Ten Commandments

Thanks to Judge Roy Moore and others, there's been a good deal of fuss about the Ten Commandments. So here are assorted comments on them.


"Judeo-Christian" Tradition

People say that the Ten Commandments are part of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. This term lends the Ten Commandments, and other Judeo-Christian elements, a more broad-minded legitimacy than they would have as merely a sectarian tenet. In the pluralistic US, we're rightly suspicious of the government honoring one religion over others. That's why this idea of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition is so handy.


It wasn't so long ago, before the liberal victories of the 20th century, that people in the US were unabashed about touting "Christian" values. That was one of the things we held against the Jews, that they weren't Christians. But as liberal thought won out, and after Hitler's genocide made anti-Semitism unfashionable, we started to use the term "Judeo-Christian." This term accomplished two tasks at once. First, it allowed us to speak about religious ideas without excluding Jews, the way reference to "Christian" values or traditions would. Jews are the one religious minority that US Christians pretty well accept (whether or not God hears their prayers). Second, it allowed us to speak about religious ideas without sounding so sectarian (and unconstitutional).


There's reason to be suspicious of this term. At a fundamental level, Judaism and Christianity are irreconcilable. Christianity is based on the practice of blasphemy, worshiping a human being as God. That's blasphemy from the Jewish (or Muslim) perspective, anyway. From the Christian perspective, worshiping a human being as God is blasphemy unless that human being is Jesus. On a more practical level, what counts as "Judeo-Christian" values is basically up to the Christians. As the majority, for example, Christians accept the Ten Commandments and reject Old Testament dietary restrictions. Thus, the Ten Commandments becomes part of "Judeo-Christian" values and eating kosher does not.


More generally, the term "Judeo-Christian" gets used as cover for sectarian initiatives. By tacking "Judeo-" onto the front of "Christian," Christians can speak openly in a pluralistic society about Christian values and not offend liberals' pluralistic sensibilities.


On the topic of the Ten Commandments, giving them the special status that Judge Roy Moore wants to give them is specifically against Jewish tradition. Jewish tradition holds that there are 613 commandments, all of them equal. To hold up ten of them as "the" Ten Commandments is contrary to Jewish tradition. So is putting the Ten Commandments in courthouses a way to honor the "Judeo-Christian" tradition? No, it's a way of honoring a Christian tradition.


Ten Commandments in Courthouses

Conservative Christians want us to think that not having monuments to the Ten Commandments in our courthouses is a new development contrary to the traditions of our republic. In fact, most of these monuments were put in place in the 1950s or later. These religious addenda to our secular courts were part of a broader series of symbolic victories that conservatives won in the face of practical victories by liberals. Adding "under God" to the pledge of allegiance is another example of such a symbolic victory.


Ten Commandments?

One interesting note about the Ten Commandments is that there aren't ten commandments. There are three ways that people split them to make the number come out to ten.


Jews take the first line as the first commandment: "I am YHWH, your God." It's a good line, but it's not a commandment. That's fine for Jews because they don't have "Ten Commandments." That's a Christian term for these Bible verses. The Jews have "Ten Declarations" or "Statements" or "Things." Christians, having decided that these are "Commandments," can't follow the original divisions of these verses.


Catholics pull one clause out of the last commandment (not to covet your fellow countryman's wife), set it up on its own as the 9th commandment, and thereby get to ten. This treatment is worth a closer look. See below.


Protestants split the commandment about not making graven images and not bowing down to them into two commandments. That's how they get ten commandments out of nine.


Whenever the Ten Commandments get put up in a courthouse, they are in one form or another. People say that they're part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but using one format or the other implicitly takes sides in terms of whose version of the Ten Commandments is right.



Christian translations of the Old Testament traditionally substitute the term "LORD" (all caps or small caps) for the name "YHWH." This usage reflects the Greek (pagan) understanding of God as abstract and universal. It also serves the Christian agenda of conflating Jesus (their "Lord") and YHWH ("the LORD"). Using "LORD" for "YHWH" isn't so much translation as creative editing.


Your "Neighbor"

The Ten Commandments use the phrase "neighbor" several times. Thanks to Jesus and his parable of the Good Samaritan, we think of all people as our neighbors. But for the Hebrews, the term meant "fellow countryman." Using the term "neighbor" keeps the modern reader from understanding the Ten Commandments as they were originally meant.


"Kill" or "Murder"

One commandment says that one must not kill, though the context pretty clearly means that one must not murder. Should this commandment be translated literally (don't "kill") or contextually (don't "murder")? Here's a case where centuries of common usage may be the friend of authenticity instead of its enemy. If we translate this commandment as "You shall not kill," we understand it to mean "You shall not murder," even though that's not literally what it says. That's as close to the original text and meaning as we can get. Still, something of a purist, I favor a non-literal translation ("murder") so that one can take the translation literally.



The "adultery" referred to in the Ten Commandments is sex between a married woman and a man other than her husband. It represents a violation of the husband's property rights and the threat that a man would pass his property on to an heir who was another man's son. A husband having sex with, for example, his female slave is not adultery. Nor is his having sex with another of his wives. And if he has sex with an unbetrothed virgin (whether it's rape or consensual), his punishment is to be forced to marry her. A husband having sex with an unbetrothed virgin is a crime against the virgin's father, not against the husband's own wife or against the virgin.


Ninth Commandment

The last of the commandments includes the clause that you shall not covet your fellow countryman's wife. Why does YHWH forbid coveting your fellow countryman's wife but not your fellow countrywoman's husband? Because it makes sense for an owner to covet another owner's property, but not for a piece of property to covet another piece of property's owner.


Catholics split this clause out and treat it as its own commandment. This change allows one to understand the commandment differently from how it was meant, which is handy when the original meaning doesn't make sense to modern readers.


That's the sweet deal that the Catholic Church has. Its authority comes from the Bible, and the authority includes the right to alter the Bible.


Ten Commandments

Here's the best I can do as far as putting Exodus 20:2-17 into a format that will be understood accurately by most readers.


I am YHWH your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.


You shall not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I YHWH your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.


You shall not take the name of YHWH your God in falsehood; for YHWH will not hold him guiltless that takes His name in falsehood


Remember the Sabbath day [Friday dusk to Saturday dusk], to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of YHWH your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the foreigner that is within your gates: For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore YHWH blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.


Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which YHWH your God gives you.


You shall not murder.


You shall not have sex with another man's wife.


You shall not steal.


You shall not bear false witness against your fellow countryman.


You shall not covet your fellow countryman's house, you shall not covet your fellow countryman's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your fellow countryman's.


June 2004

Link: the term "Judeo -Christian"


Ten Commandments in the News

June 2005

The Supreme Court ruled that a courthouse setting up an overtly religious display of the Ten Commandments is unconstitutional, at least until Bush puts a judge on the bench.