The Ten Commandments and Humanist ethics

Moses holding tablets with 10 CommandmentsHSV Public Lecture by Dr Paul Tonson at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 26 April 2018

At the outset, Paul acknowledged that his thoughts about the topic had been stimulated by Peter Hotchin’s article, ‘Order-based morality’ [Australian Humanist 128, Nov 2017, 14–17]. As a Humanist and member of HSV, Paul believes that there is only one natural order and that no intervening divine agency determines order or morality for us. However, as someone who has a background in biblical scholarship, he considers that juxtaposing Peter’s notion of order-based morality and the Ten Commandments, as we understand them, may be worthwhile.

The ten commands found in the Hebrew scriptures: three examples

In the book of Exodus, chapter 20, of the Hebrew Bible, ‘ten words’ are listed. ‘Dabar’, a common Hebrew word, meaning word or thing, has an additional connotation of substance or power. The ten words were attributed by Moses to his god YHWH.

In Exodus 34:28 a different set of tablets of law are described. Moses had smashed the first lot after finding the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. There are only three commands in common between the two sets, perhaps reflecting the fact that the Israelites were no longer living in the wilderness but had settled among Canaanites in Palestine.

Are our laws also contextual?

Deuteronomy 5:6-21, written some 600 years after the events in Exodus 20, virtually repeats the version of ten commands outlined in Exodus 20. The emphasis in both versions is on the relationship between the Hebrew people and their god Yahweh.

Will laws in the modern world hinge on our grasp of good relationships? Or, are there basic, a priori elements of human existence that justify and determine laws. For example, does the affirmation in the American Declaration of Independence, ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’, imply such a premise.

Three analyses of the ten commands

1. The ten commandments separate into four that describe divine status, such as, “I am the lord your god, you shall not have any gods before me”, and the remaining six that address the relationship with others, for example, “you shall not steal, or murder”.

2. Another analysis would distinguish between eight prohibitions and two obligations, or in common parlance, ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. The obligations are “to honour thy father and mother” and “to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy”. The remaining commands are like a set of fence-posts which delineate some boundaries for human interaction. They are succinct and unqualified, for example, “you shall not commit murder”. If tested in a court of law they are amplified by human testimony and Rabbinic Jewish texts, such as the Gemara, Mishnah and Talmud. That is, from the standpoint of the ten commands there is a huge amount of discretion available, notwithstanding the fact that later Jewish traditions became excessively constraining.

The last command, that one should “not covet a neighbour’s house, wife or property” is in a separate category and will be given special consideration further on.

The prohibitions in the first three commands, that there should be no other gods, no graven images and no blasphemy, speak to the heart of Hebrew theology and follow a preamble which asserts YHWH’s role in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. They address a need for order, rather than harm minimization. For a religious community, which is essentially a warrior culture, with a warrior god, unity of belief was essential, and anything which dishonoured this belief had to be forbidden.

The other prohibitions about murder, adultery, theft and false testimony, while shoring up order, also assist with harm minimization and social cohesion.

The command to observe the sabbath requires positive action. It follows from the creation story in Genesis where, after six days of creation, god rested on the seventh. Paul summarises this as god making order out of chaos, and the injunction to observe the sabbath as crucial to preserving order in the Israelite community.

Similarly the command to honour one’s parents underpins orderliness in relationships. If we could ensure that children honoured their parents and parents their children, it is likely that crime and abuse in our society would diminish.

3. The final command about covetousness, whether of property or persons, refers to an inner impulse and cannot be challenged in a court of law. Similarly, the injunction not to blaspheme may reflect an inner state without any impact on societal order. Although, if there are graven images or outspoken comment, the effect may be otherwise.

Furthermore, these commands may have a beneficial effect on character development, encouraging a less selfish attitude and reducing the impulse to break some of the other commands, such as, not to steal. In Jewish law, the name Torah derives from the Hebrew word “yarah”, to teach. Learning to be wise and how to live well were always more important than simple obedience to a book of rules.

Do our own laws have an educational value? In our society, Paul believes, it would be deeply repugnant to most people to enact laws which aim to exert control over thoughts and ideas. We already have laws which protect us against cultic persuasion. However, the idea of legislation mandating a common belief, such as in the first commandment that there be no other gods before me, would not be tolerated, whether it be YHWH, Communism, Atheism or something else. Many people of faith, as well as freethought persuasion, fully acknowledge the freedom of others to uphold their own philosophy.

Are there any commands that transcend the Mosaic worldview?

The ten words belong primarily to the cult of Mosaic Yahwism and its ancient worldview. Some have specific relevance to Yahwism and others have universal standing.

In Deuteronomy chapter 10 there is a text which, while referring to the Israelites, has universal application and gives a helpful perspective to the ten words:

I am the lord of hosts. I show partiality to no one. I love the stranger, you also must love the stranger.

While Deuteronomy chapter 20 also describes some troubling characteristics of a warrior god, such as sanctioning slavery and ethnic cleansing, there are also repeated commands to care for widows and orphans, the Levites and strangers within the gates.

Other universal laws are found in Leviticus, for example, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Love the stranger as yourself” [Lev. 19].

Was it that, as Israel changed from being a tiny, isolated independent state to one community among many in Babylon/Persia, new laws were needed to maintain orderliness? In our own case we now live within a global village, and the United Nations Charter on Human Rights from 1948 reflects our changed circumstances.

Are there any motivations and justifications asserted? Are any of these compelling?

The first Mosaic command, “I am the lord, thy god, you shall not have any gods before me”, followed the deliverance from Egypt. This kind of allegiance is similar to that in a feudal society, such as pre-industrial England, and it undoubtedly imposes order. But there is a huge leap in motivation from that position to the assertion that the universal god loves strangers. It gives rise to the notion that all people are equal and, if this is extended, that all life is a gift of god, not just one event. That is to say, a sense of obligation underlying moral commitments need not depend on a religious viewpoint. Paul also wonders, given the way the ten commands begin with an affirmation, whether our own laws would benefit from a similar motivating affirmation, such as that in the American Declaration of Independence.

In conclusion the injunction to keep the sabbath enshrines a valuable ideal. It need not be about religious observance but simply about ‘time out’. The Jewish sabbath has become bounded by many detailed rules, but at its heart it is about living in a natural way, without dependence on man-made paraphernalia. That we value our natural world remains a valuable ideal. It can also be about recognizing what is holy or sacred in human relationships and giving selfless time to family members and others.

Finally, the demand to honour one’s parents can be generalized to include children, neighbours, strangers and resident aliens. A radical challenge attributed to Jesus, that we should do good to those who treat us badly, is regarded by scholars as one of the most authentic teachings of Jesus. Is there any harm-minimization implied in this radical ethic? Could this contribute to good order in our world?

Report by Jennie Stuart

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