Keeping the Bible Open, Ten Commandments Again

Today we will continue the search for the Ten Commandments.  You would think that if the all powerful creator of the universe came down and took over a mountain and engraved the rules that he expects us all to follow on some stone tablets, that people might remember how it happened.  And you would expect that the tablets would still be around.  “God wrote this himself!”  Even though one guy supposedly wrote the first five books of the bible, we get three different versions of just this event.  And still no tablets.   Not even in some government warehouse.

So, here we are in Exodus again, but this time some 10 chapters before our other story.  We are at the base of Mt. Sinai and god tells Moses he is coming down.   Unlike today, god didn’t rely on faith, but rather on empirical evidence, he is going to show himself so that people will know that Moses ain’t just talking to himself:

 “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after’.”

This actually makes sense, wonder why he changed his policy?  We could use that today!

So Moses gets the people all cleaned up to meet god.  Of course, being the control freak that he is, god has some pretty specific instructions about how this is going to go down.

12 You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows;[a] whether animal or human being, they shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.”

OK, this is all clear enough.  When the trumpet sounds, all the people can go up.  For three days, the people clean up.

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.

So,up the people go, right?  No, of course not, god changes his mind.

21 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. 22 Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them.” 23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.’”

Finally Moses goes up mountain and we get this in the next chapter:

20 Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lordyour God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for theLord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days theLord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.[c]

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Now, while the editors of the bible have helpfully labeled this chapter “The Ten Commandments” the phrase never appears there.  There is no mention of any tablets or godly penmanship.  Oh, and Aaron is on the mountain with Moses, so there is no golden calf, smashed tablets (for both reasons!) and so on.  In fact, if the section had not been helpfully labeled with the familiar phrase you might not even notice it amongst all the other laws being handed around.

In fact, the next section (same chapter) is about laws concerning the altar, which is mostly a reiteration of the “no other gods before me” rap.  Not much here to be making courthouse monuments out of really.

Our last version of this story is in Deuteronomy, Chapter 5.  This time, however, Moses is reminding the people of the story, telling around the campfire or something.  Here is how he introduces his tale:

Moses convened all Israel, and said to them:

Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. (At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words[a] of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:

Wait a second…Horeb?  What happened to Sinai?  Are the same place?  Maybe, maybe not, whatever.  So here is what god said:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before[b] me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lordyour God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[c] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for theLord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

16 Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

17 You shall not murder.[d]

18 Neither shall you commit adultery.

19 Neither shall you steal.

20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.

Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Now, it does say that these were divinely engraved on tablets, but no mention of tablet smashing, golden calves or any of that.  Three different stories, but at least in this translation, we have two consistent sets of commandments.  Now, we have been told over and over that these commandments not only are perfect examples of moral law, that they are actually the source for our very own constitution!  Quite a claim.  Let’s take a look.

Number 1:  Have no other gods before me.  Wait, there are other gods??  Is he speaking metaphorically, like money as a god?  Or are their other deities in the pantheon?  This is not a moral or ethical law, just a decree from an insecure, jealous (as he admits in the next commandment) god.  Doesn’t strike me as the all powerful creator of the universe.  Kind of small really.

Number 2: No idols.  This time we know he is not speaking metaphorically here as he describes, actual idols he doesn’t want.  Again, an insecure, jealous god.  Then he goes off the rails completely.  Passing down punishment to the children of the wrong doer.  And the grandchildren.  And the great-grandchildren.  And the great-great-grandchildren??  This is not only not a moral law, but is pretty much ruled out in every ethical system.   Thank goodness nothing like this got in the Constitution!

Number 3: You should not make “wrongful use” of the lord’s name.  What does this even mean?  Putting him down as a cosigner on my mortgage?  If I say, “god damn it” am I misusing his name or saying a prayer?  Some believe this means you can’t say his name at all.  But which name?  Jehovah? Yahweh? Eloheim? Jealous (yes, he says that is his name!) God?  Again, not a moral or ethical precept.

Number 4: Remember the Sabbath.  Actually a nice thought.  A day of rest, and not just for the master,but the workers and animals as well.  Not exactly a moral precept, but a very nice thought.  Of course even the folks who want this up in the courthouses, don’t really follow this.  Sure Hobby Lobby is closed on Sunday (or should it be Saturday — never mind) but do they go out on Sunday?  Fill up with gas?  Eat at a buffet?  If so then they are making other people work and break this law.  And so do you.

Number 5: Honor your mother and father.  Again a nice thought, but doesn’t seem to allow exceptions for when they don’t deserve honor.  I don’t remember this provision in the Constitution either.  Not really a moral precept.  After all, we all love mom, except when we don’t.

Number 6: You shall not murder.  OK, here we have a problem, don’t we fundamentalists?  Did he say “murder” or “kill”?  The New Revised Standard Version that I am using says it can go either way.  They have been nice to god and chosen “murder” in the main text and put “kill” in a footnote.  Why do I say nice?  You might remember that in the golden calf version of the story, the Israelites were ordered to kill those among them who didn’t believe this stuff.  3,000 people were killed in what amounts to a religious civil war. Murder? Or “killing”?  You be the judge as to whether a commandment was broken.  In defense of those commandments.  If it means “kill” can war be justified?  If it means “murder” perhaps abortion isn’t such a sin.  All because of one word.

Number 7: You shall not commit adultery.  Again, we have a definitional problem here.  So, if you wife gives you a slave to impregnate, that is not adultery?  What, Abraham, I can’t hear you.  You can screw as many women as you want, as long as “marry” them,  right Solomon?  David?  Apparently having “concubines” is not adultery either.  Pretty much leaves the field wide open, doesn’t it?  Or does this only apply to women?  Could have used some more detail here.  Societies have tried to actually outlaw adultery, but it never works.

Number 8: You shall not steal.  No real problems here, but  pretty much every culture figured this one out, no need for god emphasize the point.  And really does stealing really rank above other moral evils, like say, slavery?

Number 9:  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  Again, is this a prohibition against perjury or lying in general?  If someone tells their wife that they did not gamble away the rent money, is this false witness against a neighbor?  Or is this along the lines of “Don’t be saying your neighbor did something that we are going to stone him to death for when he didn’t actually do it.”  Maybe god should have looked at Number 6 before he prescribed the death penalty for so many things.

Number 10: Coveting.  In general this is a pretty good moral precept.  Desiring something you can’t have can lead to all kinds of not so good consequences, including jealousy.  Oh, but god is the king of jealousy.  Said so himself.  So, I guess that is not what he is trying to prevent in us.  And did he really mean to create the idea of thought crimes?  Not sure what the moral basis of telling people what not to think would be.

So, there they are the foremost concerns of the all powerful creator of the universe in giving moral guidance to his people.  Frankly, not very impressive.  Doesn’t mention rape.  Child abuse.  Spoiling the commons.  And there is no mention of general ethical principals such as the Golden Rule or “all people are created equal.”   You would think that. at least, since he keeps making a big deal about saving the Israelites from slavery, that he might have something bad to say about that foul practice, but not a peep.  And this is the basis for morality for all times and places?  Meh.

No state would model their laws on this flimsy outline.  And the United States certainly didn’t.  Not a word of this is in the Constitution.   The Founders were smarter than that.

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