Ten Commandments Revisited

03 Oct

Christopher Hitchens published his analysis of the Old Testament’s “ten commandments” several months ago. If you haven’t read his piece, do so after you’ve read and commented on this post. Hitchens’ task may have been tricker than one might have expected. After all, the Old Testament lists two separate sets of commandments.

One set comes from the book of Exodus:

Another, slightly different, set is found in the book of Deuteronomy:

As if the Jews hadn’t made Hitchens’ task hard enough, Christians had to add to the confusion, as various segments of Christendom grouped the commandments differently than the Jews and each other:

One wouldn’t think it should have been so difficult to come up with one uniform Top Ten List of Jehovah’s Commands, but it obviously was.

Hitchens isn’t the first freethinker to critique the biblical commandments. Watson Heston, a nineteenth century American freethinker, offered his amusing interpretation of Jehovah’s (in)famous rules at the end of the 19th century:

Heston’s ten commandments were published in a set of cartoons and commentaries in which he critiqued the Christianity that pervaded American society at the turn of the twentieth century.

Bertrand Russell went a step beyond Hitch and Heston; he replaced the biblical commandments with ten of his own:

Since Russell’s commandments are more suitable for contemporary society than the biblical commandments, I’m fantasizing that, the next time a fundogelical proposes posting the biblical commandments in a school, courthouse, etc., a freethinker will counter it with a proposal to post Russell’s commandments. Then again, if laws must be displayed in American public space, I’d rather post the Constitution there, not commandments.

— the chaplain


18 responses to “Ten Commandments Revisited

  1. Postman

    October 4, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    “If you haven’t read his piece, do so after you’ve read and commented on this post…”

    Hey, that sounds suspiciously like a commandment to me. So I’m commenting here to tell you that I don’t play by your rules. In fact, I think I’ll go to Hitchens’ analysis and see if he addresses this appalling need you seem to have to order people around.

    • the chaplain

      October 4, 2010 at 5:51 pm

      Damn, I should have known I couldn’t slip that one past you. I suspect that my appalling need to order people around is a vestige of my days as an evangelical pastor. Or, it could be a vestige of motherhood.

  2. Frank DN

    October 5, 2010 at 6:13 am

    Silly atheist, commandments aren’t for christians. They’re designed for sinners so they know what needs to be done to be right with god. Christians have god’s laws written in their hearts so they don’t have to follow what’s written in the book. Thus, they live by faith, not by sight. So why bother memorizing two or three lists of do’s and don’ts? Why not just trust your heart to lead you the right way? I mean, after all, 10 is just so many to keep track of. (He said, voice dripping with sarcasm.)

  3. Roi des Faux

    October 5, 2010 at 8:49 am

    I also suggest Ebonmuse’s rewrite:

  4. hippieprof

    October 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    I will throw a little wrench into things….

    I have long thought that commandments 4 – 10 (Catholic version – these are the the non-monotheistic commandments), plus the golden rule, make pretty good principles for living regardless of one’s actual religious beliefs. I am curious if anyone would actually want to challenge that?

  5. the chaplain

    October 5, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    My bad. I forgot that “…commandments aren’t for christians. They’re designed for sinners….”. I guess I really am a silly atheist.

    Roi des Faux:
    Thanks for the link. Ebon’s commandments are rather good.

    I agree that commandments 4-10, plus the golden rule are pretty good principles. They’re also not unique to Judaism or Christianity; they’re common sense rules that many societies around the world have found useful, with or without the added (gag-inducing) flavor of theistic gobbledygook.

  6. Tommykey

    October 5, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    C’mon, we all know there were 15 Commandments, but that Moses dropped one of the tablets!

  7. Lorena

    October 5, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Love Bertrand Russell’s version, but I would slightly change #5. “Have no respect for the authority of others…”

    I would say that we should respect everyone, with no exceptions. Authority should be respected for practical reasons, i.e, to keep our job. However, we should not believe what people in authority believe automatically. We should cultivate our own opinions but should carefully choose who and when to disclose such ideas. For instance, we can hate the boss’ guts, but we should keep that to ourselves.

  8. Postman

    October 6, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Very slightly off topic here, but I notice that a lot of people push the Golden Rule in a number of forms. It sounds good on first read, but if you think about it, it can lead to insidious behaviour.

    If I’m alright with people doing to me what they’re alright with me doing to them, then I open myself up to a lot of annoying, “Have you been washed in the blood of the lamb,” nonsense. So I’d change that to something more like, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

    • hippieprof

      October 7, 2010 at 9:05 am

      Postman – interesting point. However, I suspect we really don’t need too many changes. Most fundies want you to respect their religious beliefs – so the traditional Golden Rule would imply they would need to respect the religious beliefs of others.

  9. Ahab

    October 6, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    I always thought the Ten Commandments left out a lot of important moral categories (i.e., do not torture, do not rape, etc.). To boot, I’ve never been able to discern exactly what ethical principles undergird it, but I doubt its authors were thinking that far ahead.

  10. uzza

    October 7, 2010 at 10:31 am

    It’s always seemed to me that that bit about false witness ought to make christains stick to the set in Exodus 34 that the bible explicitly calls the “Ten Commandments”, instead of substituting that other set.

  11. the chaplain

    October 7, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    LOL! No one teaches history like Mel Brooks:

    I wonder if you and Russell are looking at authority from different angles? I agree that there are often practical reasons for respecting someone’s authority, such as in the employer-employee relationship. I don’t always agree with my boss’s directives, but I still carry them out to the best of my ability – his authority in my workplace is greater than mine. But, I read Russell’s statement as not automatically accepting someone’s position on issues as “authoritative” simply because he or she is supposed to be accepted as such. For example, many people think the pope’s authority should be respected just because he’s the pope. In my view, they uncritically attach too much authority to both the position and the person holding it.

    I like the version of the golden rule that says something along the lines of, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.”

    My experience has been that, yes, Christians want others to respect their beliefs, but, no, not all of them accept the principle of reciprocity. Fundogelicals believe that they are right and others are wrong. In their minds, since their beliefs are the right ones, it’s a no-brainer that their beliefs should be respected. But, since everyone else is wrong, the people who have it right are obligated to correct the poor fools. Reciprocity is not an option when the other guy is clearly wrong.

    The Ten Commandments left a lot of questions unanswered. Remember, gawd wasted several commandments telling people how to keep him happy. That didn’t leave much room for addressing sociopolitical relations between people.

    Christians are funny about the false witness thing. An awful lot of them seem to think it’s okay if they do it for Jesus.

  12. Tommykey

    October 8, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    What I get a kick out of is that in the OT, God tells Moses that he is a jealous god, which is why he doesn’t want the Israelites to worship other gods. That is one of the things that betrays its human origins to me.

    Imagine that. An omnipotent being creates a universe filled with billions of galaxies, and on one of the planets in one of those billions of people, if a small tribal confederation on a patch of land in the Middle East worships Baal instead of him he’s like “Oh my ME, I feel like I’m going to have such a melt down!”

    • Ahab

      October 18, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      Tommykey — Good observation. Yahweh being jealous of other (supposedly nonexistent) gods would be like a parent being jealous of their child’s imaginary friend.


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