THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (A.K.A. THE DECALOGUE)
Analysis of commandments 1 to 5
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
Its authors seem to have enlarged the scope of most of the Commandments way
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.
The individual commandments:
1st Commandment; Verse 3:
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
The Israelites were to worship only Jehovah. As
in many other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures, other (Pagan) gods are
assumed to exist, but are not to be worshipped.
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:
It conflicts with the beliefs of minority
religions in society. It is offensive to followers of Hinduism,
Sikhism, Wicca, Buddhism (some traditions), Agnosticism, Atheism,
Humanism, etc. These religions worship many Gods, a different single
God, two deities or no God.
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, it may be constitutional.
It conflicts with the
Ethic of Reciprocity, called the Golden Rule in
Judeo-Christianity, since it causes distress to followers of other
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
Some people interpret this commandment
symbolically: they see it as prohibiting the worship of money,
status, success, beauty, etc in place of Jehovah.
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."
Many liberal theologians believe that the
original commandment consisted only of the opening nine-word phrase.
The rest was added later to expand the number of prohibitions.
Religious conservatives believe that God wrote the Ten
Commandments precisely as they have been passed down to us.
This commandment contains two troublesome clauses:
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.
"....visiting the iniquity of the
fathers upon the children" raises some serious ethical concerns. It implies
that innocent descendents are to be held responsible for the sins of
their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and
Today's implications arising from these clauses are
complex, and are described in a separate essay.
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. 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
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
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.
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
The Westminster Larger Catechism
interprets this Commandment broadly. It considers "toleration
false religion" to be a sin. i.e. others must not be given
religious freedom to follow their own spiritual beliefs.
Another sin is to place a painting of Jesus on the wall
of a home or church -- a common practice by Christians today.
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."
This is another commandment where religious liberals
believe that only the first 13 word phrase was in the original text.
This verse originally meant that one is not to
use the name of God for "any frivolous or malicious purpose or
Until recently, the phrase "taking God's
name in vain" 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."
Again, the Westminster Larger Catechism
interprets this Commandment broadly to include believing in false
doctrines or opposing God's truth.
Today, it is often mistakenly interpreted as
prohibiting swearing. This has nothing to do with its original
4th Commandment; Verses 8-11:
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou
labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the
LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor
thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor
thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made
heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the
seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed
Again, the first sentence (Verse 8) is believed
by many liberal theologians to have been the initial commandment. It
was later expanded by another author.
This is another commandment that is violated by
almost every Christian denomination. God gave a permanent command
that the people rest every Saturday. There are numerous biblical passages to confirm this.
Constantine, a Pagan Roman sun-worshiper, moved the day of rest to
Sunday. The Christian church, at its Council of Laodicea
circa 364 CE, ordered that religious observances be moved from
Saturday to Sunday. The Seventh Day Adventists
are the only major North American Christian denomination to continue
to follow the 4th commandment.
Most Christian denominations have simply
reinterpreted this commandment as referring to Sunday in place of
The Westminster Larger Catechism
states that Christians must not only abstain from all work, but
avoid recreation as well. They should spend as much time as possible
"in the public and private exercises of God's worship."
In today's multi-faith society, followers of
different religions have different days of rest or days of religious
observation. Jews have their Saturday Sabbath which begins at Friday
sundown; Christians their
Sunday services; Muslims observe Friday evening prayers. Wiccans celebrate at full moons,
solstices, equinoxes and 4 other days. Forcing everyone to
observe a single day of rest is impractical. it would would be
inconsiderate and lack respect for religious diversity.
With so many commercial establishments and
factories open seven days a week, many Christian employees are
forced to violate this Commandment.
5th Commandment; Verse 12:
"Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon
the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee."
Again, many religious liberals believe that the
original text only included the first 6 words. The rest was added
later by a second author.
The rationale behind this commandment might have
been to prevent the neglect of the elderly. In the Middle East,
where life was sometimes precarious, those who were unable to
contribute to the standard of living of the family were sometimes
not adequately supported.
The Commandment promises a long life to those
who honor their parents. It implies that those who do not honor
their parents will die young. We have never seen a study designed to
check on the accuracy of this proposition.
Many would feel that it is an unreasonable expectation for
a child to honor a parent who was a sexual molester, a physical
abuser or was guilty of neglect. Harry Binswanger comments: "The middle
commandment, 'Honor thy father and mother,' is manifestly unjust.
Justice demands that you honor those who deserve honor, who have earned
it by their choices and actions. Your particular father and mother may
or may not deserve your honor -- that is for you to judge on the basis
of how they have treated you and of a rational evaluation of their moral
character. To demand that Stalin's daughter honor Stalin is not only
obscene, but also demonstrates the demand for mindlessness implicit in
the first set of commandments. You are commanded not to think or judge,
but to jettison your reason and simply obey."
The Westminster Larger Catechism
expands this this commandment enormously to include all older people, people who
are "superiors in gifts," supervisors, managers, clergy,
legislators, police, etc. 1
Scope of the law:
Most Jews regard the Decalogues as important but not as a complete set of
commandments for the guidance of one's life. The full Law of Moses, composed of
613 commands and prohibitions are needed.
- The Westminster Larger Catechism (1649): Questions 1 to 97 are at:
http://www.reformed.org/documents/larger1.html; Questions 98 to 196 are
- Alan M. Dershowitz, "Ten Commandments Aren't Gun Control Politics:
Religion isn't a constitutionally acceptable alternative," Los Angeles Times,
- J.S. Spong, "Why Christianity must change or die," Harper Collins
(1998), Page 154. Read
over 70 reviews or
order this book
- Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America,"
Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at:
- 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. 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 an early abortion, and in 2003 to
Lawrence v. Texas which ruled that adults can engage
in private sexual behavior without government interference.
Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-AUG-29
Author: B.A. Robinson