Ethics of the Ten Commandments

by Michael Nugent on February 3, 2009

The ten commandments of Judeo-Christianity are not a guide for ethical conduct. They are laws for regulating the conduct of one Bronze Age tribe.

When you read them in the context of the Bible stories from which they emanate, these are the underlying reasons and messages behind them:

1. Worship only the God who proved his power in Egypt.
2. Do not engrave or worship images of anything.
3. Do not swear by saying the word YHVH in vain.
4. Rest on the Sabbath or you will be stoned to death.
5. Honour your parents, because you will live longer.
6. Do not kill people, unless God arbitrarily allows you to.
7. Do not commit adultery, because men own their wives.
8. Do not steal things or people owned by your tribesmen.
9. Do not lie to or about members of your own tribe.
10. Do not desire things or people owned by your tribesmen.

These laws are not a guide for ethical conduct. They are not based on universal values of right and wrong, because they were never intended to apply to all people. They were designed to protect the stability and interests of one Bronze Age tribe, specifically because this tribe was set apart from all other people. The first four are arbitrary rules for how this tribe should worship its God. The next six regulate the tribe’s day-to-day conduct, mainly by protecting the position of its adult males, and also by treating members of the tribe differently than strangers. Most of these laws were enforced by the tribesmen stoning lawbreakers to death.

These laws demand unthinking obedience, based only on desire for amazing rewards and fear of horrific punishments meted out by this God. If you obey his laws, you will be his chosen people, and live in a land flowing with milk and honey (Lev 20:24), where a hundred of you will kill ten thousand enemies (Lev 26:3-9). But if you disobey his laws, he will bring upon you sudden terror and wasting diseases, send wild animals to kill your children, make you eat the flesh of your children, and make you so fearful that you will flee even when nobody is chasing you (Lev 26:14-39). He will punish not only you, but also your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren (Ex 20:5).

Regardless of whether you believe this to be literal truth or literary metaphor, it is no basis upon which to build an ethical moral code. This becomes even more evident when you look at the Biblical background to each of these ten laws.

1. Worship only the God who proved his power in Egypt.

The first commandment is “I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Today’s Christian churches omit the part about their God bringing them out of Egypt, but in the Bible story this claim was essential to establish the credibility of this God with the tribe of Moses. People of this era worshipped many gods, including the sun, the moon and other celestial bodies, and this claim let the Israelites know they were dealing with a very powerful God, who had already intervened in earthly affairs on their behalf.

This God had repeatedly sent terrible plagues on the Egyptians (Ex 8-10) and then killed the firstborn child of every Egyptian family (Ex 11-12), in order to convince Pharoe to let the Israelites go. Of course, after each plague, this same God had also deliberately “hardened Pharoe’s heart”, specifically to ensure that Pharoe would not let the Israelites go, in order that he could move on to sending the next plague (Ex 4-11). But, to a primitive Bronze Age tribe, their God’s power was more persuasive than his morality. As a more direct incentive to worship him, they would be stoned to death if they worshipped the sun, the moon or any other gods (Deut 17:2-5).

2. Do not engrave or worship images of anything.

The second commandment is “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water below. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.” The first part of this rule is absurd: it forbids nearly all visual art. Oddly, after this God announced these laws, he instructed Moses to make two cherubim out of hammered gold for the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:18-20).

Today’s Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches omit this rule from their popular versions of the ten commandments. And Roman Catholics regularly pray before images and statues of not only Jesus, but also Mary and numerous Saints. To make up for omitting the ban on graven images, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches divide the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting, into two different rules.

3. Do not swear by saying the word YHVH in vain.

The third commandment is “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The Bible most often calls him YHVH, which Christians pronounce as Yahweh or Jehovah. The punishment for breaking this rule was death by stoning (Lev 24:16). When the Israelis brought a blasphemer before Moses, God instructed everyone who had heard the blasphemy to put their hands on the blasphemer’s head, after which the entire congregation must stone him to death (Lev 24:11-14). But the same God blessed Jacob after he had specifically used the Lord’s name when lying to his father in order to steal his brother’s birthright (Gen 27:19-20).

Also, a prophet could curse other people in the name of this God, for even trivial reasons, with horrific results. When the prophet Elisha was going to Bethel, a group of little children mocked him by saying ‘Go up, thou bald head!’ Elisha cursed the children in the name of the Lord, and two bears came out of the wood and killed forty two of the children (2 Kings 2:23-24). Some Christians have argued that these children were actually young men, as if that would make it more justifiable to set wild animals on them for teasing a bald man. In reality, blasphemy laws are at best primitive superstition, and at worst ways of supressing free speech.

4. Rest on the Sabbath or you will be stoned to death.

The fourth commandment is “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” This means that neither you, your children, your servants, your cattle or any of your visitors could work on the Sabbath. The punishment for breaking this rule was death by stoning (Ex 31:15). When the Israelites found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath, they took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as God had commanded Moses (Num 15:32-36). Since prehistoric times, humans have assigned days to various gods, so it was natural for a Bronze Age tribe to do likewise. But, whatever the benefits of resting on this day, they are far outweighed by the injustice of killing people for declining to rest.

5. Honour your parents because you will live longer.

The fifth commandment is “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land that God giveth thee.” So this law is based not on respect for your parents, but on the selfish desire to live longer. But why would honouring your parents cause you to live longer? One obvious reason was that, if you were stubborn and rebellious, and you continuously refused to obey your parents, they would take you to the elders of the city, and all of the men of the city would stone you to death (Deut 21:18-21).

A more subtle reason places the emphasis on the phrase “upon the land that God giveth thee.” If the tribe’s children learn to obey their parents, the tribe will continue to obey the commandments, and in return God will allow the tribe to remain in the promised land for longer. This law does not foster loving, caring, mutually respectful family values. It commands unthinking obedience, regardless of right or wrong, under fear of being stoned to death. Should the virgin daughters of Lot have honoured their father (Gen 19:4-8) when a gang wanted to rape two of his guests, who were angels from God, and Lot offered the gang his daughters instead?

6. Do not kill people unless God arbitrarily allows you to.

The sixth commandment is “Thou shalt not kill.” But this did not apply to the man who God chose to convey this very law to the Israelites. When Moses was an adult, he saw an Egyptian hitting an Israelite. Moses checked to see if anybody was watching, then killed the Egyptian and buried his corpse in the sand (Ex 2:11-12). Moses then went into hiding, knowing that he had acted unlawfully (Ex 12:14-15). And when the Israelite God decided that he needed somebody to lead his tribe, this is who he chose (Ex 3:1-10).

The sixth commandment does not apply if you kill your slave, as long as the slave takes a day or two to die (Ex 21:20-21). Or if you stone to death a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36). Or if you slaughter all of the adults and children of every city you attack, apart from the virgin women who you can keep for yourself (Deut 2:31-34, Num 31:12-18). Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Ex 22:18). Nor, indeed, a medium or a spiritist (Lev 20:27). Strangers will be killed if they approach the tabernacle (Num 18:7). There are many more examples. Ironically, on his very return from Mount Sinai with the ten comandments, Moses ordered his tribesmen to kill three thousand of their brothers, friends and neighbours (Ex 32:27-28).

In effect, the sixth commandment is really “Thou shalt not kill unless God allows you to.” But there is no ethical basis to this particular God’s arbitrary killing choices. He once drowned the entire population of the world apart from one family (Gen 7:19-23). He killed Lot’s wife for looking around (Gen 19:26). He killed Onan for not completing sexual intercourse with his dead brother’s wife (Gen 38:7-10). He killed the first-born child of every Egyptian family (Ex 12:29-30). He killed 14,000 Israelites for murmering against Moses (Num 16:41-49). He killed seventy men for looking into his Ark (1 Sam 6:19) and another man for trying to stop the Ark from falling over when an ox shook it (2 Sam 6:6-7).

As there is no ethical basis to this God’s arbitrary killing choices, there is no ethical basis behind this commandment, which is ironically enforced under the threat of being killed (Ex 21:12). It is not about universal values of right and wrong. It is about protecting the stability and interests of one tribe.

7. Do not commit adultery, because men own their wives.

The seventh commandment is “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But why is adultery wrong? Based on the Bible, adultery is a crime committed against the husband of the woman involved, but not against the wife of the man involved. Predictably, the punishment is death (Lev 20:10). A man owns his wife from the time they become engaged. If another man has sex with an engaged virgin, he has committed a crime against her future husband, and must be stoned to death. If the woman did not scream for help, she must also be stoned to death (Deut 22:23-27).

If a newlywed man alleges that his bride was not a virgin, the bride’s father must prove her virginity. If the bride’s father can bring her blood-stained bedsheets to the elders of the city, her husband will pay him a fine for slander. If her father cannot produce the blood-stained bedsheets, the bride will be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep (Deut 22:13-21). If a man suspects his wife of adultery, he must bring her to a priest, who will make her drink bitter water that will curse her. If she has been unfaithful, this will cause her to have a miscarriage. If she has been faithful, she will be able to give birth. (Num 5:11-31).

The Bible has a lot else to say about sex generally, but its laws against adultery are based on the unethical premise that a woman is the property of her husband, and are enforced under the threat of being stoned to death.

8. Do not steal things or people owned by your tribesmen.

The eighth commandment is “Thou shalt not steal.” If you steal a person and sell him, you will be put to death (Ex 21:16, Deut 24:7). If you steal livestock, you must repay the owner double what you stole. If you have already sold what you stole, you must repay the owner five times. Otherwise the owner can sell you as a slave (Ex 22:1-5). Nor may you defraud your neighbour (Lev 19:13).

The first thing to note here is that you can steal a person (Ex 21:16, Deut 24:7). This may include kidnap, but this God also allowed slavery. Israelites could buy foreign slaves, and own them for ever, and pass them on to their children as inheritances (Lev 25:44-46). They could forcibly take foreign women and children after battles (Deut 20:14, Deut 21:10-14). Israelites could also buy and sell Israelite slaves, and could own the wives and their children of these slaves, but they had to release Israelite slaves after six years (Ex 21:2-6). Men could sell their daughters as slaves (Ex 21:7). A man could have sex with a female slave without being stoned to death, even if she was engaged, because she was not free (Lev 19:20).

The second thing to note is that this law only appplied internally within the Israelite tribe. Their God encouraged them to steal the treasures, animals, women and children of enemy tribes (Deut 20:14-15). After one batttle against the Midianites, they plundered about 200kg of gold, 800,000 livestock and 32,000 virgin women. As an aside, Moses and Eleazer the priest took about one percent of all of these spoils, as an offering to God (Num 31:25-54). The Israelites also stole the land of other tribes. Their God told them to drive out all of the inhabitants, take possession of the land and settle in it, and divide it up according to their clans (Num 33:50-54, Deut 2:31-34, Deut 20:16-17). Indeed, stealing the land of other tribes was the whole point of the covenant between the Israelites and their God.

This law is not about universal values of right and wrong. It is about protecting the stability and interests of one tribe.

9. Do not lie to or about members of your own tribe.

The ninth commandment is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” You must not defraud your neighbour, or pervert justice by not judging your neighbour fairly, or spread slander among your people (Lev 19:13-16). The punishment was a fine (Deut 22:17-19) or giving a ram to a priest, who will eat it to make atonement for your sin (Lev 7:1-7).

But the ban on lying applied only to “your neighbour” or “your people” (Lev 19:16) or “your brother” (Deut 19:18). It did not apply to strangers or foreigners. And, while the Israelite God said that strangers should be given justice (Deut 27:19), he also instructed his tribe to dispense different standards of justice to strangers. Israelites could own foreign slaves for ever, but had to release Israelite slaves after six years (Lev 25:44-46, Ex 21:7). Israelites could charge interest on loans to strangers, but not to their brothers (Deut 23:20). Their neighbour or brother could sometimes keep property they had lent to them, but a foreigner still owed it (Deut 15:1-3). More seriously, strangers would be killed if they approached the tabernacle (Num 18:7).

Actually, the Biblical God allowed, rewarded and even instructed lying. All three Biblical Patriarchs told lies. The prophet Abraham repeatedly lied that his wife Sarah was his sister, in order to give her to the Pharoe and save his own life (Gen 12:11-13). His son Isaac lied that his wife Rebekah was his sister (Gen 26:6-11). Isaac’s son Jacob lied to his father to steal his brother’s birthright (Gen 27:19-20). God rewarded midwives for lying about the birth of male children (Ex 1:15-21). God told Moses to lie to the Pharoe that his tribe only wanted to leave Egypt for three days (Ex 3:18). God saved the life of Rahab for lying about Israelite spies (Josh 2, Heb 11:31). God caused four hundred prophets to lie to the King of Israel (1 Kings 22:6, :22-23). Jehu lied to the prophets of Baal to lure them into being killed (2 Kings 10:18-28).

Again, this law is not about universal values of right and wrong. It is about protecting the stability and interests of one tribe.

10. Do not desire things or people owned by your tribesmen.

The tenth commandment is “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.” In the Deuteronomy version, the order of house and wife is reversed, and the neighbour’s field is also included.

In this case, it is irrelevant that the rule is restricted to property owned by members of your own tribe, and it is irrelevant that wives and servants are considered to be the property of their husbands and masters, simply because this is an absurd rule that would be impossible to keep even if you wanted to. It seeks to regulate what you think, not what you say or do, and no law can enforce what you think. Furthermore, if people did not covet things owned by other people, nobody would ever purchase anything from anybody else.

As an aside, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches divide this commandment into two, to make up for the fact that they omit the second commandment that forbids making graven images. But there is only one sentence in the tenth commandment, and there is no justifiable reason to divide it in two.

The Other Ten Commandments

Ironically, despite their centrality to Judeo-Christianity, these are not even the same set of laws that the Bible describes as the ten commandments. In the Book of Exodus, God wrote the ten commandments on two tablets of stone and gave them to Moses, who broke them (Ex 32:15-19).

God then recalled Moses to give him the same rules again (Ex 34:1-4). And these are the rules that God told Moses: the Israelites must observe the feast of unleavened bread and the feast of weeks, sacrifice firstborn male animals except donkeys, and give the first fruits of each harvest to God. They must not worship other gods, make treaties or intermarry with other tribes, cast idols, work on the seventh day, mix blood sacrifices with leavened bread, let fat sacrifices remain overnight, or cook a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Ex 34:5-26). God then told Moses to write down these words, and Moses wrote on two new stone tablets “the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Ex 34:27-28).

Today’s ten commandments actually appear elsewhere in the Book of Exodus (20:1-17). The Bible does not call them the ten commandments; indeed, there are at least twelve of them, if not more. And they are not written on tablets of stone; instead, in a different incident, God speaks them directly from Mount Sinai. It seems likely that later Christian leaders chose to downplay the ritual laws, and to instead brand the other set of laws as being “the ten commandments.”

In a later story, when Moses is recalling these events, he misremembers the exact words of these laws and mistakenly says that God wrote them onto stone tablets (Deut 5:6-22). This later story contradicts the Book of Exodus, unless the tablets had twenty laws on them. It seems more likely that the writer of Deuteronomy made mistakes or alterations when transcribing, perhaps several centuries later, the Exodus story.

Summary

Whether or not the Bible stories are true, the ten commandments of Judeo-Christianity are not a guide for ethical conduct. They are not based on universal values of right and wrong, because they were never intended to apply to all people. They were designed to protect the stability and interests of one Bronze Age tribe, specifically because this tribe was set apart from all other people.

They did this mainly by regulating how the tribe worshipped its God, by protecting the position of the tribe’s adult males, and by treating members of the tribe differently than strangers. They demanded unthinking obedience, based on desire for amazing rewards and fear of horrific punishments meted out by this God, and enforced by threats of being stoned to death by other members of the tribe.

This is no basis upon which to build an ethical moral code.

Sources

Photo: The Ten Commandments by DrGBB (cc)

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Heidi February 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Great site, Michael!

I have done a lighthearted YouTube series called God Idols. You can view it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6hMexveJd4

For my next project I want to do something around morality and atheism. Would you like to participate? The idea is still forming, but I would like to line up some believers and non-believers in the interim that would be willing to partake.

2 McKenzie November 10, 2009 at 4:08 am

I must ask myself if you agree, for example, that killing someone is "ethical" or that committing adultry is "ethical". Whether it's the ten commandments or the ten whatever-s it doesnt matter. Its common-sense-ethics; you don't kill people or commit adultary

3 Enopoletus Harding October 5, 2012 at 2:34 am

No part of Exodus was written in the Bronze Age-Israel was an almost entirely illiterate society until the tenth century BC, and writing only gained wide usage in the 8th-7th centuries BC in Judah, well into the Iron Age.

4 Dr Peter Ting March 30, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Principles in the Bible are universal in the appeal for applications. The first 4 are to do with how to love God, while the later 6 are to do with how to love and relate with our “neighbors”. Ethics is to do with how to relate with each other. How can one say that the 10 commandments can’t be used as ethics to guide our conduct? If I am running a church, loving God and loving one another are absolutely still relevant as when these commands were first given to Moses.

5 Anonymous April 2, 2014 at 9:08 am

Terrible;;
I’ve read the bible verses listed as references. You’re forgetting and ignoring the pretexts and incorrectly concluding. Especially the stealing part.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: