10 Commandments 2.0

By | Nov 16, 2011
Moses receiving the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai

a call to improve the world

The Ten Commandments are not just an ancient legal code, but rather a whole approach to life that has come down to us, both as Jews and as Westerners, becoming a crucial part of what it means to be a modern person. Modern Western life draws upon two very distinct ancient spirits. One is the spirit of reason, which comes from ancient Greece and teaches that all of us have the right to formulate our own opinions about life, politics and ethics. This has given us the most open discourse and the greatest political freedoms in human history. But reason alone is not enough to get you out of bed in the morning and take decisive action to change your life and your community and improve the world. For that we need the second spirit, the spirit of redemption, which comes from ancient Israel via the Hebrew Bible. Every biblical hero—even God—is first of all a world-improver, either through words or deeds. The Ten Commandments encapsulate this redemptive spirit, with each of them offering a different aspect of how to turn that spirit into reality. The Second Commandment, for example, addresses the idea of morality that goes beyond the pull of power and wealth, which is really what idolatry is all about. The Fourth, which concerns the Sabbath, is about deepening ourselves as independent beings separated from creative activity and our achievements. The Fifth, which is about honoring our parents, is fundamentally about a certain kind of profound human life-wisdom that’s transmitted from generation to generation. And so on. We find each commandment expressing a different aspect of redemption in a different part of life—each one a pillar of civilization that is every bit as vital today as it was back then.

David Hazony is the author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.

in need of a makeover

It is odd that some people are so determined to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms, when these laws offer little guidance to student conduct, since few third graders are married and hence in a position to commit adultery. And do even the most recalcitrant kids need to be told not to lie, steal or murder? Seems obvious enough. The first four commandments—40 percent!—concern religious obligations, not general behavior, rather squandering an opportunity to tell us how to be good. Curiously for a monotheistic faith, the existence of other gods is okay, as long as ours gets top priority, which makes him seem a little jittery and insecure. And there really aren’t many graven images around these days, except perhaps for what we download from the Internet. Those four aside, all but one of the rest—honor our parents—are “nots,” a list of forbidden acts, not an encouragement to virtuous deeds. The tenth—no coveting—describes an attitude, a state of mind, not an action at all. Instead of the First, I would like to see a commandment to build an egalitarian society; for the Second, I would substitute the Golden Rule, and I would replace the Third with environmental ethics, the injunction not to destroy the earth but to create a green and healthy world.

Randy Cohen writes “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times Magazine and is the author of The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations.

more meaningful than U.S. law

The Ten Commandments are as important today as they were in antiquity because they represent the crucial distinction of right versus wrong. Perhaps surprisingly, nothing in our modern legal code does that. Rather, our laws simply provide consequences for actions: Park at an expired parking meter, pay a small fine; kill someone, go to jail, and so forth. No provision of American law differentiates between parking and killing. And no law suggests that some crimes are immoral and are to be avoided regardless of any consequences. For example, it doesn’t say anywhere that a person willing to go to jail still shouldn’t commit murder. This is the real power of the Ten Commandments. They list some actions that, no matter what, are wrong. Even people who don’t think they’ll get caught, even people willing to do the time (as they say) still shouldn’t commit some crimes. In this context a common mistranslation in the Ten Commandments is particularly unfortunate. The commandment usually translated “do not covet” originally meant “do not take,” in keeping with the original view that only overt actions can be moral or immoral. The Ten Commandments take no position on internal states such as desiring. Our laws are important for maintaining order. And the Ten Commandments are important for maintaining morality. We need them both.

Joel M. Hoffman is an expert in translation, Hebrew and the Bible and author of
And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning.

9 thoughts on “10 Commandments 2.0

  1. To avert this controversy I had professed to worship the word ‘LOVE’, the object of ‘LOVE’ and the very sentiment of ‘LOVE’ and the very source of ‘LOVE’.It has more power than any thing else as it is attributed to the supreme being itself.It is not a ship to sink in the midway like any other ships.It will survive the generation to come.

  2. Jim Bynum says:

    I am amazed at the comments, The Jewish priesthood was not allowed to put anyone to death during the time of Jesus. Yet, supposedly followers of Jesus have used the Ten Commandments to kill many people who violated them — even in early colonial times. It is impossible to separate the punishment from the Commandment, therefore they belong to the past.

  3. Baruch Cohon says:

    Should we rewrite the Big Ten? Discard them? Or should we take a mature look at them and realize that these ten statements from so many centuries ago have something valuable to tell us? Ten Statements, as they are called in Hebrew — “aseret hadibrot”– not commandments. If American leaders of a much more recent time saw fit to post them on public buildings, maybe they knew what they were doing. These statements are not an “establishment of religion” prohibited by the First Amendment. They are principles of right and wrong, ascribed to a supernatural source which is undefined. We will do well if we use them to guide our lives.

  4. Harry Freiberg says:

    I find it interesting and educational that of the Ten only 3 “Commandments” (aka Statements in the original) have become secular law…

    1. Bryan Berg says:

      And how would the other 7 possibly be made into law in a Country that upholds religious freedom? The first four are God and Religious observance based, so those can’t be a part of US Law. The fifth commandment would entail telling people how to parent, and is that a good idea? the 7th commandment has it’s own societal consequences, not to mention the reality of divorce, child support and child custody to go along with it. The 10th commandment would be a “thought police” type of law, wouldn’t it? So, it is interesting and educational, but maybe not in the way you might have been thinking?

  5. Davida Brown says:

    The most important point in this dialogue is: did God really say this? If we mean the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, aka The God of Israel, who is ageless, timeless and sovereign over the universe, as well as Creator, then it would be absurd to think of eliminating these rules of life and certainly self-destructive to want to modify them for a modern liberal thinking world that is itching to remove all restraints and drive us all back to Sodom and Gomorrah or worse – the time of Noah and the flood (Yes, Virginia, there is a God and His Word is relevant and immutable. ) In the Christian New Testament, Jesus addresses an “unrepentant city” (Capernaum) and compared it to Sodom, stating: “Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” Matthew 11:24. What would he say to the cities of today?

  6. Bryan Berg says:

    I would say that human beings wrote them. Nothing more than that. There is no “ageless, timeless creator”. That’s all part of human imagination, no different than the gods of the Romans, Greek, Dakota, Cree, Ojibwa, Aztecs, Egyptians, Myan, and and the myriad others that human beings have imagined and told stories about.

    Is there some human truth to some of it? Absolutely. Going around killing others doesn’t make for a helpful, healthy society (as a simple example), and it probably didn’t make sense to eat shellfish (or pork) if you didn’t know how to cook it properly. Though that begs the question – why weren’t those instructions included in the Bible?

    We have these “Commandments” and yet it seems like under the “right” circumstances, it’s OK to kill while wearing a belt in an army that has “God With Us” inscribed on it? Is that because some of us think we are more special than others that a commandment can be broken for some perceived greater good?

    So, to answer your question – what if there was no Noah and flood that completely wiped out everyone but one small nuclear family? What if there was no Moses (or Aaron, since he seemed to have been a convenient add-on to the Moses story for giving priests certain authorities), what if there was no Exodus? What if it’s all made up (the Noah Story, for one, was not a Christian or Jewish story originally, but it was turned into one), and none of it is divine?

    Does that make US Law any less important? I don’t think it does.

  7. Davida Brown says:

    Ecclesiastes states that there is a time for every matter under heaven, including: 3:3 “a time to kill and a time to heal;…3:8 a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” It was a great song way back when. You seem to be upset about all the killing depicted in the Bible. Without the Bible and “the big ten”, why would we think anything was wrong? The world existed before the written Bible, didn’t it? What was it like as written in the bibical account? Genesis 6:11 tells us: “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.” Earlier, in Genesis 6:8: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” It’s hard to believe that only one man among ? had an active conscience. This is an awareness of right and wrong. Where do we stand on this today? You say you don’t believe in God; you are one of many. But, what if there is a God and what if He did inspire the scriptures? Challenge: Ask Him.

  8. John Terrell says:

    Religion is a social more, varying from one culture to another. The moral code that provides the “cement” that allows people to live together peacefully and productively is universal: that code is based on one principle: do no harm to other members of the “tribe”. The Bible and other works have codified some version of the moral code, but the code existed long before organized religion.

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