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Displaying the Decalogue

Those who advocate displaying the decalogue in classrooms, courtrooms, and public parks affirm that the Ten Commandments are “a declaration of fundamental principles that are the cornerstones of a fair and just society.” All of the ills which plague mankind are caused by not practicing the Ten Commandments, which are the foundation upon which our laws are based, and without which civilization would not exist. If the Ten Commandments were universally observed, all strife and injustice would vanish. In this paper I leave the constitutional issues to the courts, but I do raise some questions which grow out of a careful study of what “the Bible says,” for the Bible is the ultimate authority for decalogue displayers.


QUESTIONS. Are we to believe those Christians who say that not only are the Ten Commandments binding upon all people today, but that Jesus affirmed the detailed validity of the Old Testament penal code and that the whole law stands inviolate until the universe as we know it passes away (Matthew 5:17-20, see also Deuteronomy 5:29)? Or are we to believe those Christians who claim that Jesus death brought an end to the law of Moses, all 613 commandments, including the Ten Commandments (Romans 6:14; 10:4; Galatians 5:18; Colossians 2:13-14)? If the latter are correct, then there is no need to display the decalogue, except perhaps in museums of religious antiquities. But if the former are correct then it would be inadvisable to display the decalogue, for its application in today’s world would lead to anything but a fair, lust, and humane society, as we shall see. Or, as some Christians contend, are only ten of the 613 commandments in force today? If so, why the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:1-17 and not the other 603 God gave to Moses? Why those of Exodus 20:1-17 but not those of Exodus 20:22-26 and Exodus 21:1-36?

QUESTIONS Which one of the numerous English translations of the Hebrew text is to be displayed? After all, many Christians use only the King James Version and reject all other English translations as adulterations of God’s Word. For example, should Exodus 20:17 be translated to read, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife” (KJV)? Or should it read, “Don’t want anyone’s house, wife or husband” (Contemporary English Version)?

QUESTION. Which of the several different ways (Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) of numbering the Ten Commandments should be used? By combining these differing enumerations, I have come up with twelve “words” or commandments:

  1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).
  2. You shall have no other gods before me (20:3).
  3. You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them, for I the Lord your 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 showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments (20:4-6).
  4. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain (20:7).
  5. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God In it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your 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 seventh day, and hallowed it (20 8-11).
  6. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you (20:12).
  7. You shall not kill (20:13).
  8. You shall not commit adultery (20 14).
  9. You shall not steal (20:15).
  10. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (20:16).
  11. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife (20 17).
  12. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor’s (20:17).

QUESTION. The question about the enumeration of the commandments raises another question, namely, Are there really Ten Commandments, or are we arbitrarily imposing the number ten upon the commandments? After all, nowhere in the Bible has God, Moses, or anyone else attached a number to each commandment to make Ten Commandments, no more, no less.


QUESTION. Which set of commandments should be displayed? Most people do not know that there are a number of options here.

1. The familiar set of Exodus 20:1-17 (which we have quoted above).

2. The set of Exodus 34:10-26, which contains three commandments in common with Exodus 20:1-17

  1. You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (34:14).
  2. You shall make for yourselves no metal images of gods (34:17).
  3. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh you shall rest (34:21). For the full text of Exodus 34:10-26 see below.

3. The set of Leviticus 19:1-36, which contains a number of commandments similar to those of Exodus 20:1-17.

  1. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father (19:3).
  2. You shall keep my sabbaths (19:3).
  3. Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods (19:4).
  4. You shall not steal (19:11).
  5. You shall not deal falsely nor lie to one another (19:11).
  6. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God (19:12).

4. The set of Deuteronomy 5:6-21, which is almost the same as the set of Exodus 20:1-17 (see below for the differences).

5. In Matthew 19:18-19, Jesus lists six commandments:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not commit adultery.
  3. Do not steal.
  4. Do not bear false witness.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. Love your neighbor as yourself.

6. In Mark 10:19, Jesus lists six commandments:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not commit adultery.
  3. Do not steal.
  4. Do not bear false witness.
  5. Do not defraud.
  6. Honor your father and mother.

7. In Luke 1820, Jesus lists five commandments:

  1. Do not commit adultery.
  2. Do not kill.
  3. Do not steal.
  4. Do not bear false witness.
  5. Honor your father and mother.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” (taken from Leviticus 19:18) is found in these lists of commandments only in Matthew. “Do not defraud” is found only in Mark. Jesus, then, in these parallel passages, lists a total of seven commandments.

QUESTION. If Jesus (whom decalogue displayers regard as the omniscient Lord and Savior) did not stress the sanctity of the Ten Commandments (no more, no less) when he had a golden opportunity to do so, why should decalogue displayers make such an issue of them, even threatening to call out the national guard to keep them from being removed from the courthouse wall?

Not only did Jesus not emphasize Ten Commandments, but in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) he bent three of the ten out of shape: those on swearing, killing, and adultery (see the discussion of these in Section VI).


QUESTIONS. As we asked above, which one of these various sets of commandments is the correct set to display? What does “the Bible say”? Which set does the Bible call “the Ten Commandments”? Only three times does the Bible use the expression, “the Ten Commandments” (literally, “the ten words”)

1. Exodus 34:28 “And he [Moses] wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” Here the Ten Commandments are those of Exodus 34:10-26.

2. Deuteronomy 4:13: “And he [the Lord) declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even Ten Commandments, and he wrote them upon two tablets of stone.” Here the Ten Commandments are those of Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

3. Deuteronomy 10:4: “And he [the Lord) wrote on the tablets, according to the first writing, the Ten Commandments, which the Lord spoke unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly, and the Lord gave them unto me.” Here the Lord wrote the Ten Commandments upon the second set of stone tablets exactly the same as on the first set of Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

Thus the Bible never calls Exodus 20:1-17 the Ten Commandments. The Bible reserves that designation for Exodus 34:10-26 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

QUESTION. Hence if we are going to display the decalogue, should we not display either Exodus 34:10-26 or Deuteronomy 5:6-21? Let us look more closely at these two sets of commandments.


Here “the ten words” are preceded by the Lord’s proclamation that he will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (34:7). On the other hand, in Exodus 20:1-17 God’s promise to punish great-grandchildren for the sins of their great-grandfathers is a part of the Ten Commandments (20:4-6). At least in this respect, the commandments of 34:10-26 are less offensive to thoughtful people then the commandments of 20:1-17.

QUESTION. Would it not, then, be advisable to display the decalogue of 34:10-26 rather than that of 20:1-17? To help us answer this question, let us look at “the Lord’s commandments” in Exodus 34:10-26.

1. Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites (34:11). According to this verse and Deuteronomy 7:1-5, Israel was to put to death every person in the seven nations of Palestine, each nation being larger and more powerful than Israel. Exodus 12:37 informs us that Israel had 600,000 men, which translates into 3,000,000 men, women, and children. That means that during the conquest Israel terminated the lives of 21,000,000 people (3,000,000 x 7).

QUESTIONS. Do decalogue displayers realize that by posting these commandments they are approving and glorifying ancient Israel’s bloody wars of naked aggression? Just how will this approbation of brute conquest help to rid the world of strife and injustice? See below on Exodus 20:12.

2. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it be a snare in the midst of you (34:12).

3. You shall break down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim [sacred poles, symbolizing Asherah, the mother goddess of Canaanite religion], for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they play the harlot after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and one invites you, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods (34: 13-16).

QUESTIONS. Do decalogue displayers really want to advertise the fact that they worship a God whose name is “Jealous” and who is so intolerant of other religions? How can any nation governed by the laws of “Jealous” practice freedom of religion?

QUESTIONS. And how about the expression, “play the harlot”? This figure of speech for Israel’s unfaithfulness to Jehovah is used over and over in the Bible. Have the decalogue displayers ever noted that it is only the unfaithfulness of women which is a disgraceful enough sin to serve as a biblical symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness? Unfaithful Israel is a harlot but not an adulterer or whoremonger or womanizer, because male unfaithfulness was not regarded as a serious enough matter to serve as a symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Jehovah. Do decalogue displayers want to offend women by continuing this double standard?

4. You shall make for yourself no molten gods (34:17).

5. The feast of unleavened bread you shall keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt (34:18).

6. The firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it, you shall break its neck (34:20). In contemporary English, you can save the life of a first-born donkey, the basic means of transportation, by sacrificing a lamb; if you don’t want that bloody job, you must break the donkey’s neck.

QUESTION. How many decalogue displayers want to be neck breakers or lamb slayers?

7. All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem (34:20).

8. Bring an offering every time you come to worship (34:20, CEV).

9. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest (34:21).

10. Celebrate the harvest festival each spring when you start harvesting your wheat (34:22).

11. Celebrate the festival of shelters each autumn when you pick your fruit (34:22).

12. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel (34:23).

13. When you sacrifice an animal on the altar, don’t offer bread made with yeast (34:25, CEV).

14. Don’t save any part of the passover meal for the next day (34:25, CEV).

15. The first part of your harvest you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God (34:26).

16. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk (34:26).

QUESTIONS. How many of these sixteen commandments do the decalogue displayers even pretend to obey? How many decalogue displayers want to post this “decalogue” in classrooms and courtrooms? But why should it not be displayed, since “the Bible says” it is “the Ten Commandments”?


The “ten words” of Deuteronomy 5:6-21 are quite similar to Exodus 20:1-17 and hence do not need to be quoted here in their entirety, but there are several important differences:

  1. No work is to be done on the sabbath in order that “your male slaves and female slaves may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (5:14-15). Whereas according to Exodus 20:8-11, the sabbath is to be observed for a theological reason (the people must rest on the seventh day of every week in imitation of a manlike God who rested on the seventh day of the creation week after the labors of creation), according to Deuteronomy 5:14-15 the people are to rest for a humanitarian reason (as former slaves in Egypt, the people should recognize what a boon a weekly day of rest would be to their slaves).

    QUESTIONS. Would decalogue displayers want to display any set of commandments which approves of slavery? Is slavery “the cornerstone of a fair and just society”?

  2. Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be prolonged and that it may go well with you in the land which the Lord your God gives you (5:16). Here a successful as well as a long life is promised, whereas in Exodus 20:12 only long life is promised.
  3. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, etc. (5:21). Here “wife” is mentioned before instead of after “house,” as in Exodus 20:17. Thus the wife is no longer so obviously the property of her husband along with his house, slaves and oxen

QUESTION. Would not Deuteronomy 5:21 with its higher degree of sensitivity to the status of women look better on the wall than Exodus 20:17, where the wife is obviously a piece of property?

QUESTIONS. In the light of our study, should we display one or both sets of commandments which the Bible (indeed, God himself, according to decalogue displayers) identifies as “the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:10-26; Deuteronomy 5:6-21)? Or should we display the set of Exodus 20: 1-17, which the Jewish-Christian tradition (that is, mere human beings) calls “the Ten Commandments”? To help us answer these questions, let us now consider Exodus 20: 1-17.


PREFACE. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (20:2).

QUESTION. Does anyone really believe that this Hebrew mythology about a tribal deity, Yahweh, who supposedly exerted himself to free a band of Hebrew slaves, is the glue that holds civilization together?

1. You shall have no other gods before me (20:3).

QUESTION. Do decalogue displayers believe in and want to advertise the henotheism of this commandment rather than the monotheism of Christian theology? “Henotheism” means that the Hebrews were to worship only their God, Yahweh, but without denying the existence of “other gods.” Monotheism is the belief that one and only one God exists.

QUESTION. Suppose that anyone (best friend, brother, sister, son, daughter, wife, husband) should say to you, “Let’s worship other gods.” What does the Bible require you to do? Obey the Lord’s command to stone them to death. In fact, “you must be the first to throw the stones, and then others from the community will finish the job. Don’t show any pity.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10). Recall that King Pekah of Israel massacred 120,000 Judeans because they had forsaken the Lord, the God of their fathers (2 Chronicles 28:5-6).

2. You shall not make yourself a graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing mercy unto thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (20: 4-6).

QUESTION. What kind of a God is it who forbids the making of images and likenesses and then orders Moses to make a serpent image of brass to be worshiped (Numbers 21:9)?

QUESTIONS. How many decalogue displayers agree with orthodox Jews that this commandment forbids the taking of photographs, since photographs are “likenesses”? Do decalogue displayers want the courts to try people for taking pictures, going to movies, and watching videos and TV? What should be the punishment for churches which display likenesses of God and Jesus?

QUESTIONS. How many informed people today, including decalogue displayers, want to promote the prescientific world picture of a three-story, earth-centered universe, in which the flat earth floats upon the waters under the earth, and in which God sits in heaven above the earth? This same world picture is also given in “the ten words” of Deuteronomy 5:6-21, but is not found in “the ten words” of Exodus 34:10-26 nor in the commandments of Leviticus 19:1-36, Matthew 19:18-19, Mark 10:19, and Luke 18:20. Therefore, would it not be more nearly scientifically correct to display “the ten words” of Exodus 34:10-26?

QUESTION. Once again (see above on Exodus 34:13-16), how can worship of a jealous God be compatible with our religious freedom to worship the god or gods of our choice or no gods at all?

QUESTIONS. How can “a fair and just society” be based upon the laws of an unjust God who punishes the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the sinner (also see above on Exodus 34:7)?

“Have you ever considered it odd?

That a self-declared merciful God

Should punish a grandchild

For something his gramp did?

It’s proclaimed in the Bible, by God.”

– Lawrence Perrine.

Later on, the same Jehovah God reversed himself and declared that “a son is not to suffer because of his father’s sins” (Ezekiel 18:20; Jeremiah 31:29-30). Would it not be less offensive to good sense to display the words of Jeremiah and Ezekiel rather than those of Moses?

3. You shall not take the name or Jehovah your God in vain, for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (20:7). God will punish anyone who misuses his holy name.

QUESTIONS. Does anyone, including decalogue displayers, expect the courts to punish everyone who misuses the name of God, whether in magic formulas, invocation of the dead, telling lies after swearing to tell the truth, or any irreverent use, such as cursing? What punishment should a judge mete out to those who exclaim, “Good God!” or “Golly, Gee!” or “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s forty!” And how about the blatant forms of cursing, such as “God damn you!” Does such disrespect of the divine name deserve a hefty fine, or a stiff jail sentence, or both? Why not obey the Lord’s commandment to stone to death anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord (Leviticus 24: 15-16)?

Now hear Jesus: “Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn’ [= ‘Don’t use the Lord’s name to make a promise unless you are going to keep it’ – CEV] But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ anything more than this comes from evil [or the evil one] (Matthew 5:33-37). So also James 5:12, “Above all else, don’t take an oath” (CEV).

Here Jesus radically revised the old commandment against misusing the sacred name (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11). He could have commanded his followers to exercise greater fidelity under oath by saying, “You shall not use the Lord’s name to make a promise unless you are going to keep it.” But instead of that, he outlawed oaths and swearing altogether and ordered his disciples never ever to take an oath of any kind on any occasion.

QUESTIONS. How, then, can Jesus’ followers take an oath in court, saying, “I do solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God”? Why don’t all Christians do like the Quakers, who have the courage of their convictions to refuse all oaths, even in courts of law? How can decalogue displaying judges administer such oaths? Would they rather follow Moses than Jesus and James (James 5:12)? Do oath takers realize that, according to Jesus, they are in league with Satan, the evil one (Matthew 5:37)? Or did Jesus not mean Satan, the evil one, but evil? No one knows for sure whether to translate the words as “from evil” or as “from the evil one.”

Like Moses (see above on Exodus 20:4-6), Jesus accepted the primitive world picture of a three-story universe (the earth is the footstool of God in heaven above) (see also Matthew 3:16-17; 4:8, 24:29, 26:64). Jesus also believed that Jerusalem is God’s city, “the city of the great King.”

QUESTION. Again we ask (see above on Exodus 20:4-6), how many decalogue devotees endorse such antiquated views?

4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male slave, or your female slave, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it (20:8-11).

QUESTIONS. Which day is the sabbath, Saturday (Jews and some Christians) or Sunday (most Christians)? Since most decalogue displayers believe that Sunday is the holy day of rest, will they please tell us where in the Bible their God repealed Saturday as the sabbath? The answer, of course, is “Nowhere.” The Bible makes no bones about the fact that Saturday is the sabbath forever (Exodus 31:16-17).

QUESTIONS. Why are we to observe the sabbath? Is it because God rested on the seventh day (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:17)? Or is it so that the slaves of the Israelites may rest as well as their Israelite masters, since the Israelites were once slaves of the Egyptians (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; see above on Deuteronomy 5:14-15)? If we are to observe the sabbath for both of these reasons, which reason did God write on the two tablets of stone with his finger (Exodus 31:18)?

QUESTIONS. What punishment do decalogue displayers recommend for those who do not keep the sabbath day holy? Should everyone who works on the sabbath be put to death, as the Lord commands (Exodus 31:12-1 7), even for kindling a fire (Exodus 35:1-3)? And how about death by stoning for anyone who picks up sticks on the sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)? Will decalogue displayers cast the first stones?

QUESTIONS. Do decalogue displayers believe in the six-day creation story upon which sabbath rest is based? If so, should all those Jews, Christians, and others who do not believe in a six-day creation be hauled into court and punished as threats to the holy day?

5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you (20:12)

QUESTIONS. Would decalogue displayers follow the Lord’s commands to put to death everyone who hits, or even curses, his father or mother (Exodus 21:15,17; Leviticus 20:9)? At Matthew 15:4 Jesus reminds us that God commanded us to respect our fathers and mothers and to put to death all who curse their parents. Would decalogue displayers stone to death a disobedient, rebellious, and stubborn son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)? Should a child respect a father who sexually abuses her? Should children honor parents who walk off and leave them? How about “deadbeat dads”? On the Lords “gift” of Palestine to Israel, a.k.a. the bloody conquest, see above on Exodus 34:11.

6. You shall not kill (20:13).

QUESTIONS. Does this commandment mean “kill” or “murder”? Since the Hebrew word used here means either to kill or to murder, how can we know which is meant? Does it apply to abortion? suicide? war? capital punishment? euthanasia? Does this commandment, like its counterpart in Buddhism, forbid the killing of animals? Whatever it may mean, it did not prevent Moses and the Levites from slaughtering about 3,000 of their own sons and brothers for worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32:28), even though the people did not yet know the law against idolatry on the tablets Moses was bringing down the mountain. Would decalogue displayers go so far as to punish people on the basis of laws not yet in effect? Would that be “a fair and just society”?

Now hear Jesus: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment [=a killer shall be brought to trial before a properly constituted authority]. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [without cause. according to other ancient manuscripts] shall be liable to judgment [=will have to stand trial]; whoever insults [=says Raca=you are spit, worthless] his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

QUESTIONS. Do decalogue displayers, following their Lord Jesus, want to overburden the judicial system by bringing to trial everyone who is angry with someone else? And did Jesus say “angry,” or “angry without cause”? No one knows with certainty because the ancient manuscripts themselves differ. Do decalogue devotees really want to take to court everyone who insults somebody else? What civilized judge would imprison or execute someone for getting angry with someone and calling him a fool? Or should judges threaten an angry person with hell?

Or was Jesus not talking about earthly courts but about the tribunal of God in the last judgment when the omniscient Judge of all the earth will recall every fit of anger and every insulting word of everyone who ever lived? Who, in fact, knows what Jesus meant? Why should we bring this confusion over the commandments into the courtroom and classroom? Do believers honestly think that everyone who calls another person a fool is in danger of hell fire, even Jesus, who called the scribes and Pharisees “blind fools” (Matthew 2317)? Shouldn’t decalogue devotees wish that Jesus had never put his own spin on the commandments?

7. You shall not commit adultery (20:14). This command against adultery was really for the protection of the man, not of the woman. The man wanted his name and his property to go to his sons, but if another man had committed adultery with his wife, then his name and his property might go to someone else’s son or sons. This commandment thus means, “My wife is my property and is taboo to all other men.” That the wife is property is indicated by the tenth commandment, which lists the wife along with slaves, animals, and other property not to be coveted. See above on Deuteronomy 5:21.

QUESTION. Should courts today follow the Lord’s commands to execute adulterers and adulteresses (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24)?

QUESTIONS. Are bigamy and polygamy adultery? May a man have wives, concubines, and secondary wives without committing adultery? Lamech had two (Genesis 4:19); Abraham, three (Genesis 16:1-3; 25:1), Jacob, four (Genesis 29:21-30:13); Esau, four (Genesis 28:9; 36:2-3); Gideon, many wives and concubines (Judges 8:30-31); Elkanah, two (1 Samuel 1:1-2); Saul, an unspecified number of wives (2 Samuel 12:8); David, eight, plus many wives and concubines (1 Samuel 18:27; 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 5:13; 11:26-27; 12;7-8); Solomon, 1,000 (1 Kings 11:1-4); Rehoboam, seventy-eight (2 Chronicles 11:21); Abijah, fourteen (2 Chronicles 13:21). Were these cases of adultery? If not, is polygamy right and proper today?

QUESTIONS. Are people who marry and divorce for any reason other than adultery and then remarry living in adultery (Matthew 5:31-32)? Is there any real difference between a person repeatedly divorcing and remarrying and a person who does not marry but lives with a series of partners?

Now hear Jesus “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart [=if you look at another woman and want her, you are already unfaithful in your thoughts – CEV]. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, . . .” (Matthew 5:27-30).

QUESTIONS. If adulterous thoughts are as evil as adulterous actions, should every man who looks at a woman and wants to have sex with her, but controls his desires, be executed as an adulterer? Can thought police spy into a man’s inner springs of action, detect the first inception of desire, and bring the culprit to justice? Is this teaching of Jesus that evil thoughts are as evil as evil actions the basis of our legal system and the cornerstone of civilization?

Did Jesus intend his commandments to apply only to his immediate disciples or to all people? Did he mean them for this present natural age or for the supernatural new age he expected to come in his generation (Matthew 24:34)? Or were only monks to practice Jesus’ reformulated commandments, whereas ordinary Christians in the workaday world were to live according to Moses’ decalogue? Did Jesus intend his radical reformulation of Moses’ commands to take the place of Moses’ commands or simply to intensify them? If the former, should not Jesus’ commands be posted in classrooms, courtrooms, and parks rather than Moses’ commands? But do even the most zealous decalogue displayers want to publicize Jesus’ extreme demands for chastity and thereby trigger an epidemic of guilt-ridden men poking out their eyes and chopping off their hands?

8. You shall not steal (20: 15).

QUESTIONS. If someone steals animals and cannot afford to replace them, must that person be sold as a slave to pay the owner of the animals, as the Lord commands in Exodus 22:1-4? Must thieves who get caught pay back seven times what was stolen and lose everything (Proverbs 6:31)? Did the prohibition against stealing include stealing from non-Jews? Apparently not, for the Lord empowered the escaping Israelites to steal the wealth of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-36). And what should be the order of the commandments in Exodus 20:13-15? Should it be that of the Hebrew (Masoretic) text: “You shall not kill, commit adultery, steal”? Or should the order be that of the Greek (Alexandrian) text: “You shall not kill, steal, commit adultery”? Or should it be that of the Greek (Vaticanus) text “You shall not commit adultery, steal, kill”?

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (20:16).

QUESTIONS. Does this commandment refer only to speaking the truth in court regarding one’s neighbor? Or does it include lies in general, gossip, calumny, and slander? If so, what should the penalty for gossip be? or for telling a lie which saves someone’s life? According to Deuteronomy 19:18-21, a man who makes a false accusation is to receive the same punishment as the accused would have received if found guilty, “whether it means losing an eye, a tooth, a hand, a foot, or even your life. The crime of telling lies in court must be punished. And when people hear what happens to witnesses who lie, everyone else who testifies in court will tell the truth.” Do decalogue displayers went our legal system to be based upon “an eye for an eye,” as was Israelite law?

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s (20:17).

QUESTION. If covetousness is a universal passion which operates at all times, at all places, and upon all persons, should everyone be hailed into court and tried for wanting something that belongs to someone else? Should “marriage busters” be tried for wanting and winning the spouse of another? On the status of wives as property, see above on Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:21. On slavery, see above on Deuteronomy 5:14-15.


1. Thou shalt not permit a witch to live (Exodus 22:18).

2. Thou shalt utterly destroy anyone who sacrifices to any god except Yahweh (Exodus 22:20).

3. Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19).

4. Thou shalt not wear clothes made of different kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19).

5. Thou shalt stone to death anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord (Leviticus 24:16).

6. Thou shalt stone to death anyone who worships other gods (Deuteronomy 17:2-7).

7. Thou shalt not wear the clothing of the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5).

8. Thou shalt not charge interest on loans to another Israelite (Deuteronomy 23:19).

9. Thou shalt cut off the hand of any woman who grabs the private parts of a man fighting her husband (Deuteronomy 25:12).

10. Thou shalt not withhold discipline from a child, for if you beat him with a rod he will not die (Proverbs 23:13).


Our examination of the Bible itself should make it plain that, contrary to decalogue displayers, the Ten Commandments and other biblical laws cannot be the basis of our judicial system today. To make the Ten Commandments apply today, we must reinterpret them so as to change their original meaning. But who can agree upon the best revised set of Ten Commandments to be displayed in classrooms, courtrooms, and public parks? Since we in the United States are governed by local, state, and federal laws in conformity with the constitution of the United States, why not display (if anything) the constitution, especially the Bill of Rights?

Reprinted with permission from The American Rationalist, Volume 42 (No. 1, May-June 1997), pp 8-13, with minor changes.