Morality & Politics

Biblical Morality: The Ten Commandments

Fundamentalist claims about the superiority of Biblical values are usually based on the Ten Commandments. But if you examine those commandments closely, you will see that they are very disturbing.

"God made us all. We simply believe that the United States of America was founded as a white Christian nation. We base this belief on the many writings of our founding fathers as well as the Declaration of Independence."- the official Ku Klux Klan FAQ (go read the real words of the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence, come back and read this quote again, and then try to guess the literacy rate of the KKK)

In the case of Christians, every aspect of the Old Testament is supposedly tempered by Jesus' invocation of the "Golden Rule", but few (if any) Christians are willing to abandon or criticize the Ten Commandments. Instead, the consensus seems to be that the Ten Commandments are as valid today as they were in Moses' time. With that in mind, let us examine those commandments carefully, as found in Exodus 20:2 to 20:17 (King James version):

  1. I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

Look carefully at those commandments. The first commandment instructs us to worship God, thus condemning religious freedom. The second commandment forbids the creation of and worship of idols, thus condemning religious freedom again. The third commandment instructs us not to take his name "in vain", thus condemning freedom of speech. The fourth commandment instructs us to observe his sabbath day, thus condemning religious freedom for a third time. The fifth through ninth commandments are much better, but they are also common to the ancient writings of different cultures around the world, and we don't need Judeo-Christianity or the Ten Commandments in order to figure them out for ourselves. And finally, the tenth commandment condemns the act of "coveting", and reveals the Bible's misogyny by classifying a man's wife as part of his property, along with his house and cattle.

These commandments were supposedly shouted by God from on high, which terrified the people. Moses spoke privately with him, and God told him that since the people had seen him speak to God, they would accept anything he had to say (this was the birth of the notion that special anointed "Holy Men" should interpret God for the masses).

Is morality independent of God, as the humanists claim, or is it subordinate to God, as the fundamentalists believe?

It is at this point in Exodus that we discover the Bible's statement on this issue; God discovers that the people have created an idol and they are worshipping it, so he decides to kill them all. Moses talks him out of it, and in Exodus 32:14, "the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people". Did you notice that? The Lord repented of the evil he was about to do! If morality flows from God and God alone, then why did God need a mortal to stop him from doing evil? Why would God have to repent, if morality is something which flows from his authority and nowhere else? Could it be that the Bible itself acknowledges that morality transcends God and his commandments? It certainly seems that way, particularly when you look back at Genesis 3:22. After Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, God said "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil." Does God say that he creates good and evil? No, he says that he knows good and evil. In other words, good and evil are concepts which are separate from God, and he himself is confessedly capable of evil!

Moses supposedly wrote God's commandments on a set of stone tablets, which he smashed upon seeing the infamous golden calf (Exodus 32). He then ordered the Levites to "go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbour", which they promptly did, killing some 3000 people (this was an important moral precedent for Judaism, Islamism, and Christianity; the people were "evil" because they were worshipping an idol, and Moses was righteous because he butchered them in the name of the Lord, who wouldn't have stopped at a mere 3000 dead). After this atrocity, Moses then went back up the mountain where God asked for two new stone tablets, saying that "I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets". He then proceeded to dictate an entirely different set of ten commandments, which he then instructed Moses to write down. This second set of ten commandments is as follows (Exodus 34:12 to 34:26, King James version):

  1. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.
  2. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
  3. The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.
  4. All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male. But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
  5. Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.
  6. And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end.
  7. Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.
  8. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.
  9. The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God.
  10. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.

The existence of two contradictory sets of "Ten Commandments" in the Bible (described by God himself as the same) is almost comical in light of its supposed "inerrance" (and the creationists would have us use this document as not only the template for morality, but also the basis of science). By comparing the two sets of commandments, we can see where their priorities lie. The first four commandments in the first set are devoted to worshipping God and observing his rituals, and the first nine commandments in the second set are devoted to worshipping God and observing his rituals.

The first of the "new" Commandments is rather interesting, is it not? Faithful followers, upon encountering those of different beliefs, must "destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves". Christians are almost unanimous in saying that religious bigotry is a violation of "true" Christianity, but we can see that the source of that bigotry can be found right in the Ten Commandments! Therein lies the real problem: what modern Christians think of as the "true" faith is actually one which has almost completely broken away from the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments. That's not a bad thing (actually, I think it's a pretty good idea, considering the repugnant morality of the Old Testament) but they don't seem willing to admit it, so they try to convince themselves that it's possible to obey the Ten Commandments, follow Jesus, and be a good person all at the same time. That is simply not possible. Anyone who obeys the words inscribed in Moses' tablets according to the book of Exodus must be a hateful religious bigot.

And what about everyone's favourite commandment, "Thou shalt not kill?" It doesn't appear until commandment number six in the first set of commandments, and it doesn't appear at all in the second set! In fact, the second set has nothing that resembles modern morality whatsoever! If we are to take this literally, it means that God changed his mind about the wisdom of the first set of commandments, and handed down a second set in which unimportant commandments such as "Thou shalt not kill" were eliminated in favour of more worship instructions (this must reflect God's values; after all, his servant Moses killed 3000 people after being given the first set, despite its admonition not to kill, and God did not rebuke or punish him). The simple fact is that the Biblical commandments contain only one consistent thread: you must worship and obey God. Everything else is strictly subordinate to that rule, and rules found in common inter-cultural moral law such as "Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt not steal" are so unimportant that they were in the bottom half of the first set, and completely omitted from the second set! Interesting set of priorities, is it not? If we read the Bible with an open mind, we can see that these people had values we would regard as repugnant today, and that their values simply cannot be used in the modern world.

"Atheism - the instance or act of deploring and fighting against morality, Christianity and God"- a bizarre definition of atheism (which actually means "the absence of theism") found on the "Citizens for the Ten Commandments" page

As a scheme of "universal morality" for secular nations to aspire to, the Ten Commandments are a joke. They are inherently bigoted, because they declare that anyone who doesn't worship God and observe his holidays is breaking the first four commandments (nine, if you're using the second set) and is therefore immoral! In fact, if you use the second set, you're immoral unless you actively attack other religions! Small wonder, then, that religious intolerance has figured so prominently in Judeo-Christian history, and it is still found in the public speeches and attitudes of fundamentalists to this day. Christians may feel free to obey the first set of Ten Commandments (although frankly, the second set is so immoral that I consider it totally unacceptable), but only for themselves. They cannot uphold them as a "universal standard" for others and they cannot take others to task for not upholding them, because they are entirely specific to Christianity, and they codify religious hatred into law. They make sins out of free speech and belief, and any system of "morality" which makes crimes out of words or beliefs is clearly a system of oppression.

Continue to 2. Religious Freedom

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