I’ve avoided this topic for a while for a number of reasons. Mostly, I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t leaving because of some beef with the teachings. I have plenty of beefs with the teachings, but I kind of just accepted that these were things to be wrestled with, or that wisdom needed to be teased out of it or whatever. To be sure, this probably made it easier to let go of it, when I realized that the evidence was inadequate. The cognitive dissonance was like a coiled spring in my mind that was a pleasure to relax. Now I look at it and am amazed that it ever impressed me.
I’ll have to come back to this topic several times, I expect. It’s an interesting topic not only in its own right, but because it undermines biblical credibility. I believe the post on women falls into this category – reconciliation of these teachings with the concept of God-inspired text requires mental flic-flacs; the simplest explanation for the weakness of the teaching is that it’s a product of its time and its very human authors.
It’s also strange to write or talk about because it feels blasphemous to criticise the Bible, but I have realised that the whole concept of blasphemy is an effective way to create self-censorship. Sometimes when I’m talking to Christians it feels like I’ve picked up a diamond in a museum and the metal doors have come slamming down. Holy cows can be protected by writing off the critic as ‘blasphemous’. But if you’re searching for truth, you need to be willing to tread these hallowed grounds with your eyes, mind and conscience open.
In this post I’m going to discuss the ten commandments. These are held up as the pinnacle of wisdom and the epitome of righteous law, without which our society would fall into disarray. After all they were supposedly written by God’s own hand, the only part of the Bible that was not just inspired but his actual words, handed down to Moses to direct the people (although we only have Moses’ word for it).
- I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. There’s no extra-biblical (e.g., archaeological) evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt. Are we supposed to believe it because the Bible says so? (As an aside: how could I have been in Christian circles for so long, studying it as closely as I did and not know that there’s no independent evidence for the Exodus or even that the Israelites were ever in Egypt?).
- Thou shalt not make for thy self any graven image of any likeness of anything in the heavens above, the earth below or the waters beneath the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them or worship then. (Check! Atheists are way ahead of the game here.) How much art throughout the world and down through history has been lost because of this commandment? Either we’re not obeying God on this anymore, or God seriously misjudged what people would do with this. Nowadays, this one is also reinterpreted/watered-down by modern Christians to mean have a good sense of priority or something equally banal. Although the details are left vague, for example what does it actually mean to say you put God before your family? Because if he wants me to sacrifice one of my kids a la Abraham, he can take a long walk off a short pier. You might also expect that God would know that he hadn’t made the world with “waters beneath the earth”: this seems to be a clue that Moses wrote the commandments because he clearly subscribed to the wisdom of the ancient world that underneath the earth were the waters of the deep. But again it’s not a moral injunction: in the usual interpretation it’s at best a piece of vague advice; in a more straightforward interpretation it’s an attack on other religions, like the first commandment.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. So the “your” would seem to imply that this one only applies to people who would say he is their god. But what does the commandment really mean? A major interpretation is blasphemy, which is really a thought control thing as I mentioned in the first paragraph. But as with any vague command, it can mean almost anything you want it to mean. Again, none of these cover anything that could be reasonably called criminal. In fact, none of them is even really moral. The basis of morality as it is widely understood (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is not covered by these either.
- Remember to keep the Sabbath holy. Six days shall you labour and do all you have to do, but the seventh day is holy unto the Lord. On it you shall do no work. This is also vague. Religious groups who take this seriously seem a little archaic. “On it you shall do no work” seems unambiguous enough, but most Christians think nothing of a nurse or engineer who has a Sunday shift, or a teacher who grades papers on a Sunday. It’s neither criminal nor immoral in any meaningful sense. But what then is the point, and why did God come down and give it to us, if he knew it would be hard to even understand?
- Honour your mother and father, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God has given you. Again it’s not clear how “honour” is defined. Details are scarce, and things like abusive parents are not dealt with explicitly. No matter how you define honour though, there are examples of people who honour their parents and die young, as well as people who don’t honour their parents and live to a ripe old age, so again we could categorise this as somewhat trite advice with an overblown threat attached to it.
- Thou shalt not murder. Finally something that makes sense, though not particularly novel. Everyone independently came to this same conclusion, so it was hardly necessary to have a divine intervention. However, details are again scarce – for example genocide seems not to be covered, and indeed God sends his people to do it (including every man, woman, child and animal) with a couple of chapters (Deut 7). It takes very contorted religious reasoning to make this okay – most Christians simply say that the Israelites got it wrong and God didn’t want that (actually, most just put on a spiritual expression and tut tut about how difficult it is to understand). Others try to say that if God commands it, it’s okay. This is so repugnant to me – snatching babies from their mothers and smashing them is not okay, and if God says it is then I want nothing to do with him – I do presume to judge this and find it wanting, as would any right thinking person.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery. Good general advice, which can be inferred from the golden rule (supposing your societal structure is built around monogamy), but hardly the same level as murder. Murder is a crime. Adultery is caddish. The former makes you a criminal. The latter makes you an arsehole. This is actually a good example of how religions blur the distinctions. I have never watched the TV show, but heard of the horror of Josh Duggar who sexually abused his siblings. He said: “I acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret…I confessed this to my parents who took several steps to help me address the situation.” If he were stealing his mother’s cookies, this might suffice, but for this it’s woefully inadequate. His behaviour is not naughty – it’s criminal and he should go to jail. It’s not the same kind of thing at all. But somehow this line is blurred and all these things are treated as equally “evil”. Also, Christian prurience raises this right up to the higher levels of crime, while Christian convenience allows us to shrug off the 4th commandment for example.
- Thou shalt not steal. The second reasonable commandment, which prohibits criminal behaviour, albeit very much in line with existing codes of law of the time. Sadly though, this one didn’t seem to extend to the taking of the land of the people they are commanded to wipe out within a couple of chapters (eg Deut 7:2).
- Thou shalt not bear false testimony. Good thought. Perhaps Moses shouldn’t have pretended that these commandments came from God then. In fairness to him, he might have believed it himself. It’s just mystifying that anyone else did (including me).
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbours possessions, neither his man servant nor maid servant nor his wife nor cattle etc. I would have thought that God would have a more enlightened view of women as being people, rather than possessions. It belies the origin of these commandments as human rather than divine, since it reflects very much the thinking of the time. This is another tricky one, because it’s about a thought crime. If you ask a Christian if ambition is okay, they’ll generally say it is. If you say that this is coveting something that you don’t have, they’ll find some excuse for it. I’ve heard people say “Oh, this means wanting to have something that somebody else has instead of them.” Well, that’s just mean and a little bit petty, but it’s not murder! Again, we tend not to take this one too seriously.
So there it is. Notably absent are genocide (as I mentioned), rape, child-abuse and slavery – perhaps the worst violations that humans commit on one another. If this didn’t exist in the Bible, would you strive to recreate it (given that the good bits were already long-since codified in earlier legal frameworks like the Code of Hammurabi)? If it were lost, would the world be any the lesser?
And we are supposed to believe that this was God’s big intervention? That he grew tired of talking through the prophets, and came down to the mountain to literally set things in stone. I had a Christian tell me recently that I needed to humble myself and seek God. In this context, such an injunction simply means to stop using your brain. You’d have to stop, because even the slightest application of your brain would lead you to believe that the ten commandments, far from coming from God, were nothing more than an invention of the author of Exodus.