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Center for Religious Experience and Study
The Ten Commandments and Public Policy

Two types of problems

Relevant biblical passages
from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Mark, Romans; accompanied
by examples from the Koran, non-Abrahamic text

What are the Commandments?
with a chart comparing different denominations' "Ten"

copyright 2000 by Vern Barnet, Kansas City, MO

Two types of problems

This is not about the March 17 fire in Kanungu, Uganda, where 530 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God perished, trapped in their cultic beliefs about the end of the world, but this essay is a response to the fanaticism of those in these United States who seek to impose a particular sacred text on minority faiths without understanding the problems raised by this revered scripture portion.
     This is also not an attempt to demean the Ten Commandments or those whose faith holds them precious. We hope the issues outlined here will assist citizens of all faiths as they consider the injection of a central religious teaching of one particular tradition into the secular domain. We question whether the state is the proper vehicle to advance specific religious doctrines.
     Two types of problems are presented here. The first is the difficulty in establishing agreement on the ancient text and numbering of the Commandments — even from within the groups that accept the authority of the Decalogue. The second arises from the present, with practices and beliefs so different from the ancient situation as to question calls for the government to honor the Decalogue.

Constitutional arguments against a publicly supported display of the Ten Commandments are important but the legal issues are not directly weighed here. However, the following points should at least be considered in the Constitutional debate:
     (1) As the chart here shows, Jewish and Christian groups do not agree among themselves on what the Ten Commandments are.
     (2a) Government sponsorship of the commandments would be political and rhetorical in a society which clearly does not honor the Ten in practice.
     (2b) Several of the commandments are specific to particular faiths (worship only one god, make no graven images, keep the sabbath) and violate the ways of others.
    Although some claim that the US Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments, no reference to the Decalogue can be found in it; US citizens, for example, may make graven images and work on the sabbath.

To make the texts easily accessible, especially for those whose scriptures are from other traditions, many relevant passages are provided below. The text which follows the passages summarizes concerns about the biblical text — about their usurpation for political purposes, and the legal role they must not have in a pluralistic society.

What are the Commandments?

Tradition calls the dozen or so found in Ex 20 and Deut 5 “Ten,” though the phrase “ten commandments” does not occur there, but rather in Ex 34:28, where the last of the commandments is “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.” Like the received set, these words constituted a covenant and were written on two tables which Moses brought down from Mt Sinai. The phrase “ten commandments” also occurs in Deut 4:13 which focuses on images, and in Deut 10:4. It never occurs with the accepted list.
     Scholars note that the Decalogue is shaped in Hittite treaty form and contains elements of earlier traditions.
     As this comparison chart shows, there is disagreement about what constitutes a commandment and how to number them, even supposing “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk” does not belong to the proper list.
     If a list is to be posted by the state, which list — Ex 20, Deut 5 (which differs in several respects), Ex 34 (the “seething” list) or some other list? Is it right to edit the commandments as is done on the monument on the lawn of the Wyandotte County Court House?

How important have they been in Christianity? —  Let’s look at the sabbath commandment. The early Christian church did not recognize the sabbath. By the 4th Century, Sunday, the first day of the week, was designated for worship, but not as an imitation of the sabbath, the seventh day. The phrase “Christian sabbath” dates from the 12th Century.
     The Decalogue had no particular significance in Christianity until the 13th Century when a list was made part of handbooks for confession. Later, Protestants used their versions of the Ten in Christian education. When they were incorporated into catechisms, especially for the young, they began to take on the prestige they have in modern Christianity.
     For some Christians, emphasizing the Ten Commandments neglects the theology of salvation by grace. For them, posting only the Decalogue is an insufficient and misleading guide to spiritual life.

Hypocrisy and ignorance are two possible explanations for the movement to place the Ten Commandments in public places.
     Some of the proponents are themselves often guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain. It might be better to clean themselves up and inspire by example than show their disrespect for what they say the rest of us should follow.
     Since the commandment for Israel to worship only one particular God was made in the context of belief in many gods, do Christians really want the government to post a document that allows for the existence of many gods?
     The prohibition of images would make Kodak illegal, pictures on our coins sinful, and outlaw statues of saints, Thomas Jefferson, and Vietnam soldiers. Our museums would close.
     Most Christians do not honor the seventh day of the week as the sabbath. Do those who promote the Ten Commandments really want the suffering and economic disruption caused by the closing of hospitals, police and fire departments, communication operations, hotels, filling stations, theaters, and shopping malls to observe the sabbath?
     Should a daughter honor her father who molested her?
     While few defend adultery, some might wonder why fornication is not also prohibited. Attitudes have changed somewhat since the days of Moses. For instance, we no longer stone adulterers to death, as Deut 22:24 instructs us to do.
     It’s hard for guys not to covet what the neighbors have when advertising encourages us to acquire and possess. But is it okay for a wife to covet her neighbor’s husband or goods?
     And do we really want to teach that the children of those who violate these commands, unto the third and fourth generations, will be punished for their parents’ iniquity?

America protects the religious liberty of peoples of all faiths. Governmental sponsorship of the Ten Commandments would infringe on Hindus who worship many gods, on Buddhists who worship no god, force the sabbath on Muslims who have other strenuous obligations, and deny Navajos the right to make the images used in healing ceremonies. The Ten Commandments were clearly prepared for a special people, the children of Israel, at a particular time, and were not intended to be a universal law code.
     In Judaism, the Ten Commandments are placed in the context of the 613 Rabbinic laws. Wonderful work has been done to reinterpret the Ten Commandments for our time, but these are best studied without the enforcement of government.

     Certainly all faiths condemn (1) murder, (2) theft, (3) sexual misconduct, and (4) falsehood, and, with specific meaning, so already does American law.


[all excerpts taken from King James version]

Exodus, Chapter 34
   10  And he said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the LORD: for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee.
   11  Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
   12  Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee:
   13  But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves:
   14  For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:
   15  Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice;
   16  And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.
   17  Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
   18  The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.
   19  All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male.
   20  But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
   21  Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.
   22  And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end.
   23  Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.
   24  For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thrice in the year.
   25  Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.
   26  The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.
   27  And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.
   28  And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
   29  And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.

Exodus, Chapter 20
   1  And God spake all these words, saying,
   2  I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
   3  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
   4  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:
   5  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;
   6  And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
   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.
   8  Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
   9  Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
   10  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:
   11  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.
   12  Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
   13  Thou shalt not kill.
   14  Thou shalt not commit adultery.
   15  Thou shalt not steal.
   16  Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
   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.
   18  And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
   19  And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.
   20  And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
   21  And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.
   22  And the LORD said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.
   23  Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold.
   24  An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.
   25  And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.
   26  Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 5
   1  And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them.
   2  The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.
   3  The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.
   4  The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire,
   5  (I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to show you the word of the LORD: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount;) saying,
   6  I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
   7  Thou shalt have none other gods before me.
   8  Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth:
   9  Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto 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,
   10  And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
   11  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.
   12  Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.
   13  Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work:
   14  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, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.
   15  And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.
   16  Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
   17  Thou shalt not kill.
   18  Neither shalt thou commit adultery.
   19  Neither shalt thou steal.
   20  Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
   21  Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.
   22  These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me.
   23  And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, (for the mountain did burn with fire,) that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders;
   24  And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath showed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man,and he liveth.

Mark, Chapter 10
   19  Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.
   20  And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth.
   21  Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.
   22  And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.
[cf Matthew 19:16-22, Luke 18:18-30]

Mark, Chapter 12
   28  And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?
   29  And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:
   Mark 30  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
  Mark 12:31  And the second is like namely  this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.       [cf Luke 10:27]

Romans, Chapter 13
   8  Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
   9  For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
   10  Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Other candidates for the Decalogue studied by scholars are a curse ritual, Deut 27:15-26; sexual prohibitions, Lev 18:6-18; crimes and prohibitions, Lev 20:2-16; the righteous person, Psalm 15; and ordinances, Ez 18:5-9.

Islamic Law
     The three great Abrahamic traditions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rooted in the Qur’an, Islamic law includes many elements in common with Jewish practices. Surah 17 Al Isra’ 23-39, for example, includes commands to serve only God, to care for parents and orphans, to keep promises, to be fair in trade, and against waste, adultery, murder, and pride.

An example of a non-Abrahamic code:

Five Buddhist Moral Precepts
   1. Honor and respect all sentient beings; act not out of hatred or aversion; cause no harm to any living being.
   2. Respect the rights and property of all beings; do not take what is not freely given.
   3. Refrain from sales speech; say what is true and useful; speak wisely, responsibly, and appropriately.
   4. Be conscious of sexual energy. It is powerful and can be creative or destructive. Use the energy to express compassion, love, and genuine intimacy.
   5. Refrain from the needless use of intoxicants. They could the mind and cause more pain than they cure.