Some Christians parrot the tired teaching that today’s social problems are the result of not obeying the Ten Commandments. That idea hasn’t been well considered, as these rules are flawed on many fronts. I’ll explain why.
The first commandment states:
“You shall have no other gods except me.” (Exod. 20:3, NJB.) The time at which Moses was allegedly given this commandment is traditionally (but incorrectly) said to be the point in history when the ancient Jews gave up worshipping other gods such as El, Baal and Asherah to focus all their devotion on Yahweh. Yet Yahweh doesn’t exist, so it’s pointless worshipping him.
What’s more, this commandment denies people’s right to worship other gods. In many parts of the Old Testament, (and in some parts of the New) “God” orders the execution of anyone who worships another god. Jewish priests were asserting their authority, but it was pure racism. When today’s Christians assume this refers to people from other religions, we have a mandate for trouble. I think we should respect our neighbor’s right to worship any god they choose.
The second commandment states:
“You shall not utter the name of Yahweh your God to misuse it” (Exod. 20:7, NJB.) This has little to do with ethics. The implication is that God is upset by mere words. When originally written, it probably referred to keeping any oath to God made when signing a contract, something we rarely do today.
The third commandment states:
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” (Exod. 20:8, NJB.) The ancient Hebrews set aside an entire day, Saturday, every week as sacred. The reason given was to mimic the fictional scheme of creation in which God rested on the seventh day. That makes no sense.
This commandment didn’t allow any exceptions to the rule, which doesn’t work in the modern world. If the staff in a hospital were to stop working on Saturdays, many patients would die.
In the fourth century CE Christians changed God’s holy day from Saturday to Sunday so as to differentiate themselves from the Jews, so they’re disobeying God’s mindless mandate.
The fourth commandment states:
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exod. 20:12, NJB.) This rule, which promotes an admirable precept in most circumstances, is too strictly formulated. It isn’t in the interest of the child abuse or incest victim to honor a parent who’s doing them harm.
It suggests people should honor their parents to get a prize. The idea that one will live longer isn’t true, degrades the real meaning of family relationships, and patronizes the reader.
The fifth commandment states:
“You shall not kill.” (Exod. 20:13, NJB.) This “one-liner” raises more questions than it answers. It’s also hypocritical and inconsistent, as God himself often killed people or ordered their deaths.
The sixth commandment states:
“You shall not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:14, NJB.) Yet throughout scripture God quite clearly suggested Jewish men could have sex with slaves or pagan women and girls—any female who wasn’t another Jewish man’s property.
Things were different for a Jewish woman, who was expected to remain a virgin until she was married, when she became the property of her husband. She wasn’t allowed to have sex with anyone but him (see Numbers 5:13–21.) So the sixth commandment was very sexist.
The seventh commandment states:
“You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15, NJB.) This promotes an admirable ideal. Yet God repeatedly encouraged, even ordered, his people to steal from other races, so what he really meant was “You shall not steal from your fellow Jews.”
The eighth commandment states:
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16, NJB.) This commandment expresses a sound ethical idea, but once again there’s inconsistency in the bible. Lying was ok, apparently, if the person lied to was a foreigner (Gen. 12:13, 20:2, 26:7, Exod. 1:19.) God approves midwives fibbing (Exod. 1:15–22, Jer. 38:24.) What’s more, the Old Testament is riddled with lies. I have no problem accepting advice to not lie, but not from authors who made a living out of it.
The ninth commandment states:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Exod. 20:17, NJB.) The Oxford dictionary defines “covet” as “to yearn to possess.” To want someone else’s house can’t be regarded as immoral. We all want things we don’t have; it’s natural, and there’s nothing wrong with it. We shouldn’t resent our neighbor because he has a nice house, or take his house from him, but this isn’t what the commandment says.
The tenth commandment states:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exod. 20:17, NJB.) The same argument is applicable here. We can’t, and shouldn’t, deny natural desires. If the commandment stated that we shouldn’t become obsessed with our desires, or shouldn’t always give in to them, it might be teaching a lesson, but it doesn’t. What’s more, it’s unhealthy to regard women as their husband’s property.
In conclusion, the first three commandments are either immoral or pointless. The subsequent seven may have merit, but only if they’re appropriately interpreted, because they’re too poorly expressed. What’s more, the celestial dictator, who should have lead by example, ignored many of his own instructions.
Most societies throughout history have developed their own ethical rules against killing, stealing, infidelity, and lying, and those rules are usually much better expressed than here.