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The Ten Commandments are Moral Fossils

Charles W. Webb, M.D.

Nobody really believes in the Ten Commandments of Moses. Most of us can't even remember them, let alone name the punishments for breaking them. If we did know, we would all turn away in disgust and look for a more civilized guide for morality.

For example, if your loved one comes to the hospital on a "Sabbath" day, all the nurses and doctors who work to save a life are breaking the fourth commandment. What is their punishment as prescribed by the Old Testament God? Death. ( Exod. 31:15 or Num16:32-36). And since Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are all derived from ancient Mosaic law, the Sabbaths now include Friday, Saturday, and Sunday!

If you go to church and pray to an image of Jesus or to a cross, your reward for breaking rule #2 is death. If Dad is frustrated and takes the Lord's name in vain (whatever that means), his punishment for breaking rule #3 is death. If a teenager is stubborn and rebellious or if she curses her parents, her punishment for breaking rule #5 is death. ( Exod. 20:9 or Exod 21:17). In the words of philosopher Michael Earl, "How's that for family values?"

So why do we cling to such fossilized traditions as the Bible and its Ten Commandments? I think it's because of our need for symbols. We spend the first decade or two of our lives just learning our cultural symbols (words, numbers, and pictures). We are really the symbol species, Homo symbolicus . This is our great strength and our great weakness. We have the capacity to communicate countless ideas, yet we confuse symbols with reality. We think we understand something simply because we can name it.

We are most easily fooled by symbols that fill our emotional needs. We all have a need for symbols that proclaim our goodness, but in our laziness we often forego integrity for the convenience of tradition. Hence the common but superficial belief in a symbolic "good book" and in the "Ten Commandments". Most of us have been taught that the Bible is both loving and good before we are old enough even to read or examine it for ourselves. But the Bible is not really loving or good: commandment #1 demands that anyone worshipping any religion different from that of Moses must be killed. Have any words in the history of mankind done as much damage as this?

Most of us would agree with the last five commandments of Moses (do not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet your neighbor's home and wife). Yet who remembers the greatest criminal of all in the Old Testament, the one who boasts in Numbers 31 of killing 32,000 innocent men, women, and children, of stealing the booty of an entire city, and of coveting and raping every female virgin? Of course it was Moses, the lawgiver himself...Some things never change.

We do not need to proclaim our goodness by professing faith in the Bible any more than we need to wear suits and yellow ties to show that we mean to do business. We can find more wisdom in William Shakespeare and Robert Ingersoll and more love in Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King than in any books of religion.


  Bible, Bible: Old Testament, Ten Commandments