WHICH COMMANDMENTS?

Religious people think of the Ten Commandments as the ultimate divine authority, the very bedrock of their faith. In 2005 they fought in the Supreme Court for their right to display the Ten Commandments (with the word "adultery" misspelled) on the lawn of the Haskell County Courthouse in Oklahoma (and to hell with the separation of church and state). As is often the case, they do not know much about the matter they take so seriously.

There are three separate lists of commandments in the Bible. One of them appears right after the affair of the golden calf (related in Exodus chapter 32). While Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the people lost patience and made a golden calf and worshipped it. When Moses returned and saw this, he smashed the stone tablets on which he had engraved the commandments. Three thousand men were massacred to expiate this idolatrous crime. In Exodus chapter 34, God dictates the commandments to Moses a second time. The introduction, in verse 1, connects this list with the breaking of the first tablets, and the re-engraving on a second pair of tablets.

          Exodus 34:1 And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the 
          first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou 
          brakest.

          Exodus 34:12 Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the 
          land whither thou goest, lest it be a snare in the midst of thee. 13 But ye shall destroy 
          their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: 14 For thou shalt worship no 
          other God: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. 15 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; 16 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. 17 Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
          18   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. 19 All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among 
          thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male. 20 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. 21 Six 
          days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest 
          thou shalt rest. 22 And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat 
          harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end. 23 Thrice in the year shall all your 
          men children appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 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. 25 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. 26 The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring 
          unto the house of the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.

In the conclusion, in verse 28, this list is explicitly named "the ten commandments" (although there seem to be more than ten).

          Exodus 34: 27 And the Lord said unto Moses, write thou these words: for after the tenor of 
          these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. 28 And he was there with 
          the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he   
          wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

This is the only one of the three lists that is associated in this way with the story of the engraving of the stone tablets twice, and the only one of the three lists to which the appellation "the ten commandments." is applied in this way. But alas, it is not the list to which the believers so fervently adhere, for which the Oklahoma courthouse so bravely fought. It does not deal with universal ethics, but only with.rituals specific to the religion of ancient Israel

The other two lists, in Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5, are two variants of the same document. Neither is called "the ten commandments," nor are they connected with the engraving of the stone tablets twice. The introduction and the conclusion in Exodus, on the contrary, tell us that this list was spoken by God 

          Exodus 20:1 And God spake all these words, saying,

          Exodus 20:2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out 
          of the house of bondage 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 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: 5 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; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my 
          commandments. 7 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. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to 
          keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 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, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that 
          is within thy gates: 11 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. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the 
          land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 13 Thou shalt not kill. 14 Thou shalt not commit 
          adultery. 15 Thou shalt not steal. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy 
          neighbour. 17 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.

          Exodus 20:22 And the Lord said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of 
          Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.

The introduction to the version in Deuteronomy also tells us that this list was spoken by God.

          Deuteronomy 5:4 The Lord talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of 
          the fire. 5  (I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to shew you the word of the 
          Lord: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount;) saying,

          Deuteronomy 5:6 I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from 
          the house of bondage. 7 Thou shalt have none other other gods before me. 8 Thou shalt 
          not make 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 waters beneath the earth. 9 Thou shalt not 
          bow down thyself unto 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, 10 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep 
          my commandments. 11 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. 12 Keep the sabbath day to 
          sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. 13 Six days thou shalt labour, and 
          do all thy work: 14 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, nor thy manservant, nor thy 
          maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is 
          within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. 
          15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God 
          brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the 
          Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day. 16 Honour thy father and thy 
          mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee, that thy days may be prolonged, and 
          that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 17 Thou shalt 
          not kill. 18 Neither shalt thou commit adultery. 19 Neither shalt thou steal. 20  Neither   
          shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour. 21 Neither shalt thou desire thy 
          neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his 
          manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.

The conclusion in Deuteronomy tells us that, only after the commandments had been spoken, were they engraved on stone tablets.

          Deuteronomy 5:22 These words the Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of 
          the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he 
          added no more. And he wrote them on two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me.

People who live by blind faith, who believe that the Bible is the sacred word of God, are not able to explain these contradictions. Usually they simply ignore them, recognizing only the list in Exodus and mistakenly calling it "The Ten Commandments." Rational and educated and enlightened people, on the other hand, realize that the Bible is a great book but no more than a book, an anthology containing a rich collection of documents from many sources and many periods. This material was subjected to several drastic revisions and redactions, performed so masterfully that it is difficult to recognize the seams between the different source documents.

I consider myself one of the latter kind, and I do not believe that I am obliged to obey the Ten Commandments. I find very little in the Exodus/Deuteronomy document that commands my respect, much less my obedience. I obey laws enacted by my elected representatives, not laws written by religious fanatics in the Bronze Age, which can never be repealed or even amended.
     "I am the Lord thy God": This is the colossal fraud perpetrated by the self-appointed spokesmen of the nonexistent God. Their "evidence" for God's existence is scripture that they themselves wrote.
     "No other gods before me." The spokesmen are paranoid about competition, since their livelihood and their power depend on their monopoly. Therefore this commandment is always accompanied by bloodthirsty threats.
     "Make no likeness of any thing": No graphic arts? No painting, no sculpture? No dolls or teddy-bears for children? No puppet theater? No photography? No cinema? No television? What rubbish! Moreover, the text "in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters beneath the earth" reveals what sort of primitive mentality was the author of this drivel.
     "Do not take the name of the Lord in vain": This is the worst kind of primitive superstition. I do not believe in the magic power of words, not even of names.
     "Keep the sabbath": Of course each person should be allowed a respite from work -- but only religious fanatics are crazy enough to insist on the stoppage of every normal activity by everyone simultaneously, bringing a whole nation to a complete standstill every seven days.
     "Honor thy father and thy mother": Ask a victim of violence within the family, who was brutally punished or sexually abused as a child, about this one.
     "Do not kill": I know that murder is usually wrong. But ask a survivor from Auschwitz about the morality of killing Nazis. Ask someone who was injured by a suicide bomber, or held hostage, about the morality of killing terrorists.
     "Do not commit adultery": I think that adultery is selfish cheating, but psychologists and anthropologists tell me that it is an expression of basic instincts, so that it is pointless to legislate against it. Maybe.
     "Do not steal": I know that theft is wrong. I know it better than the Church, that levies a tithe on its followers but is itself exempt from paying taxes, and has amassed fabulous wealth and huge stores of precious art works.
     "
Do not bear false witness": I know that libel is wrong. I know it better than the Church, that promulgated the libel that the Jews killed Jesus, and the libel that Jews use the blood of Christian children to make matzah for Passover.
     "Do not covet": Only religious fanatics are crazy enough to legislate against thoughts, covetous or otherwise. Against acting on them, certainly. Against thinking them? Ridiculous!

Even among the believers, a convenient measure of their religiosity is the number of commandments they take literally. At one extreme were the Iconoclasts of the eighth century in the Byzantine Empire, or the Taliban in the twentieth century in Afghanistan, who defaced and destroyed priceless works of art because they violate the commandment prohibiting the making of images. At the other extreme is the anonymous joker in a British university who prefaced the Ten Commandments with the instruction usually found at the beginning of a university examination paper: "Candidates should not attempt more than four of the following."

Most religious people, except the most intransigent fanatics, merely pay lip service to the Ten Commandments. In practice, they pick and choose among the Exodus commandments according to their beliefs and inclinations. Jesus was no exception. His most famous saying on the subject is revealing:

          Matthew 22:35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting 
          him and saying, 36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said 
          unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and 
          with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like 
          unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang 
          all the law and the prophets.

The lawyer had hoped to confound Jesus, but was himself confounded. Jesus's answer implied that simple faith and purity of character are as good as detailed knowledge of all the legal technicalities. Unfortunately, his answer also implied that the scriptures, and even the Ten Commandments themselves, are unnecessarily verbose. It also implied that the Ten Commandments miss the point, since neither of the two commandments that Jesus enunciated are contained in the official list of ten.

When an interlocutor did not intend to test Jesus, but to appeal to him, his answer was quite different:

          Matthew 19:16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing 
          shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 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. 20 The 
          young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 
          21 Jesus said unto him, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt 
          have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22 But when the young man heard that 
          saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

Jesus chose to name only five of the Ten Commandments, concluding with the so-called "golden rule" (Leviticus 19:18) which is not contained in the official list of ten. In contradistinction to his answer to the lawyer, where he put the love of God first, here he omitted the opening commandments that deal with the relationship between God and man. The most surprising thing is, that he included "Honor thy father and thy mother" in the light of some of his other statements, that contradict this commandment:

          Luke 14:26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and 
          children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
AND
          Matthew 10:35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the 
          daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36 And a 
          man's foes shall be they of his own household. 37 He that loveth father or mother more 
          than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not 
          worthy of me.

But the real point of Jesus's answer is his final piece of advice: Divest yourself of all your possessions, and follow me. In other words: Relieve yourself of the onerous necessity of being an independent adult, of taking responsibility, of having to think for yourself. Abdicate your right to make your own decisions, stop thinking, and just follow me blindly like a mindless idiot. This is very much like the advice given by the charismatic leaders of cults. No wonder Jesus did not include love of God, since his advice was: Love me and follow me. We can understand why the young man "went away sorrowful." Leaders of cults know that, if you catch your victim in a moment of weakness, the invitation to stop living one's own life may be seductive. But the young man apparently had enough brains to realize that, if he gave in to the temptation, he would be even more sorrowful afterward.