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

Analysis of Commandments 4 to 6

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See also an analysis of commandments 1 to 3 or 7 to 10

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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:

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The original meaning of each commandment.

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How people interpret them today.

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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 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. Whether this is an ethical change is debatable.

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The individual commandments 4 to 6:

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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 it."

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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.

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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.

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Most Christian denominations have simply reinterpreted this commandment as referring to Sunday in place of Saturday.

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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." 1

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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.

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With so many commercial establishments and factories open seven days a week, many Christian employees are forced to violate this Commandment.

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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."

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Again, many religious liberals believe that the original text only included the first 6 words. The rest was added later by a second author.

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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.

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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.

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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." 4

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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

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  • 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.

    • Before the 19th century, it was believed that male sperm contained large numbers of tiny babies which only required a woman's womb to grow and be born. When people referred to a mans "seed," they meant it literally as equivalent to a plant seed that needs only a place to be planted and watered to grow and thrive. 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 would not be so much conflict over abortion today.

    • 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 and 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 against Muslims.

    • 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.

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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.

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Continue with commandments 7 to 10

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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. 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 has been deleted from all of them.
  3. J.S. Spong, "Why Christianity must change or die," Harper Collins (1998), Page 154. Read over 70 reviews or order this book
  4. Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America," Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at: http://www.courier-journal.com/
  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. 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.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2016-SEP-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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