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Everything wrong with the Ten Commandments

The 1st Commandment

You shall have no other gods before me.

  • This rule is based on the idea that God is jealous of other gods. But the Bible says jealousy is a sin! If God is jealous, he should get the plank out of his own eye before he starts blaming other people for failing to accommodate his own moral flaws.
  • Why would God be so jealous of other gods anyway, if other gods don’t even exist?
  • What harm could having other gods cause? God can’t be the victim, since nothing humans do has any effect on God. Maybe it would harm other people if those “gods” required people to do bad things. But this God’s instructions are already so bad, I doubt following other gods’ commands could be any worse.
  • Despite failing to explain how following other gods would cause any more harm than following this God, the Bible says the punishment for worshipping other gods is death. God seems to be commanding people to kill people for no good reason.
  • If God is so great, why can’t he just persuade people to prefer him by showing everyone how much better he is than the other gods, instead of resorting to (ineffective) threats?
  • The goal of getting people to stop believing in gods that aren’t real is good, but the method is all wrong. You don’t change people’s beliefs by force. That’s not how belief works.
  • Legally restricting who people can worship is a violation of freedom of religion, which is regarded as a fundamental human right in most of the modern world.1
  • God seems to be saying he doesn’t want people to regard any other gods more highly than him. So is he okay with people worshipping other gods as long as they consider them to be lesser or equal to him? If not, why didn’t he say so here? Why specify “before me”?2
  • In the Bible, God himself pretty much fails to keep any of the Ten Commandments, possibly even this one. God offers sacrifices, which implies that there must be a god or gods that he regards as higher than himself.

The 2nd Commandment

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

  • Well, that first sentence was poorly worded. Did they really mean to say you’re not allowed to make any images of things? Does God hate art? Is photography a sin?
  • Making images doesn’t harm anyone, including God, so this is a victimless crime.
  • And a victimless crime is not worth cursing people over.3
  • Legally restricting how people can worship is another violation of freedom of religion, which is regarded as a human right in most of the modern world.4
  • God goes on to suggest that if someone breaks this rule, he will punish several generations of that person’s descendants, regardless of whether those descendants actually broke the law themselves or not. Even God admits that that’s an absurdly unjust thing to do, but he’ll do it anyway.
  • A lot of Christians are pretty bad about breaking this rule. They make tons of religious images, and sometimes it seems like they even kind of worship them. And they seem to think God would approve of that somehow. Amusingly, one excuse Christians make for doing this is that they’re not worshipping an image of Jesus, they’re just using it to help them worship who the image represents… just like every other idolater.
  • The Bible says God told Moses to make the ark of the covenant, which had graven images of heavenly beings on it. The ark was treated as a physical representation of a god, just like every other idol. God didn’t even seem to mind people treating the ark as an object of worship. When Joshua bowed down to it, God rebuked him… but only because he didn’t think Joshua should be praying at that time because he should already know the answer to what he was asking. He didn’t rebuke him for bowing down to the wrong thing. God doesn’t seem to have a problem with this particular idol.
  • Even God failed to keep this rule. When he created humans, he was making an image of something in heaven (himself). He even apparently wants people to worship one of the people he made in his image! I guess we’ll have to stone God to death now.

The 3rd Commandment

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

  • A law restricting how people can use religious language is a violation of the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Trying to make a law like this would doubly violate the 1st Amendment in the US.
  • Saying God’s name doesn’t harm anyone, including God. So this would be a victimless crime even if there was a God.
  • Despite that fact, the Bible says people have to die for not harming anyone. Killing people just for breaking petty rules like these is barbaric.
  • Or is there more to this crime than what it sounds like? What exactly does it mean to “misuse God’s name”? Or to “take his name in vain”, as it’s sometimes translated? A lot of people interpret this as a rule against using expressions that involve a name for God, but that aren’t actually being used to talk about God. But what this commandment is most likely really about is taking oaths. When someone uses God’s name to take an oath, they’re inviting God to punish them if they fail to do what they swore to do. If you swore by God like that even though you had no intention of keeping your promise, you would be taking God’s name in vain, making it useless as a guarantee of your honesty. But assuming that’s what it means, this commandment is redundant. Taking false oaths is covered by the 9th Commandment.
  • What if someone doesn’t believe, for whatever reason, that God would punish them if they took a false oath?5 That would make it impossible for them to use God’s name in an oath without using it in vain. There are better ways to make sure people aren’t lying. Modern legal systems ensure that there are people who actually will punish perjurers, giving people a real incentive to tell the truth regardless of what they believe about God.
  • Because Jews have been so careful to keep this commandment—hardly ever saying or writing God’s actual name at all,6 and using different words in its place—and because the written Hebrew language didn’t originally use vowels, nobody really knows for sure anymore exactly what the correct pronunciation of God’s real name is. And the original wording of the commandment suggests that it only applies to that particular name… So as long as you’re not saying God’s real name that nobody knows, as long as you’re using other words instead (like “God”, or “Lord”, or even “Jehovah“), I guess you’re not really breaking this rule.
  • God himself sometimes swears rather carelessly by himself in the Bible, like when he said Abraham would have descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky“. (Depending on how you interpret it, that number is either way too high or way too low.)

The 4th Commandment

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work.

  • Legally mandating religious observances is yet another violation of the right to freedom of religion, not to mention the right to work.
  • Choosing to work on a certain day of the week doesn’t harm anyone, including God. So this is another victimless crime.
  • It would be a terrible idea for everyone to take off work on the same day. That would mean on that day, no services would be available to anyone. There would be no one available to help you if an emergency happened to fall on the wrong day of the week.
  • Which day exactly is the Sabbath supposed to be, anyway? People don’t seem to be able to agree on that. Some might say it’s Sunday, or Saturday, or maybe even Friday.7 How are we supposed to figure out which of those people we need to slaughter for taking the wrong day off? What the Bible says about the timing of the Sabbath apparently isn’t good enough to clear that up. Since people have failed to remember what the Sabbath day is, it’s going to be hard to keep the Sabbath properly anymore. That’s why the five-day work week was invented, because people couldn’t agree on which day was the Sabbath.
  • Working five days a week is actually more productive than working six days a week. Working even less than that would probably be even better for your productivity and for your physical and emotional health. If God invented this regular day off for our benefit, he didn’t go far enough. But the commandment doesn’t even allow for people to improve on it by taking more days off in addition to the Sabbath. It says you have to work six days.
  • The Bible can’t make up its mind what God’s reason for making this law was, though. Sometimes it says it was purely for our benefit, and sometimes it says it was more about making sure people acknowledge God. And sometimes it says the reason behind this rule has something to do with some made-up story or other, which wouldn’t make any sense even if the stories were true. Why would an all-powerful God need to take a day off and rest? What does the exodus story have to do with taking a day off?
  • If God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit, it seems weird to punish us with death just for choosing not to accept that gift. And regardless of why the Sabbath was established, it’s insane to kill people for working, as the Bible requires. That’s now how people deserve to be repaid for their work. People who choose to work overtime should be paid extra, not punished.
  • This law says there’s one day every week when you can’t make your slaves do any work.8 A good law would have outlawed slave labor altogether.
  • Many people attend church on the day that they consider to be the Sabbath, and the clergy perform their religious duties at church on that day. Aren’t the clergy breaking this commandment when they do that?
  • Jesus, despite supposedly being the same guy who made this rule in the first place, worked on the Sabbath, told other people to work on the Sabbath, and made a bunch of lame excuses for why he thought it was actually fine to work on the Sabbath. And Paul took this rejection of God’s law even further, saying Christians shouldn’t observe any special days.

The 5th Commandment

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

  • Honoring your parents may be a good thing in some cases, but it definitely shouldn’t be an absolute rule. Some parents just aren’t honorable. Some parents neglect or abuse their children. Those parents don’t deserve anyone’s respect. Children shouldn’t have to live with bad parents, much less be forced to honor them.
  • Maybe this rule wouldn’t be so bad if God had also commanded parents not to mistreat their children. But the Bible doesn’t have much to say about that, beyond telling people not to sacrifice their children to the wrong god. Instead, it encourages people to beat their children with rods.
  • If you think your parents are honorable, you’re going to honor them without having to be told. And if you don’t think your parents are honorable, somebody demanding that you honor them isn’t going to change that. The best you could do is fake it (which would possibly conflict with the 9th commandment).
  • The Bible says we should kill kids for disrespecting their parents. That’s a seriously excessive reaction when they haven’t done anything worse than speaking.
  • What exactly does honoring your parents entail? Do you have to always agree with them, no matter how stupid their ideas might be? Do you have to always obey them, making you unlikely to become an assertive and successful person, giving up your autonomy to make moral choices for yourself, and basically making you a slave? Do you have to obey your parents even if they want you to do something bad?
  • There’s no sign that this is limited to children. Apparently God thinks people have to always obey their parents all their lives, or die. There also doesn’t seem to be any exception for children too young to understand what they’re doing. Do we have to kill every toddler that ever throws a tantrum in front of their parents?
  • If God wants people to obey their parents, why did he give them over to a depraved mind, causing them to disobey their parents?
  • Jesus, who the Bible claims never sinned, was rather rude to his parents. He required his followers to be disrespectful and hateful to their parents, too. So is the biblical law wrong about this, or should Jesus have been stoned to death as a boy?

The 6th Commandment

You shall not murder.

  • After getting halfway through the list, we finally get to a reasonably good rule. Maybe it shouldn’t be an absolute rule, though. There are conceivable situations where killing someone would be the best thing to do. Like if you had to kill an attacker to save your own life, or to save other people’s lives.
  • This one is also sometimes translated as “You shall not kill”. But the Bible commands people to kill a whole lot more often than it forbids people to kill. How are people supposed to follow God’s instructions to kill animals, lawbreakers, and foreigners, if they’re not allowed to kill at all?
  • “Murder” might be a more accurate translation, and it might seem like it would make more sense or be more consistent that way… But what exactly does “murder” mean? It basically means unlawful killing, which means it has different meanings in different societies that have different laws. Not all killings that we would consider murder now were against the law in ancient Israelite society. So this commandment as it was originally intended was inadequate. Outlawing “murder” means making it illegal to kill in ways that are illegal. That can only be meaningful if the law also specifies which kinds of killings are to be banned. But the closest thing the Bible has to a specific definition of what should be considered murder fails to resolve the contradiction between this commandment and all the times God told people to murder people. Not only that, but most of the distinctions it makes regarding what counts as murder aren’t morally relevant at all, and are instead based on things like what kind of material the weapon is made from.
  • A lot of laws in the Bible, including laws against killing people, are punishable by death. But anyone who is involved in executing the lawbreakers is breaking the law against killing, so they have to be killed too. Or if you prefer the “murder” version of the law: Anyone who participates in the Bible’s favored execution method (stoning) is a murderer according to God’s law,9 and so must be stoned to death themselves. And then all the people who stoned them have to be stoned, too… If people actually followed these rules, everyone would be dead. That seems kind of counterproductive for a law against murder.
  • This law supposedly comes from someone who kills innocent babies. Someone who kills people just for being related to other people who did something he didn’t like. Someone who proudly commits multiple genocides. Someone who once drowned nearly everyone in the world. Someone who is planning to kill everyone again. How can he claim to be against murder?

The 7th Commandment

You shall not commit adultery.

  • The main reason adultery is considered bad is that people don’t tend to like their spouses having sex with other people. But what the Bible fails to acknowledge is that there are people who don’t mind their spouses doing that at all. In those cases, an act of “adultery” wouldn’t negatively affect anyone. So it wouldn’t actually be a bad thing to do. But the Bible ignores that fact, and says people would have to be killed for that victimless crime.
  • As for people who aren’t polyamorous or whatever, the Bible says it would be bad to have sex with their spouses because of their jealousy. But isn’t jealousy a bad thing? The Bible says it is. So if that’s the case, why is God commanding people to comply with other people’s wrong feelings? Why isn’t he commanding people not to have those wrong feelings in the first place? Or designing them not to have those wrong feelings?
  • The Bible requires that both of the people who commit an act of adultery be put to death. But if the reason adultery is bad is that you don’t want to lose your spouse, killing your spouse seems kind of counterproductive.
  • You wouldn’t know it from the way it’s translated, but this commandment wasn’t originally intended to cover all of what we would now consider to be infidelity. In the past, women were property owned by men. So adultery was defined as a man having sex with another man’s wife (using someone else’s property). Since women didn’t own men, it was perfectly legal for a man to cheat on his wife.
  • Since the Bible assumes that wives are property, this commandment is redundant. It’s already covered by the 8th commandment.
  • Jesus tries to make this into a thought crime. He claims that even just looking at a woman and feeling lust makes you guilty of adultery and can get you sent to hell. Obviously, he’s wrong about that, for a bunch of reasons. For one thing, not all women are married, and you can’t commit adultery if there are no married people involved. And it’s possible to look lustfully at your wife, but it’s not possible for you to commit adultery with her. But if Jesus was right about lust, that would basically mean heterosexual men go to hell. Also, if nobody ever wanted to have sex, humanity would go extinct. Is that what you want, Jesus?
  • Jesus also broadens this commandment when he declares that divorce is not a legitimate concept. He says anyone who gets divorced and remarried is actually committing adultery.10 The resulting lack of options for unhappily married people is one of the things that leads people to think that people should be required to regularly have sex with their spouses even if they don’t want to, for the rest of their lives. That sounds like a terrible idea to me.
  • God once got somebody else’s fiancée pregnant. That seems a lot closer to being adultery than the things Jesus calls adultery.
  • If God doesn’t like adultery, why does he keep making people commit adultery? Why did he give people over to a depraved mind, causing them to have no fidelity?

The 8th Commandment

You shall not steal.

  • This is certainly a good rule generally, but maybe it shouldn’t be an absolute rule. There are conceivable situations where stealing something would be the best thing to do. Like if you had an opportunity to take a weapon away from someone who was about to use it to kill a bunch of people.
  • People can’t always agree on whether something should be considered “theft” or not. For instance, some people would say tax evasion is theft, but others would say taxation itself is theft. It would have been nice if God had thought to clarify exactly what theft is.
  • God seems to think it’s fine to steal things for him, just not for yourself. And sometimes in the Bible he even tells his people to take plunder for themselves. God also apparently helped enforce the early Christian leaders’ practice of forcing their followers to give them all the money they earned.
  • The Bible says God forcibly took land from the Canaanite nations to give to his own chosen people. If God steals other people’s land, that must mean it’s a good thing to do, and we should follow his example, right?

The 9th Commandment

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

  • (This commandment was most likely only intended to be about specific crimes like false accusation and perjury. But an awful lot of religious people interpret it more generally as “You shall not lie”, so let’s go with that.) I think it’s generally good to avoid lying, but maybe it shouldn’t be an absolute rule. There are conceivable situations where telling a lie would be the best thing to do. Like if someone asked you where they could find someone they wanted to harm.
  • In fact, the Bible commends someone for doing just that! Rahab was considered righteous for saving Israel’s spies with her lies. It also says God blessed Jacob even though Jacob only got his blessing by deception. When Jehu lied to the Baal-worshippers in order to get them all in one place so he could kill them, God said Jehu had done what was right in his eyes. God even directly tells people to lie sometimes. He told Moses to tell Pharaoh he only wanted him to let his people go for three days, when he really intended for them to leave permanently. He told Samuel to say he was going to Bethlehem to make a sacrifice, to hide his real purpose for going there. And Jonah tried very hard to avoid giving a prophecy that he knew was false, but God forced him to do it anyway. If God wants people to be truthful, why did he give them over to a depraved mind so that they were full of deceit?
  • Even if you think lying is always wrong, having a law against it doesn’t really work. How are the fallible people enforcing such a law supposed to always know for sure that what someone said wasn’t true? And that the person knew it wasn’t true?
  • And that’s if the authorities are even trying to enforce the actual truth. More likely they would just decide for themselves what to declare to be the “truth“, and force everyone to go along with that.
  • If you were going to outlaw lying, you would need to have a rigorous definition that makes it clear exactly what is and what is not a lie. Do technically true but misleading statements count as lies? How about technically false statements that nobody takes seriously, that do not and are not intended to lead to false beliefs? Are those “lies”? The Bible doesn’t say.
  • Lying may be a bad thing to do, but it’s definitely not so bad that it should be punished with neverending torture.
  • God deceives people quite a lot in the Bible. If he wants us to always be honest, he’s not setting a very good example.
  • Why specify “against your neighbor”? If someone doesn’t happen to live near me, does that make it okay to testify falsely against them?

The 10th Commandment

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

  • Is this a good moral rule? It doesn’t look too promising, since it assumes that women are property. It lists wives along with cows and donkeys and slaves and other things your neighbor might own.
  • Oh, and speaking of slaves, a good law would have discouraged people from wanting to enslave people at all, not just in the specific case where the person already belongs to somebody else.
  • This law is a thought crime, which means it’s not really enforceable, among other problems. There’s no way to even know whether someone is breaking this law, so why bother making it a law?
  • Thoughts aren’t exactly voluntary and controllable, so it would be pretty hard even to enforce this rule on yourself if you wanted to. And it would potentially be psychologically unhealthy to try. If God didn’t want us to think a certain way, he should have designed us not to think that way. That seems like it would have been a lot more effective than telling people what not to think.
  • The biggest problem with a thought crime like this is that it’s just a thought. Coveting shouldn’t be illegal because it has no consequences and causes no harm. Unless you act on it by stealing or something. But if that’s what you’re worried about, this rule is yet another redundant one. Stealing was already covered in the 8th Commandment.11
  • Envy doesn’t necessarily lead to bad things like theft. It can instead inspire people to “get what others have” by emulating what others have done right. The Bible says envy is the root of all achievement. If that’s true, envy must be a very good thing!
  • Like the previous one, this commandment creates loopholes by needlessly specifying that the “victim” has to be your neighbor.
  • If God doesn’t want people to be envious, why does he keep making people envious? Why did he give them over to a depraved mind so that they were full of envy?
  • If God doesn’t want people to be envious, why does his book tell people to eagerly desire the superior gifts that only some people have been given?
  • As with just about all of the Ten Commandments, God is guilty of breaking this rule himself. The Bible says God is a jealous God.12
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The Story of the Golden Calf
Moses Receives the Commandments

On the mountain, or wherever

Moses climbed up Mount Sinai to meet God, who told him that his people needed to keep his covenant. Moses went back down and told the Israelites, and they said they would keep it. So Moses went back up the mountain and told God what they said. Then God said he was going to come and talk to Moses. Then Moses told God what the people had said, again.

God told Moses how the people should prepare for God to talk to Moses, and how Moses should keep the people away from the holy mountain while God was there. Then Moses went down and told the people what God had said. He also told them not to have sex during the visit from God, which God had not said anything about.

Moses stood at the foot of the mountain with the people and talked with God. Then Moses went up to the top of the mountain so God could talk to him. God told Moses to go and warn the people not to get too close to the mountain. Moses reminded the all-knowing God that they had already put limits around the mountain to keep people away, because God had told them to.

Then God told Moses to go down and get his brother Aaron. So he went down and told the people to stay away from the mountain, again. While Moses was down there with the people, God told them the Ten Commandments. But God was too scary, so the Israelites told Moses not to let God speak to them directly. So Moses went back up the mountain, and God gave him some more laws for Israel, so they would have more opportunities to sin. God thought that would help save people’s lives, but somehow it didn’t work.

Then God told Moses to come up the mountain with Aaron and some others. So Moses went down the mountain and told the people about all those laws. The people said they would obey them. Moses wrote down the laws, and then he came up the mountain with Aaron and some others. Then God told Moses to come up the mountain so he could give him the law. So Moses went up the mountain with his assistant, Joshua, leaving Aaron with the people. A week later, God started talking to Moses and giving him more instructions.

Continue reading The Story of the Golden Calf
Moses Receives the Commandments
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What are the Ten Commandments?

The book of Exodus tells about God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses also recounts this event later on in Deuteronomy, listing the same Ten Commandments. He says God gave him those laws, wrote them on two stone tablets, and added nothing more. He says after he broke those tablets and had to get new ones, the same list of laws was written on the new tablets. And he refers to the laws that were written on the tablets as the Ten Commandments. The list of laws goes something like this:

  1. Don’t worship other gods.
  2. Don’t make images.
  3. Don’t misuse God’s name.
  4. Don’t work on the Sabbath.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Don’t murder.
  7. Don’t commit adultery.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t give false testimony.
  10. Don’t covet.

But in Exodus, when God gives Moses the laws to write on the new set of tablets, they’re not the same laws that were on the first ones, despite what Moses claims. God gives him an almost completely different set of laws, and these too are referred to as the Ten Commandments. The new list of laws goes something like this:

Continue reading What are the Ten Commandments?
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