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The Ten Commandments (a.k.a. The Decalogue)

Analysis of Commandments 1 to 3

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See also an analysis of commandments 4 to 6 or 7 to 10

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ten commandments About this essay:

We will follow the Protestant/Eastern Orthodox sequence of Exodus 20, since that is the format most familiar to North Americans.

This essay will attempt to explain:

  • The original meaning of each commandment.

  • How people interpret them today.

  • The meaning interpreted by The Westminster Larger Catechism. The latter is still used by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and some other Reform denominations within Christianity. 1 The Catechism was written in 1649 CE. Its authors seem to have enlarged the scope of most of the Commandments well beyond their original intent, to include many other sins. Some are apparently unrelated to the original text. By doing this, they expand the meaning of the Decalogue to incorporate many of the 613 other instructions and prohibitions that form the Mosaic Law. Whether this is an ethical change is debatable.

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The individual commandments:

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1st Commandment; Verse 3: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

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The Israelites were to worship only Jehovah. As in many other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament), other (Pagan) gods are assumed to exist and are worshipped by other cultures, but are not to be worshipped by ancient Hebrews.


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As a purely religious document for Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, it is fine. But if posted as a guide for the behavior of students in a public school, it is much more problematic:

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 It conflicts with the beliefs of minority religions in society. It is offensive to followers of Agnosticism, Atheism, Buddhism (some traditions), Hinduism, Scientific Humanism, Sikhism, Wicca, etc. These religions worship many Gods, a different single deity, or no deities.

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If shown in isolation, it is in direct conflict with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees freedom of religious belief and separation of church and state. However, if it is shown as one document in a grouping of religious and secular laws from many traditions, it may be constitutional.

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It conflicts with the Ethic of Reciprocity, called the Golden Rule in Judeo-Christianity, since it causes distress to some followers of other religions.

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The Westminster Larger Catechism interprets this Commandment broadly to include worshiping another God, holding false beliefs about God, heresy, pride, "carnal delights and joys...praying to saints, angels, or any other creatures..."

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Some people also interpret this commandment symbolically: they see it as prohibiting the worship of money, status, success, beauty, etc in place of Yahweh.

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2nd Commandment; Verses 4-6: "Thou shalt not make unto thee 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 shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy 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 shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

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Many liberal theologians believe that the original commandment consisted only of the opening nine-word phrase, shown in bold above. The rest was added later to expand the number of prohibitions.

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Religious conservatives generally believe that God wrote the Ten Commandments precisely as they have been passed down to us.

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This commandment contains two particularly troublesome clauses:

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Images of any thing in heaven and earth are prohibited. This is interpreted with various degrees of strictness by different Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith groups. If interpreted literally, it would decimate the still and movie camera market.

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"....visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" raises some serious ethical concerns. It implies that God will hold innocent descendents responsible for the sins of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents.

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Today's implications arising from these clauses are complex, and are described in a separate essay.

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This concept of spreading the responsibility for one person's sin among all family members was common in the ancient Middle East. However, most contemporary ethical systems -- both secular and religious -- hold a person responsible only for their own actions. If a person robs a bank, we do not arrest and punish his grand-daughter. Today, it is generally seen as profoundly immoral to punish a person for the sins or criminal activities of others. But this biblical verse not only holds a man -- and perhaps a woman -- responsible for his personal sinful behavior, but also holds his daughters and sons, his grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren accountable for the sin of their ancestor. The stoning to death of Achan and his family for a sinful act which was performed by the father alone is another application of this principle of transferring sin from the guilty party to many innocent parties. See Joshua 7:19-25.

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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 [sic] cannot be squared with the ugly notion that you are to be punished for the 'sin' of your great-grandfather." 2

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The Amish and some other conservative and Old Order Mennonites continue to prohibit the taking of photographs, because they view them as a form of graven image.

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This is one of the two commandments that religious organizations most often violate. It is very difficult to find a church in North America that does not display some object which is a likeness of a crucifix, dove, host, cross, burning bush, a saint, the Holy Family or some other entity found in heaven or earth. "...our churches are filled with them, from crosses to crucifixes to tabernacles to ambreys to icons to stations of the cross." 2

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The Westminster Larger Catechism interprets this Commandment broadly. It considers "toleration of a false religion" to be a sin. i.e. others must not be given religious freedom to follow their own spiritual beliefs.

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Another sin is to place a painting of Jesus on the wall of a home or church -- a common practice by Christians today. 1

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3rd Commandment; Verse 7: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

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This is another commandment where many religious liberals believe that only the first 13 word phrase was in the original text.

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This verse originally meant that one is not to use the name of God for "any frivolous or malicious purpose or in magic."

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Until recently, the phrase "taking God's name in vain" also related to contracts. They were sworn "in the name of the Lord". If the terms of a contract were broken, the offending party was said to have taken "the Lord's name in vain." 3

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Again, the Westminster Larger Catechism interprets this Commandment very broadly to include believing in false doctrines or opposing God's truth.

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Today, it is often mistakenly interpreted as prohibiting swearing. This has nothing to do with its original meaning.

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Scope of the law:

Most Jews regard the Decalogues as important but not an adequate set of commandments for the guidance of one's life. The full Law of Moses, composed of 613 commands as found distributed among the Hebrew Scriptures are needed.

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Continue with commandments 4 to 6

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References and a note:

  1. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1649): Questions 1 to 97 are at: http://www.reformed.org/documents/larger1.html; Questions 98 to 196 are at:  http://www.reformed.org/documents/larger2.html
  2. Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America," Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at: http://www.courier-journal.com/
  3. 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 appears to have been deleted from all of them.

  4. book cover J.S. Spong, "Why Christianity must change or die," Harper Collins (1998), Page 154. Read over 70 reviews or order this book
  5. Note on the principle of separation of church and state: The separation of church and state is not specifically mentioned in the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Amendment as requiring church-state separation. Similarly, the Supreme Court has interpreted the 14th Amendment as guaranteeing every U.S. citizen the right of privacy from intrusive government interference in their life, even though privacy is not specifically mentioned in the text. This privacy right led to the 1973 court decision in Roe v. Wade which guarantees that women can legally have unrestricted access to an early abortion. It was also cited during 2003 in the same court's ruling Lawrence v. Texas which determnined that adults can engage in private sexual behavior without government interference.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2016-MAY-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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