THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (A.K.A. THE DECALOGUE)
Analysis of commandments 6 to 10
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 to
include many other sins -- some apparently unrelated to the original text. By
doing this, they expand the meaning of the Decalogue to incorporate many of the
over 600 other instructions and prohibitions that form the Mosaic Law. This
would overcome one of the main objections to the Decalogue: that they only deal
with a fraction of the behaviors that need to be regulated.
The individual commandments 6 to 10 in Exodus
6th Commandment; Verse 13:
"Thou shalt not kill."
The Hebrew word "ratsach" is translated
as "kill" in the King James Version, Revised Standard
Version, American Standard Version, and some other
translations of the Bible. However, it is difficult to apply this in
practice. Killing chickens and beef cattle is legal
now as it was in biblical times. Nobody today is concerned about
pulling vegetables from the garden, even though it kills them. The word "ratsach"
is commonly believed to describe the
premeditated killing of a human. It requires that the victim be a
human being. Many other translations translate "ratsach" as "murder"
in this verse.
This Commandment is not absolute. Not all
murders are forbidden. Hebrew Scriptures specify
many grounds for which this commandment is to be ignored, and a
guilty party executed. Persons found guilty of temple prostitution,
engaged women who are seduced by a man other than her future
husband, women who practice black magic, some women who are raped in
urban areas, children who cursed their parents, some non-virgin
brides, Jews who collect firewood on Saturday to keep their families
from freezing, persons proselytizing in favor of another religion,
persons worshiping a deity other than Yahweh, strangers who entered
the temple, etc; all were to be executed.
A few centuries
ago, it was believed that male sperm contained large numbers of tiny
babies which only required a woman's womb to grow and be born. Under
that belief system, masturbation
could be considered an act of mass murder. We now know that
pregnancy requires conception, and that a unique DNA is formed at
that time. But society has never reached a consensus on the
definition of when
human personhood begins. Unfortunately, the Ten Commandments and the rest
of the Bible appears to be ambiguous on this matter. Thus, it
does not help us decide about when, if
ever, abortions are acceptable. If the Bible had defined when the start of
personhood occurs, there might not be so much conflict over abortion
There are tens of thousands of violations of
this commandment yearly in North America. Most are done by criminals
who shoot people. A few dozen murders are committed by civil servants, who are
employed by the state to kill inmates on death
row with premeditation. Soldiers are often called upon to murder
other humans, sometimes in self-defense, and other times in order to
achieve a military objective. There are other biblical passages and
a great deal of theological reasoning which have provided
justification for the latter two actions.
Joshua and his army violated this commandment
on numerous occasional as they marched through Canaan, apparently
with God's approval. They were
often ordered by God to commit genocide by killing every Pagan man, woman, youth, child,
and newborn who lived in various cities of Canaan.
Some pacifist Christians take this commandment
very seriously. They will not violate this
commandment, even during times of war. Quakers, Mennonites and
others are frequently able to volunteer for alternative service during
wartime in order to conform to this commandment.
Historically, many Christian groups interpreted
the Commandment as if it read "Thou shalt not murder people
inside your group." The Christian Church has committed genocide
many times in its history, exterminating such groups as the Cathars
Knights Templar. Starting in the late 15th century and continuing
for 300 years, both Protestants and Roman Catholics rounded up
heretics. "witches," and suspected Satan worshipers; the church executed many
tens of thousands of them -- often by burning them alive. The Crusades against the Muslims are
another indication of the misuse of this Commandment. Defenseless
Jews and Muslims were massacred by the invading armies. In recent
times, Serbian Orthodox Christians organized a major
religiously-motivated genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, largely
The Westminster Larger Catechism
extends this commandment to include the "immoderate use of meat,
drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression,
quarreling," etc. It is not clear how they expanded the
meaning of this verse to such an extreme.
7th Commandment; Verse 14
"Thou shalt not commit adultery."
This referred to a man engaging in sexual
intercourse with a woman who was either married or betrothed to
In ancient Israel, a women was considered a
piece of property, who was generally owned by her father or husband.
If a man seduced a virgin,
the transgression was treated as a commercial infraction. The woman
would have lost part of her value to her father. Not being a virgin, she might not
be able to find a husband in the future, and thus her father could
not benefit financially from her marriage. The seducer was required to pay the virgin's father an
amount of money, and perhaps to marry the woman. The woman has no
say in the matter; some were forced to marry a rapist who they
loathed. (Exodus 22:16-17)
None of the Ten Commandments prohibits same-sex
relationships. Similarly no commandment or passage in the Hebrew
Scriptures forbids a man engaging in heterosexual
fornication (i.e. sexual activity outside of marriage) as long as
woman was neither a virgin, or was owned by (i.e. married or betrothed
to) another man.
However, some Christian groups expand the scope
of the 7th commandment to include an amazing array of behaviors.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, still used by the Presbyterian Church (USA)
and some other denominations
contains the following entry. Like most catechisms this is in a
question and answer format:
Q 139: What are the sins forbidden in
the Seventh Commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the Seventh
Commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are:
Adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy,
and all unnatural lusts;
All unclean imaginations, thoughts,
purposes, and affections;
all corrupt or filthy communications, or
Wanton looks, impudent or light behavior,
immodest apparel, prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with
Allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and
resorting to them;
Entangling vows of single life, undue delay
of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same
Unjust divorce or desertion;
Idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste
Lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings,
stageplays, and all other provocations to, or acts of,
uncleanness either in ourselves or others.
A "stew" is a brothel. Since sexual fantasies are a
normal part of being human, it would appear that the church would
consider adultery to be nearly universal throughout the world.
Masturbation usually involves sexual fantasizing. According to
words attributed to Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) in Matthew
5:27-28, a man lusting after a woman is equivalent to him committing
adultery. Some have argued that the seventh
commandment's prohibitions extend to masturbation -- at least
8th Commandment; Verse 15
"Thou shalt not steal."
"...this Commandment has been interpreted to
refer to only one kind of theft; namely, to someone who kidnaps a
person, forces him or her to work for him, and then sells him or her
into slavery. This, like the previous prohibitions mentioned in the
verse, murder and adultery, is a Capital Crime; that is, punishable
by the death-penalty." 2 Since slavery has now been abolished in North
America, this commandment is no longer applicable.
In modern times, the commandment is interpreted
to mean the stealing of any piece of property. This is not directly related to
its original meaning.
The Westminster Larger Catechism
includes: "The covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting
worldly goods... envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise
idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming..."
9th Commandment; Verse 16
"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."
This forbids perjury while testifying in a
courtroom. In ancient Israel, a person who lies in court receives
the penalty that would be due a person guilty of the crime at
The common meaning of this commandment is
The Westminster Larger Catechism includes
the sins of passing unjust sentence, tale bearing, whispering,
10th Commandment; Verse 17
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet
thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his
ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's."
|"Covet" is a word that is gradually going out of usage.
One set of definitions of the word is:
- To wish for enviously.
- To desire inordinately or culpably ~ vi: to feel inordinate desire
for what belongs to another. 3
Religious liberals believe that the original
text included only the first seven words. That is because the word "house"
by itself was assumed to include all of a man's possessions: his
building, wife, male slaves, female slaves, children, animals, etc.
A woman, in biblical times, was considered to be the property first
of her father and after marriage of her husband.
Many biblical translations shy away from the
term "slave" and use a more ambiguous word like "manservant."
We have even heard Christian radio programs refer to slaves as "butlers"
and "maids." The Decalogue is not talking about servants
here. A master could beat his
slave so severely that she/he died within a few days, and not be
charged with an offense. With the exception of a very few countries
slavery has been abolished today. The many rules and regulations
which condoned and governed slavery in the
Bible are now ignored. There is a growing world-wide consensus that slavery, the
owning of one person by another, is profoundly immoral; it was not
considered as such by the Decalogue.
The Westminster Larger Catechism
interprets this commandment, close to its original meaning: "The
sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our
own estate; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbor,
together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that
is his." It seems to recognize that a man's wife, slaves and
children are among his possessions.
Modern-day society has abandoned many of the
biblical concepts mentioned in this commandment. Women are generally
regarded as free individuals, with a value and status equal to men; they are not
classed as property -- as something to be owned.
Slavery has been abolished in all but two countries, although near
slavery is still found in many areas of the world.
Harry Binswanger a professor at the Ayn Rand Institute's
Objectivist Graduate Center is not impressed by this series of commandments.
He says that they are: "unobjectionable but common to virtually every
organized society -- the commandments against murder, theft, perjury and the
like. But what is objectionable is the notion that there is no rational, earthly
basis for refraining from criminal behavior, that it is only the
not-to-be-questioned decree of a supernatural Punisher that makes acts like
theft and murder wrong. The basic philosophy of the Ten Commandments is the
polar opposite of the philosophy underlying the American ideal of a free
society. Freedom requires:
A metaphysics of the natural, not the supernatural;
of free will, not determinism; of the primary reality of the individual,
not the tribe or the family;
|An epistemology of individual thought, applying strict logic,
based on individual perception of reality, not obedience and dogma;|
|An ethics of rational self-interest, to achieve chosen values,
for the purpose of individual happiness on this earth, not fearful,
dutiful appeasement of 'a jealous God' who issues 'commandments'."|
Did the ancient Hebrews obey the Commandments?
They frequently deviated from
the Ten Commandments:
Archaeologists have found "figurines of the
fertility goddesses of Canaan and the Egyptian amulets" in their houses.
There are numerous instances in the Bible of individuals being murdered in
cold blood in violation of the 6th commandment. In one
notable incident, the wife and children of a Achan, a soldier, were
executed because of his sins.
As mentioned above, God-ordained
genocide was common at one time during the history of Israel.
There are other
cases where leading biblical characters lied, and thus violated the 9th
It would seem that biblical figures in the Hebrew Scriptures did
not view the Ten Commandments as universal rules of behavior. They seemed to
have apply them mainly in their interactions with fellow Jews.
- The Westminster Larger Catechism (1649): Questions 1 to 97 are at:
http://www.reformed.org/documents/larger1.html; Questions 98 to 196 are
- " 'Aseret HaDibrot' - (English: Ten Commandments or Ten Utterances),"
King David Community, at:
- Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam Webster, 10th Edition.
- C.M. Laymon, Editor, "The Interpreters One-volume Commentary on the Bible,"
Abingdon, (1971), Pages 53-55.
- Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America,"
Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at:
Copyright © 1999 to 2005 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-MAR-05
Author: B.A. Robinson