Almost like clockwork, controversy regularly erupts over whether or not the biblical Ten Commandments (Decalogue) should be posted in courthouses, schools, city halls, state houses, Congress, etc. Proponents of posting the Ten Commandments claim that they provide the moral foundation of western civilization; opponents say that posting them in public (tax-supported) places is an illegitimate intrusion of religion into secular life.
Separation of church and state is probably more deeply woven in the constitutional fabric of the United States than in many other countries. Therefore, such eruptions probably most often take place in the U.S. than in other countries; however, they certainly aren’t limited to the U.S.
Without in anyway attempting to take sides in the matter, I believe it would be useful to examine these ten prescriptions to see exactly what they say — and don’t say.
There are numerous English translations of the Ten Commandments. Probably the most widely used comes from the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, so this is the one we will use to analyze each commandment. The analysis will rest on three fundamental criteria:
Is it a religious prescription?
Is it a moral prescription?
Is it both a religious and moral prescription?
And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
There can be little doubt that this is a religious prescription with no moral content. Moreover, it is a partisan religious prescription because it is addressed only to the tribes of Israel and no one else. Yet people who would like to see the commandments posted in public places would insist that this one is addressed to everyone, which clearly it isn’t.
The wording is also rather peculiar: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. It seems to say that the single, monotheistic God so dear to Christians, Jews, and Muslims is not a unique being at all, but rather the first among many, i.e. the chief god, like Zeus to the Greeks and Jupiter to the Romans.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 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; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
There can be little doubt that this also is a religious prescription with no moral content. Moreover, the warning that “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation,” i.e. inflicting pain and suffering on the innocent, would appear to be distinctly immoral.
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.
Again, this is a purely religious prescription with no moral content.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: 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: 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 Sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Once again, this would seem to be a purely religious prescription with no moral content. However, on closer inspection, it might. The phrase “in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter . . .” could be considered the forerunner of giving laborers time off to recuperate and have some kind of private life of their own. This is a distinct social benefit, so this commandment probably should be classified as having both religious and moral content.
However, “thou shalt not do any work” on the Sabbath is a practical impossibility. If nobody did anything that would count as work, then essential things would never get done, i.e. police services would have to close, fire services would to close, hospitals would have to close, transportation services (road, rail, air) would have to close, etc. Hardly be feasible or desirable in a modern society.
Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
If we take only the first part of the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother,” then this could be considered a moral prescription. By adding the remainder of the text, it also becomes a religious prescription. And a highly partisan one at that, since it refers only to the land given to the Israelites. Its application to the lands and the peoples of the rest of the world is irrelevant.
If we retain only the first part of the commandment, we still run into problems. Honoring one’s father and mother would seem to be the right and proper thing to do. However, doesn’t that depend on who one’s father and mother are? What about Hitler’s children, if he had had any? Or Stalin’s children, Yakov Dzhugashvili, Vasily Dzhugashvili, Svetlana Alliluyeva? To bring things up to date, what about the children of Saddam Hussein? Or Osama bin Laden’s?
Thou shalt not kill.
This commandment clearly has only moral content. However, like Commandment 5 to honor one’s father and mother, it opens up a Pandora’s Box of difficulties with regard to implementation. People who claim to adhere to this commandment seldom articulate the unspoken subtexts. They seem to believe that what the commandment actually says is:
Thou shalt not kill, except:
In case of self-defense
In case of the defense of others
In case of war
In case of punishment for heinous crimes
To promote one’s political beliefs
To promote one’s moral beliefs
Even by articulating these subtexts, the problem persists because some people will adhere to some of the clauses while other people will adhere to others. For example, you could be perfectly in accord with items 1-3 but still be opposed to capital punishment.
The Quakers (Society of Friends) famously try to adhere to the letter of the commandment without reference to the subtexts. This is why they have traditionally refused to fight in wars but have been more than willing to serve in the medial corps, risking their lives to evacuate and treat injured soldiers and civilians. Their strict interpretation of the commandment has seldom been appreciated by others, and they have suffered dearly for it.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
This is straightforward moral prescription. When you marry, you pledge not to look elsewhere for sexual gratification. As someone once joked, “Now do you see why I am not married? There is no restraint on fornication. I think that was a very wise decision.”
Thou shalt not steal.
This is another apparently straightforward moral prescription: you do not take that which belongs to others. In the vast majority of situations, this gives rise to no conflicts; however, in extreme circumstances it might.
For example, if you are dying from hunger, you would be sorely tempted to violate the commandment to steal a bit of food, particularly if it were from someone who apparently had food in abundance. However, strict moralists have seldom seen it this way. In Britain until relatively recent times, stealing food or anything else out of dire necessity provoked severe judicial sanctions, including long jail sentences. The same was true in many other “Christian countries,” and still is today in many non-Christian countries.
The attitude is aptly summed up in the adage “He that will steal a penny will steal a pound.” Other languages have equivalent sayings; for example, in French they say to steal an egg is to steal a cow (Qui vole un oeuf vole un boeuf).
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Once again another apparently straightforward moral prescription: you do not lie about others. With a bit of imagination, we could probably all find extreme cases where lying would be preferable to not lying. However, barring such extreme cases, this commandment admits of no criticism.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.
This is an odd commandment because rather than commanding, it seems to be a piece of sound psychological advice.
“Covet” means to strongly want something that someone else possesses. In itself, coveting does no harm to society, just as not coveting does no good. The principal beneficiary of not coveting is the individual because it keeps them from being eaten up by envy. If you can train yourself not to desperately want something someone else has, then you run little risk of disturbed piece of mind. However, if you are constantly thinking about acquiring something you cannot have, you are likely to do damage to both your mental health and physical health. You might even progress to violating Commandment 8: Thou shalt not steal.
Since number 10 does not seem to be a commandment but rather a piece of psychological advice, it is legitimate to ask: Should it be on the list at all?
If it is retained, it would have to be modified. The phrase “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” betrays an unacceptable degree of sexism. This would better be said “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor spouse,” which would affirm equality of the two genders.
We are now ready to do a tally. If we are going to excise those commandments that are purely religious in order to maintain separation of church and state, then Commandments 1, 2, and 3 immediately fall away. As we have seen, Commandment 4 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy . . .” can be considered both religious and moral. However, since it is predominantly religious, it too should fall away.
Commandment 5 “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” is both religious and moral. However, the religious content can easily be dispensed with, so with slight modification it could be retained.
Commandments 6-10 are all purely moral. Thus, despite problems of implementation, they should be retained.
The final tally shows that of the original Ten Commandments, only six remain, with some requiring modifications of wording. Here are the new Six Commandments.
Honor thy father and thy mother.
Thou shalt not kill, except in case of:
(This commandment is still under construction.)
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s spouse, nor manservant, nor maidservant, nor ox, nor ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
The question persists as to whether this is really a commandment or a piece of good advice. However, since in our materialistic society it could possibly do a lot of good, let’s keep it.
These new Six Commandments would seem to provide the same moral foundation that was claimed for the original Ten Commandments, without stirring up the hornet’s nest of separation of church and state. Who could object to posting this list in public places? Except perhaps those who consider that moral prescriptions without the backing of God (meaning their interpretation of the Bible) have no moral force. But that’s quite a different debate.
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Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.
He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.
Books by this Author
The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional
The Gettysburg Collection:
A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional
Actual English: English grammar as native speakers really use it
Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it
What’d You Say? / Que Dites-Vous?
Fun with homophones, proverbs, expressions, false friends, and other linguistic oddities in English and French
Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You.
The Little Book of BIG Mistakes
The Eighth Decade: Reflections on a Life
Books in “The Essential Ten Percent” Series
(at August 2012)
College-level Writing: The Essential Ten Percent
Logical Thinking: The Essential Ten Percent
Public Speaking: The Essential Ten Percent