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Reflections on Ethics 40
What’s Wrong With the Ten Commandments?

by Lester C. Graham

This article submitted by George G. Ardell and reprinted with permission from “God, Do You Exist: The Questions of a Curious Agnostic” by Lester C. Graham, authorHouse, Bloomington, IND, ©2004.

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Reflections 6, 7, 14, & 19, Meditation 120 and Ask the Patriarch 32 and the ensuing discussions contain related material.

Many people seem to revere the Ten Commandments more than they revere obedience to them.  Why?  Could it be because of the supposed circumstances surrounding their origin?  Is it because they are believed to have come from a direct encounter between a man and a god and should therefore be revered no matter how ineffective they may be?  Should we just ignore the absurdity of a god creating a world filled with congenitally disobedient humans and then attempting to make them obey Commandments? 

We seem to yearn so much for some sort of contact with a power beyond ourselves (one that could “save” us) that we close our minds to rational thought.  Deep inside we know that we cannot live up to the standards of conduct defined by any set of laws or rules whether given by a god or a human.  So we revere the Commandments and treat them as sacred symbols or idols to be displayed and worshipped but never questioned.  Thus, we post them everywhere but obey them nowhere. 

But the truth is that we are not creatures who can be perfected or even controlled by Commandments or laws no matter what their origin might have been.  At best they provide a basis for dealing with the inequities and injustices of this world in a better way than the tooth and claw method of wild animals.  But, if we treat the Commandments as absolute laws and attempt to use them to administer justice without compassion and tolerance and forgiveness, they will make us worse than the animals could ever be. 

Perhaps a cold, hard and cynical translation of the Ten Commandments will help reveal their shortcomings and curb our enthusiasm for posting them and holding them up as a major source for the derivation of moral laws.  Of course, it will doubtless also generate anger and renewed efforts to hold them as sacrosanct on the part of many religious fanatics; but maybe it would make some of us open our eyes wider and think. 

In any case, here is a “revised translation”: 


(Revised Plain-English Version)

Hey Moses!  Listen up!!  This is God.  I have some important stuff to tell you, and I want you to relay it to all of your people:

First of all, I am the best God there is.  So don't go looking for a better one.  For reasons you wouldn't understand I won't show Myself to you to prove it.  I am just telling you. 

You better believe what I just said!  If you don't, I will persecute you and all your descendants, even your innocent great-grandchildren.  You heard what I did to Adam and Eve; so you know what I can do to the innocent, but stupid, people I have created. 

Don't try to tell Me what to do or what not to do.  That isn't the way it works.  The way it works is that I tell you what to do.  I'll do what I want to do no matter what you say or pray. 

Sunday is My day, and you better not forget it!  I would appreciate a little bowing and scraping on Sundays to honor My vanity, but don't do anything to disturb Me. 

Well, that's all the really important stuff; but here are a few more things you should know:

Be respectful to your parents.  I'm not saying you have to love them, but you better show respect.  Later I'll send Someone to talk with you about love and how to treat your children and neighbors and enemies.   For now you'll just have to do the best you can. 

I don't want you to go around killing people willy-nilly.  I've created some enemies that I may need your help to deal with (such as heretics, witches, homosexuals, abortionists, etc.), but I'll give you specific instructions concerning them when the time comes.  Meantime, don't kill anyone unless I tell you to.  Until then, let Me do it! 

Don't fool around with another man's wife.  His daughters and sisters and other females are okay as long as they're not married. 

Stealing another man's property is also out!  If you can grab it first, okay.  But once he gets it, it's his.  Stealing a woman's property?  Let Me think about that some more. 

Lying about your neighbor is also out.  Other lies, if they serve My purposes, may be okay.  But watch it! 

Don't sit around leering at another man's wife, and don't go slobbering over anything else he has.  I'm not really concerned about your wife making eyes at your neighbor's husband.  Since I intend you to be the head of your family, I leave that up to you. 

P. S.    I almost forgot!  You may want to try posting the above information in your public schools to see if it will make children moral.  That is just a Suggestion, not a Commandment. 

The above “translation” will be viewed as a revolting parody of the Ten Commandments by many people, if not most.  And they will be correct.  It is intended to be so!  Sometimes it is necessary to look at things from an extreme viewpoint in order to illuminate their limitations.  In the case of the Commandments several things are brought out by doing so. 

The first four Commandments command us to honor and worship a god and have nothing to say about morality.  Worse yet, that god is self-described in those very Commandments as a jealous, vainglorious and vindictive being (“Thou shalt have no other …., I will punish …. unto the third and fourth generations“, etc.) who inspires fear rather than love or compassion. 

The rest of the Commandments give us some rather shallow rules of conduct which do not cover most of the things we need to do in order to live in peace and harmony with each other.  But they do not even mention, let alone try to command, love and forgiveness and compassion.  Perhaps that is because those things cannot be commanded but must arise in our hearts on their own.  Nevertheless, it is strange that they are not even mentioned or implied.  Surely anything which is intended to promote morality should include the concepts of compassion and forgiveness.  Shouldn’t it? 

Overall, it may be said that the Ten Commandments do just the opposite of what is recommended in an old song.  They accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive!