The Jewish holiday of Shavuot celebrates when Moses received the Torah (Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch) from God on Mount Sinai in Egypt. Often the Ten Commandments are highlighted during this holiday, as shown in numerous movies and paintings with Moses marching down from Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets in his hands, each with five laws inscribed on them by the finger of God. As a secular historian, I want to explore the Ten Commandments and analyze them from a humanistic point of view. To remind people what they are again, here they are written out using the King James Translation.
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.
- Honor thy father and thy mother.
- Thou Shalt not murder (sometimes it says “Thou shalt not kill”).
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
- Thou shalt not covet one’s neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, animals or anything else.
Most historians do not believe Moses really existed. They show that he is most likely a mythological figure representing the father of the Jewish nation. If he lived, scholars place his life span from 1304-1237 B.C.E. His contribution, the Ten Commandments, can be looked at as being a group of proclamations to unite a diverse group under one God and create unity by defining what would become the Jewish people, as compared to others around them. These mandates created the foundation of a nation with rules all agreed to follow forming communal behavior, rituals and culture. Many also view these commandments as mankind’s first attempt to create the rule of law and hence, why the Ten Commandments are often displayed outside of court houses throughout America. However, in today’s world, what do these Ten Commandments actually mean and how should one look at them historically?
The first three commandments actually violate our Constitution and our First Amendment. We Americans embrace religious pluralism and the freedom of religion and speech. So telling others they cannot have any other gods but the Jewish God is not respectful to Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Protestants and Catholics.
The First Commandment admits there are other “gods,” so it is sort of strange to think of Judaism being a monotheistic religion (there is only one God) when it has in its first commandment an admission that there are many other gods. Nonetheless, this first commandment is ignored in America because it violates the Constitution, which says every citizen is free to pursue his own faith and worship any god he or she so desires. This religious pluralism has worked in the favor of Jewish Americans. In 1790, President George Washington pledged to American Jews, who feared anti-Semitism from their Christian neighbors, to give: “To bigotry no sanction; to persecution no assistance.” And worried about different types of Christians persecuting one another, Thomas Jefferson swore to make sure our country followed the mandate that there would be a separation of church and state. Noticing this, I have come to greatly admire the wisdom of America’s founders, who recognized the danger of combining religion with civil government, as the fusion is harmful to both religious freedom and good governance.
The Second Commandment claims one should not worship any graven image, but this law, if enforced, would persecute the Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists who have many images of their gods and saints. In fact, most Christians violate this with their artwork of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus in numerous paintings, sculptures and stained glass windows that adorn most churches throughout the world. So, this commandment is rarely followed, especially by Christians.
The Third Commandment is disobeyed by everyone who utters “Jesus Christ” or “God-damn it” in times of extreme stress—a common occurrence. If this commandment was enforced and punishable under the law of the land, most Americans would have criminal records.
So the first three commandments are rules or laws that create a religious dictatorship, and not an environment of tolerance of other religions. Such an analysis is often overlooked by many people who say these commandments give us morality. In short, they violate moral teaching.
The Fourth Commandment about the Sabbath is rarely kept by anybody these days. Moreover, many people have different opinions of when the Sabbath falls—is it Friday nightfall to Saturday nightfall, or is it just Sunday? Also, there are many ways people observe the Sabbath, from not using electricity to conducting certain types of prayers. In short, there is no uniformity of correct conduct about how to honor the Sabbath. Some Orthodox Jews say that if all the Jews in the world kept the Sabbath, then the Messiah would come. However, since there are so many ways to honor the Sabbath in Jewish teachings, no one, to my knowledge, has been able to codify which type of Sabbath observance is necessary to make the Messiah happy. Orthodox Jews who espouse such beliefs promote their lofty goals for all Jews, but there is no consensus.
The Fifth Commandment also is not honored universally. Although many parents deserve respect and do all they can to help their kids be better than themselves, there are some parents who are horrible and should never be honored. There is no certificate one gets, like a driver’s license, in order to have the privilege of being a parent, so there are many people who have no business having children, but they do anyway. Just because they reproduce doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve respect and reverence—not all children should honor their parents. According to some evidence out there, Adolf Hitler sired a son while stationed in France during World War I—should his son have honored Hitler? Absolutely not. He should have ridiculed and shunned him.
The Sixth Commandment is something that most civilized nations have embraced. Committing murder or killing someone is, in general, wrong. However, even this law is not followed to the letter. If you kill in self-defense or kill to prevent harm to others, then that often is tolerated, even praised. So, although in general we have laws against murder, killing others under certain criteria is endorsed or sanctioned. And of course, America sent out armies to kill German Nazis and Imperial Japanese, all fascist warmongers, so murdering these people during war conditions was encouraged and welcomed. Clearly, certain forms of murder or killing is sanctioned by civilized nations.
The Seventh Commandment, that one should not commit adultery, is a good ideal for society to preserve the family, but a large percentage of people have a difficult time following this mandate. Moreover, the definition of it is somewhat clouded throughout the Bible. Did Jacob commit adultery by having two wives (Rachel and Leah) and two concubines? These four women helped him produce the 12 Tribes of Israel, but no one who is devoutly religious usually calls him an adulterer. Did Abraham commit adultery when he slept with Hagar, his slave girl? Even though he had the permission of his wife, Sarah, he still went outside the boundaries of marriage and had sex with a woman who was not his wife. The definitions of adultery have been fluid throughout time. Presently, adultery is no longer punished under the law—although it used to be. Society no longer agrees that this commandment should be enforced by the legal system.
The Eighth Commandment is basically universally understood and the legal system supports it—stealing other people’s things is wrong and illegal.
The Ninth Commandment is also universally understood and the legal system also supports it. You are not allowed to perjure yourself when on the witness stand giving testimony (just ask President Bill Clinton about this one).
The Tenth Commandment about not coveting your neighbor’s animals and women (sad that women are at the same level as cows and sheep) violates human nature. Looking at others more wealthy and successful than ourselves and wanting to be like them (having a nice home, a nice car and a good education) is something that inspires people to be ambitious and industrious. It is the capitalistic way, so to speak, and this law would violate what makes our economy run. It also puts women in an inferior position to men, equating them with animals and slaves and showing the world that this law looks at women as property. This law is universally also ignored.
Often these commandments are touted as being unique in the history of mankind. However, when Moses received the law from his God, it was not unique in the ancient world. Almost 500 years before Moses made his way to the top of Mt. Sinai to get his people’s laws, the Babylonian leader Hammurabi got his laws and rules for his people from the god Shamash (1754 B.C.E)—called the Code of Hammurabi. So, in many respects, Moses was the same as a lot of ancient leaders. In fact, maybe the Israelites felt left out at this point, and they copied what happened to Hammurabi and the Babylonians—a case of plagiarism.
As I read these Ten Commandments today, I wonder, as a humanist and Holocaust scholar, why didn’t these commandments ban slavery (it actually sanctions them) or embrace equal rights for women? Moreover, why were there no prohibitions against mass-murder and protections for children? (Didn’t God foresee the child abuse scandal of the Catholic Church?) But then I read Numbers 31, where the Israelites enter into the Holy Land and kill citizens of other lands (justifying their slaughter because they were heathens), enslaved their women (rape) and killed their children (outright crimes against humanity). So many of the prohibitions I would have liked to have seen in these Ten Commandments were not mentioned because the Israelites were about to do all those things in the next chapter as they entered the Land of Milk and Honey. So, when I look at these Commandments, they were obviously just for the Israelites and did not apply to how to treat others outside the tribe.
Studying the Ten Commandments, one can come away with many ways to look at them from a historical view. It is also interesting to look at how they have influenced modern society. People in debates often use the Ten Commandants as the cornerstone of morality (how would we know right from wrong, many argue, without these Commandments?) However, most of these commandments actually violate moral society and American ideals. Of course, there are Talmudic and apologetic explanations of these laws that get around the religious bigotry, the slavery, the chauvinism and exclusivity of these mandates, but when they are looked at in their simplest form, they really have no place in a constitutional democracy like the United States.
As we learn about this Jewish holiday, maybe we should praise the ideal of what the Ten Commandments tried to do (create a unified society) by providing an ideal for our founders in their pursuit to create a better and more improved nation. They took this inspiration and created something better—the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, which honors free speech (you can use God’s name in vain), freedom of the press (you can criticize your gods and leaders, both political and religious), and freedom of religion (you can have as many gods as you want or no gods at all). We Americans take strength in these laws and the way of life they provide us. It is ironic that in the U.S. courts today, the Ten Commandments would be thrown out as unconstitutional, even though some courthouses have replicas of the Ten Commandments outside their halls. Most judges, lawyers and citizens do not live by them and if they did, we would have a much darker, and more intolerant society.