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A Fresh Look at the Ten Commandments

A critical look at what they really say

At first I didn’t know what to think about posting The Ten Commandments in public places.  It seemed like a good idea… but then I wondered, which version should be used, the Catholic, Jewish or Protestant one?  We should go for historical accuracy—otherwise they wouldn’t be The Ten Commandments.

I did some checking and found that none of the modern translations accurately represents ancient biblical sources, such as Exodus 20, or Deuteronomy 5.  Perhaps, I thought, we should just use the rendition favored by the Jews since they are the ones who got the original in stone.  On the other hand, the Protestant Decalogue seems more widespread.  Or maybe we should post all three next to each other.

Then I took a look at the Commandments themselves to see what wisdom we would be posting—to see if they would be apt in today’s society.  Here is what I found.

According to the Catholic Church, the first Commandment is “I am the Lord thy God.  Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.“  This sort of combines the first two Jewish and Protestant Commandments while excluding any mention of “graven images” or “a jealous god.”  I wondered, exactly what is a “strange god?”  Is believing in a “strange god” worst than believing in no god at all?  Is this some kind of ban on religious freedom?

The next Commandment, in its briefest version, says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  Basically this forbids one kind of swearing without saying anything about vulgarities and obscenities.  Curious, isn’t it—a whole commandment forbidding religious blasphemy, when, for Christ’s sake, nearly everybody does it.  We even put “In God we trust” on our money, which seems a little vain.  Aren’t there more vile deeds to “shalt not?”  Like how about “thou shalt not commit treason” or even “thou shalt not bully or taunt others?”


“Keep holy the Sabbath” is a peculiar commandment since you really don’t see too many Americans trying to keep the “holiday” wholly holy?  Maybe that’s because religious leaders can’t seem to agree on whether the Sabbath begins Sunday morning or Friday night.  In any case, this injunction does get in the way of our national “pursuit of happiness.”

The next Commandment, “Honor thy father and mother,” is cool—if they didn’t or aren’t abusing you.  Perhaps it could have been bit broader, like “honor and obey thy father, mother, surrogates, and all other figures of authority... if they be not evil.”

The fifth Catholic Commandment (the sixth for Jews and Protestants), “Thou shalt not kill,” is a bit ambiguous.  Does it mean “NO” killing at all, or are animals okay… and enemy soldiers… and maybe certain criminals? 

Next comes the Commandment that admonishes against “committing adultery,” which is fine—but isn’t rape a more loathsome deed?

Number seven (or eight) is “Thou shalt not steal.”  This one is good.  But it doesn’t clarify all those music publishing issues.

The next Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” besides being a little awkward, is rather narrow in focus.  Why not modernize it to “Thou shalt not lie or cheat?”

They neighbor's goods

The last Commandment talks about not “coveting your neighbors goods.”  In the biblical version, the text specifically mentions things like oxen, asses, manservants and maidservants (meaning slaves)—but that portion is usually omitted, probably because owning oxen, asses and slaves is frowned upon nowadays.  Now, I’m not sure we want to push this commandment.  Some economists think coveting what the Jones’s have is fundamental to our capitalistic society and vitality.  Maybe we could change it to “coveting is okay, but then go buy your own stuff.”

The Catholic ninth Commandment (which the Protestants and Jews roll up into the coveting commandment) is really a puzzler; “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”  Does this mean heterosexual women are off the lusting hook?  Isn’t coveting women, married or not, a major element of advertising and entertainment?  Do you want to explain this one to your kids?

The Golden Rule

Norman Rockwell's

Golden Rule Picture

After reviewing these long-esteemed Commandments, I was bewildered by their popularity.  By my count, only three of them reflect concerns of modern criminal and civil law.  At least three are patently religious.  None of them cover some very troubling sins of our times, like rape, abuse, bigotry, and neglect.  And there is no promotion of any virtues such as charity, tolerance, industry, loyalty or kindness.

No, on second thought I don’t think there is any reason to post in public these proscriptions meant for an ancient nomadic tribe wandering a far-away desert.  Rather these excerpts from the Old Testament need the respectful explanation and proper interpretation by learned people of faith, in a place of faith.

If we need to find some religious connection to our striving to build a civil society, we should turn to the one tenet that all the ancient religions have in common—the notion that, except when safety is at issue, you should:

“act towards others as you would want them to act towards you.”

I don’t think those words, chiseled in stone and display in public spaces, would ever be challenged in the courts.