21 May 2012

The Ten Commandments

Religious 59 Comments

My idiosyncratic Bible study program–“Read at least one chapter a night, and keep going till I fall asleep”–has led me to Exodus. A few nights ago I hit the Ten Commandments.

Now growing up, I remember thinking that God had some weird priorities. I mean, everybody knows that the worst thing you can possibly do is murder somebody, right? And yet that silly deity had put that offense halfway down the list. You can sort of understand Him putting the stuff about God at the top–sort of for the sake of tidiness–but c’mon, putting respect for your parents above murder?! That is inconceivable.

Anyway, upon this last reading, the list made a lot more sense to me. Yes, it’s undeniable that my further progression (or retrogression, according to most of you who post in the comments on Sunday) into born-again Christianity is partly responsible. But I also think it’s my greater experience with humans, and understanding what motivates them. Take a look at this list (Ex 20:1-17):

20 And God spoke all these words, saying:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 “You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

The numbering schemes are a little bit different, as Wikipedia the theologian explains, so I’m not going to refer to “#8” etc. But from murder on down, the list makes perfect sense, right? The only possible question would be over adultery, but I think a libertarian agnostic who flips out over this one, is actually being inconsistent. Especially back in those days, marriage was a serious contractual relationship. So if you slept with somebody else’s spouse, it was like you were bearing false witness and stealing all wrapped up into one. (And yes, at the time it was patriarchal and treated women like the property of their husbands, but even in a more liberated time like ours, I think there is a sense in which someone “cheating on his or her spouse” is breaking one of the most solemn contractual and societal pledges possible. It’s certainly a lot more serious than shoplifting.)

Like I said earlier, not only does the placement of adultery make sense to me now (whereas I probably would have thought it should be #9 when I was in 8th grade), but so do the others. I think the point of the ordering is to show what one’s one priorities in life should be.

The point isn’t to say, “Oh, a guy who murders his neighbors but calls his mom every Saturday is better than the guy who refrains from murder but tells his mom she turned him into a pansy.” No, every thing on that list is forbidden; you are a “bad guy” if you do any of that stuff.

But the point is (I think), someone who is raised in a culture that orders the list of offenses in that way, and genuinely believes it, is a lot more likely to end up being what we think of as a “good person” than if you changed the order.

People don’t wake up one day and say, “You know, it hasn’t been inculcated in me that it’s wrong to go kill someone in cold blood, so I think I’ll eat some Cheerios and go murder me somebody.” No, the person who ends up murdering does it for a variety of other reasons, and the person only ended up in those situations because he didn’t honor the Lord above all else, keep holy the Sabbath, respect his parents, etc. etc.

59 Responses to “The Ten Commandments”

  1. Daniel Kuehn says:

    I’m intrigued by the comments you have on adultery! Is your prior that “libertarian agnostics” are totally OK with men or women being lying a$$holes? Even I wouldn’t think that of them!

    • Ken B says:

      Yeah I second DK here. I am an atheist — does it show? — and I strongly endorse commandment #14 of 10. Asssuming of course that it’s betrayal not open marriage referred to. You ask someone to turn their life upside down on the basis of your commitment, and betray that trust? In politicians and people I place little faith in the promises and character of adulterers.

      I’m curious. Exodus isn’t very far in (I suppose I should say it is far out Nyuck nyuck). Is this a rereading? Or are you reading chapters at random?

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Ken this is probably my third time through the Bible, cover to cover, if that’s what you’re asking.

        • Ken B says:

          Yes it was thank you. Seemed odd you’d only be up to Exodus if you’d never read it before.

          Judges is a page turner isn’t it?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      We must have different friends on Facebook, Daniel.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Are you sure that they aren’t kidding around? Not all atheists and/or agnostics are complete douches without a moral compass. I mean, I like to think that I am pretty moral and understanding of other’s beliefs and customs even if I do not subscribe to them.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          JF are you kidding right now? As far as respecting people’s beliefs, look at the other comments in this thread, right now. As far as standard libertarians agreeing that adultery is a really serious issue, try reading Steve Landsburg’s blog.

          • Ken B says:

            I think you are referring to the Sierra threads. Those were about open marriage and polyamory not adultery involving deception or betrayal. These are very different things Bob.

            As far as respecting beliefs …why should I — or you — respect a belief that a woman is worth less than a man, about half a man really, that her husband can beat her rather freely? Or that Hindus should be killed? Just because the basis for a belief is an irrational belief in a revealed religion is not a compelling reason to respect it.

          • Joseph Fetz says:

            No, I am not kidding right now. I don’t think that libertarianism and/or atheism/agnosticism has so much to do with it as much as the fact that generally most people are assholes. Now, we can argue over whether libertarianism and/or atheist/agnosticism attracts more or less assholes from society, but that still doesn’t put the blame on those belief systems.

            • Joseph Fetz says:

              Well shoot, Bob. You may be right. After all, I just learned that “Libertard” is a term of endearment amongst your libertarian FB friends. Who woulda thunk?

  2. joeftansey says:

    As an atheist, I do not find the ordering of the commandments significant at all. Unless it says elsewhere “These commandments are listed in order of descending importance”, there’s nothing to sneeze at.

    I do think it’s a flimsy argument that “You shall have no other gods before Me” is the most important commandment. You could think Thor > Yahweh but still probably keep 99% of Yahweh’s commandments. “Don’t worship evil guys” would make more sense.

    But Yawheh doesn’t say he’s worried that you’ll become a bad person. He says he’s jealous. So jelly that he’ll nerd rage your innocent/unborn descendants.

    middle middle middle

    Divine Justice probably.

    • judah b says:

      I agree with you that the order doesn’t signify the importance. However “You shall have no other gods but me” is the most importance because it is the foundation of religion. If you believe that there are other gods than why should you listen to this god??

      • joeftansey says:

        Why is it the foundation of the religion? You can keep 99% of the commandments while worshiping Thor or your Ferrari.

        Yahweh says that the *reason* you can’t worship other gods is because he’s jealous. That isn’t convincing.

        How many christians say “Oh yeah I don’t do X because I don’t want Yawheh to get jealous”?

        How many normal people say “Oh yeah I don’t cheat on my wife because I don’t want my wife to get jealous”.

        • judah b says:

          Its the foundation of the religion because if you worship the ferrari then why do you follow anything else that god wants you too. There can only be 1 god that you believe is the god that created the world. In no way is the commandment not to idolize a ferrari like a kids idolize sports players.

    • Stephan Jerde says:

      But Yawheh doesn’t say he’s worried that you’ll become a bad person. He says he’s jealous. So jelly that he’ll nerd rage your innocent/unborn descendants.
      I take it you are talking Deuteronomy 5:9? Isn’t that literally true, though? If your dad is the kind who regularly violates those commandments, apart from those who do such things for the state, aren’t you likely to be at a significant socioeconomic disadvantage relative to those who had a more civilized dad? Historically, it takes about 3 or 4 generations to piss away a family fortune. Why shouldn’t the flip side also be generally true? Isn’t it reasonable to think that violating those commands really will affect your unborn progeny?

      • joeftansey says:

        No. I’m not drawing on some other book. It says right thar “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me”

        And even if the material consequences of your actions spill down to your children for a few generations, I don’t see any reason to add metaphysical insult to injury.

        • Stephan Jerde says:

          What makes you think that means adding metaphysical injury to material injury?

  3. Brian Shelley says:

    The order makes more sense if you understand the broader concept of idolatry. We normally think of physical idols (like in #2) or simply foreign gods (like Zeus). These “Others gods” are just the personification of what we hold the dearest in our lives. That is, if the most pressing desire of your life was to experience romantic love, then Aphrodite might have been your god of choice.

    Today we see similar behavior without the personification. A woman lives in a trailer park, but she has 5 Coach purses. You might say that she worships material possessions. She believes that her ultimate happiness (or satisfaction) lies in these possessions. As long as she believes in these “other gods” she will rationalize away the real truth in favor of those ideas that lead her closer to her presupposed ultimate satisfaction. As long as she sets other gods before the true God, her mind will never be free from her sorry state.

    The first commandment is the most important.

    • joeftansey says:

      If for some reason you worshiped your Ferrari over Yahweh, I don’t see any problems. Your Ferrari isn’t going to systematically make you break the other commandments.

      • Brian Shelley says:

        I would disagree. Because I’m cheap I drive a 2000 Honda Accord. My kid dents my car with a ball, who cares. Now, say my Ferrari is the most important thing in my life and my kid dents it and I completely explode.

        Murder, lying, stealing, etc… becomes a tool of choice when we desire something that is not obtainable through peaceful means. If I love God above all else, and love others as myself, it is hard for violence to become logically necessary to obtain those ends.

        • Ken B says:

          I would disagree. Say my god is the most important thing in the world to me and some asshat in Florida burns my holy book. I might go out and kill people. After all, god and his dignity are more important than anything.

          • Brian Shelley says:

            Some people have invented a god so weak that he needs their help to defend his reputation. Mine does not.

            • Ken B says:

              I must say this sounds like a new god. He certainly is not Bob’s OT god. He certainly is not Innocent III”s NT god.

              Perhaps the explanation is that this is a matter of your commendible attitude rather than the effect ‘god’ normally has on many brains. ‘God’ is certainly a benign idea in many brains, but it’s quite a dangerous one in a significant minority. Those promoting the meme really should take this into account, and rarely do.

            • joeftansey says:

              Is your god jealous of the Ferraris some people worship?

              • Brian Shelley says:

                If you saw a man kissing your wife you would surely be jealous, but if you saw a man kissing your 5-year old daughter would you still call it jealousy? If not, then what do you call it?

        • joeftansey says:

          Ferraris are best obtained through peaceful means. I don’t know anyone who has successfully stolen a Ferrari. But I do know plenty of people who have committed horrible crimes in the name of religion.

          So I don’t think Ferraris are uniquely corrupting.

          • Fuddle says:

            Because, of course in the lands of milk-and-honey ruled by atheist demagogues such Lenin’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s and utterly respectful of human rights and their organs, China- the greatest amount of murder the world has yet witnessed did not occur.

            Not only so mind numbingly enormous but very well documented- as all psychopaths (including Himmler- true architect of Holocaust) see common University cited collection of peer-reviewed texts here- empirically PROVE State Atheism is more murderous than any religious belief.

            Only Hitler (most evil man everrrrr), Kublai Khan (oh no, wait he’s been rehabilitated into A Mongolian hero) and the Spanish Inquisitors (o who were not acting using religion as a means of Queen Isabel’s Reconquista campaign to expel the invaders and disloyal riff-raff).
            Oh who else, various Popes since Constantine and soon the Atheists will dig up poor Charlemagne and apply the Revisionism hagiography to him too..
            Try again.
            This time try argumentem ad factum- argument with fact.
            Shoddy logic, straw-men, character assassination, guilt by association and anecdote are not all convincing .

      • Gene Callahan says:

        It surely will, joeftansey. Almost every breaking of any other commandment stems from breaking the first one.

        • joeftansey says:

          Of course. If you commit adultery then you must not have been taking Yahweh seriously. Do you propose any non-circular test for this hypothesis?

          But we’re in the realm of psychology where anything goes. Plenty of people put Yahweh first and yet fail to uphold his commandments. If they were more intelligent or had more conviction they might be able to worship Yahweh as a minor god but achieve better adherence to the other commandments. Nothing follows from the first commandment except that Yahweh is jealous.

        • Egoist says:

          Jesus’ followers were called upon by Jesus to break one of the ten commandments.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          “Do you propose any non-circular test for this hypothesis?”

          Reading the works of Augustine? (Of course, I’m kidding, there’s no need for you to read this: atheists already know all about religion before studying it at all!)

          “Plenty of people put Yahweh first and yet fail to uphold his commandments.”

          So they were putting him first by… not listening to what he said?!

          • Anonymous says:

            “Reading the works of Augustine?”

            Oh yeah I read those and then I read this other stuff that disproved it. You probably haven’t read it though.

            Let me know if you want to actually advance an argument.

            “So they were putting him first by… not listening to what he said?!”

            There are many reasons someone might fail to uphold Yahweh’s commandments. Use your imagination!

            1) Having the wrong interpretation of the bible
            2) Error in judgment
            3) Stupidity
            4) Not having read the bible thoroughly
            5) Not having read the bible
            6) Not being able to read


          • Tim Miller says:

            While I’m very appreciative of Agustine’s fight against Pelagius, I never got very far into his Confessions.

            • Ken B says:

              The beginning is where the good bits are.

              You should ask god for the willpower to read the rest of it, just not yet.

      • judah b says:

        The importance of a commandment has nothing to do with how many other commandments it will lead me to violate. That would lead to circular logic of not violating commandments just so you don’t violate other commandments. The importance is decided by god and if you don’t believe in god the all the commandments in your eyes are equally unimportant.

  4. Ken B says:

    “No, the person who ends up murdering does it for a variety of other reasons, and the person only ended up in those situations because he didn’t [follow some earlier commandment]”

    Well if we’re to be consistent in our morality-by-numbers scheme I suggest that you need to put #17 early on. Your notion seems to be like the broken windows theory, and that if we can inclulcate some good habits early on we’ll have a more moral pupil at the end. And in that scheme surely #17 must come BEFORE the consequences of ignoring it — such as theft or adultery.

    Instead we get the god talk early on, with the usual threats to great great grand children. That seems the novel religious contribution of the list; otherwise these seem like pretty standard rules that every mono-god-free society promotes in some form or other.

  5. John G. says:

    The Ten Commandments are clearly inadequate.

    Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates the inadequacy of the Ten Commandments. The priest and Levite who failed to assist the stricken traveler did not trip over any of the Ten Commandments. But, clearly, they failed to obey Jesus’ Two Great Commandments.

    The O.T. is a bunch of hooey. It is a political creation and myth (kind of like our moon landing myth: ‘What a nation, that could raise a boy to slay Goliath or land on the moon!’).

    The slimmed down version of the N.T. prescribed by bishop Marcion focuses us on Jesus, his clear break from Judaism and the O.T., and his message of peace and brotherly love.

    • Stephan Jerde says:

      No, those who passed by the stricken traveler DID break the commandments. That was kind of the point. Jesus explains how right after the Beatitudes in Matthew. That’s the source for Jimmy Carter’s “lusted in his heart” admission, even though he (probably) didn’t act on the thought.

      And as Bob pointed out last week, “love your neighbor as yourself” is Old Testament law.

      • John G. says:

        Which commandment did they break, Stephan?

        Sure, the O.T. has ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ as do many religions/philosophies.

        However, unlike the O.T., the N.T. has it as its centerpiece.

        • Stephan Jerde says:

          I think what the second, third, and I think, sixth chapters of Genesis are saying is that man was expelled from the Garden of Eden for violating the “love your neighbor”. But that’s quite off topic…

          Martin Luther thought the Good Samaritan was about the Fifth Commandment: “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every need and danger of life and body.”

  6. Yosef says:

    Bob, you wrote “and the person only ended up in those situations because he didn’t honor the Lord above all else, keep holy the Sabbath, respect his parents, etc. etc.”

    The first part of that, about not honoring the Lord above all else, feels like one of those ‘No true Christian’ things. You are by definition excluding those who commit murder from being followers of the Lord, so obviously if they followed the commandment to honor the Lord they wouldn’t have murdered.

    As for the others, that seems like a testable thing, no? Survey criminals, see how many of them were raised with going to worship on the Sabbath, how many have parents who said they were good kids, etc. and see if being raised following those things leads to a lower incidence of crime. Or look at adoption data of kids who are adopted by religious parents, and see if they have a lower incidence of crime.

    Personally, I never thought the order of the commandments mattered much. At no point is it ever suggested that God discriminates between them as being more or less important. No, the part of the commandments that really gives me trouble is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me”

    Bob, if you can please spend some time on that part, since it is related to the question I asked last week about God’s bad side, and the common Egyptian.

    • Ken B says:

      I am curious about this sect, the note-rew. They seem quite beastly. I am often told note-rew christians would murder, enslave, steal, lie, and generally misbehave. They sound very like ordinary christians to me, but I’m told it’s really the note-rew.

      • Dan says:

        I would see that differently. I would call a Christian who would murder, enslave, steal, lie, and generally misbehave to be a phoney. Maybe someone who did those kind of things accepts Jesus but I would doubt their claim.

    • Stephan Jerde says:

      Yosef, I don’t know Bob’s take on that third and fourth generation, but I gave my answer to this question in a reply to joeftansey.

      • Yosef says:

        Stephan, I saw your response to joeftansey, and found it a bit lacking. You say that it takes about 3 or 4 generations to piss away a family fortune…so what? Is pissing away a fortune somehow a sin? (I mean, in the sense of the commandments). If your point is ‘Hey, if a father is a sinner, a son is more likely to sin too, so let’s just say in advance that God should visit the sin on him too’ then I have to say that’s crazy.

        That part of the commandment doesn’t say that the iniquity of the father is visited on sinning generations, but on all generations. Even if we say that sons of sinners are more likely to sin, that still means there are sons of sinners who are just fine (Bob, if you are reading this, I know we are all sinners, but I think you know what I mean). So why should they be held accountable?

        • Stephan Jerde says:

          I’m not saying you are more likely to sin because of what your dad did, though that’s probably true.

          I’m just saying that if your dad was a bank robber, more than likely he’s either going to spend a great deal of your youth in prison, or the example he’s setting is going to place a marginal propensity on your adopting a morally casual attitude towards stealing. If he’s caught, you are more likely to end up growing up without the benefits you might have had if your dad had a more honest career. You drop out to help feed your siblings, or attend a college you can afford, rather than one your intelligence merits, or whatever.

          You are being punished for your father’s sin.

          Now, if you are starting out the rat race at a disadvantage, your kids also face an uphill battle. They are being punished for granddad’s sin.

          I’m guessing you can extrapolate the next step.

        • Stephan Jerde says:

          Oh, and no, there’s nothing wrong with pissing away a fortune. I was simply using it to say that just as it takes a few generations to knock a family from king of the hill, it will likely take a few to get out of the hole your dad dug you into.

  7. Tom E. Snyder says:

    Ask Gary North if there is any significance to the order.

  8. Jacob AG says:


    Would you agree that evangelicals today should focus more on curbing adultery and less on curbing abortion? The Bible (10 commandments included) is much less equivocal on the former issue.


  9. Andrea says:

    I listened to a podcast from a rabbi who explained the order of the 10 commandments. There are two tablets which face each other. Commandment one faces commandment six. Two faces seven, three faces eight, etc… He went on to explain how these facing commandments relate to each other. They were meant to be read in that order. Number six, “You shall not murder,” is right on top.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      That’s very interesting, Andrea, I don’t think I’d ever heard that.

    • joeftansey says:

      I also found it interesting, but was unable to find any evidence for the claim. The tablets are destroyed or lost.

  10. An2 says:

    Why is God so concerned about oxes and donkeys? Aren’t these rules supposed to apply for all times and places? I’d be impressed if he mentioned cars and iPhones, and some other stuff we don’t have yet.

  11. Egoist says:

    No, the person who ends up murdering does it for a variety of other reasons, and the person only ended up in those situations because he didn’t honor the Lord above all else, keep holy the Sabbath, respect his parents, etc. etc.

    Or, they did honor the Lord above all else, they did keep holy the Sabbath (whatever that means), and they did respect their parents, but they killed people anyway. I mean, that’s what Jesus instructed his followers to do:

    “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.” – Luke 19:27.

    Jesus was not only OK with killing every man, woman and child who refused to recognize him as their King, but Jesus was of an especially notable temperament that he wanted to WATCH the killings take place in front of him.

    As an egoist, I admire you for refusing to condemn a “despicable”, “evil”, “immoral” man, and accept the man for who he is, but as also an egoist, I laugh at you for having such a sunshine and lollipops conception of Christianity.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Again, I just want to point out to anyone unfamiliar with the Bible, that Egoist here is quoting Jesus telling a parable. That is NOT Jesus talking to His followers, it is Jesus telling a story and putting words in a “certain nobleman’s” mouth. As I pointed out to Egoist when he pulled this stunt last week, if I tell my son the story of the boy who cried wolf, it would be a little misleading for people to say, “Aha! Murphy calls himself a pacifist, and yet he’s for animals eating little kids! What a monster!”

      • Egoist says:

        The parable refers to Jesus himself.

        Jesus was a friend to violence, his own brand of course.

        “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” – Matthew 10:34-39

        No peace. A sword. Swords = killings.

        “I have come to cast fire upon the Earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism* to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father* against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” – Luke 12:49–53

        Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, but conflict. He wanted people to kill each other to settle recognizing him as their King.

        • Tim Miller says:

          Exegesis > Eisegesis. You’re reading into the passages something that isn’t there. You cannot defend in these passages that Jesus was asking anyone to take the life of another. I mean, when one of his disciples DID strike out at an enemy, Jesus tells him to put away his sword and actually heals the man that was attacked. Doesn’t make since if Jesus wanted killings. Now yes, Jesus did not bring about peace for the world. Many who were saved (fathers, sons, mothers etc…) were not accepted by their other family members. To see truth of this, see what happens when people convert nowadays. It’s not uncommon for a family to reject their own member for it.

          Now, as far as Jesus’ judgement upon the poeple, we see this take place in 70ad where the prophecy of the temple and destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the end of the glory days of the Roman empire are brought about. Revelation is largely a depiction of what was going to happen in that time period.

          • Ken B says:


            I did not know this lovely word. And so useful for Bob’s religion threads too! Thank you Tim!

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