The Ten Commandments - Relevant ethics or primitive barbarism?

Over the last little while I've run across a pretty interesting conversation about the Ten Commandments that I wasn't fully familiar with. It started with one article I saw shared on social media, and it turned into a long journey through the reaches of the internet to find out what kinds of things people were saying about God's law in the Hebrew Bible.

The Ten Commandments - also known as the Decalogue, the law of Moses, or just The Law - are of course pretty famous, but just in case you don’t know them, here’s a quick refresher:

  1. No gods are more important than God.
  2. Don’t worship idols.
  3. Don’t misuse God’s name.
  4. Remember the Sabbath.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Don’t kill people.
  7. Don’t commit adultery.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t bear false testimony.
  10. Don’t covet.

This is a summary of what you find in common between Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20. This short and sweet paraphrase makes it seem like they’re a fairly simple set of rules, but this law code is definitely a source of more controversy than many people really care to deal with. From debates about whether they should be taught in schools or displayed in public places - and whether doing these things violates separation of church and state - it can be tempting and more comfortable for modern people to just ignore the Ten Commandments altogether.

On the flip side, the same law code also causes a lot of stress for religious people. Just within Christianity there are tons of debates about what the purpose of this law code is, who it applies to, how much of it applies, or whether it even applies at all. Some Christians think the Ten Commandments should be used as the primary law of of modern society, enforced by national governments, and other Christians think they have been done away with entirely.

Are they actually good laws?

But one question that I don’t think religious people ask themselves enough is whether or not these commandments are actually morally good. Like, are these rules good rules to live by? We assume that this must be the case because they are God's laws, but just assuming this may blind us to how the world around us actually sees things.

God came up with them, so how could I think of them as anything but good? But in the face of people who don’t share my beliefs, I can’t just assume that these principles are obviously good. If they are good rules to live by, shouldn’t that be demonstrated? If God's laws are good and wise, shouldn’t I be able to show that there is some kind of logic to them?

Now rest assured, I do believe in Scripture and I believe that all of the Ten Commandments should be followed - including the fourth commandment that instructs us to observe the Sabbath! But the question of how to follow each of the commandments may actually be more difficult and complex than I have allowed myself to think.

For example, I could really lean into the point that the Sabbath is excellent for physical and mental health, and that it seems to be designed right into the nature of humanity to need a day to take a break and just enjoy life. But that same commandment also assumes the reality of slavery. Sure, it commands that slaves be given a day off, but it still assumes that practice exists, and without explicitly banning it. Shouldn't this be alarming?

There are also questions like "How exactly do you take the name of the Lord in vain?" What does it mean to do or not do that, and how do I know when I'm in danger of doing so? Or what about the issue of killing: is it "don't kill" or "don't murder," and in any case, how can the story of the Ten Commandments being given to Israel be filled with so much killing if God ultimately does not want people to kill each other?

Some people, on the basis of questions like these, have completely written off the Ten Commandments as barbaric, primitive, and morally inferior. I read one article which suggested that the 7 Tenets of the Satanic Temple are actually morally better instructions than the Ten Commandments.


Over the course of this year, I'm going to be doing a series of extended video essays on the Ten Commandments. These will be long-form YouTube videos that tackle each of the commandments one by one, comparing and contrasting them with relevant modern secular ethics to see how they hold up. But I will also be highlighting an issue that I don't think gets explained often enough.

The law as expressed in the Ten Commandments is not the total or final expression of God's ethics. They are his law, and they are holy and right, but they are not done at Sinai.

The Ten Commandments continue to expand, to grow, to take on new meaning and significance through the story of the Bible. By the time we get to Jesus, we often see significant growth in our understanding of what these commandments mean, and how we can live by them.

And Jesus himself, in his life, death, and resurrection, also embodied and fulfilled the purpose of God's laws in such a way that we really cannot understand God's law, God's will, and God's morality without looking at Jesus.

My goal is to help reframe the Ten Commandments in such a way that we can see how they make sense for the world today, and to show how many of the ethical principles we hold to be modern, secular innovations are actually more closely tied to the ethics of the Bible than one might imagine.

Since these videos will all be quite long, I'm going to try to keep the accompanying blog posts for most of them pretty short, with most of the posts after this one consisting mostly of further reading and study questions. I hope you enjoy this series!

Study Questions:

  1. Read the two full lists of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. What similarities and differences do you observe between the two lists? How significant are those?
  2. Being as honest as you can, are there any of the Ten Commandments that you find difficult to understand, or uncomfortable to think about?
  3. Read through part of a lengthy speech by Jesus in Matthew 5:17-48. How many times do you see Jesus make reference to one of the Ten Commandments? How much of what he says is a commentary on the Ten Commandments? Does it sound like he's expanding what they meant, or demonstrating wisdom that was already in the commandments? Which parts of what he says resonate most with you? Which parts do you find most difficult to accept?
  4. How often do you think about the Ten Commandments as part of your own life philosophy? Write down the last five instances you can think of where the Ten Commandments played a role in a decision or action of yours.


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