People who agitate for the display of the Biblical Ten Commandments in schools, courtrooms, and other public places demonstrate a limited knowledge of the Bible. To isolate and emphasize the first ten commandments of the Hebraic Law is contrary to the way in which the Law was understood, not only by Jews but by Jesus and St. Paul. One way to argue against posting the Ten Commandments in a public place is to quote scripture.
The Ten Commandments are not privileged
The documentation of the Hebraic Law begins in the book of Exodus chapter 20 , with the text “And God spake all these words, saying …” This, the only point in the Bible where God is portrayed as speaking directly to his people, rather than speaking through Moses or another intermediary, is a dramatic point in the Old Testament. This is one reason so much attention is given to the verses that follow.
That following text contains the ten familiar commandments, but that is not the end of what God had to say. There is a narrative break because the assembled Israelites are overwhelmed, and ask Moses to go and talk to God as their representative. The chapter continues with “And the LORD said unto Moses …” and there follows many more commandments, both liturgical and political in nature. The giving of the Law continues for many chapters and books. The well-known Ten are only the opening prologue.
The only reason to isolate these particular ten commandments is because the narrative context sets them apart as being spoken by God to the assembled people. There is no internal evidence that these ten are more important than the rest of the many, many clauses of the Law that God continues to dictate to Moses through the following chapters. And there is no evidence that the opening ten are somehow a perfect summary or encapsulation of the Law. All the clauses of the Law are commandments by God to the Hebrews, as evidenced by the frequent reminders, “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying …
Commandments 1-4 are not addressed to the world
All too often, the Ten Commandments are taken out of their Biblical context and pressed upon the general public as if they could provide comprehensive moral guidance for any American citizen. However, the first four are purely liturgical, directed specifically to the Israelite nation, and are routinely disregarded by a majority of Americans.
Commandment 1 addresses Israelites
The first commandment notes, “I [am] the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This preamble clearly restricts the scope of the following sentence, if not the entire passage, to the Israelites. It excluded the contemporary Assyrians and Egyptians, and it excludes anyone today who isn’t a descendant of the Hebrews.
This is more than hair-splitting. The point is that to post a manifestly false claim in a public place does nothing more than invite ridicule on the entire message–“Hey, my people are from Italy/Africa/Korea; God didn’t lead them nowhere.” It’s like having a placard in a bus saying “1. This is a spaceship. 2. No smoking.” The manifest falsity of the first clause invites derision of the second.
Commandment 2 insults Catholics
The second commandment bans making graven images or bowing before them. Jews take this commandment seriously; there are no images in synagogues.
However, the letter of the second commandment is ignored, indeed flouted, by Catholics, who make many images, bow before them, and invoke them in prayer. A Moslem would say that even Protestant Christians violate the second commandment with their graphical depictions of Christ on the cross.
In other words, to post the second commandment in a public place is to indict (and implicitly insult) the worship practices of the majority of Americans.
Commandment 3 is trivial
The third commandment proscribes swearing. This again is a rule that devout Jews observe scrupulously, even to the extent of not spelling out the word “G*D” in ordinary writing. However, it is a rule that is violated, copiously and trivially, by a majority of Americans daily. How many young women shriek “Ohhh, my Gawwwwd!” at any surprise?
Post a rule in a public place that forbids a trivial act that most people do without thought again invites ridicule on the whole list — especially when this triviality is positioned several lines ahead of “thou shalt not kill.”
Commandment 4 insults Christians
The fourth commandment, “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” is followed by Jews, but all Christians except for Seventh Day Adventists flout the letter of this rule every week. Even if you assume that the spirit of the commandment is that people should treat any one day a week as holy, the fact that remains that only a minority of Americans attend weekly worship services. Many polls have asked this question, and consistently between 35% and 45% of adult Americans claim they to go to church or synagogue weekly. This is a higher number than any other industrialized nation, but even if we take the highest number at face value, it is still a minority.
Here again, posting a public rule that mandates something that a majority of people do not do is to invite ridicule on the entire posting, or to invite anger at the implied insult.
In summary, the first four of the Ten Commandments were specifically addressed to the Israelites. Only they, in the modern world, still observe all four. When pressed upon the great majority of Americans, the only effect these commandments can have is to create hard feelings and to sap whatever force the remainder of the commandments might have.
Commandments 5-10 are morally incomplete
The remaining six commandments do address ethical and behavioral issues, and it is hard to imagine anyone who would disagree with them as reasonable advice for right living.
However, “reasonable advice for right living” is not how the Ten Commandments are presented. When they are posted publicly, they are implicitly presented as a complete ethical code, containing guidance for all living. This is manifestly not the case. Exercise your imagination: how many things you would call a sin, or indeed how many major felony crimes, are not proscribed by commandments 5 through 10? Sexual harassment, child abuse, spousal abuse, general battery, drunkenness, drug dealing — the Ten Commandments have nothing to say about any of these or dozens more important issues.
This is not a criticism of the whole body of the Hebraic Law — it does contain commandments against most of those sins in one way or another. But the Ten Commandments are not the whole of the law or even a summary of it. Their incomplete coverage of the ethical terrain is only a problem if you insist on taking them in isolation and using them in a way in which they were never intended: as a complete answer to moral questions.
The Eleventh Commandment
In fact, most of the shortcomings of commandments 5-10 can be repaired by the addition of a single further rule — an eleventh commandment. It is also found in the Law, in the book that follows and logically continues Exodus.
Leviticus chapter 19 begins with a partial restatement of the Ten Commandments of Exodus, but extends them with the crucial addition of the following words (Leviticus 19:17-18):
Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself : I [am] the LORD.
If this line, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is added to commandments 5-10, it stops up most of the ethical holes. Almost all the sins you could imagine that were not covered by commandments 5-10 are proscribed by this eleventh one (think it through). In addition, this commandment also acts to forestall all the kinds of legalistic hairsplitting I’ve indulged in, in some of the preceding paragraphs.
New Testament Precedent
There is absolutely nothing original about any of the forgoing points. The relative unimportance of commandments 1-4, and the crucial importance of commandment 11, ought to be familiar to every Christian because they have Jesus’ own statement to that effect. It comes in Matthew 19:17-19, where Jesus tells a young man “keep the commandments,” and when the young man asks “which ones?” Jesus replies:
Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and [thy] mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
There you have the essential core of the Law as specified by Jesus: commandments 6, 7, 8, 9, and 5, omitting 10 (covetousness), but including the crucial Levitical eleventh.
A key point here is that Jesus is depicted as speaking to a Jew, in front of a crowd of Jews. He is not making new doctrine, he clearly is demonstrating his understanding of the Hebraic Law. If the first four commandments of Exodus were in fact specially privileged, Jesus would surely have been challenged for omitting them from his summary.
For corroboration we can turn to Saint Paul’s epistle to the early church in Rome, Romans 13:9,
Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if [there be] any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Saint Paul’s statement on the crucial elements of the Law comprises commandments 7, 6, 8, 9, 10 (he restores covetousness but omits honor to parents), and the eleventh. Again, Saint Paul is writing to a congregation that is mostly, if not all, converted Jews who would be at least concerned if not affronted should their leader display ignorance of the Law as they were schooled in it. Hence we can assume that this is a fair summary of the Law as it was generally understood at that time.
People who insist that the Ten Commandments of Exodus should be displayed in American public facilities are overlooking the fact that Jesus, Saint Paul, and indeed all educated Jews of their era, understood the important commandments to be as follows:
- Thou shalt not do murder.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness.
- Thou shalt not covet.
- Thou shalt honor thy father and mother.
- Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
where the final commandment is the most important (“If there be any other commandment, it is comprehended in this,” said St. Paul). These comprise a summary code of ethics to which anyone, even complete unbelievers, can subscribe without insult.
When anyone proposes posting the Ten Commandments, respectfully send them back to their Bibles, urging them to familiarize themselves with the whole of the Law, especially Leviticus 19:17-18, and to read Matthew 19:17-19 and Romans 13:9. They will find ample, Biblical evidence that the Ten Commandments are an arbitrary and an incomplete selection, not suitable for public display to all Americans.