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.
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 the 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, stillused 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
"...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.4
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.