodus 20, the text most often associated with the Ten Commandments:

  1. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land Yahweh your God is giving you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The next list is found in Exodus 34.  Moses, we are told in an act of ager, smashes the first list and then returns to the mountain of God, where Yahweh again gives Moses the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments.  The list is less obvious, but reads something like this:

  1. Do not worship any other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
  2. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land.
  3. Do not make any idols.
  4. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
  5. The first offspring of every womb belongs to me.
  6. Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest.
  7. Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.
  8. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.
  9. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of Yahweh your God.
  10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

There are some similarities between the two lists, but also some obvious differences.  Finally, in Deuteronomy 5, Moses again reminds the people of the terms of the covenant with Yahweh, reviewing the Ten Commandments:

  1. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God.
  4. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother, as Yahweh your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land Yahweh your God is giving you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

So what are we to make of these three lists of commands?  Is this evidence, as some would assert, that the Bible is unreliable and cannot agree on even the basic commands from God?

First let’s acknowledge that the list between Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20 are virtually identical and the minor variations can easily be explained.  The book of Deuteronomy is a record of a speech Moses gave some 40 years after the events of Exodus 20.  And the account of the exodus wanderings make it clear that Moses is addressing an entirely different group of people in his Deuteronomy address from the group that originally left Egypt.  Thus while the Commandments are the same, some of the explanations were no doubt tailored to a different group of people.  (For example, in Exodus 20, the basis of remembering the Sabbath was creation, while in Deuteronomy, the basis is “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.”)  There is no real disagreement between these two lists.

But what about Exodus 34?  The answer can be found when the wording of Exodus 34 is carefully examined.  The chapter begins with these words,

Yahweh said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.”

It is clear that Yahweh is the one who did the writing on these initial tablets and tradition holds that these commands were written by God.  This section is followed by the above list in Exodus 34, then concludes with these words,

Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”  Moses was there with Yahweh forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

So who wrote what down?  If we are to take the words of Exodus 34 at face value, then here is what took place:

  • Moses chiseled another set of two stone tablets after breaking the first set.
  • God then writes the Ten Commandments on these stone tablets.
  • For 40 days, Moses was with God listening and understanding all the details of the covenant beyond the Ten Commandments so that he could effectively communicate the covenant with God to the people.
  • So Moses writes the details of this conversation down.  What Moses is writing is not the Ten Commandments.  This is what we have recorded in Exodus 34.
  • The he in the last verse above, then refers to God and not Moses, since the beginning of the section makes it clear that God wrote the Ten Commandments and Moses wrote down other things God communicated.
  • So Moses carries down with him what God had written down – the Ten Commandments – along with many other notes and specific commands that he received from God.  It is not hard to imaging that in addition to God writing the Ten Commandments down for Moses, Moses also wrote them down, along with a collection of other instructions for worship and governance.

So while the words of Exodus 34 appear to be another version of the Ten Commandments, they are in fact a different list of some other commands and explanations received from God.  This is what the text indicates.  Some have speculated that what is recorded in Exodus 34 may be a set of ritual commandments, meant to mirror the Ten Commandments.  This may well be the case also.

This is an interesting question and can be confusing, especially if we are unwilling to let the text speak for itself.  And we should always remember that there is bound to be some degree of difficulty in understanding some of the details of a document written 3,000 years ago.

The Public Display of … Movie Props?

Easter weekend brought another showing of the movie, The Ten Commandments.  I confess I had to watch Charlton Heston, err…rather Moses, lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt and safely across the Red Sea.  It’s one of those movies that I always have to stop and watch at least a couple of minutes, even though I have seen it numerous times.

This past week, I was playing around with some Google features and ran across an article by Bruce Feiler –   who I enjoy as an author – entitled “Ten Secrets of The Ten Commandments.”  At first thinking it was some insight into the commands given to Moses recorded in Exodus, I soon discovered the ten secrets were about Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie.  One that particularly interested me was this:

As part of his plan to spread biblical values, DeMille persuaded Paramount to pay for granite monoliths of the Ten Commandments to be placed in public squares across the country. Over 4,000 were made. One of these monuments, in Austin, Texas, became the basis for the Supreme Court decision in 2005 that allowed the Ten Commandments on public property if they had a secular purpose. A publicity stunt for The Ten Commandments became the basis of landmark U.S. law.

You can read my thoughts on the public display of the Ten Commandments and the other secrets mentioned in the full article, but I wonder if it would change the conversation to know that some of the monuments being fought to preserve were remnants from a marketing campaign – albeit perhaps a well-intentioned campaign – to promote the movie?

10 Commandments – for Atheists?

Recently, prominent atheist Alain de Botton constructed a list of 10 commandments that would promote virtue in a society, even if that society were moving past the need to believe in God – a 10 commandments for atheists.  In an article in The Telegraph, de Botton writes,

Even if we now realise that we made up our own moral exhortations, we have no cause to do away with them all. We continue to need reminders to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so.

de Botton explains that even though he rejects the idea of a moral code originating from God, there is something to be learned from the promotion of virtue, leading him to come up with his own list, “If I had to design a list of 10 virtues that could apply today, I might go for the following”:

  1. Resilience
  2. Empathy
  3. Patience
  4. Sacrifice
  5. Politeness
  6. Humor
  7. Self-Awareness
  8. Forgiveness
  9. Hope
  10. Confidence

In subsequent articles, de Botton’s list has been praised as a more enlightened list than many outdated moral codes.  Others have chimed in, blogging about de Botton’s list and constructing their own 10 commandments for society to live by.  One such blogger has devoted much time to demonstrating the archaic and outdated nature of the Biblical 10 Commandments, as well as coming up with a list of his own.

Actually, I must admit that de Botton’s list is not a bad list.  I’m not sure I would reject anything on that list as immoral or self-indulgent.  And having perused a handful of these newly emerging 10 commandment for atheists lists, there really isn’t much to dismiss from them.  Surely the world would be a better place if religious, agnostic, and atheist alike tried to embody most of the virtues being put forth on these lists.

But here is the thing.  My concern is not so much with the content of these lists as the precariousness of the philosophy that lies behind them.  Actually, two issues come to mind:

  • The person who does not believe that God exists will have the difficult, if not impossible task of promoting a virtue or morality that should apply to everyone else.  This tension has been debated in many philosophical circles and has not been overcome.  I recently listened to an interesting lecture by an atheist who was wrestling with this very issue: How do you promote a good and virtuous society while rejecting the existence, and thus the moral authority, of a transcendent deity?  If there is no God, then there is no basis for a moral code that applies to society as a whole.  There is an entire debate surrounding this very issue.
  • But my main caution would be this: If any transcendent moral code is rejected, then who does get to decide what is good and virtuous in a society?  Does the majority get to decide?  Should it be de Botton who decides for everyone?  Should I appoint myself as the virtue police, as many have done in response to this 10 commandment list for atheists?  What I am getting at is that if there is no higher authority, then I am precisely the one who gets to define what is moral and virtuous!   While the list above is laudable, who is to say what would have been defined as virtuous in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, or during the period of American slavery?  What might be considered virtuous ten years from now?

As much as I might like to think that I could come up with a list of virtues that should govern society, I am glad that responsibility does not fall on me.  It is because religious people believe that the 10 Commandments originate from God (and not Moses) that those commandments have moral authority to govern our lives.  Of course, people of faith will not always live up to these commands – this is one of the points Jesus asserted many times.  The cultural expressions (enforcement, punishment, promotion, etc.) of these commands looks different today than 3,000 years ago, but the principles behind the expressions are enduring.  This issue is one of the main themes of Ten Essential Words, (and is an issue that is not readily understood my many critiques of the Ten Commandments!).

People are certainly free to believe what they want to believe.  I have never been one to assert that the 10 Commandments should be displayed on every street corner, whether you hold to them or not.  And if you don’t believe in God, I would not expect you to live by the Ten Commandments.  But if God does not exist, then I become my god and you become your god, and we begin to resemble Mount Olympus, full of competing deities all battling for their share of power and moral authority.

I do believe there is a God and am happy to let God be God!  I don’t want the job.

“Ten Commandments” Tablets Sell At Auction

The tablets that contained the Ten Commandments from the 1956 movie starring Charlton Heston sold at auction last month for $60,000. The problem seems to be that the buyer isn’t paying up.  The tablets are described as follows:

The description of Lot 422, cited in the complaint, says the “Ten Commandments tablets written by the finger of God” are “(c)onstructed of richly hewn fiberglass on wood backing … in an early Canaanite script practiced in the late Bronze Age (c. 13th century B.C.) Moses era. These tablets were created by Paramount Studios scenic artist A.J. Cirialo, who made them to be slightly irregular with molded chips, craters and dings since they were to be cared with God’s fire bolts, and he painted them in great detail to appear as carved stone.” The tablets come with a letter of authenticity from Cirialo’s family and are in “fine condition,” according to the lot description.

The full article can be found here.

So the Ten Commandments find themselves back in the courtroom, the center of another legal dispute.  If the movie prop sold for $60,000, it makes you wonder what the originals would sell for?


Ancient Copy of 10 Commandments Goes Digital

The oldest known copy of the Ten Commandments has recently been made available online by the Cambridge Digital Library.  It is known as the Nash Papyrus and is 2,000 years old.  From the article:

Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947, the “Nash Papyrus,” also called “The Ten Commandments,” was the oldest known manuscript containing a text from the Hebrew Bible. It gets its name from the Egyptologist Walter Llewellyn Nash who purchased the manuscript from an antiquities dealer in 1902.

Read more:

The "Nash Papyrus," which contains the text of the Ten Commandments.

Public Display of the Ten Commandments

One of the issues that prompted me to write Ten Essential Words was the controversy around the public display of the Ten Commandments.  Though the topic has died down somewhat from a couple of years ago, there are still cases lingering and new ones arising from time to time:

  • In Connellsville, Pennsylvania a battle is currently taking place over a Ten Commandments monument at Connellsville Junior High School.  A lawsuit has been filed for the removal of the monument but public support is growing to keep it in place.
  • The same group that filed the lawsuit at Connellsville, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a similar lawsuit to have a Ten Commandments display removed near Valley High School in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.
  • In Kalispell, Montana a small Ten Commandments monument remains in place next to a juvenile detention center while the city council determines whether it is appropriate to move it to a public park or remove it completely.
  • In Alabama, judge Roy Moore, who was removed from office in 2003 for his refusal to comply with an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument, seems poised to gain his post back in next week’s election.

In my book, I argue that many of these fights over keeping such monuments and displays intact miss the point.  It seems as though many Christians believe that displaying the Ten Commandments is equivalent to keeping the Ten Commandments:

My concern is more spiritual in nature: that in fighting to keep the Ten Commandments on display, we people of faith fool ourselves into thinking we are living out God’s commandments for the world around us to see.  The Hebrew Scriptures record that Israel often fell into the trap of thinking they were being God’s people simply because they were going through the religious motions – tithing, going to the Temple, pointing to the presence of religious images all around them.  But in reality, the way they actually lived out their lives did not reflect any of these elements of faith.

So my intention as expressed in the book is not to argue that the Ten Commandments should or should not be displayed in public places.

Yet there is an aspect to these cases that embody a troubling trend in our culture.  And it is captured in the name of the group bringing the court cases in Pennsylvania – the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  One of the freedoms the United States was founded upon was the freedom of religion.  I can worship how I want and you can worship how you see fit.  And both can rest assured the the government will not infringe upon our right to worship.  But in the last several years, our freedom of religion has been increasingly redefined as freedom from religion.  It is not religion that needs protection from those in power, but those in power should be shielded from any religious influence.  You are free to worship how you see fit as long as it is confined to your private life and does not offend anyone else.

It is with this new interpretation that we are robbing ourselves of of both historical context and valuable dialogue between people of different faiths, as well as between the religious and irreligious.  Freedom from religion means that we don’t have to confront anything that might make us uncomfortable or grow to understand someone else’s perspective.  And ultimately freedom from religion actually strips us of our freedom of religion.

I guess what I am saying is that as a Christian I don’t need to have the Ten Commandments on display everywhere I go.  But as a citizen of the United States, there are historical displays that have both religious and cultural meaning that need not be hidden away because someone wants total freedom from all religion.  Having traveled to many different countries and experienced a variety of different cultures, it would truly be a tragic loss if all cultural, historical, and religious icons that had a hint of religious meaning were removed from public display.  Now that would be offensive!

Do the Ten Commandments Marginalize Women?

This morning, I was playing around with Google Alerts – a service that sends news stories to your email relating to specific key words. I had just set up an alert for “Ten Commandments” and sure enough, within the hour I got my initial list of of newly published stories that related to the Ten Commandments. Most were only loosely related, but there was one that caught my attention. Christopher Rollston at the Huffington Post wrote an article about how the Ten Commandments and the Bible in general are guilty of marginalizing women. Because his article both demonstrates the continued impact the Ten Commandments have on our culture and highlights something that I cover in Ten Essential Words, I wanted to use this oft-cited example to demonstrate a very fundamental mistake people make when talking about the relevancy of the Ten Commandments.

Rollston writes,

The Decalogue is a case in point. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals. There’s also a striking omission in this commandment: never does it say “You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.” The Ten Commandments were written to men, not women. … The Ten Commandments embody much that is foundational for modern society, but egalitarian they aren’t.

He goes on to assert how the Old and New Testaments continue this theme of the marginalization of women.  Rollston is not wrong when he notes that in ancient Israelite society “the wife is classified as her husband’s property.”  I write the same thing when addressing the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

It could be correctly supposed that the intent behind most of these laws was not the welfare of women or even the protection of marriage, but rather the safeguarding of property.  For in most ancient cultures, a wife was largely considered to be the property of the husband; thus some form of protection was needed for that property.  To commit adultery was to essentially steal what belonged to another man.

It should be noted that the laws I am referring to in the quote above are numerous Ancient Near East legal codes that address adultery and not simply the seventh commandment.  Mosaic Law actually contains many safeguards for women who otherwise would have been left abandoned.  But while Rollston concludes that the Bible marginalizes women, I reach a much different conclusion.  So where do we differ?  How do we reach quite the opposite conclusion?

  • First, Biblical theology has long asserted that scripture reflects the commands of God – the words of God – and yet at the same time those commands were recorded by human beings.  And those human beings resided in certain places and lived at certain times.  The Bible can be both the words of God and yet reflect human opinions, different personalities and genres, human rebellion, and numerous ways that, despite our best efforts, humans fall short of God’s commands.  In fact, the story of the Bible is largely the story of humankind struggling with and failing to live out these commands of God.
  • Second, and similarly, while God’s commands transcend culture, their application will always resides within a distinct culture.  The Old Testament is full of wars, kings and queens, prophets, and many other things that were normative in a culture three to four thousand years ago.  The New Testament is set largely in the context of the Roman Empire.  So the commands of God will necessarily reflect what was happening in those cultures.  When God gave the Ten Commandments, those commands represented the timeless moral standard of God, but at the same time they had specific cultural meanings and applications when Moses received them on Mount Sinai.  So, yes, the command “Do not covet” is a command from God, but at the same time coveting had different applications to an Israelite society 3,500 years ago than it does for us today.
  • Third, the challenge for us then, is not to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments that reflect our day and age, but to properly apply the timeless truths of the original Ten.  In other words, we don’t need to toss out the command against coveting because it may have been applied imperfectly in Ancient Near East culture.  Instead, we are responsible to speak to what it means to covet today.  This is exactly the cultural journey that Ten Essential Words navigates.  What did each command mean in their original context, what light does Jesus shed on each command in his day, and how might we apply each command to our modern context.

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that the Ten Commandments don’t give women the right to vote any more than they don’t address iPhone etiquette.  We can choose to see the marginalization that was present in every ancient culture (and many modern ones!) or we can see the ways the Bible actually gave women a voice they didn’t normally have at that time.  Rollston barely acknowledges a woman named Deborah that served as a judge over Israel and fails to mention that Esther served as a deliverer of the Hebrew people, that Jesus’s prominent benefactors were women, or that women also served as the primary witnesses to his resurrection – all unheard of at that time.  It could also be argued that the Apostle Paul calls women to tone it down in the new Christian movement because women had a new-found voice they hadn’t been given elsewhere and were taking many liberties with that voice.

If we fail to take these steps of moving God’s commands from an ancient cutlure to our own culture we will no doubt make the same conclusions that Rollston has made.  And by his own standards, because no previous culture is as enlightened as our culture today, there isn’t much that any ancient history or religion has to teach us.

The Real Legal Battle Over The Ten Commandments

In the opening chapter of Ten Essential Words, I argue that the fight over the display the Ten Commandments in public spaces misses the point.  I recently ran across this quote from the late comedian George Carlin that takes a different angle:

The real reason that we can’t have the Ten Commandments in a courthouse: You cannot post ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ and ‘Thou shalt not lie’ in a building full of lawyers, judges, and politicians. It creates a hostile work environment.

Perhaps he was on to something!