Do gods exist? 21 The Ten Commandments

Picture adapted from Rembrant’s Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law

One of the arguments made in favour of gods is that they are the source of morality. In the case of the Christian god, this morality is often expressed in the ten commandments.

But these commandments 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, the Jewish Israelites, specifically because this tribe was set apart from all other people. 

The Christian churches that evolved from the Jewish religion still promote these rules today, even though human understanding of morality has evolved considerably in the intervening centuries.

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 he will give you somebody else’s land that is flowing with milk and honey (Lev 20:22-24), where a hundred of you will kill ten thousand enemies (Lev 26:3, 7-9). 

“20:22 ‘You shall therefore keep all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them, that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. 23 And you shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they commit all these things, and therefore I abhor them. 24 But I have said to you, “You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples.”

“26:3 ‘If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them … 7 You will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. 8 Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you.”

But if you disobey his laws, he will punish not only you, but also your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren (Ex 20:5-6).

Ex 20:5 For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

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).

“Lev 26: 14 But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments 15 and if you despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you do not perform all My commandments, but break My covenant, 16 I also will do this to you:

I will even appoint terror over you, wasting disease and fever which shall consume the eyes and cause sorrow of heart. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 I will set My face against you, and you shall be defeated by your enemies. Those who hate you shall reign over you, and you shall flee when no one pursues you.

18 And after all this, if you do not obey Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. 19 I will break the pride of your power; I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. 20 And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.

21 Then, if you walk contrary to Me, and are not willing to obey Me, I will bring on you seven times more plagues, according to your sins. 22 I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, destroy your livestock, and make you few in number; and your highways shall be desolate.

23 And if by these things you are not reformed by Me, but walk contrary to Me, 24 then I also will walk contrary to you, and I will punish you yet seven times for your sins. 25 And I will bring a sword against you that will execute the vengeance of the covenant; when you are gathered together within your cities I will send pestilence among you; and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. 26 When I have cut off your supply of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall bring back your bread by weight, and you shall eat and not be satisfied.

27 ‘And after all this, if you do not obey Me, but walk contrary to Me,
28 then I also will walk contrary to you in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars, and cast your carcasses on the lifeless forms of your idols; and My soul shall abhor you.

31 I will lay your cities waste and bring your sanctuaries to desolation, and I will not smell the fragrance of your [h]sweet aromas. 32 I will bring the land to desolation, and your enemies who dwell in it shall be astonished at it. 33 I will scatter you among the nations and draw out a sword after you; your land shall be desolate and your cities waste. 34 Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate and you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall rest— for the time it did not rest on your sabbaths when you dwelt in it.

36 And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; the sound of a shaken leaf shall cause them to flee; they shall flee as though fleeing from a sword, and they shall fall when no one pursues. 37 They shall stumble over one another, as it were before a sword, when no one pursues; and you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. 38 You shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. 39 And those of you who are left shall waste away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands; also in their fathers’ iniquities, which are with them, they shall waste away.

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. I will do this over the next ten posts.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for these pieces, Michael.
    There is also the glaring fact that what people know as The Ten Commandments were in fact only part of a series of sometimes hateful Commandments. But in any event that first set was smashed by an angry Moses – and it’s only the second set – the “legally valid” set! – of Commandments (largely ignored in Church) that’s referred to in the Bible as The Ten Commandments. And they really don’t offer much to live by at all!
    Best regards,
    Paul

  2. Only a dumb god would leave out….’Thou shall not own another human being,’ ‘Thou shall not rape another human being,’ ‘Thou shall not abort a foetus,’ ‘Parents shall not provoke their children’ etc. I don’t think bible god thought his commandments through.

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