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?

The Tenth Commandment, Pt. 2

Here is the second part of the Tenth Commandment from Ten Essential Words.  The Tenth Commandment reads, “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.”


Today coveting also goes by many names and takes many forms, though the actual word has fallen out of use in our vocabulary. Our culture gives coveting more palatable names and even promotes some of these ways of thinking as good and healthy. “Greed is good” goes a famous line from the 1987 movie Wall Street and vestiges of that notion are still alive and well today. We are told that spending is good for the economy. We are not told what kind of spending; just spend. We are encouraged to overextend ourselves, from the homes we buy to the cars we drive. Yet we never encounter the word covet. It is a word that does not market well.

We encounter the modern equivalent of coveting most notably in two common ideologies: materialism and consumerism. Materialism as a philosophy teaches that there is nothing beyond the material world and reduces everything to a tangible and material substance. The soul, the heart, and the spirit, among other intangibles, are either discounted or denied altogether. While most may not wholly embrace materialism as a philosophy, many are deeply affected by its influence and give credence to the philosophy by their lifestyle. Materialism, in its prevalent form, places the highest good on present enjoyment and tangible possessions. To quote the rich man in Jesus’ parable: “eat, drink and be merry.” We are bombarded by messages on a daily basis that promote this philosophy, and it is deeply engrained in our western culture.

Materialism also leads to the second ideology of consumerism. Consumerism is one of those terms that mean many different things to different people. In its most innocuous form, consumerism is the economic notion that consumer choices should drive the economy, as opposed to a centrally-planned economy. In some forms, consumerism even encourages the consumption of material goods and holds that the increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable. However, as a growing ideology, consumerism is the idea that what we purchase will bring us some sense of satisfaction. At its worst, it is the lie that the next purchase will make us happy or bring fulfillment. Like materialism, many may deny holding such expectations, yet have spare rooms full of stuff that held out such promises.

The Tenth Commandment, Pt. 1

First, a bit of housekeeping.  Trying to maintain two blogs – this one, as well as my site for Ten Essential Words – proved overly ambitious.  So I have chosen to focus my energies on one site with more content.    I have brought over the posts from the Ten Essential Words site, and thus you will notice a lot of new content here.  Part of combining sites is completing the chapter previews.  What follows is to that end.


The Tenth Commandment reads, “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 following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.


So this Tenth Commandment differs from the other nine in two distinct ways. First, it prohibits an inner attitude, and not an external action. If we revisit our heart-word-action pattern, it is the one commandment that focuses on a heart attitude and not a specific action. It is difficult to point to someone and shout, “Aha, I caught you coveting!”, though it may happen often enough. Yet it is precisely this heart attitude of coveting that the Hebrew Scriptures seem to indicate will lead to the eventual violation of the other commandments. By listing it tenth, they are almost acknowledging that it is the least enforceable, yet it is the one we should take away and contemplate the most. If I had just heard the Ten Commandments read, I probably would not walk away thinking, “I better not kill or steal today,” but I might leave thinking, “I wonder if there is any way I am guilty of coveting?”

Second, it is the only commandment that does not have a corresponding punishment. Each of the other commandments has a punishment associated with its violation. We have discussed the principle of reciprocity, but without an outward action associated with coveting and the difficulty in identifying when coveting occurred, there is nothing to reciprocate. Again, the Law seemed to assume that the punishment would be incurred if coveting led to breaking one of the other commandments.

Because of these reasons, it is also the one commandment that has no real equivalent with other Ancient Near East law codes. It is the one commandment that explicitly points to God’s desire that these laws not simply be obeyed, but that their intent should transform the human heart. It would separate those in Israel who truly understood this intent from those who merely sought to conform to a legal code.

The Ninth Commandment, Pt. 2

What follows is part two of the Ninth Commandment from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.  The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”


We began discussing this Ninth Commandment with the modest example of ordering a cup of coffee.  It may have seemed insignificant at the time, but it is in these little daily interactions that our name and our reputation can either gain or lose credibility.  We may have lost some sense of the value of a good name – if it is not in a written contract, it usually is not worth anything today.  But there are still places where our name has a certain value.

The online garage sale eBay still relies on the value of a name.  Each time a seller or buyer engages in a transaction, the other party has an opportunity to rate them.  If the person was positive to work with, paid their money on time, or shipped the item in a timely manner, a point is added to that person’s name.  A neutral experience nets zero points.  A bad experience, such as a delay in shipment or failing to pay results in a point taken away from the person’s name.  Each transaction, whether selling a comic book or purchasing a plasma-screen TV, counts the same when it comes to assessing the value of a name.  In general, the larger the number, the more trustworthy the person will be.  Here is a hint: avoid negative people – literally!

ebay-seller-ratingsWhat if we stepped out of the world of eBay and literally had a hologram number hovering above our head in real life?  Every conversation and transaction either bumped that number up or pulled it down.  Would it change the way you conducted your daily routine?  Would it change the content of your conversations?  To be people who embrace truth would mean that we would have no fear of that number hovering above our head.  It would be visible for the entire world to see that we place a high value on honesty and speaking the truth in love.  Truth is, that number is probably more visible to people than we realize.

Consider the ways in which you can fully embrace truth.

The Ninth Commandment: Pt. 1

The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”  The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.


A cursory reading of other ancient law codes would indicate that laws against giving false testimony in a legal case were not as common as other laws, which is not to say they were absent.  This may be the result of the ancients having a more holistic view of the trustworthiness of a person’s words: if a person was trustworthy, then it did not matter if their testimony was part of a legal proceeding, a business transaction, or simply part of casual conversation.  Contrast this to our practice today of swearing in a witness as part of a legal proceeding, almost as if to say, “You can say what you want out there, but in here you must tell the truth!”  In fact, witnesses in ancient Israelite and Greek trials were not usually placed under oath.  There does not seem to be any Hebrew text in which a witness is said to have been sworn in, as we might conceive of it.  Similarly, in ancient Athens most witnesses were not placed under oath, and prosecution for false testimony did not depend on whether a witness testified under oath.  In essence, we might say that in ancient times, a person was continually under oath.

If you recall, this entire topic of oath-taking was also covered under the Third Commandment regarding taking Yahweh’s name in vain.  In some sense, the Third and the Ninth Commandment are almost redundant. To revisit the topic, an oath was similar to making a covenant, but could have a lesser, informal meaning of simply buying something or making a promise – but binding none-the-less.  Oaths usually involved invoking the name of a deity as a witness as well, hence the prohibition against using the name of Yahweh in this fashion. While oaths were the language of treaties and contracts between people, and breaking an oath had serious consequences, giving false testimony was the language of the legal system and referred specifically to the credibility of the witness.  In essence, with this Ninth Commandment, Yahweh was protecting the integrity of the legal system that had just been put into place.

So with its original inclusion into the Ten Commandments, this commandment had an unmistakable legal undertone to it.  Yet, as with many of these commandments, the Hebrew Scriptures continue to broaden their application beyond the legal realm and into everyday life.  Turning again to the book of Leviticus, where the Ten Commandments are reiterated and expounded upon, the Law expands on this commandment prohibiting the giving of false testimony, “Do not steal.  Do not lie.  Do not deceive one another.  Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.  I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:11-12).  So the broader concept, “Do not lie,” associated with this commandment is not off the mark.  While we can see a wide range of dishonest activities associated with lying included here, we cannot miss that last statement, “I am Yahweh.”  With that simple addition, God was constantly reminding the people, “I am Yahweh … who brought you out of Egypt.  I am Yahweh … who has led you this far.  I am Yahweh … who will make you into a great nation.”  These commandments are the righteous standards of Yahweh, and when we deviate from these standards, we stray from the righteous life Yahweh desires of us.

The Eighth Commandment, Pt. 2

This is part 2 of the Eighth Commandment, which reads, “You shall not commit adultery.”  There is much more on each of these commandments in the book Ten Essential Words, available at most online retailers.


As we return to this Galilean hillside and the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continued to address many of the well-known commandments.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder’; you have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’”, Jesus would remind them.  He continued to move each commandment beyond the bounds of the people of Israel to the wider audience of the people of the kingdom of God.  Jesus did not directly quote the Eighth Commandment, but he began referring to it in the same way he spoke of the other commandments:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

“You have heard that it was said… but I tell you…”  The people were getting used to that phraseology by now.  But this time instead of addressing the commandment itself, he addressed the generally held response to the crime of stealing: “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”

When Jesus brings up this phrase, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” he is quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures:

If people are fighting and a pregnant woman is hit and gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.  But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

The people of Jesus’ day would have been well-versed in this principle of justice, so they would have been familiar with these words.  “Eye for eye” literally meant that whatever crime was perpetuated against another person, that crime would serve as the punishment for the offender.  So if a person started a fight, and in the process put out someone’s eye, the perpetrator would have their own eye put out.  It did not only apply to fighting around pregnant women, but was the principle of justice behind most of the punishments prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

While this principle may sound barbaric to our ears, Jewish scholars tell us that it actually served two important purposes.  First, it mandated punishing a person who harmed another – the principle of justice.  Second, it also limited the retribution that could be exacted from the perpetrator – the principle that the punishment must be proportional to the crime.  As one Rabbi stated it, “The verse meant that it was forbidden to take ‘two eyes for an eye.’”  This served as an important restraint at a time when injuring a person or stealing from a family of one village often meant a full-scale massacre in retaliation.  Wars have been fought over less!  There is also the question of whether or not this principle was actually ever carried out literally.  There are no examples in scripture of this actually happening.  Based on the earliest known Jewish legal records, courts did not, in fact, blind those who caused blindness in others.  Scripture and early legal records seem to indicate that offenders were forced to pay financial compensation instead.

Whether it was taken literally or figuratively, the phrase “Eye for eye” served as the everyday catchphrase for the previously mentioned legal principle of restitution.  This was little doubt, what Jesus was alluding to when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’”  In other instances where this phrase is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, restitution is brought up along with it:

Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life.  Anyone who injures a neighbor is to be injured in the same manner:  fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.

Whatever the crime, be it murder, personal injury, or stealing, restitution was the legal principle that determined the punishment.

So once again, when Jesus brings up this well-known principle, the people listening would have immediately responded affirmatively, “Yes, of course.  There has to be justice in this world.”  Surprisingly then, Jesus would astound the people by calling them to forego restitution, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”  This went against everything conventional wisdom held as just!

The Eighth Commandment, Pt. 1

The Eighth Commandment reads, “You shall not steal.”  The following is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Ten Essential Words.


This Eighth Commandment is an example of how we tend to move right into the spiritual dimension of something we read in scripture and overlook the functional dimension.  (Another mistake is to simply separate the spiritual and the functional to begin with.)  Remember that with the giving of the Law at Sinai, God was forming nation.  The Israelites would need a structure and a set of beliefs to guide this nation.  The Ten Commandments would help serve that purpose.  These commandments would set forth the ideas that would be inherent to being the nation of Israel, and not just being the people of Israel.  Like today, this commandment prohibiting stealing offered some legal and enforceable protection of property.  Ironically enough, up to this point the people were still wandering in the desert without a land to call their own.

Laws prohibiting stealing can be found almost as far back as we can find cultures that recorded laws.  Like murder, stealing is an offense that strikes at the very foundation of what it means to be a society.  As far back as the seventeenth century B.C., the Code of Hammurabi stated, “If a man commits a robbery and is caught, that man will be killed.”  Hittite laws of roughly the same time period corresponding to Sinai dealt with stealing, especially as it related to livestock.  Even minor thefts were often punished harshly.  In the Middle Assyrian Laws of this same time period, we read that a woman who was caught stealing from an individual would have her ears cut off by her husband and her nose cut off by the victim.  Laws forbidding stealing are among the most common laws found in the Ancient Near East.

It is no surprise then, that stealing is included on the list of things prohibited in the formation of the nation of Israel.  Initially, this commandment may have referred more to the stealing of other people with the intention of selling them into slavery.  In the Hebrew language, the noun form of this verb “to steal” refers to a thief, or more specifically, a slave-dealer.  Kidnapping and the selling of the victim into slavery was a very real issue in the ancient world.  Rabbinic thought actually regards kidnapping as the act forbidden in this commandment, while other forms of stealing were covered elsewhere in Mosaic Law.  Among various laws regarding Hebrew servants found in the chapter following the Ten Commandments, the Law specifically stated, “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession” (Exodus 21:16).  So the immediate application of this commandment very well may have been to curb slave trading, essentially setting the tone that as this nation developed there would be no enslaving of one another.

If the immediate application was to prohibit kidnapping, then the Hebrew Scriptures quickly moved to cover all forms of stealing under this Eighth Commandment.  In the book of Leviticus, where the Ten Commandments are reiterated and expounded upon, the Law expands on this commandment prohibiting stealing, “‘Do not steal…. Do not deceive one another…. Do not defraud your neighbors or rob them.  Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight’” (Leviticus 19:11, 13).  Other forms of stealing expanded upon in Mosaic Law included the stealing of livestock and animals, allowing ones’ animals to graze on the property of others, and property that was damaged or stolen while under the safekeeping of a neighbor.  Taken collectively, it becomes obvious that this commandment provides for the protection of property in all its forms.