1Then God spoke all these words:
2‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3‘you shall have no other gods before me. 4You 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. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But 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. 11For in six days the Lord 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‘Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 5You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. 17You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ 20Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’
Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, opposite me was a young mother with a baby on her lap. He was playing happily with a fluffy bunny. The mom was chatting away with someone next to her. A little girl of about eighteen months was toddling around the waiting room. She stopped in front of the baby and, thumb in her mouth, was watching him. The baby’s bunny fell on the floor. He tried to reach for it. Then the most amazing thing happened. The little girl went and picked up the toy, waddled to the baby, and handed it to him. No one told her to do so. She did not expect a reward. It was a simple act of caring towards a stranger by a toddler who could not even yet speak yet.
Grade one or two teachers would sometimes do a little exercise with their children. They would put them in groups of three or four. Each group then has to come up with a list of five classroom rules. Remarkably they create rules like:
- play with each other and share;
- not hurt someone;
- help one other;
- respect property; and
- listen when someone is talking.
We are programmed to live in larger groups and to work out rules which make it possible. Small children do this instinctively. This is where the Ten Commandments came from. It was something like a covenant, a social contract. Those involved, committed themselves to work as a team on condition their lives, their property, their space and their loved ones were respected.
The Ten Commandments as we know them are the result of community rules which developed over more than six centuries. The society it maintained was one ruled by priests in the name of their God which they called Yahweh. These priests appointed the kings. The first part of the ten commandments, that is, the first four, has everything to do with religious identity. Only Yahweh may be worshipped. The worship of other gods is strictly forbidden by punishment of death. The name of God himself, Yahweh, is holy, and shall not be used in vain. A specific day, the Sabbath, is also set aside for religious worship when no work is to be done. Animal sacrifices to Yahweh are implied as part and parcel of his worship.
There are, of course, many advantages to this type of religious social contract. It is called a theocracy. People feel they belong, because they worship alike. Even today, Jewish people agree it is their religion which makes them behave like a group, like family.
The six final commandments have to do with the rules of living together with each other. Children should show respect for their parents, and, of course, those who take their place. An individual’s life and property is not even to be coveted. It is defined as slaves, cattle, buildings and land, and, difficult for us to understand, women as well. Men could own more than one wife. Individuals are also safeguarded against fake news, that is, gossip and slander.
Unfortunately, the Ten Commandments did not make people live happily ever after. Perhaps you are able to see some of the flaws. Slavery is accepted uncritically. There is a long tradition that the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, were written by Moses. We don’t accept this any longer—there are too many inconsistencies and even contradictions. The general academic view is that they were revised and rewritten by various persons over a period of more than six hundred years.
One of these redactors is called The Deuteronomist by scholars—yes, he or they wrote the book of Deuteronomy and rewrote or added sections to the other four books as well. The Deuteronomist was worried about slavery. Realising that slaves were treated badly, they added rules for slaves to be treated more humane, for example Deuteronomy 15:11-14.
Another redactor is called The Priestly Source. He or they experienced the exile of the Jews in the sixth century BCE. They were concerned about the treatment of foreigners, because the Jews lived like this in Babylon; they knew how it felt. This is why the Priestly Source probably added Leviticus 19:24, that foreigners should be treated as ‘native-born Israelites.’
The redactor called The Yahwist, the one who called God Yahweh, was very much into the theocracy system of government. The first four commandments probably came from his, or their, pen and was understood as: ‘There is only one God, Yahweh, who is present in the temple of Jerusalem. Worship this God only. He is jealous. If you don’t, he will punish your children to the third and fourth generation.’ You will agree with me that this view of God is simply unacceptable. Do we really want to teach our children that God would punish them for our sins? No, we would like them to view God as fair and just.
The fourth redactor, The Elohist, called God ‘Elohim’, not Yahweh. He or they focused more on positive commands in stead of prohibitions, more on moral laws, than rituals. Perhaps they expanded the Ten Commandments with instructions like Exodus 22:25, that no interest was to be charged to the poor, widows, and orphans. They had to received equal justice (Exodus 23:3,6). A special tithe had to be collected every third year for their benefit (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
You can therefore see that the Ten Commandments were footnoted, expanded and reinterpreted in accordance with people’s conscience and circumstances. It was never a case of one size fits all.
Jesus did the same. It was he who addressed the issue of the treatment of females in society. According to Matthew 5:27, Jesus checked men out who checked out women. He said, ‘…everyone who looks at a woman with lust’ is guilty of the seventh commandment. One day Jesus saw a woman crying. She said she found a note on her pillow that morning. It simply read, ‘You are not my wife and I am not your husband.’ It was an official decree of divorce and could only be issued by husbands on the basis of ‘some indecency’ (Dt. 24:1). The wife was returned without anything to her parents. What Jesus taught about divorce should be understood as an attempt to protect the dignity of the women of his day.
Finally, Jesus also criticised the Sabbath regulations. One Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples plucked some grain. The Pharisees condemned Jesus for this. He replied ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). For Jesus the Sabbath was simply a day of relaxation and rest. Being censured for healing someone on this holy day (Matthew 12), Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 that God wanted mercy more than sacrifice, that is, outward observances. Finally, Jesus supplied us with the Golden Rule. It is summarised as one should treat others as one would like to be treated by others (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). This is instinctively what we tell our children when they grab another child’s toy: ‘How would you feel if somebody did this to you …?’ In all fairness, variants of the Golden Rule existed in the Old Testament, as well as Egypt, India, Greece, Rome, Persia.
Laws are not forever. They are adapted according to the circumstances.
According to Exodus 31, God wrote the ten commandments with God’s finger on two stone tablets. When Moses came down from Mt Sinai, he saw his people dancing around the golden calf. Moses then smashed the tablets. Later, Moses rewrote them on two new tablets (Exodus 34) as God dictated. The fragments of the first tablets, as well as the two new tablets were purportedly put in the ark of the covenant. Nothing is heard of the ark after the destruction of the Jerusalem and its temple in 587 BCE by the Babylonians.
Although the ten commandments were reported to have been set in stone, these tablets were broken and rewritten. They finally disappeared in the mists and mysteries of legends and history. If there is a moral to the story, it is that the rules according to which we live are continuously to be reflected upon, reformulated, and, in all probability, smashed again.
The society we live in is a democracy. One of the Reformation’s unintended legacies is the idea of religious freedom. We learned through experience that it is better to tolerate different beliefs than to fight unproductive and senseless religious wars. So much for the traditional interpretation of the commandments one to four.
Secondly, we have seen how family members, clergy, teachers, and the rich and famous, have abused positions of power and trust to abuse vulnerable children and women. A month ago a teacher was charged in court for allegedly raping two primary school children. Too long have these people hidden behind the fifth commandment.
Last week, in Egypt, Sarah Hegazy has been arrested because she waved a rainbow flag at a concert to show support for gay and lesbians. She has been beaten by inmates and could spend the rest of her life in prison if found guilty of ‘promoting sexual deviancy.’ The ten commandments, churches, and religions in general, do not promote respect for LGBTQ people.
Every day we see vividly on TV how plastic is killing sea life, even the little beads found in tooth pastes. How about we add ‘You shall recycle plastics and limit your carbon footprint.’ For violent protesters, we may have something like ‘You shall not throw things. You shall not burn things.’
Drafted by Dr Hans Küng, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 accepted some shared principles to create a just society. It is a commitment to a culture of: non-violence and respect for life; solidarity and a just economic order; tolerance and a life of truthfulness; equal rights and partnership between men and women.
These are dated already. I miss any reference to nature, and to people of different sexual orientation. But we have a good start here. I think, the class room contracts of the grades ones and twos say it better and simpler. We should become like children.