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Ten Commandments? The Beginning of a Conversation

Every few years, I pick up the Bible and read it through, just to keep me fresh. I’d just happened to have finished Exodus when I heard Tom Ashbrook interviewing Chris Hedges, author of Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, on the NPR radio show On Point. Hedges has a lot to say, but basically argues that the ten commandments has lost its central moral place in modern society, to modern society’s detriment. I’d been thinking of writing a blog entry about Exodus and the “ten commandments” (see why I put it in quotes below), but suddenly found myself speaking my thoughts out loud when I called in. Here’s a snippet from that conversation, and an invitation to use that snippet to continue a conversation here.

Tom Ashbrook: James is calling from Durham. Hi, James, what do you think?

James: Hi. I’d like to thank Mr. Hedges for writing. I found his prior book [War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning] really harrowing. I’m coming to this conversation as an atheist, not from a hostile point of view, but as someone who was just raised without religion.

TA: Yup.

J: I do have moral values that aren’t based in the Bible, but I’ve read the Bible a lot. Something that keeps coming back to me, again and again and again, is this notion of ten named commandments. They were put right out there on Judge Roy Moore’s monument…

TA: This is the Alabama Supreme Court Justice who got kicked out and now may run for Governor of Alabama.

J: Yes, sir. The thing I can’t find in the Bible is a place where God actually says what they are… he says at one point in Exodus, “I have ten commandments,” but he never says which ones they are. You folks were talking about Exodus Chapter 20…

TA: Yes.

J: If you go right on to Chapter 21, there is no point of delineation, and the first thing he says is, “These are the judgements which thou shalt set before them.” And he moves right into discussion of how one can be a moral slaveholder.

One has right a judgment there, for instance, in Chapter 21, Verse 4, that if a master has a slave who has a wife and who has children, if the male slave is set free, the master must according to God leave the children and wife behind.

TA: Well, James, we’ll look at that, why there are ten commandments instead of ten thousand. But as an atheist, I just want to know: do you find in that position, do you find the ten commandments oppressive, illuminating, irrelevant? How do you look at them?

J: I think they are an illuminating example, not because they come from God, but because I think they are an illustration of something that is conceptually prior. For me, it boils down to the Golden Rule, which says “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” The reason I believe that’s a central moral value — for societies, not just for individuals but for societies — is that it works. It binds a society together. Social psychologists have found this at the small and medium scale.

TA: So there’s wisdom here, even if you take the “Received From God” out of it. Let me take up your question with Chris Hedges. Chris, James says, “Why not eleven or twelve or thirteen?,” and if you’ve got all those, suddenly you’ve got slaveholding in there in the commandments.

Chris Hedges: Well, you know, the Protestants, Jews and Catholics have compiled slightly different lists, and, you know, what I did is essentially draw from the religious tradition. He raises a good point. Slavery is sanctioned in the Bible, not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also in the New Testament. St. Paul talks about slaves being “obedient to your masters.” There were condemnations of homosexuality; Jesus never does it, but it happens in Leviticus.

TA: So are you standing up for those, too?

CH: No. I think the problem with people who claim to take the Bible literally is that it’s always a selective literalism. They pick and choose what they want. And this is, with that whole issue of Creationism, a terrible distortion of what the writers in the Bible were trying to do. The writers of the book of Genesis basically thought the Earth was flat, with water above and below it.

18 thoughts on “Ten Commandments? The Beginning of a Conversation”

  1. Michael says:

    Sounds to me like Hedges is in over his head. He’s pretty squishy on just exactly what it is that “the writers of the Bible were trying to do.” There were writers, editors, and commentators, all of whom shaped the understanding of the Bible we have today–step up to the complexity.

    This move he’s making is probably coming out of his last book–where he reflects on the fact that as a war correspondent, to his horror, he has become immeresed in the ethical world of war, where normal moral rules, beginning with “thou shalt not kill” and extending to prohibitions of rape, pillaging, looting, etc., all fall away.

    So he’s probably thinking, let’s try to re-instate these, starting with “Thou shalt not kill.” That is to say, let’s return to simple moral standards like the Ten Commandments.

    Well, fine. But what I think he fails to realize is the fact that, by claiming to tell us in a fairly simple way “what the authors of the Bible were trying to do,” he places himself into a pretty simplistic strain of theology. People who have spent major chunks of their lives doing textual studies of the Bible in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, etc. would probably be a lot more cautious than Hedges about saying off the cuff what the “writers in the Bible” were “trying to do.”

    And when he criticizes “selective literalists,” where’s he going? Is he altogether anti-literalist? If so, where do you stop taking the Bible as figurative? How do you get the kind of simple bedrock morality out of it that Hedges seems to want?

    Hedges made some really good points in his last book. He said that if we reported the reality of war, Americans wouldn’t have the stomach for it. So what’s the solution? Going back and bringing the painful, miserable truth of war to the American people, to make us understant? Nope. Apparently the solution is a naive reading of the Old Testament.

    Go back, Hedges. Face your demons. Go with a team, expose yourself again to the drug of war, document your relapse, show us the myth and the real ugliness. You’ve called for “the press” to do this, but they aren’t, so step up.

    In the meanwhile, it seems to me that indulging in a reading of the Old Testament that naively tries to find moral bedrock in texts that call for slavery and ethnic cleansing is nothing more than an attempt to replace the drug of war with the drug of a naive, simplistic religion.

  2. Fiona T. says:

    That besides, the Ten Commandments certainly does not provide a universal moral bedrock for human society. Most human societies, for example, think that drawing pictures of things is just fine, but the Ten Commandments morality calls it a grave sin.

    Then there’s the whole — you are not allowd to stray from worship of God — thing which is so central to so many of the Ten Commandments. That’s not where I’m coming from, and it is certainly not compatible with a moral modern society. In a moral modern society, people have to be given the freedom to believe in gods or not to as they see fit. The Ten Commandments are solidly against religious freedom, and I find that to be a highly immoral stance.

  3. Zero Haven says:

    It’s hard to find an exact number of commandments in any language of the book, but most of the catholic ten are decent. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill, or mouth off to your parents. I think that’s a very good foundation for a society.

    I barely remember seeing several essays about how ‘rules’ in the Bible are nearly identical to those set by Egyptian land lords over their serfs. Interesting how the slaves fled from there and kept the rules going.

  4. Bob S-K says:

    Frustrating that you didn’t get a direct answer to your question.

    I seem to recall that a bunch of people got together at Nicea in 325 A.D. and made up the idea of the trinity. Was there something like that for the 10 commandments? Does anyone know exactly who started the idea of 10, and when that happened?

  5. J. Matthew says:

    Well, Bob, Exodus does mention God saying there are ten to be written on those ol’ slabs of Moses. But there is no place in the Bible where God says, “And these are the ten.” And there are a LOT (literally thousands) of places in the Bible where God says, “hey, lissen up, here’s the Word of God (thas me). Lo, do this. This is my command.”

  6. Fiona T. says:

    Um, Zero, but what about those other ones I mentioned, when the Ten Commandments says that drawing is a big sin, and that people shouldn’t be allowed to have any other religion but the worship of his own godliness? Those take up, I think at least 5 of the 10 commandments. Then there’s that one about not being jealous of your neighbor’s slave. That’s a good foundation for society? Don’t think so.

  7. HareTrinity says:

    Personally, I don’t think the “love your parents” one is particularly good, either.

    “Love your family” at least implies that you should love those you feel at home with, but to use the word “parents” implies that whichever pair of humans made you are the ones who own you and know what’s best for you, and I’m sure I don’t need to bring up all the billions of examples to show how that’s not true.

    It’s autocratic, and ignores that parents have rights to their children much more out of convenience than because they’re going to be naturally great at it.

  8. Zero Haven says:

    I’m not sure which version you folks are looking at. I’m going off versions like these :

    Fiona – ‘drawing’ isn’t a big sin. It says not to make images(sculptures, carvings, etc) and then worship them.

    HareTrinity – it doesn’t say you have to LOVE your biological parents, but you should respect (honor) them perhaps even if they don’t deserve it.

    I’m going to go over these to clear up a little confusion – hope you don’t mind!:
    1.2. [the first two official commandments] Have no other gods – i.e. Be loyal to your chosen deity. In general we look down upon double-agents and traitors. If you’re gonna pray to ‘the Lord’, don’t go praying to whales and trees and other gods. (This is where the line about graven images applies.) Loyalty = medium moral value.
    3. Don’t say stuff like “Oh my God!” or “God this sucks!”. I find this one pointless.
    4. Don’t work one day a week. – screw morals, this is good common sense! Don’t overwork yourself nor your slaves.
    5. Honor thy Mother and Father – promotes family unity. Sure maybe they don’t deserve respect but you can at least be polite to the people who made you. Medium moral value.
    6.8.7. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your spouse. This is good advice even for atheists! High moral value.
    9. Don’t accuse others of things they never did. Really good advice if the ‘others’ is a 6’9″ marine with 30″ biceps! High moral value.
    10. Don’t be jealous of what other people have. Being jealous can lead to stealing, killing, and it usually makes you feel bad about yourself. This is just good advice. Medium moral value.

    Overall, only #3 is completely pointless. Think about the nice place we’d live in if most people lived by these rules, regardless of religion.
    The entire book promotes unity of the ‘chosen group’, and the wasting of the opposition. It contains grooming habits, health tips, some history, and a chapter on how to make love to your spouse. What’s the confusion? ;D

  9. J. Matthew says:


    Problem is, that “Ten Commandments” header isn’t in the Bible. It’s what someone put at the top of Exodus 20, ignoring the scads of commandments from the supposed direct word of God that directly follow, right after the last line of the one that is quoted.

    Web sites like that one make it falsely appear that the “Ten Commandments” are identified and settled upon in the Bible, when they actually are not.

  10. Zero Haven says:

    The fact that there are ten is explicitly stated in several places, i.e. Exodus 34:28… but the poor storytelling beats around the burning bush so much it’s hard to count.

    The 10 are really only 9 – but those 9 are also quite clearly settled upon in Deuteronomy 5:5-22.
    I’m not sure where you’re seeing the other “scads of commandments”. The next line (exodus 20:18) has the crowd backing away as the spaceship lands. You may be looking at stuff they say it is a ‘sin’ to do – but those aren’t “commandments” they’re just more rules. (like our Bill of Rights vs federal laws?)

    I posted the standard Christian 10 from Exodus responding to the misconceptions about them, plus that’s what I thought your post was about.

    I agreed it’s hard to pin down the exact ones because only 9 appear in all three copies in the book.

    The missing original commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” appears in Matthew 19 and 22… but has been ignored as a commandment for centuries. Probably because people enjoyed hating their neighbors too much.

    (I’m not a bible nut, really!)

  11. Zero Haven says:

    Almost forgot to answer the Header issue. True, there is no “Chp XX Commandments” header. It’s built into the story line. The LORD lands his ship on top of Mt. Sinai. Moses goes in and out of it several times. In Exodus 34:31-33 is where he’s all glowing from the radioactive warp drive and delivering the Big 10 from his tablets. The full speech was documented earlier in 20. Hope that clears it up.

  12. HareTrinity says:

    I’d still prefer “honour other people” over “honour thy parents”, shouldn’t they have some respect for the life they created?

    More like the “love thy neighbour as thyself” one, I think that one’s probably the most important one there, assuming that “neighbour” refers to pretty much everyone else.

    By the way, Zero; you seem to know your way around the Bible pretty well, and my mother (who’s the Christian of our household) always says that at least once in the Bible it has Jesus telling people to think for themselves, or to have their own reasons for doing things, or such. Do you know where those parts are?

  13. J. Matthew says:

    Zero, yes, I know that “God” mentions there are ten in the Bible. That’s why I said so in the call-in transcript above. But there is NO place in the Bible that mentions what the ten are. Period.

    As I read the Bible, God’s “full speech” of instructions is not wholly documented in Exodus 20. The speechifying starts in Exodus 20 and continues right on in 21, 22, 23, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 and so on. God is giving commandments all the way through, inky-dinky little ones (burning fat from the torso in sacrifice) and big fat ones (how to be a good slave holder) included.

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  16. Sarge says:

    Intersting, those ten commandments. I think a couple of chapters later there are all kinds of exceptions to the rules mentioned. The Sabbath day is also a nicie. I have, in my youth, acted as a “Shabbas Goy” a few times (the “day of rest is NOT, apparently, to be unuiversally applied) and some folks locally have said that “god” has a big problem with us locally. We shouldn’t be onserving Sunday, this diety is apparently in high dudgeon because we should be doing it Saturday. “God” is apparently quite exercised over this state of affairs, and is even more exasperated because when “he” sent his airplane to crash into something here signifigant in Pennsylvania on 9-11. Since this, also was thwarted by man, now we’re RERALLY gonna get it. You watch the chimps and baboons on Animal Planet or National Geographic, and then watch your fellow man. Sometimes I ask myself: the cerebreal cortex, just seemed like a good idea at the time?

  17. Sarge says:

    Sorry about the sentence constructions, I’ve been speaking German all weekend long.

  18. Zero Haven says:

    HareTrinity – In general Jesus taught in parables and encouraged people to think about them, that’s the closest thing I know to what you’re asking. He explains why he does this throughout Matthew, and there’s several places where he challenges his audience to think
    matt17 “25:What thinkest thou, Simon?” : “12: How think ye? ” (Matt 18) Sorry I don’t have any more.
    JMatthew – I finally see where you’re coming from. In Exod20 Moses finishes the list, and then he goes back to god again. The chapter finishes with god explaining how to worship him (follow the first commandment) properly by not making statues of gold or silverb-OOPS for Christian churches!- but earthen altars to sacrifice stuff on.

    Exod.21 isn’t a continuation, and can be seen by the first line:”Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.” The ‘judgements’ are how to dispute legal concerns amongs the flock, and not official commandments.

    Later Jesus enumerates the official Commandments via talking to people. The official Big 10 should not be confused with spots where the LORD says stuff like “I command thee”. It’s a semantics issue.
    Here’s one clear spot where there’s no question that 6 from the Exodus and Deuteronomy lists are in fact part of the Big 10, which we’ve established are really 10.

    Matthew 19- A boy asks how to be as good Jesus:
    17: And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
    18: He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
    19: Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

    He enumerates others in other parts, but I’m going to go enjoy the afternoon sun.

  19. J. Matthew says:

    Well, you learn something new every day. Thanks, Zero Haven. I had not thought to look in the New Testament, and had restricted my search to the old.

    Although… I don’t see anywhere in Exodus (or Leviticus or Deuteronomy) where God says, now, mind you, I don’t really mean for you to follow these, they aren’t official. They are the word of God, telling people how to behave. Why not follow those?

    Another although… the whole “love thy neighbor as thyself” is not in Exodus 20. So where does that one come from? If you add that in, you’ve got 11.

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