Dan Barker on Flaws in the Ten Commandments

I'm not one who's yea or nay for posting the Ten Commandments in public places, since it seems to me that they need to be posted in people's hearts more than on their walls. But here I'd like to address some claims of alleged problems with the 10 Cs. Since this is a sort of "answer key" we'll keep links within the text rather than grouping them at the end.

For groundwork, a related issue is the relevance of the law to persons under the New Testament covenant; see on that see here. Of interest as well is this item recommended by a reader.

First Commandment: "Thou shalt not have no other gods before me." This was spoken by Elohim (ironically, a plural name for the God El), Who is the "Lord" (Jehovah, the Jewish national name for God) and is equivalent of establishing the nation of Israel, not the United States of America. It can be taken as either monotheistic (only one God) and in any case is contrary to the American constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and against an establishment of religion.

The use of Elohim is not against monotheism; despite the plurality, the name is always accompanied by verbs in the singular, indicating a plurality of power or majesty; see more here). One may also take issue with the claim that the constitution "guarantees" freedom of conscience (the word is not even present in the Constitution) and what exactly "establishment of religion" means.

But that is beside the point, for in the main sense the objection is correct: The First Commandment is a rule only for the theocracy that has signed the covenant treaty with Yahweh; under the new covenant, whether to have no other gods before Yahweh is now a personal decision and is not to be legislated.

Nevertheless, it does still tell us what God demands, just as a lease signed by an earlier tenant can tell us what rules our perspective landlord might demand of us in our own lease.

Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." This statement, ironically appears on a graven image monolith of the Ten Commandments in many locations. As a law it would violate free speech.

This is incorrect, as it misunderstands the nature and purpose of graven images. But as above, it is also in the main sense correct, for the same reason as above.

Third Commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in Vain." This would be like prohibiting criticism of the president or other public officials. It is contrary to free speech.

Actually, taking a name in vain is nothing like "criticism" at all; it refers rather to trivial usage of something conceptuially more important -- you might say, comparable to picking one's teeth with the text of speech of Martin Luther King. But in the main sense this is correct for the same reason as the previous two.

Fourth Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day." The Jewish Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday. According to the Biblical application of the law, millions of Americans deserve capital punishment.

We point the reader here for the Sabbath issue, and for application to the first article linked above.

Fifth Commandment: "Honor thy father and mother: that thy days may be long upon the land," is the first statement in the Decalogue that approaches morality, although there are no details here explaining exactly how to honor parents. Do we obey them in everything? How long do we obey them? Until they die? There is obviously some merit in the idea expressed by this commandment, but there is precious little guidance here beyond a general principle that parents should be respected. Isn't this just another variation of the Bible's "respect authority" message? Wouldn't a moral principle suggest that you should not do anything to hurt your parents, that you should not take advantage of them, and that you should treat them with the basic respect deserved by all human beings? What if your parents are uneducated and poor advisors? What if they are evil? We all know that some parents do not deserve to be honored or obeyed. How do you "honor" a father who commits incest? Notice also that the rationale "that thy days may be long," is an appeal to self interest, not to the value of parents as human beings.

Sixth Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill" is the first genuine moral statement in the decalogue, although it is unqualified. Does this mean that capital punishment is wrong? What about self defense? What about war? What about euthanasia requested by the terminally ill? The drawback of this law is--good laws make distinctions. Since the actions and commandments of God burst with bloodthirstiness, this commandment seems to lose its import. Besides, prohibitions or murder existed long before the Ten Commandments or the Israelites appeared on the scene. It is not as if the human race never would have figured out that it is wrong to kill without some tablets coming down from a mountain. Laws against murder and manslaughter, based on self preservation and social stability, have found their way into almost every culture, before and after Moses, and it would be odd if the Israelites did not have a similar principle.

Seventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is also a good idea, though it hardly merits the death penalty: "And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulterous shall surely be put to death." (Leviticus 20:10) Adultery involves a broken promise between two individuals and has nothing to do with a government. In many, if not most, cases it is destructive to a relationship and affects children if the marriage falls apart as a result....But adultery by consenting adults does not fall into the category of malicious or harmful felonies. It is a legitimate concern of ethics; but it is no crime. Why don't the Ten Commandments mention rape? What about incest? Why don't they tell husbands that it is immoral to force an unwilling wife to have intercourse? Why doesn't the Bible say that it is wrong for you to have sex, even with your spouse, if you knowingly have a sexually transmitted disease? Although adultery is important, does it rate the Big Ten?

Eighth Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal" is generally good advice, and makes good law. Except in wartime, most cultures, before and after the Bible, have observed statutes that respect the property of others. But what about exceptions? The Ten Commandments, couched in absolute terms, admit no exceptions. Would it be immoral to steal bread to feed your starving child? Robin Hood is a folk hero? Nevertheless, most cultures recognize that taking someone's rightful property without permission, in principle, is generally wrong. Do you think that without the Tablets from Mount Sinai it never would have dawned on the human race that stealing is wrong?

Once again the demand for "exceptions" renders every ancient law code worthless by this reckoning. And as before, if it were lacking, an issue would be made of that instead (as was done above with rape, etc.).

Ninth Commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness" is also a generally good principle, but there is no universal law in America against telling lies. We have adequate laws against perjury and false advertising, and they are needed. But we all know that it is sometimes necessary to tell a lie in order to protect someone from harm. Lies in wartime are considered virtuous. If I knew the whereabouts of a woman who was being hunted by her abusive husband, I would consider it a moral act to lie to the man. True morality is able to weigh one principle against another and to judge their merits rationally. The Bible, on the other hand, makes absolute statements without admitting the possibility of ethical dilemmas. As with killing and stealing, most cultures through history have made honesty a high ideal, with or without the Ten Commandments.

There is tremendous irony here as critics often dig into Jesus for telling a lie (John 7:8-10) which in his cultural setting was the sort of virtuous act he writes of (see here).

In any event, this objection fails for the same reasons as others above.

Tenth Commandment: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's." Notice that this treats a wife like property. It does not say, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's husband," because it is assumed that everything, including law, is directed at males. This is a plainly silly commandment. How can you command someone not to covet? Why? If stealing is wrong, then there is no need for this commandment. If I tell you that you have a beautiful house, and that I wish I had it for myself, is that immoral? (Some claim that "covet" in this verse more properly means "to cast an evil eye" or spell upon something, and should be viewed as a prohibition of sorcery. But the Hebrew word chamad, according to Strong's Concordance, means "to delight in: beauty, greatly beloved, covet, delectable thing, delight, desire, goodly, lust, pleasant, precious thing.")

In close: The 10Cs had their place in the ANE and represented the 10 most important aspects of order in the ancient world. They would not perhaps be our "Top Ten" but if we're going to say so, we'd need to explain why.

-JPH