Re-Thinking the Ten Commandments

Many Bible believers consider the Ten Commandments to be the foundation for moral behavior.  Considering the fact that so many recent court cases have focused on the issue of whether or not they should be posted in the public arena, perhaps it is time to take a closer view and see if they are indeed the excellent standards their proponents claim them to be.

To be correctly understood, the Commandments must be placed in their proper historical context.  While biblical advocates no doubt consider them to be uniquely Judeo/Christian in nature and origin, the fact is that they have historical and literary antecedents in earlier cultures.  Most notably, they can be found almost verbatim in the Babylonian Cod of Hammurapi, dating from the eighteenth century BCE.  In addition, we have fragments of even earlier Sumerian codes from which Hammurapi’s was undoubtedly based. Cultures borrow from each other, and the authors of the Old Testament were no different in this regard; they simply copied the “revealed” law codes of earlier cultures, made a few minor adjustments and passed them off as their own.  Certainly, there is nothing divine, or even original, in the Ten Commandments we have today.

The story of Moses on Mount Sinai cannot be put in any historical time frame for the simple reason that there are no records attesting to anyone of that name or of such an event.  In fact, the Moses legend seems to have a historical antecedent in the story of king Minos of Crete, who was said to ascend to the top of Mount Dikte every nine years to receive new laws from the god of the mountain.  This legend predates the Moses legend by some three hundred years.

That said, let us examine the Commandments themselves.  The first question that arises is “which ones are we talking about?”  There are three places in the Old Testament in which they appear: Deuteronomy 5, Exodus 20, and Exodus 34.  The first two are similar, but the third is quite different, as it discusses blood offering and the invaluable moral admonition on seething a kid in its mother’s milk.  While this version is rarely quoted by believers, it is in fact the only one of the three that is referred to in the Bible itself as the “Ten Commandments.”

To be charitable, we will focus on the Deuteronomy version, as it is the best known of the three.  The first point to be made is that the commandments are all worded as negative pronouncements, underscoring the fundamentally negative view of human nature held by the Bible’s authors (and of virtually every other religious institution).  This should be kept in mind whenever believers accuse atheism of “being negative.”  The Bible’s authors felt that without a sort of celestial sword of Damocles hanging over our collective heads to keep us in line, society would fall apart and we would all go about robbing, killing, pillaging, and raping at will.  However, this is easily refuted; even the most cursory glance at our prisons and other corrective institutions will show that the percentage of atheist inmates is dramatically smaller than their corresponding numbers in the outside world.  By contrast, the bloody history of Christianity should make any thinking person seriously question that the Bible has made anyone moral.

The next point to be made is the simple fact that these codes are referred to as “commandments,” rather than, say, instructions or suggestions.  This certainly underscores the authoritarian, even totalitarian nature of biblical law: they are written to put the “fear of god” into us.  We humans are to be treated as children who cannot be trusted to come up with our own laws and thus must have them handed to us by an allegedly superior supernatural being.  Given all this, it is eminently easy to view the Ten Commandments as nothing more than an archaic and decidedly puerile system of rewards and punishments that, once written down, make further moral advancement exceedingly difficult.

So what are these commandments, the supposed wisdom of the ages, actually saying?

The first four commandments are not even concerned with human relations; rather, they are aimed at appeasing the ego of the biblical god.  What an uneasy vanity this super-egoist called god must possess!  Consider the second commandment, which says “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”  If followed literally, this would violate the concept of free speech illustrating once again the statist totalitarian nature of biblical morality.  Like any dictatorship, the Bible’s writers instinctively knew that the Bible must rely on unquestioning authority, threats, and punishments rather than logic or merit, to promote its agenda.  The first four commandments then have nothing to do with morality at all; they are religious injunctions promulgated and promoted by backwards thinking, self-serving mystics that have no bearing whatever on human behavior and should be dismissed accordingly.

The fifth commandment, to “honor thy father and mother” must, like the others, be placed in proper historical context and perspective.  At the time it was written, families usually depended on the labor of their children for their survival.  This commandment, far from being a “timeless” moral code, instead reflects the thinking and customs of a world long gone (at least in the more civilized countries); it merely reflects the social realities from that particular time period.  To really understand the Ten Commandments, one must realize that the writers of the Old Testament endorsed a hierarchical social order with their imaginary god at the top followed by, in descending order, priests, the king and his minions, male heads of household, women, children, and slaves.  It is not difficult to see why kings and priests promoted such a system and, by invoking god’s wrath against perceived social deviants, ensured its survival.

Considering the horrifying things that many parents do to their children to this day, not the least of which is withholding medical care because it is supposedly against the religious beliefs of the parents, wouldn’t a better commandment have been for parents to love and honor their children?  One would think that the biblical authors, supposedly inspired by god, would have had the prescience to know at least this much.

“Thou shalt not kill,” the sixth commandment, seems fine until we realize that it is unqualified.  Certainly, there are instances where killing is indeed justified, even necessitated, such as in certain cases of self-defense.  The absolutist wording of this commandment allows for no such contingencies reflecting the simplistic black or white thinking of the backwards moralists who composed this amendment.  Unqualified, it serves little purpose.  In addition, considering all the murders ordered or committed by god as related throughout the Old Testament, this moral tenor of this commandment rings rather hollow.  In effect, god is saying, “do as I say, not as I do.”

“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” commandment number seven, also seems fine at first glance but, like its predecessor, it too is unqualified.  Consider also the punishment: Who today, other than certain Christian fundamentalists, would insist on the death penalty for adultery?  Simply put, we have as a species moved beyond immoral biblical literalism.  At least most of us have.

Commandment number eight, “Thou shalt not steal,” suffers from the same problem we encountered with commandments six and seven.  Taken at face value, there are no situations in which stealing is justified.  Therefore, to steal food in order to feed one’s starving children is morally wrong.

The ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is usually interpreted to be an injunction against lying.  Once again, the unqualified wording of the commandment poses numerous problems.  Certainly, there are times when lying is justified, even necessary.  For example, if a would-be kidnapper asks you where your child is, you are morally justified in not telling him.  In addition, this commandment is not consistently applied, for it was socially and morally acceptable in biblical days to bear false witness against those outside the faith.  Double standards such as this are a typically religious phenomena, saying much about the lack of integrity inherent in religious faith.

Finally, the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, his field, or his manservant…” illustrates the misogynous nature of the Bible for here, in plain unequivocal language, we are told that a wife is a piece of property, like and ox, an ass, or a field.  Moreover, “manservant” is another way of saying slave; slavery is nowhere condemned anywhere in the Bible.  The Bible’s authors surely knew that slavery was a commonly accepted institution in the ancient world.  Why did the authors overlook this key moral precept?

So what does all this tell us about the “timeless values” of the Ten  Commandments?  The first four concern religious rituals having nothing to do with one’s behavior.  Three others are moderately useful at best and are by no means unique to the Bible either in nature or in content.  The other three are unqualified, making them virtually useless.

These are supposed to be the fundamental rules we should live our lives by?  This is the best that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-benevolent god (or, his followers who allegedly are communicating his wishes to us) can come up with?  These are the fundamental rules to be obeyed by all people in all places for all time?  Where are the real values one should expect from religion, which is after all supposed to be, according to believers, the foundation for morality?

Think how much good could have come had the Bible, instead of these Ten Commandments, instead condemned war?  How much good could have resulted had the writers of the bible prescribed simple sanitary measures to help prevent disease?  Why are there no words condemning slavery but numerous passages condoning it?  Why are women consigned to a second-class citizenship and not even allowed to speak in church?  As with every religious system, once you critically examine it, it becomes useless as a moral guide.

The only value of the Ten Commandments (or of the Bible in general) is that it shows us how a backward, pre-literate society lived and the beliefs they shared.  They can have no relevance for us today, since they are clearly primitive, sexist, inflexible and even downright silly.  To advocate them, as the religious right does today, as moral standards today is to advocate moral regression.

Any grade scholar could come up with a better code.


  1. Atheism: The Case Against God  by George H. Smith.  Published by Prometheus books, Buffalo, NY 1989
  2. In God We Trust: But Which One? By Judith Hayes.  Published by FFRF, Inc. Madison, WI 1996
  3. Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker.  Published by FFRF, 1992



By: Jon Nelson

Categories:   America, Atheism and Religion, Christianity, Religion In America