The Big Ten (no, not university sports)

What tragedies, social dysfunctions, and evil trends would be prevented if only American schools, courts, city councils, and the public square would post the Ten Commandments . . . or so the faithful—and, curiously, the not so faithful as well—would have us understand. (I say “not so faithful,” because a substantial percentage of the unchurched always stands ready to give religion a pass, to grant it respect not given to other opinions.) True believers are wed to the misinformation that the Commandments are the basis for American law and public morality.

I’ve long found it curious that many Christians (most, in my experience), even the adamant ones, are only superficially familiar with the famous Decalogue. In fact, there’s entertainment value in most Christians’ reaction when asked which Ten Commandments they mean.”

Moses, according to the Bible story, destroyed the first stone tablets of the Big Ten in a fit of pique (Exodus 20) and had to bother God for a replacement (Exodus 34). The replacement set had ten decrees just as the first, but seven of them are totally different from the initial set. So which set is the Ten Commandments? I won’t hazard a guess, but Christian activists seem to be quite sure, for they always post the initial set (I think most don’t know about the second one, so it isn’t as if they’ve wracked their brains about it). So it appears they do so by rote rather than because of some carefully considered theological line of thought. Frankly, in my opinion, the replacement set is more colorful, especially #10 in which Israelites are instructed not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” I’ve never heard of a compromise in which the two lists are simply melded together—after all, God supposedly decreed both lists—in which case we could be arguing over posting the Seventeen Commandments on the courthouse wall.

Only recently, thanks to American Atheist magazine, I was made aware of another interesting thought regarding the Ten Commandments: In the postings, why not include the punishments for violating each one? That seems a sensible thing to do; even traffic and smoking regulations are frequently accompanied by fine or imprisonment information. I wonder how Christians would feel about putting the whole shebang on the public walls. So, inspired by the engraving placed by American Atheists, Inc. on a monument in Starke, Florida, let me remind us all, in the moving language of the King James Bible, of why it is important to keep the Ten Commandments:

Commandment 1 (other gods before God): But thou shalt surely kill him . . . And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die. Deuteronomy 13:9-10
Commandment 2 (making graven images): Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image. [you’ll have to imagine what “cursed” implies] Deuteronomy 27:15
Commandment 3 (taking God’s name in vain): He shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him . . . when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord. Leviticus 24:16
Commandment 4 (Sabbath not kept holy): whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Exodus 31:15
Commandment 5 (not honoring parents): For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. [I’m not sure “curseth” covers all failure to honor] Leviticus 20:9
Commandment 6 (killing): And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. Leviticus 24:17
Commandment 7 (adultery): And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife . . . the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. Leviticus 20:10
Commandment 8 (stealing): If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox . . . [there are further specific punishments for specific kinds of theft, most similar to this one] Exodus 22:1-6
Commandment 9 (false witness): false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape. [unspecific, rather like “cursed” in #2] Proverbs 19:5
Commandment 10 (coveting): [I couldn’t find a punishment for this specifically, but there are strong warnings about breaking a commandment in general.]

You have to credit the Big Guy for not fooling around. Zeus might have been thin-skinned from time to time, but to my knowledge never set such beastly punishments in stone. You’d think the Hebrews had little use for the misdemeanor category. Samuel Butler’s 17th Century “Spare the rod and spoil the child” (perhaps inspired by a similar Biblical phrase) apparently reaches gargantuan proportions when raised to the Creator level.

Funny, but while thrusting the Big Ten at us, many Christians contend that the New Testament announced a more merciful—even loving—God, one apparently softened up by having a son (kids will do that to you). “God is love” is the new model. So, except elsewhere concerning gayness, we shouldn’t worry ourselves about the penalties part. There’s a new sheriff in town.

That would be truly welcome news except that the gentle Jesus—the same Jesus who we’re told preached the stirring Beatitude—introduced hell as an everlasting punishment not necessarily for being bad, mind you, but for simply not believing his unlikely story. (Faith in the Christian sense was not so much an issue in Hebrew circles or, for that matter, in other religions of antiquity. Actions were important, to be sure, but faith qua faith, not so much.) So as vindictive and mean-spirited as was the Old Testament God, the New Testament version was not actually better, despite apologists’ contention. I suppose we could research that by asking a representative sample whether they would be frightened more about (a) dying once or (b) burning forever.

Just as an aside, it’s a little confusing why Christians put so much emphasis on the Decalogue. After all, Rabbi Mosheh Maimonides calculated that there are 613 mitzvot (commandments), a number of them carrying the death penalty. Taking the punishments as a guide, it is not at all clear the Ten Commandments are more important than the other hundreds.

But back to my point about posting the Ten Commandments in schools, courts, public spaces and, for that matter, on visible tattoos. If they were posted in the courthouse, witnesses would no longer lie; if in schools, the little buggers wouldn’t cheat, bully, or stick Jane’s ponytail in the ink; if in the public square, pick-pockets would give wallets away; if in the city council, politicians would be honest. OK, I’m being whimsical. We don’t really want to see the ugly underside of Biblical rules from the Bronze Age. We just want to show how pious we are.

We certainly would not like to expose children to these horrors more than we already do, so a case can be made for continuing to let the punishments go unnoticed. But not so fast. An ultrafundamentalist sect called Dominionists is alive and well in the USA. (That’d be OK if they were just rabid fans of pre-1982 Canada.) These folks are theocrats on steroids. They want American legal punishments to duplicate the ruthlessness of the Old Testament. So I imagine posting the Big Ten/Seventeen Penalties alongside the Big Ten/Seventeen Commandments, just as American Atheists and now I suggest, would strike them as a capital idea. OMG, I’ve just frightened myself; I agree with them.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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