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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (A.K.A. THE DECALOGUE)

Part 2 of two parts:
Implications of the Second Commandment

(Referred to as the First Commandment
by Roman Catholics and some Lutherans)

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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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Internal contradictions within the Hebrew Scriptures about graven images (Cont'd):

There are at least three methods of harmonizing these passages and the apparently conflicting Commandment prohibiting graven images and likenesses:

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One can assume that the image of the fiery serpent and all of the temple graven image decorations were directly ordered by God, and thus superseded the order to make no likenesses of items in heaven, on earth or in the seas under the earth.

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One might interpret Exodus 20:4's references to "not make unto thee any graven image" -- i.e. to not carve an image in stone or cast one in metal -- does not actually refer to the making or displaying of a graven image. The prohibition really relates to the bowing down before these images and worshiping the objects themselves.

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Some mainline and most liberal theologians accept the Documentary Hypothesis: that the Pentateuch was a mixture of documents from four anonymous sources, referred to as J, E, P, and D. They agree that Exodus 20 was written by "E." The passages in Exodus and Numbers that refer to graven images may have been written by "P." Naturally, the passages would disagree because "E" and "P" had different agendas. The references in 1 Kings and Ezekiel would be related to "P's" writing.

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Concerning verse 5: "visiting the iniquity:"

The phrase "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" raises some serious ethical concerns.

Faced with the immorality of transferring the responsibility of sin from the guilty to the innocent descendents of the guilty person, many denominations have abandoned the literal interpretation of this Commandment. Some have interpreted the phrase as implying that when a person deviates from the proper orthodox theological or philosophical teachings, that their children will often tend to follow suit and believe the same heresy. It is natural for children to emulate the beliefs of their parents. Thus the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren will not actually be punished for the beliefs of the parents, as the commandment literally says. They will be punished for holding heretical beliefs themselves which were taught to them by their parents.

They note, for example, that an alcoholic father might pass on his disease to his children -- and beyond -- either genetically or by example. Thus, they interpret this commandment as implying that God does not take revenge directly on succeeding generations. However, the sin of the father would be transmitted by purely natural processes to his children, grand children, great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. This interpretation certainly offers a meaning of the commandment that is more acceptable. However, other Christians and Jews would point out that the meaning of the text is obvious. It quite clearly has God talking, and stating that he would personally visit "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children..." There is no indication that the descendents of a heretic would avoid punishment even if they were to abandon their parent's heresy and adopt orthodox beliefs.

Thus, the apparent meaning of the commandment is that sin is to be transferred from a guilty person (the parent) to innocent parties (four generations of descendents). This is considered immoral by most contemporary ethical systems -- both secular and religious. A person is held responsible only for their own actions.

If a man robs a bank, we do not arrest and punish his grand-daughter or his father. Today, it is generally seen as profoundly immoral to punish a person for the sins or criminal activities of others. But this biblical verse, literally interpreted, holds a person's daughters and sons, his grand-children, great-grandchildren and perhaps even great-great-grandchildren accountable for their ancestor's behavior.

Ezekiel 18:20 from the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) is one passage appears to directly contradict Verse 5. It says:

"The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." (King James Version)

Galatians 6:5 is one passage from the Christian Scripters (a.k.a. New Testament) which also appears to directly contradict Verse 5. It says:

"For we are each responsible for our own conduct." (New Living Translation)

Still, there are many examples of this principle of transferring sin from the guilty party to one or more innocent parties in the Bible. For example:

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Christianity traditionally taught that the entire human race inherited original sin as a result of Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden. (Some faith groups have rejected the traditional concept of direct transfer of original sin from the first parents to succeeding generation; they teach that sin entered the world as a result of Adam and Eve's misbehavior and that this permanently changed the character of the universe.)

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God created the great flood which drowned the entire human race, except for Noah and his family. This was done to punish the other human adults for their actions. But the children, infants and newborn also died for their parent's sins.

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Ham's committed an unexplained indiscretion with his father Noah. Ham was not punished. His son, Canaan, and all of Canaan's descendents were cursed to be slaves forever.

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Achan was found to be solely responsible for a sinful act during wartime. He, his wife and children were all stoned to death for the father's sin.

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King David committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba who was the property of another man: Uriah the Hittite. In punishment, David and Bathsheba's child died in infancy.

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Historical Christianity has taught the concept of the Atonement whereby all of the sins and guilt of certain individuals -- past, present and future -- were transferred to Jesus, the innocent and sinless Son of God, during his execution.

Harry Binswanger a professor at the Ayn Rand Institute's Objectivist Graduate Center takes a very dim view of this commandment. He suggests:

"This primitive conception of law and morality flatly contradicts American values. Inherited guilt is an impossible and degrading concept. How can you be guilty for something you didn't do? In philosophic terms, it represents the doctrine of determinism, the idea that your choices count for nothing, that factors beyond your control govern your 'destiny.' This is the denial of free will and therefore of self-responsibility. The nation of the self-made man cannot be squared with the ugly notion that you are to be punished for the 'sin' of your great-grandfather." 4

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Scope of the law:

Jews have historically regarded the three Exodus Decalogue and the remaining 613 Mosaic Laws as being binding only on fellow Jews. They regard the Decalogues as important but not as a complete set of commandments for the guidance of one's behavior. The full Law of Moses, which is composed of 623 commands and prohibitions, are needed to cover all aspects of life.

Many Christians have rejected almost all of the 623 Mosaic Laws as being not applicable to present-day Christians. They generally do recognize that the Ten Commandments, those laws opposing homosexuality, other laws regarding sexual behavior, and a few others as still being binding today.

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Related essays on this topic:

Analysis of Commandments:

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1 to 3

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4 to 6

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7 to 10

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Alan M. Dershowitz, "Ten Commandments Aren't Gun Control Politics: Religion isn't a constitutionally acceptable alternative," Los Angeles Times, 1999-JUN-20.It was once on the Los Angeles Times web site, and in many dozens of other locations on the Internet, but has been deleted from all of them.
  2. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1649): Questions 1 to 97 are at: http://www.reformed.org/. Questions 98 to 196 are at:  http://www.reformed.org/
  3. "The Ten Commandments," Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America," Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at: http://www.courier-journal.com/

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Copyright © 2005 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 20
16-MAY-22
Author: B.A. Robinson
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