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Reflections on Ethics 75
The Ninth Commandment
The Tribal Significance of "Neighbor"

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: This is the first section of Chapter Nine of Joseph Lewis' book, The 10 Commandments.

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"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

The Tribal Significance of "Neighbor"

If the previous eight Commandments were gems of a moral genius and precepts for the highest ethical conduct -- which of course they are not -- this Commandment alone would invalidate the Decalogue as a divine revelation. This Commandment definitely shows these precepts to be rules of conduct, based on superstitious taboos, for the small tribe of Hebrews who formulated them, and is in the same category as other provincial regulations of tribal ethics. If there were a God of the universe, and if he had given all the peoples of the earth a precept to follow, this God would not have restricted giving false witness only against one's "neighbor." Bearing false witness would have been condemned as inherently wrong regardless of whom the testimony might affect.

False testimony is unethical no matter against whom it is given, and if it is considered to be ethically right at certain times and under certain circumstances, the whole fabric and structure of our moral ideal collapses. For "truth is truth to the end of reckoning." Not for the benefit of one's "neighbor" or to the detriment of one's enemy, but truth for truth's sake is the highest ethical concept and the very quintessence of justice. The honorable man will speak truthfully even though it prove to his own detriment. It is essential to the principle of equality before the law that justice be applied equally to my enemy and to me. If we permit an exception for the sake of expediency or for some prejudicial reason, we may some day suffer because of that exception.

Universal justice will never be achieved until all the peoples of the earth are governed by the same laws end enjoy the same privileges. It will not matter then under what flag a man lives, so long as he enjoys liberty, and justice is administered impartially to all.

This Commandment does not say, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." If that were all it said, then it would possess some virtue. But the makers of this Commandment were not concerned with a general application of telling the truth under all circumstances. The three additional words of this Commandment were added for a very definite reason. For the age and for the purpose for which they were intended, the Commandment would be incomplete without them. Therefore, in keeping with the primitive moral standard of tribal culture, this Commandment very properly reads: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." These three words, "against thy neighbor," completely change its meaning and preclude its application as an ethical precept for modern society. Without them this Commandment could very easily have universal application, but with them it falls back into the narrow provincial category of the early Israelitish tribal code.

At the time this Commandment was written, anyone who was not a "neighbor" was an enemy. This was the law of tribal life. The boundaries and property of clans had to be vigilantly watched and jealously guarded. It was essential to the solidarity of the tribe that all band together for the common good.

According to Talmudic law, only a brother Hebrew is a neighbor. In another interpretation of this very Commandment, brother and neighbor are synonymous terms which do not apply to anyone outside the clan.[1]

The word "neighbor," as used in this Commandment, unmistakably meant a fellow tribesman, a compatriot, and did not, nor was it ever intended to describe a fellow human being in a universal sense. This is verified not only by leading Biblical authorities, such as the Rev. Henry Sloane Coffin, who says that "the Israelites did not apply this Commandment to their dealings with other people," but by the Bible itself.

When properly understood in the light of primitive culture, this Commandment is in perfect harmony as to its origin and meaning with the other portions of the Decalogue. The authors of the Decalogue could not have formulated it differently; they were mentally incapable of embodying a Commandment with the broader principle of universal application. All the Commandments belong in the same category and were promulgated for one purpose -- to prevent injury to the clan and to promote tribal solidarity for the sake of their Deity's approval.

If this Commandment consisted of the simple statement, "Thou shalt not lie," it would be free from its clannish implication. And if, in addition to this unequivocal declaration that an untruth should not be uttered, the penalty provided for speaking falsely were that the tongue should become palsied, then indeed might such a Commandment act as a sentinel in order that "truth might bear away the victory."

There is no monitor guarding the mind from believing that which is untrue, or restraining the tongue from speaking that which is false.

Professor James H. Breasted, the noted Egyptologist, makes a significant observation in his book, The Dawn of Conscience. After an exhaustive study of the evolution of ethics, he confesses:

"Like most lads among my boyhood associates, I learned the Ten Commandments. I was taught to reverence them because I was assured that they came down from the skies into the hands of Moses, and that obedience to them was therefore sacredly incumbent upon me. I remember that whenever I fibbed I found consolation in the fact that there was no commandment 'Thou shalt not lie,' and that the Decalogue forbade lying only as a 'false witness' giving testimony before the courts where it might damage one's neighbor. In later years when I was much older, I began to be troubled by the fact that a code of morals which did not forbid lying seemed imperfect; but it was a long time before I raised the interesting question: How has my own realization of this imperfection arisen? Where did I myself get the moral yardstick by which I discovered this shortcoming in the Decalogue?"

Professor Breasted's answer to his question is predicated on inevitable conclusions, drawn from his researches, that ethics develop in an evolutionary process and that "the moral ideas of early man were the product of their own social experience." A careful examination of the early religious systems and the moral codes of contemporary times forced him to state that "it is important to bear in mind the now commonly accepted fact that in its primitive stages religion had nothing to do with morals as understood by us today."[2] Professor Breasted is too considerate when he speaks of only primitive religion and morals as being two entirely separate and distinct departments of human thought. They are just as much separate and distinct today as they were ten thousand years ago. Religion and morals have not only no connection with each other, but are often antagonistic both in principle and practice, as has been factually substantiated in the analysis of the previous Commandments. He also discovered that "man arose to high moral vision two thousand years before the Hebrew nation was born."[3]

This Commandment survives today, not because of any ethical value that it might possess, for it has none, but because it is associated with a religious taboo. It is but another striking example of the utter lack of moral value when conduct is predicated upon racial and religious edicts.


  1. Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol 5, p. 620.
  2. Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience, p. 18.
  3. Ibid., p. 17.