THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (A.K.A. THE DECALOGUE)
Part 2 of two parts:
Implications of the Second Commandment
(Referred to as the First Commandment
by Roman Catholics and some Lutherans)
Internal contradictions within the Hebrew Scriptures about
graven images (Cont'd):
There are at least three methods of harmonizing these passages and the apparently
conflicting Commandment prohibiting graven images and likenesses:
One can assume that the image of the fiery serpent and all of the
temple graven image decorations were directly ordered by God, and thus superseded the order
to make no likenesses of items in heaven, on earth or in the seas under the
One might interpret Exodus 20:4's references to "not make
unto thee any graven image" -- i.e. to not carve an image in stone or
cast one in metal -- does not actually refer to the making or displaying of
a graven image. The prohibition really relates to the bowing down before
these images and worshiping the objects themselves.
Some mainline and most liberal theologians accept the Documentary Hypothesis: that the Pentateuch was
a mixture of documents from four anonymous sources, referred to as J, E, P,
and D. They agree that Exodus 20 was written by "E." The passages in Exodus
and Numbers that refer to graven images may have been written by "P."
Naturally, the passages would disagree because "E" and "P" had different
agendas. The references in 1 Kings and Ezekiel would be related to "P's"
Concerning verse 5: "visiting the iniquity:"
The phrase "visiting the iniquity of the
fathers upon the children" raises some serious ethical concerns.
Faced with the immorality of transferring the responsibility of
sin from the guilty to the innocent descendents of the guilty person, many denominations have abandoned the
literal interpretation of this Commandment. Some have interpreted the phrase as
implying that when a person deviates from the proper orthodox theological or
philosophical teachings, that their children will often tend to follow suit and
believe the same heresy. It is natural for children to emulate the beliefs of
their parents. Thus the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great
great grandchildren will not actually be punished for the beliefs of the
parents, as the commandment literally says. They will be punished for holding
heretical beliefs themselves which were taught to them by their parents.
They note, for example, that an
alcoholic father might pass on his disease to his children -- and beyond --
either genetically or by example. Thus, they interpret this commandment as implying
that God does not take revenge directly on succeeding generations. However, the
sin of the father would be transmitted by purely natural processes to his
children, grand children, great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
This interpretation certainly offers a meaning of the commandment that is more
acceptable. However, other Christians and Jews would point out that the meaning
of the text is obvious. It quite clearly has God talking, and stating that he would personally visit "the
iniquity of the fathers upon the children..." There is no indication that
the descendents of a heretic would avoid punishment even if they were to abandon
their parent's heresy and adopt orthodox beliefs.
Thus, the apparent meaning of the commandment is that sin is to be transferred from a guilty person (the
parent) to innocent
parties (four generations of descendents). This is considered immoral by most contemporary
ethical systems -- both secular and religious. A person
is held responsible only for their own actions.
If a man robs a bank, we do
not arrest and punish his grand-daughter or his father. Today, it is generally
seen as profoundly immoral to punish a person for the sins or
criminal activities of others. But this biblical verse, literally interpreted,
holds a person's daughters and sons,
his grand-children, great-grandchildren and perhaps even
great-great-grandchildren accountable for their ancestor's behavior.
Ezekiel 18:20 from the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) is one passage appears to directly contradict Verse 5. It says:
"The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." (King James Version)
Galatians 6:5 is one passage from the Christian Scripters (a.k.a. New Testament) which also appears to directly contradict Verse 5. It says:
"For we are each responsible for our own conduct." (New Living Translation)
Still, there are many examples of this principle of transferring sin from the guilty party to one or
more innocent parties in the Bible. For example:
Christianity traditionally taught that the entire human race
inherited original sin as a result of Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden
of Eden. (Some faith groups have rejected the traditional concept of direct
transfer of original sin from the first parents to succeeding generation;
they teach that sin entered the world as a result of Adam and Eve's
misbehavior and that this permanently changed the character of the
God created the great flood which drowned the entire human
race, except for Noah and his family. This was done to punish the other
human adults for their actions. But the children, infants and newborn also
died for their parent's sins.
Ham's committed an unexplained indiscretion with his father
Noah. Ham was not punished. His son, Canaan, and all of Canaan's descendents
were cursed to be slaves forever.
Achan was found to be solely responsible for a sinful act
during wartime. He, his wife and children were all stoned to death for the
King David committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba who
was the property of another man: Uriah the Hittite. In punishment, David and
Bathsheba's child died in infancy.
Historical Christianity has taught the concept of the Atonement whereby all of the sins and guilt of
certain individuals -- past, present and future -- were transferred to
Jesus, the innocent and sinless Son of God,
during his execution.
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
Scope of the law:
Jews have historically regarded the three Exodus Decalogue and the remaining 613 Mosaic
Laws as being binding only on fellow Jews. They regard the Decalogues as important but not as a complete set of
commandments for the guidance of one's behavior. The full Law of Moses, which is composed of
623 commands and prohibitions, are needed to cover all aspects of life.
Many Christians have rejected almost all of the 623 Mosaic Laws as being not
applicable to present-day Christians. They generally do recognize that the Ten Commandments,
those laws opposing homosexuality, other laws
regarding sexual behavior, and a few others as still being binding today.
Related essays on this topic:
Analysis of Commandments:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- 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.
- The Westminster Larger Catechism (1649): Questions 1 to 97 are at: http://www.reformed.org/. Questions 98 to 196 are
- "The Ten Commandments," Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/
- Harry Binswanger, "The Ten Commandments vs. America,"
Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2005-MAR-02, at: http://www.courier-journal.com/
Copyright © 2005 to 2016 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2016-MAY-22
Author: B.A. Robinson