Why Christians get the 10 commandments wrong

Not only does the Bible offers two distinct sets, the laws are more morally ambiguous than they might first appear

Topics: AlterNet, Christianity, Ten Commandments, Bible, Religion,

Why Christians get the 10 commandments wrong (Credit: Stocksnapper via Shutterstock)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet. It has been corrected since it first published.

AlterNet The American Bible Society funds an annual “State of the Bible” survey, and this spring the Christian Post cheered some of their findings: “The Bible continues to dominate both mind space and book retail space as America’s undisputed best-seller.” According to the study, conducted by Barna, over 88 percent of American homes contain a Bible. In fact, the average is 4.7 copies per household.

Now, I should note that a young non-religious friend once came home from school with a bright green Gideon’s New Testament that she later touted as a reserve of fine rolling papers, which may explain why the household average isn’t a solid 5.

But most Americans treat the Bible with some degree of deference.

Among adults who responded to the survey, 56% were classified as “pro-Bible” meaning they think it is the actual or inspired word of God with no errors. More than a quarter said that they read from the Good Book daily or at least several times a week. Fully half said the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to lead a meaningful life.

Surveys about religious behavior and belief are highly susceptible to social desirability bias, meaning the very human tendency to tell researchers want we think they want to hear and to polish our self-image a little. Survey responses are selfies with mood lighting and make-up.

Even so, it’s hard to dispute the fact that the Bible has an enormous influence on our society, not only American society in 2014, but Western society going way back.

That’s what makes all of the pages devoted to useless things like tribal spats, genealogies, rules for slaveholders, menstrual rituals, misogynist trash talk and loquacious donkeys such a wasted opportunity. But even that would be less painful if core moral mandates like the Ten Commandments were of higher caliber.



Secularists had a good laugh a few years back, when Stephen Colbert nailed Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland, who had co-sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in the House and Senate chambers. “What are the Ten Commandments?” asked Colbert. Westmoreland came up with three.

In the darkest part of my heart I hope the esteemed congressman from Georgia spends the rest of his life wearing a scarlet H for hypocrite, even if no one can see it but him. But the truth is, very few Christians know the Ten Commandments from memory, for two very good reasons.

One reason is that the Bible actually gives two different sets of Ten Commandments, and they don’t match. In Exodus 20, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with a set of stone tablets. (This is the most popular version.) Then he gets mad and smashes them and has to go back up and get another set. And God says, “Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.” (Exodus 34:1). But then, apparently, God can’t resist tweaking them a little. Ok, a lot.

Here, from the perennially popular King James Version, is the Exodus 20 set:

1.       Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

2.       Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

3.       Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

4.       Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

5.       Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

6.       Thou shalt not kill.

7.       Thou shalt not commit adultery.

8.       Thou shalt not steal.

9.       Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

10.   Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

And here, from Exodus 34, is the set with which God replaced them:

1.       Thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

2.       Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

3.       The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep.

4.       All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male.

5.       Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest.

6.       Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end.

7.       Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven.

8.       Neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.

9.       The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the Lord thy God.

10.   Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.

Setting aside the fact that females are relegated to a list of possessions that includes oxen, cattle and slaves, it’s not hard to see why the shattered set has the broader appeal. (In fact, it appears they have had broader appeal for a long time; they are repeated, approximately, in the book of Deuteronomy.)

But seriously, the second reason few Christians have memorized the Ten Commandments is that even the popular set lacks the moral clarity and relevance of, say, the Golden Rule or All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Think about what you’ve just read. Now imagine for a moment that you are a perfectly Good and All-Knowing Being. Imagine that your core attributes include love, truth, justice and mercy. Imagine that the qualities you want to spread in humankind are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness and kindness — what the writer of Galatians called the “fruit of the Spirit.” Imagine that what you most want is for people to fulfill two “Great Commandments” — to love you and to love their neighbors as themselves — and that, as the writer of Matthew said, anything else you tell them is just a way to get there. Imagine that you are going to take one shot — well, ok, two — at dictating Ten Commandments that will be timeless and universally relevant, literally and metaphorically written in stone.

You get where I’m going. With a little help from his weed, Bob Marley could have done better.

For two millennia, or maybe three if the Old Testament stories are rooted in history, people who sincerely believe the Ten Commandments to be the apogee of divine guidance have been doing things like pillaging, slaughtering other species, burning books and witches and infidels, owning sex slaves, beating children, conquering heathens and generally deciding who counts and who doesn’t based on gender hierarchy, religion and tribal boundaries. Imagine how radically different Western history might have been if the Ten Commandments went something like this:

1.       This above all shall ye take as my first command: Thou shalt treat living beings as they want to be treated. And the second commandment is like unto it:

2.       In as much as be possible, thou shalt avoid afflicting pain or sorrow, which shall be unto thee my signs of ill and evil.

3.       Thou shalt honor and protect all of creation, for I the LORD have created it that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

4.       Thou shalt have sexual relations with neither human nor beast who chooseth not freely what pleasures thou mayest offer.

5.       Thou shalt not beat the child, but by admonition and instruction with kindness shall teach both wisdom and skill.

6.       Thou shalt do unto members of other religions and tribes as thou dost unto thine own.

7.       I, the LORD your God, forbid thee to own other persons be they woman, man or child; neither shall ye subject any gender nor race one to another, but shall honor my image in all.

8.       Thou shalt not destroy the lands of thine enemies, nor poison their well, nor salt their earth, neither shalt thou cut their shade tree nor burn their vineyard, nor wantonly slaughter the beast of their field.

9.       Thou shalt wash thy hands before eating and shalt boil the drinking water that has been defiled by man or beast.

10.   Thou shalt ask the questions that can show thee wrong, so that through the toil of many, from generation unto generation, ye may come to discover the great I AM.

This list of Ten Commandments would have changed the course of history. Think Crusades, or the Inquisition, or Salem, or the American Holocaust, or the slave trade, or Northern Ireland, or the Iraq War.

It would have changed history despite the fact that it is seriously flawed. Some points are redundant. Important concepts are missing. The thoughtful reader will immediately notice gaps or think of improvements. And that, precisely, is my point. People with their brains engaged and moral intuitions intact can do better.

The 56 percent of Americans who think the Bible is “the actual or inspired word of God with no errors” are stuck, anchored to the Iron Age. Many, when they get trapped by the ugly contradictions inherent in this position, do whatever moral gymnastics are necessary to defend the Book.

I once listened in amazement as an elderly pair of sweet and pacifist Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to justify the child-slaughters perpetrated in the Old Testament by the Chosen People: The Israelites had to kill the other Palestinian villagers. They were so evil they practiced child sacrifice — they were the first abortionists, don’t you know! And once the parents were dead it was simply a mercy to kill their children as well.

Whew. Try to wrap your brain around that one.

I said at the beginning of this article that the State of the Bible survey this year published some numbers that Bible believers find reassuring. Fortunately, that wasn’t all the news. Between 2011 and 2013, the percent of American adults who believe the Bible is “just another book of teachings written by men that contains stories and advice” has almost doubled, from 10 to 19 percent. And the shift is being driven by Millennials.

There’s hope for us yet.

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