Sunday, April 17, 2011

The 10 Commandments, Version 1.5

The Ten Commandments are undoubtedly the best-known moral instructions in the entire Bible. Some Christians exalt them as the basis from which we get our laws, and even insist that we have statues of the two ancient tablets in front of our nation's secular courthouses. Yet in terms of their actual usefulness in regulating human morality, they're really a mixed bag. Here's a summary:
  1. You shall not have any other gods than Yahweh.
  2. You shall not make any carved images (i.e. idols).
  3. You shall not take Yahweh's name in vain.
  4. Keep the Sabbath day holy by refraining from work.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not lie.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife or possessions.
Some are great commandments, others not so much. Ebon Musings has an essay in response to them entitled "The New Ten Commandments" that lays out ten completely new commands for the modern world. All of them are great, but they got me thinking: we don't even have to totally rewrite the Ten Commandments in order to massively improve them. A little tweaking could go a long way. This is what I might expect to find if the Bible was really an inspired book:
  1. Respect Yahweh and have no other gods than him.
  2. You shall not persecute those who do not follow Yahweh.
  3. You shall not own other humans as slaves.
  4. You shall not kill or mistreat animals unnecessarily, or sacrifice them.
  5. Honor your parents except in cases of abuse.
  6. You shall not kill humans except in self-defense.
  7. You shall not commit rape or adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not lie with the intent of causing harm.
  10. You shall not treat others as inferior due to race, gender or sexual orientation.
Now let's take a look at what I changed. First I condensed the four God-related commands into one. Even if Yahweh actually existed, things like not taking his name in vain and honoring the Sabbath shouldn't be anywhere near that high on the list of important commands. Of course Yahweh still shouldn't be respected if he goes on killing sprees. But I wanted to keep the new set of commandments plausibly religious, and it's still an improvement overall. To balance this out, I made the next one a command against religious persecution. The two after that are meant to explicitly forbid two of the worst elements of the Old Testament: slavery and animal sacrifice.

I only needed to make relatively minor changes to the next bunch. Honoring one's parents is a good sentiment, but it could be misused to apply even to extreme cases. I made the "kill" commandment less vague by forbidding all cases except self-defense (which could apply to defensive wars as well). Adultery, while certainly immoral, pales in comparison to the evil of rape. I couldn't think of any obvious scenarios where it would unambiguously acceptable to steal, so that's the only commandment I left untouched.

I added "with the intent of causing harm" to the ninth commandment to allow for "white lies" that avoid offending people, and for scenarios such as lying to Nazis to hide Jews. And finally, as others have pointed out in the past, coveting isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. In fact, it's an extremely useful trait in a capitalist society. I replaced it with a broad commandment against racism, sexism and homophobia—wiping out centuries of intolerance against countless groups with just one sentence.

Are my revised Ten Commandments perfect? Certainly not—nor are they meant to be. But as with my reworked version of Genesis 1, I would expect an omniscient and all-good God to come up with something even better than a lowly human could. The fact that I could improve upon the holy commandments of the Almighty so easily suggests that they are not, in fact, what they claim to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment