The Ten Commandments (Then and Now)
A paper on the Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments, how many times have we read or heard these told to us? But, do we actually know and understand the meaning behind these instructions? Why were they passed to us? What purpose do they serve? How did they define the history of the Israelites, Christianity and the world today? And how are they followed by today’s Christian? We are going to take each commandment and examine it based on the questions and views as outlined in the above.
“You shall have no other gods before Me.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
Throughout history, the pagan religions worshipped a variety of gods. This commandment was given to the Israelite people, to guide them from the worship of the pagan gods. Worship of the single God, allowed for a separation or definition of the Israelites as a united nation unto itself. They were able to unite all of the tribes of Israel, into a single cohesive nation of people, by defining a God that was unique to them. This God chose the Israelites as his people. He was their warrior, guide and provider.
The early Christians, who followed the teachings of Jesus, believed in this same God. They were Jewish Hebrews who felt that Jesus was the Messiah of this God. The basis of the Christian faith followed two basic commandments, “Love your God with all your heart” which covers the first few original commandments and “Love your neighbor as yourself” which will be covered under later commandments.
In today’s world many Christians follow this original form of God as a trinity in the form of God the father, God the Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit (Spirit of God). This appears to be in contradiction to this first commandment. However, Christian dogma holds that this trinity is in fact just the different facets of the One True God. The father aspect is the spiritual body of God, the son aspect (Jesus) is the physical manifestation of God as man and the Holy Spirit is the essence of God that can dwell inside of each and every one who believes and accepts God as their savior.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
Throughout the Ancient Far and Near East areas, images of gods were found in religious sites. Gods were carved from wood or stone, cast from a variety of metals. Many of the pagan beliefs worshipped gods that resembled animals, trees or other things found in nature. The Hebrew people felt these were dead gods, gods who could not speak, eat or feel and thus considered them to be false gods. Also, gods of this nature could be stolen, defaced or some other form of desecration. So, to separate themselves, their god and their beliefs from the nations surrounding them, there was no physical image of their god created. The god of the Hebrew people was a living god, one who had never been seen, nor could he be seen by mere humans, as his countenance would be more than a mere human could bear to see and still live to describe him. This allowed for the Hebrew god to only be “seen” or “heard” by those who were of true faith and those of “pagan” beliefs were unable to interact with the Hebrew god.
In more recent times, we see those of Christian beliefs (and Judaic beliefs as well) still claiming to follow this commandment. And for the most part they do. However, while they might not be worshipped, many people have paintings of wildlife, jewelry with religious symbols and various other “images” that resemble items “found above in the heavens or beneath in the earth”. Many today are “guilty” of breaking the first part of this commandment and by default the second part as well by hanging those paintings or wearing that jewelry. Once an item is placed for display for the purpose of adoration (home décor) it becomes a worshipped item.
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
This commandment is presented as deterrence from making an oath of a deceitful nature. It was common practice to swear an oath on certain things to show your word was binding in an agreement. Anyone who swore an oath in the name of god was bound to honor that oath on pain of punishment from God himself.
Modern English and word structure has changed the meaning of this commandment for today’s Christian. This commandment is used more as a reference to curse or swear words today. Words considered vulgar or inappropriate in civilized conversation. This is a commandment that is broken unintentionally quite easily on a daily basis, due in part to how modern English and slang words have evolved over the years.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
This was one of the most important commandments of its time. At the time this was passed down, it referred to more than just a week timeframe. It also was used for yearly timeframes as well. The seventh day or year was a time of rest and renewal. A time to reflect and worship the things you had been blessed with. It allowed the land to recover its nutrients for a new cycle of crops. During the seventh day, there was no type of work or labor allowed. It was a day of complete worship of God. And during the seventh year the land was not worked at all, and what grew wild during that year was for those in a widow or poor status.
This commandment is broken completely in today’s society. We have taken the seventh day and reduced it to a mere few hours in church at best. In the last century, we have gone from Sunday being a day off, businesses closed, a day of reflection spent at church and with others, to it just being another day. Sunday is a day of rushing to finish up the current weeks work and preparing for the next week, sales in the department stores, restaurants overcrowded with the church crowds, to watching the football games on TV. We have completely forgotten the purpose of “keeping the Sabbath day and keeping it holy”.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
Children in ancient times learned the majority of their knowledge from their parents and close relatives. They learned a trade or other skill that would allowed them to survive as adults. Children (the males especially) were often allowed to speak for the father after a certain age and the father was responsible for any agreement made by the son. Anything that the children did, the father was responsible for those actions. Once they became adults, and their parents could not support themselves, the children would provide for them until the end of their days in return.
Youth of today, have almost no regard for this commandment. Parents do not enforce nor teach it to their children it seems. Our civil laws have made for this commandment to be easy for children to disregard. Parents are held responsible for their child’s actions, but are limited in recourses to punish disobedience or utilize effective training tools (I.E. a belt to the backside). We see many of today’s youth in various stages of legal troubles due to this commandment being disregarded.
“You shall not murder.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
Murder was originally defined as “purposely or intentionally killing someone”. Accidentally or inadvertently killing someone was also murder, but held a different punishment. The punishment for the first type of murder was death. For the second, there were various penances that could be paid for forgiveness of the crime.
Today, we still have varying degrees of murder. We have first, second degree murder, we also have differing versions of manslaughter. Our justice system has a variety of punishments for each offense and the severity of the offense. For a commandment that is very blunt, we seem to use every excuse to justify killing another human being.
“You shall not commit adultery.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
During the time this commandment was passed down, adultery was, for the most part, something that involved a married woman. Any woman who was married, either currently or divorced, and had sex with a man other than her husband was guilty of adultery, as was the man. Punishment for breaking this commandment was being stoned to death. However, there is an extreme gray area as to the man who was married and had sex with other women. The man was allowed multiple wives (as long as he treated them the same) and he was allowed to have sex with unmarried women as well, without being guilty of adultery. It was common for a man who was married but his wife was unable to conceive children, to have children by his wife’s handmaiden. It was also practiced that if a man died, that his widow would be married to one of his brothers and treated as his other wives.
In today’s society, any person who has sex with a married person is guilty of adultery. This, however, does not apply to persons that are legally divorced. We are not allowed multiple wives. And for those couples who cannot conceive for one reason or another, we have adoption processes that are utilized so that the couple can have children. There are many legal avenues that must be followed for a couple to adopt children, it isn’t as simple as the man impregnating another woman and then the child is registered under him and his wife as the legal parents. We still have laws against adultery, but the punishments do not include death today. Our laws today are more concerned with divorce and who is in default within the marriage.
“You shall not steal.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
This commandment is pretty cut and dry. Stealing was regarded as taking anything that you knew belonged to another and during the Hebrew times, punishment could be a severe as losing one’s hand or possible death. Another form of stealing was taking something that you were unaware belonged to another, and was commonly looked at as a “trespass”. To pay restitution for this “sin” normally involved returning the stolen item seven fold.
Our laws today have varying degrees of punishment for this crime. Depending on the amount or type of item taken, the manner in which it was taken is taken into consideration for punishment conferred to the convicted. Minor thefts, which would include items of less than one thousand dollars in value, might be punished by one to five years in jail and fines. Whereas thefts involving deadly weapons and items valued at over one thousand dollars, could be punished by as much as life in prison or even death.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
Originally the phrase “to bear false witness” meant to falsely accuse someone of wrongdoing. If you had a disagreement with someone, you could accuse them of a crime or other trespass and take them before a “judge”. By doing this, and having a witness for your cause, you would be able to hold your opponent at fault and a punishment or restitution would have been imposed on them. This would allow for you to falsely gain an upper hand over the person you had a disagreement with. An example would be; if you wished to buy another’s land from him and he refused to sell, you could falsely accuse him of a wrong or trespass and require his land as payment of the fault. While this practice against outsiders was accepted, to do this against your neighbor or kinsman was deemed a “sin”.
“To bear false witness” today means, to lie or to be untruthful. While we do not have any laws, per se, against lying, it is considered a very unfavorable trait in people today. We hold trust in an individual in high regard, and when someone is found to be a liar, that trust is broken and can take a lifetime to rebuild. During legal proceedings, we have what is known as perjury, which is knowingly lying to the court under oath. This is considered a crime and is punishable at the presiding judge’s discretion. The same can be said about falsifying official documents. While this is not technically what was meant by this commandment, this is what we today view as “bearing false witness”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”(New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif)
This commandment was given as an effort to prevent greed, theft, adultery or other “sins” against your neighbor (community). Coveting items that belonged to your neighbor, of which you could not afford, could lead to stealing. It also could lead to you attempting to have sexual relations with his wife. It is human nature to want what we can’t have. And it seems that no matter what we have, we always want more. And that is greed. Greed can lead a person to do horrendous things to acquire those things they desire to have. It has led to murder, rape, robbery and a host of other crimes. By coveting those things that others have; tends to leave us with the feeling that we are not as well off as others, or that they have been blessed more than us.
In today’s world, businesses thrive on people coveting what others have. Each year, billions of dollars are spent on advertising products in the hope that you will purchase that item. The art of portraying an item as a “must have” has become a lucrative business. Companies use props that are focused at relating to the consumer, or having the consumer picturing them-selves with the item being sold. Scantily clad women are used to entice the male demographic consumer by focusing on their libido. Beauty enhancement tactics are used to increase female purchasing. And the “this is the latest and greatest product on the market” tactic is used to pull in the under twenty year old consumers. We have taken this commandment and used the disobedience of it to our commerce advantage. By exploiting the very core of what it means to covet, we have built huge retail empires and in turn have caused the disobedience of many commandments in the process.
Ten simple commandments; even from the very beginning, mankind has had trouble following these rules. Originally, breaking these commandments meant certain punishment found in violation. But, in today’s world we tend to find justification for why not following the Ten Commandments is not a “sin”. We have twisted the meanings around to agree with how we wish to live our lives. If we still followed old laws and customs, many of us today that claim to be “Christian” would find ourselves on the wrong side of the law and facing a punishment of probable death for our “sins”. Just as people and the laws for acceptable social and communal living evolve; so do the morals and beliefs of the religious practices. What was once considered a “sin” punishable by death is now nothing more than a minor infraction of faith that requires only a simple atonement to correct.
Our acceptance of how to live by the Ten Commandments today is a far and very sad cry from how they were expected to be followed when first passed down to the Hebrew people from God.
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Henry, Matthew. "Exodus 20 Matthew Henry's commentary on the whole bible." 2004-2011.biblos.com.24 06 2011 <http://mhcw.biblecommenter.com/exodus/20.htm>.
New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. "Exodus 20 NASB." 2004-2011.Biblos.com.03 June 2011 <http://nasb.scripturetext.com/exodus/20.htm>.