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The Ten Commandments

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A wax figure of Charlton Heston as Moses at Madame Tussauds in Hollywood, California.

The Ten Commandments: God's rules, or maybe God's promises.

Most of us have heard of the Ten Commandments. They're in the Bible, aren't they? Something along the lines of 'Thou shalt not murder' and 'Thou shalt not steal', and, erm, eight others. Right here on h2g2 you can find entries on The Ten Commandments of Airport Design, The Ten Commandments of Juggling and The Ten Commandments of Beer. But while we're familiar with the concept, we might not be familiar with the actual commandments. We're going have to read a bit of the Bible to find out more.

Getting Started

It's generally not a good idea to just dive into the Bible and start reading out of context - you can get yourself into all sorts of trouble. There's an urban myth about a guy who wanted to hear something from God so he decided to open his Bible at a random page, close his eyes, stab with his finger, and (after opening his eyes again) read whatever verse he'd pointed at. The verse was this:

Then he went away and hanged himself.1

Deciding to have another go, he opened the Bible, closed his eyes, stabbed his finger, opened his eyes, and read:

Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'2

Clearly the bible is a daunting book and - urban myth or not - readers aren't going to get the most out of it by just picking out verses, or even whole chapters, at random. So, before we just dive into Exodus 20 willy-nilly3, we should understand where we're up to.

The Story so Far

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. It was good. Then he created Adam and Eve, gave them free will, and found that they promptly did wrong. God, being only good, was at odds with this wrong4. However, God still loved mankind - even though mankind continued to behave badly - and chased people through history, liberating the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. We now find the Israelites wandering through the desert on their way to the promised land, in need of some direction.

The Commandments

Mount Sinai.

Moses is leading the Israelites, and God has said he'll meet him at the top of Mount Sinai for a conference. We aren't talking complementary drinks and PowerPoint presentations here. There'll be pyrotechnics, though. God is going to meet with Moses in a cloud of smoke and fire, and will be speaking very loud so that the people will hear. As every good conference speaker knows, you start by telling your audience who you are and what qualifies you to have their attention. God says this:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.5

Well, would have got their attention.

(The following numbering applies to the Protestant Ten Commandments. In Catholic Doctrine the first two are counted together and all the others appropriately re-numbered; the tenth is split into two.)

First Commandment

You shall have no other gods before me.6

This really is the crux of God's relationship with man. How can God really get to know man on an intimate level if man is so intent on letting things get in the way? Man would argue that these things just creep up on him.7

Second Commandment

You shall not make for yourself an idol 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.8

Similar to the first commandment, this is about not putting other things in the way. Yes, God might be in all of creation, but worshipping creation itself is missing the point. Creation points at God, just as a signpost points at - say - Islington. Worshipping creation would be like making your way to the foot of the signpost, rather than down the Holloway Road, round Highbury Corner and down Upper Street, until you get there.

Third Commandment

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.9

This isn't just about swearing. This is about a spoken manner that comes - ideally10 - from an underlying attitude of respect for God.

Fourth Commandment

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy... On it you shall not do any work.11

This has got nothing to do with going to church. Back in Moses' day there was no such thing as 'church'. This is a good bit of advice about making time - taking a day off to concentrate on the important things, like the first commandment.

Fifth Commandment

Honour your father and your mother.12

Now, here's a good bit of sensible, down-to-earth advice. As it turns out, it's heavenly advice, too. While the third commandment is about respect for God, this is about respect for others.

Sixth Commandment

You shall not murder.13

Hands up if you agree with this one? That's all of us, then. Elsewhere, the Bible says that the law is written on our hearts - the implication being that we don't have to know the Old Testament off-by-heart to appreciate the difference between right and wrong.

Seventh Commandment

You shall not commit adultery.14

Again, this is about respect for others - this time over and above our own desires.

Eighth Commandment

You shall not steal.15

God's telling it like it is again. Murder, adultery, stealing: wrong, wrong, wrong.

Ninth Commandment

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.16

This might specifically cover lying, but really God is reinforcing the 'respect for others' line of the previous handful of commandments. The idea here is to do the right thing, and also not to lie about it or blame others if you get it wrong.

Tenth Commandment

You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or... anything that belongs to your neighbour.17

By the tenth commandment, God has covered all the bases. God doesn't want man damaging his relationship with God, or with his fellow man. Not only that, there should be no thinking about it either.

So, there it is: four commandments about respect for God, and six commandments about respect for each other.

The Stone Tablets

So God has finished his conference on Mount Sinai. The smoke, fire, thunder and lightning has frightened most of the audience, and they suggest that Moses continue this dialogue while they stay at the bottom of the mountain and keep an eye on their sheep. God suggests that he give a copy of his keynote speech to Moses, and so writes the commandments on tablets of stone. When Moses gets back he finds that the Israelites aren't keeping an eye on the sheep after all, but are instead making some idols to worship! Well, that's commandments one and two broken already...

The Greatest Commandment(s)

Ah, but what about the promises? Well, if Jesus is to be believed, God didn't intend for the commandments to tie everyone up in knots with a bunch of rules that were there to be broken. Well over 1,000 years after Moses went up Mount Sinai, the teachers of the law had a good line going in guilt. People, it seemed, were bound by the law, and Jesus was purporting to fulfil the law and do away with legalism of it all: he would take the blame for it all. In an attempt to trick Jesus, one of the teachers of the law asked him:

Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?18

To which he deftly replied:

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.19

And that, in a nutshell, is it. Love God. Love everyone else. Simple.

1Matthew 27:52Luke 10:373Exodus 20 is where the Ten Commandments are found in the Bible.4Or sin, as it gets called quite a lot in the Bible.5Exodus 20:26Exodus 20:37But that would be a whole other discussion.8Exodus 20:4-59Exodus 20:710If you've got the first and second commandment sorted.11Exodus 20:8,1012Exodus 20:1213Exodus 20:1314Exodus 20:1415Exodus 20:1516Exodus 20:1617Exodus 20:1718Matthew 22:3619Matthew 22:37-40

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