Because 9 isn’t enough and 11 is too many.

The 10 Commandments (hereafter known by their DJ name, 10C) are often cited as an important foundation of morality for the west: Sort of the moral grandfather to western civilization. This makes the assumption that without them we would behave badly, that if we are behaving well it is partly due to their influence, and that people without them must behave measurably worse.  Since they are treated as a collection I assume that they are all viewed as good and basically equal in worth. Conservative politicians have made enormous efforts at times to connect them with our government and put them in front of us in as many places as they can. It’s always amusing when a reporter asks them to recite the 10C and they can pull together maybe two of them. 

Since I could remember about the same number, I decided to read them over and evaluate their worth as a moral compass. 

1 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.”

This is a message addressed to ancient Hebrews, why it should concern anyone else is unclear. They certainly would not have considered Christians (when they came along) as an appropriate audience for this message. In fact they might well have been outraged. The last bit is interesting because it implies that there ARE other Gods but you mustn’t put them first. Theoretically, it seems to hold out the possibility of worshipping demigods if you don’t get all carried away. As far as western morality is concerned the only link I see here is too monotheism and Christianity in particular. 

2 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, 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; 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 on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.”

This appears to be a restating of the first one with a sudden very strong disapproval of arts and crafts. The emphasis on jealousy reinforces the “other gods exist” idea because otherwise, what is he jealous of? Finally there is a sub clause explaining that if you violate the arts and crafts rule he will kill your grandchildren and beyond. Message for western morality? Be very serious about Christianity. 

3 “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.”

Perhaps it means don’t speak the name at all, again a Hebrew thing. Perhaps it means don’t use it out of the context of worship and adoration because that is blasphemy. Perhaps it means don’t pretend you love me: YOU HAVE TO REALLY LOVE ME! In any event it’s a carrying on of rule number one as additional sub-clauses. I think the vagueness inherent in this one may even be intentional, since one is uncertain what it even means, speaking the name is fraught with the danger that one MIGHT be doing something wrong. This serves the whole “tremble before me” thing. Also, this one seems to suffer from a little self referential thought circle e.g. “Don’t do it because… I’ll consider you guilty if you do it. Because I hate it when you do that.”

4 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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. 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.”

Sure, it’s a day off, but it’s compulsory and full of odd rules rather like having to hop everywhere on one foot. And again of course, “I am totally amazing, don’t forget that. Here’s an entire day to consider it.” Contribution to our morality: Zip.

5 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”

I see the simple obvious statement but underneath it I wonder if it is simply shoring up the traditional power structure and resisting change. If authority comes down from god, then to the parents, the structure of tribal life is retained. “That your days may be long” etc. seems like both carrot AND stick. Don’t do it and your days won’t be long. Think of Mr. “I’ll kill your great grandchildren” two floors up. Just do what he says. 

6 “You shall not murder.”

Each other! Don’t murder other Jews! But the Amalekites are another story entirely. Them you MUST murder, down to the last man. Along with many others to be named later. One can imagine the forehead slapping amazement that followed this revelation. A piece of moral insight unreachable by mere humans. 

7 “You shall not commit adultery.”

 With each other! Don’t fuck around with other Jews. But the captured slaves and wives and daughters of our murdered enemies are perfectly fine. Or your sister in law if your brother dies.It’s complicated…unless you’re a woman. Then it’s pretty simple. 

8 “You shall not steal.”

 Once again, this is a sort of an …internal thing. 

9 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

OK! I like that! Good one, Old Testament.But again, does this pull upon superhuman powers of moral genius? Isn’t it sort of…obvious?

10 “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.”

Oh and just when you were doing so nicely…Coveting is a state of mind and so this is a thought crime. “You must never look upon another person’s life and wish yours was more like theirs”. On the one hand I suspect this is about not envying the wealthy and thus destabilizing a nice little setup. On the other I suspect this crowd was prone to stirring up trouble and often due to jealousy. It basically means “Eyes Front! Stop messing with that!” Or perhaps sort of like a grumpy parent saying “You’ll eat the dinner I made you and you’ll like it!”

Tallying the results

Rules 1 through 4 are simply asserting authority and the punishments awaiting those who don’t accept it. Rule 5 is borderline to being the same thing because it obligates the user to not allow changes, for that would amount to not honoring the father and mother. Rules 6 through 9 are truisms applying only to the in-group, not to outsiders. At times, these rules are explicitly reversed when the Hebrews are ordered by god (Via Moses, for example) to kill people, steal their stuff and have sex with their women. Rule 10 is an injunction against  questioning your place (and the possibly better places of others) or maybe just against being a pain in the ass.

So here is the final tally boiled down to its essence:

  1. Authority! (or else…)
  2. Authority! (or else…)
  3. Authority! (or else…)
  4. Authority! (see how nice I’m being?)
  5. Respect your parents (Maintain Authority!)
  6. Don’t kill (Jews)
  7. Don’t commit adultery (with Jews)
  8. Don’t steal (From Jews)
  9. Don’t make up lies about your neighbor.
  10. Accept your lot in Life*

There’s nothing in this list that would make a better person out of anyone except a blasphemous, untrustworthy, homicidal Jewish guy who cheats on his spouse. 

In short, far from being a moral Rosetta stone for the ages, this is a checklist for keeping rambunctious ancient Hebrews in line: A guide for maintaining a fundamentalist Hebrew state. So unless you live in a fundamentalist Hebrew state or wish to, I think you should feel free to click the “opt out” button on this one. Besides, in the formative days of Christianity there was a movement to disconnect from this past in order to start something fresh and new, unburdened by a lot of messages making a rather different point. Jesus didn’t exactly win the “”Most Observant Jew” award. 

But the side that won this theological argument was the side that bent and twisted Jesus stories in order to fulfill various prophecies. In other words, the old testament is there as provenance for the legitimacy of Jesus Christ. In a sense, the side that won had less faith. They didn’t trust that Jesus without a great “backstory” would be as popular. So the next time you run across the 10C in a public place you can imagine it as part of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. 



(*Including you, Mrs. Lot)