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What 10 Commandments Are We Talking About?
It seems we can’t go 6 months these days without some Nobel laureate down in Alabama making a big fuss about whether or not the local courthouse across from Jed’s Chicken Shed and Auntie Em’s Meat & 3 is displaying the 10 Commandments.
And to all this ado about not much, I usually reply, “Which 10 Commandments are you talking about?” And then the imaginary person I just invented for the sake of this discussion replies, “The 10 Commandments from the Bible.” And then I say, “Yeah, I figured that much, Einstein. Could you be more specific?” And then they go, “You know, the 10 Commandments: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, yada yada yada.” And I reply, “Why are you all hung up on that list when God has given us a more recent one?” And they say, “What are you talking about? There’s only one ‘10 Commandments!’” And I respond, “It’s such a pity that we skeptics know the Bible better than you people who profess to live your lives by it. There’s actually two “10 Commandments, and the one you’re always harping on was destroyed and replaced.” And then they look at me like I’ve got 2 heads, and insist that I have no idea what I’m talking about. So I kindly ask them to sit at my feet and learn from the master, and since I’m just making them up they always oblige.
“It’s like this,” I begin. “Everyone remembers the story from Exodus 20 of Moses going up Mount Sinai and receiving the 10 Commandments on the stone tablets:
THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME
THOU SHALT NOT MAKE ANY GRAVEN IMAGES
THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE LORD’S NAME IN VAIN
REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY, TO KEEP IT HOLY
HONOR THY FATHER AND MOTHER
THOU SHALT NOT KILL
THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY
THOU SHALT NOT STEAL
THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS
THOU SHALT NOT COVET
But what they usually forget,” I continue, “is that Moses shatters these tablets on the way down the mountain (Ex 32:19) and has to go back for more. But God doesn’t issue him a replacement set, He issues Moses an entirely different 10 Commandments (Ex 34):
THOU SHALT WORSHIP NO OTHER GOD
THOU SHALT NOT MAKE ANY IDOLS
CELEBRATE THE FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD
THE FIRST OFFSPRING OF EVERY WOMB BELONGS TO ME
NO ONE IS TO APPEAR BEFORE ME EMPTY-HANDED
SIX DAYS SHALL YOU LABOR, BUT ON THE SEVENTH DAY YOU SHALL REST
CELBRATE THE FESTIVAL OF WEEKS AND THE FESTIVAL OF INGATHERING
DO NOT OFFER THE BLOOD OF A SACRIFICE WITH ANYTHING CONTAINING YEAST
BRING THE BEST OF THE FIRSTFRUITS OF YOUR SOIL TO THE HOUSE OF THE LORD
DO NOT COOK A YOUND GOAT IN ITS MOTHER’S MILK”
Three of them are basically the same,” I point out, “…the bits about the Sabbath, idols, and ‘no other gods;’ but the other 7 are brand spankin’ new!” My audience (which has swelled to about a dozen since I began) sits there stunned (as they always do), and asks, “How is it that we’ve never heard about this updated ’10 Commandments’ before?”
And I say, “Do you want the nice answer or the honest one?” And they reply, “Honest.” So I tell them. “It’s because the Bible is potentially the most boring book ever written in the history of ever, and even the people who insist it’s the literal Word of God have the good sense to skip over the vast majority of it and just fast-forward to the Goliaths and lions dens and occasionally that soft-core porn in Song of Solomon.”
And they say, “Yeah, that sounds like something we’d do; that is, if we even bother to read it at all. Most of us are content to just drive to a building once a week and sit and listen while someone in a funny robe tells us what it says.”
And I say, “Can’t say I blame ya. Anything beats trudging through Leviticus or Malachi on your own. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.” And we all nod and murmur in agreement because even though we disagree on the value of the Bible, we at least concur that’s it’s about as enthralling as a Latin tax law manual.
I ask them if they’ve learned anything new yet, and one of the quicker ones in the bunch says, “Yeah. If we’re going to whine about decorating every public lawn in town with an industrial-sized copy of the 10 Commandments, we should probably ask ourselves why we’re arguing for a set of Laws God Himself saw fit to replace with something about cooking a baby goat in its mothers milk.” I say, “very good, that’s a most logical point… So?” “So what?” they ask. “So…now that you know that God issued 2 different sets of 10 Commandments, why aren’t you lobbying for the more recent version to be displayed in your courthouses?” And they reply, “I guess because none of the newer ones have anything to do with our legal system.” And I say, “Well, only three out of ten of the old ones had anything to do with the legal system: murder, theft, and perjury; so why post the other 7?”
This one stumps them a bit, and then someone finally responds, “I guess we never gave it much thought. It just something you do, you know?“ Someone from the back jumped in, “These question aren’t fair! Our religion never taught us to think; all we really know how to do is accept whatever we’re told.” “Well, It’s never too late to start,” I say, “so let’s talk this through.” I then add, “And don’t worry. If you’re straining too hard, I’ll stop you before you hurt yourself. “Agreed,” they all replied in unison. “So let’s see where we are,” I say. “We’re now aware that there are 2 distinctly different ’10 Commandments,’ right?” “Right!” they echo. “And we’re in agreement that the reason the first one is the only one most people know about is because the Bible is coma-inducingly boring, so most people have never slogged their way through to the second, right?” “Right!” “And we all agree that it’s kinda bizarre to insist on posting a list of laws around our legal buildings when 7 of the 10 laws don’t have anything to do with our legal system, right?” “Um, I suppose,” came the more hesitant response. Two near the back were beginning to turn red with concentration, and one in the middle had the beginning of what looked like smoke emanating from her aural cavities. I quickly excused them to go outside and play kickball. “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” asked a voice from the back. “Personal amusement,” I replied. “The only thing that makes me giddier than knowing that “God “ allegedly thought it was more important to tell humanity not to cook a goat in its mother’s milk than it was to instruct them not to molest kids is the thought that some idiots in Alabama might decide to stencil this…um…divine mandate into 10 inch concrete letters outside the building where they try child molesters. That imagery makes me smile.” “That’s an interesting point,” one of them piped in, “why do we consider the 10 Commandments that we do post the 10 Most Important Rules for mankind?” “Indeed, why? That’s a fine question,” I replied. “Let’s take a look at a few of them individually.”
1. THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME
If anyone ever wanted to make a case that Bible God is a petty, insecure head-case, this would be the time. When Deuteronomy 34 reiterates the first set of 10 Commandments, it goes into a bit more detail than the Exodus version. And one of the added details is: “For the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” This supposedly enlightens us as to why this particular Commandment is being instituted. The only problem is that I John 4:8 tells us that God is love, and I Corinthians 13:4 tells us that love is not jealous, so what we’re left is, “God is love, love is not jealous, but God is jealous; which is like saying, “John is taller than Frank, Frank is taller than Stan, and Stan is taller than John,” which is nonsensical. But aside from the obvious fact that these 3 ideas are mutually exclusive, they paint a picture of an insecure deity who is insecure for absolutely no reason. The Bible repeatedly tells us that there aren’t any other gods besides God, so Bible God’s admonishment here basically amounts to a parent commanding their kid not to listen to their imaginary parents who don’t exist. For some reason, “God” seems to think this is the single most important Law in the entire universe.
2. THOU SHALT NOT MAKE ANY GRAVEN IMAGES
For reasons that elude me, Christians have decided that this Commandment is stupid and they’re not going to follow it. I agree with them that it’s stupid, because, hey, if you ever decide to secede and start your own country – and you want to lay some ground rules in order to instill an orderly society – the problem of people whittling owls out of oak trees is not going to be one of your more pressing concerns. These days it’s difficult to avoid the image of the Cross (empty if you’re Protestant, occupied if you’re Catholic) what with everyone dangling them from their necks, ears, and crown molding. And then my enraptured audience, who hasn’t said anything in a few minutes, interjects, “But those are holy images. They’re Christian icons!” To which I reply: “Go read I Samuel 15:22: Obedience is better than sacrifice.” Naturally, I believe that anything is more desirable than a butchered farm animal, but the point here is that God more highly esteems obedience to His Commandments than He does celestial brown-nosing. Bottom line: if you’re wearing a cross of gold around your neck, God is probably somewhat pleased that you’re advertising you’re not a raging Jew, but He’s still pissed off because you have a graven image dangling from your neck.
3. THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE LORD’S NAME IN VAIN
I don’t really have a particular beef with this Commandment except to say that I think it’s more relevant that someone be ordered not to rape another human being than it is to ensure that humans not improperly use the name of an invisible Being who lives in the sky. Perhaps I’ll take this opportunity to get sidetracked for a moment and start a rant about what “taking the Lord’s name in vain” actually means.
(Note: the following is a rant, as I already mentioned. You’ve been warned. If you want to stay on topic (and not learn something really interesting and new), please proceed to the end of the brackets.) [What is considered “taking the Lord’s name in vain” today, and what was considered “taking the Lord’s name in vain” way back when are completely different animals. These days, if you say “G-d D-mn,” Christians will immediately accuse you of “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” never mind the fact that you haven’t actually used anyone’s name. In the time this Commandment was issued - according to the Jewish tradition it sprung from - it was forbidden to pronounce the name of the Hebrew God, YHWH, which transliterates to Yahweh (Jehovah). You weren’t supposed to sacrilege the name by actually saying it out loud (how this potentially sacrileges the name surely deserves a thread of its own); but the point is this: It was only in uttering the name of the Creator that “taking the Lord’s name in vain” was relevant. The way in which people interpret it today makes about as much sense as saying “dad dammit” defames the name of your father.]
4. REMEMBER THE SABBATH, TO KEEP IT HOLY
This is another one that modern Christians don’t care much for observing, even though “God” appears to think to think it’s more important than not killing your neighbors. The Sabbath, as instituted by God, fell on Saturday, so the only ones who get this one right are Jews and Seventh Day Adventists. This Commandment also came with a short list of instructions as to how properly treat the Sabbath. Again turning to Deuteronomy 5:13, we find that God commands us to work six days of the week and take the seventh day off. Ask yourself: do you only work 5 days a week? Great. You're breaking a Commandment. Sinner. And when God said off He meant off. You weren’t supposed to so much as start a measly cooking fire, and God even ordered the death sentence for a man found picking up sticks on the Sabbath! One of the voices from my audience interjected, ”So when Chik-fil-a closes down shop on Sunday, they’re not doing it spitefully to deprive us all of delicious chicken sandwiches?” “That’s right,” I say, “they’re just doing it to avoid being murdered by God, even though they picked the wrong day of the week. But at least they got it half right, which is more than most Christians can say.”
“Wow,” chimed in one, “I never realized the irony of NFL post-game interviews.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Just that it now seems pretty ludicrous to see a grown man working on the…er…”Sabbath,” sporting a diamond-encrusted graven image around his neck thanking God for helping his team kick a field goal in overtime.” This bit of critical thinking pleases me greatly, and I begin to think that there might yet be some hope for my captivated audience.
5. HONOR THY FATHER AND MOTHER
I think we can all agree that honoring your parent is a noble and virtuous undertaking, but can we also agree that it’s probably not as important as, say, raping somebody?
I mean, where are out priorities? We’re now halfway through the Ten Most Important Laws Ever, and we’re quibbling over niceties before we even get to the part about killing each other? What gives?! So far, nothing on this list has anything to do with instilling a civil, orderly society. They’re just instructions on how to please a narcissistic Sky Man! “You got a point there,” someone says, “and I think I just gleamed another piece of irony in all this.” What’s that?” I ask. “Just that it’s a bit daft that folks would want to post a list of rules - one of which is ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’ - outside of a building where you’re legally permitted to slap a lawsuit on your parents.” “Yeah,” I say, “clearly none of this has been well thought out.”
6. THOU SHALT NOT KILL
Pretty self-explanatory. I think we can all agree that “God” knocked this one out of the park. Pity He isn’t much for following it Himself.
7. THOU SHALT NOT STEAL
Another obvious one. I like my stuff. I worked hard for it (occasionally even on the Sabbath). So don’t take it. (Everyone who’s ever made a mix tape for their high school crush has violated this Commandment. Just sayin’.)
8. THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY
Again, this is one we can all agree is a good idea, but it has to raise some eyebrows as far as priorities are concerned. For reasons that remain murky, “God” seems to think that consensual sex with someone who is not your spouse is a far worse crime than aggravated sexual assault on someone who is not you spouse. Seriously, God, “Don’t get a Lewinski” is more important than “Don’t play doctor with that 8-year old, Mr. priest man?” Those sacrificial aromas must’ve gotten you higher than a Snoop Dogg/Willie Nelson improv sit-in!
9. THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST THY NEIGHBOR
This is potentially the only Commandment that actually makes sense to post outside a courthouse, as it instructs one how to handle their business once they get inside the courthouse. If your neighbor didn’t jack your HD plasma screen, don’t tell the judge that your neighbor jacked your HD plasma screen. Plain and simple.
10. THOU SHALT NOT COVET
Okay, this is just plain bizarre. Never mind the fact that Paul later tells us in I Corinthians 12:31 to “Covet earnestly the best gifts,” leaving us scratching our heads and puzzling out whether we should engage in coveting or not; but wanting what our neighbor has is essentially the backbone of capitalism. Not that I’m for “keeping up with the Joneses,” mind you, it’s just that in a free-market economy, the “Joneses” are a pretty reliable calibration as to what I may hope to aspire – and thus work extry hard – for. “I want what they’ve got” is a pretty strong motivating factor. Why is this a bad thing? (And seriously, why is there still no “Thou shalt not make an altar boy give you a hummer?”)
So, hopefully I’ve just demonstrated why posting the 10 Commandments outside a courthouse isn’t an obviously terrific idea. Aside from the fact that the 10 everyone is all up-in-arms over isn’t even “God’s” most recent list, most of them don’t have anything to do with legalities, and of the three that do, only one offers any useful advice for anyone entering into the legal system. So let’s all just turn our attentions away from screaming that the 10 Commandments need to be publicly posted, and focus our collective energy where it truly belongs: lobbying Chik-fil-a to serve us some of their tasty sandwiches while we’re watching football!