On the Ten Commandments

The idea of the Ten Commandments is a great one. It attempts to distill a set of ethical norms interwoven with principles of the fledging new monotheistic religion into a small, easy-to-remember set of fundamental rules. The Ten Commandments can be memorized, recited, referred to by number, which makes them a great framework for normalizing social behavior.

Let’s analyze them one by one.

  1. No false gods. This is a great one: it epitomizes the most unique aspect of the religion, the idea of a single God. But it transcends religion — it establishes the basis for obedience, the credibility of religion. It enables other commandments. If there was only one rule, that would be it. It’s like saying, “Rule 1: Follow all the rules,” and by emphasizing it (after all, it’s the first of the Ten Commandments) it provides a strong bond and creates shared context that’s easy to understand. This rule makes it very hard to dilute it or create offshoots: if there is only one God, you can’t create a more powerful one to win over believers (in fact, after the idea of a single God becomes so engrained in everyone, the only way to compete is to focus on God’s representative on Earth, or later vary the interpretations of God’s writings). More importantly, it centralizes power (one God means one place of worship) which becomes crucial later in the evolution of organized religion.
  2. No names in vain. At first I found this a strange rule. First of all, why would anyone care if I shouted God’s name for no good reason? And if they did, why should it occupy such an important place, the second of the ten? I think just as the purpose of the first Commandment is to establish credibility, the primary purpose of the second one is to establish hierarchy. Making the name, and thus its use, special — holy, illustrates God’s place as extreme (God is no longer some minor deity). It’s an incredibly important Commandment because it shapes how religion is interpreted by its believers in everyday life — it creates God that must be feared and loved, God that demands, God that punishes. But it also justifies the organized institution behind God (after all, someone needs to be cleared to use God’s name). The focus on language as an important fabric that facilities the experience of coexistence with God is crucial too, because it further ensures the centralization of power (ensures it is focused in the hands of those who wield the Word well).
  3. Honor your mother and father. This Commandment begins a series of ethical norms. It also establishes hierarchy, but unlike the previous one, it deals with a social one, not a theological one. It introduces the concept of respect and position in society. It is a strong reason why the society it creates is stable — if esteem for the elders is almost as important as esteem for God, the young will less likely revolt against the status quo. It also makes life holy: you are to respect somebody solely because of the fact that they gave you birth and brought you up.
  4. Respect the Sabbath. Another Commandment that calls for respect, but it’s different in that it asks for respect of a structure (a particular schedule) rather than a deity or a person. It forces the believers to stay connected to their spirituality, to remain believers (and as history shows, the lack of a connection with the religion creates schism). This provides further stability to the religion.

    At first glance, the third and the fourth Commandments may seem reversed (wouldn’t #4 follow logically from #2?). The need for social stability and strong unbringing was probably deemed more important (and more impactful) than the need for the constancy of religious worship. After all, if you respect your parents, they can teach you the values better than a list of Commandments can.

  5. Don’t kill. This is the first of the Commandments that establish social norms, and, understandably, it focuses on the importance of life (and the irreversability of death). I think the reason it’s a Commandment may have to do with the difficulty of enforcing this rule early on. I’m not sure it necessarily establishes the sanctity of life.
  6. No adultery. Is it really that important? Compared with the other ones it seems strange un-lofty. It’s a norm that is certainly murky (less black-and-white than killing a person) but maybe it’s precisely why it’s been included. It creates a society with higher norms than other societies, a more civilized one. It is a rudimentary form of social protection. Of course, in addition to this, it further enables the creation of a stable, conservative society.
  7. Don’t steal. The Commandment establishes the importance of property, and, again, is probably a good rule to include as coming from God as it’s fairly difficult to enforce.
  8. Don’t lie. Actually, the Commandment is more specific — it tells you not to bear a false witness against your neighbor — which in my view points to the fact that not all lying is bad (a pretty progressive thought!). Truth-telling is notoriously difficult to enforce so it makes sense why it would become a Commandment.
  9. Don’t desire your neighbor’s wife…. This I’ve always been baffled by. It’s a rather stringent moral rule that addresses one’s desires (rather than actions). Why curb the desires? It seems preventive, extremely conservative, doesn’t fit with the other commandments, unless one considers that actions are borne from thoughts and the Commandment is really trying to force you to think (and thus be) morally not just behave that way. Morality that’s been internalized is much stronger than one that is an outcome of fear of punishment.
  10. …or any other thing. Really? Why separate it from the previous one? Was it just added because it made a nice set of 10 (a natural size since we have 10 fingers)? It seems dangerous because while desiring of another’s wife is naturally frowned upon, the rulethat comes from God that penetrates all thoughts of desire, even envy, seems too stringent and as a result ineffective.

In general, the Commandments are a wonderfully condensed mixture of rules that establish the religion (in terms of its uniqueness–thus stability–but also its role in everyone’s lives, and its self-preservative properties), the social order, and moral norms. It’s not surprising that they aided in the perpetuation of a very strong and stable religion and a society intrinsically linked to it.