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.
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 (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.
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:
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.
It conflicts with the Ethic of Reciprocity, called the Golden Rule in
Judeo-Christianity, since it causes distress to some 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 also interpret this commandment
symbolically: they see it as prohibiting the worship of money,
status, success, beauty, etc in place of Yahweh.
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, shown in bold above.
The rest was added later to expand the number of prohibitions.
Religious conservatives generally believe that God wrote the Ten
Commandments precisely as they have been passed down to us.
This commandment contains two particularly 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. If interpreted literally, it would decimate the still and movie camera market.
"....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
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 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
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
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. 1
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 many 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" 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
Again, the Westminster Larger Catechism interprets this Commandment very 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
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.
Alan M. Dershowitz, "Ten Commandments Aren't Gun ControlPolitics:
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.
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.