Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Top Ten Commandments

      A list! Don't we all love lists? They're brief, summative, and that surge of recognition from agreeing with a point is so much fun. And why is it that we never, ever agree with #1 on a countdown (even if it's our own list)? Oh, lists: blissful passtime of my lost late teen years.
      I think a lot can be said of our fascination with lists, especially those that are ranked and prioritized, and those can say a lot about us. But there is one (unranked, suprisingly) list that precedes them all (mostly): The Ten Commandments. By far the best known list we of Western culture possess, it is a favourite of fundamentalists and a document devoted its due even by many secular and/or non-theistic thinkers.
      I'm not saying anything new here (I refuse to cite the millions before me who thought this) but the Ten Commandments are whacked. There are three reasons for my staunch disagreement with using this mess as any kind of basis:
  1. The Decalogue says a lot of really stupid (and unintentionally confessional) things.
  2. The few good bits are stupifyingly self-evident.
  3. The only reason we care is because it's in a list. No one would care about "The Bunch of Stuff We Should Do or Not Do." How many other commandments do you know from the Bible? One? None? Q.E.D.
      Before we begin: don't scroll any further. Don't open Google. Right now, can you name the Ten Commandments, either version (bonus points for the right order)?

      Got 'em?

Now... Let's examine*.

*Of course, we use that most horribly translated and well known King James Version from Exodus for our analysis (Christopher Hitchens said that modern English would expose to many true believers just how silly the Bible is. Indeed it's not quite so authoritative to say "don't draw pictures of me!").
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

      But, may I have some after?

      This is one of those unintentionally confessional bits: the tacit acknowledgement of the Hebrews of the time that there were other gods, because gods were/are a tribal thing. The subtext of this rule says not to bow down to "them," which of course assumes there are other gods. Call this one the original Freudian slip.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.   

  Catholics didn't get the memo.

      But really though, what is a graven image? I can't find any definition of "graven" besides a. carved or b. on a grave. And so what if an image is either of those things? How is this at all a moral injunction? What is contributed to ethics? Have you ever considered this commandment in seriousness, or even attempted to follow it? 
     Conventional Jewish wisdom says no depictions of the human form, or especially the divine form, at all.  Conventional Islamic wisdom says similar.  Conventional Christian wisdom says something more like "ehhhh... fuggedaboutit." 
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain (for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.).
      This is kind of like your parents telling you "or else..." because there's no real threat here. And what's with the double negative? I'd have thought "or you're buggered" would've done nicely.

      How does one take a name in vain? I would think that, far from being any kind of insult, uttering the name of God (Jesus? Yahweh? Alphonse?) would be a sort of shout-out.

                   "Hey isn't this waterfall nice?"
                   "Oh my GOD yes!"
      Wouldn't we rather that than "siiiiick"?
      And who is to judge on the vanity of a statement? Proper obedience for this one would require someone of priestly stature following you around making calls all day. "Vain. Vain. Not vain. Debatable, send it upstairs. Vain. That's three 'vains' you'rrrrrrrre outta there."

4.  Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Often contemporized as "ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBAWWWWWWLLL?!", this commandment comes with a lot of baggage. Basically, just sit in one place and you'll be safe.
      Your average Christian fundamentalist is all down for a day off (and verily, why not?) but the issue they ignore is that the Jewish Sabbath is on Saturday; because of the Laodicean Council (or Roman pagan tradition, really), Christians observe worship on Sundays. If Mosaic law was handed down directly by God, doesn't it take a bit of cheek to update that? Or was the early Christian church also hooked up directly? Which day is right? Overall, working on a weekend is rather risqué, and I think our modern secular society has done the right thing by just playing it safe and calling the "week-end" two days.

      I can't say there's anything wrong with mandating days off, I think it's a very good idea, but nobody does it. Whether it be yard work or house cleaning, or if your actual job takes place on the weekend, just about everybody violates this one (and yes, if you watch football, you're sanctioning a violation of the sabbath, so you burn too).

      It just goes to show how easily even the most true of believers still puts the dollar above their god; profit waits for no man. And that is idolatry; two commandments broken for the price of one!

5. Honour thy father and thy mother.   

      Are they honourable people? Probably the easiest knock-down on this whole list, this order stinks of that "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" kind of mentality, that is to say, somebody with some awful children wrote this one. They probably had those terrible child-leashes too.

       Being a parent does not mean one merits honour. There are plenty of horrible parents out there. Omniscient nothing, this was obviously a pre-Casey Anthony commandment.

6. Thou shalt not kill.

      The funny thing about this one is that it's completely morally relative, unless you plan on martyring yourself at every possible opportunity (wouldn't that be suicide, also wrong?). There is no self-defense clause here, nor is exception made for the enemies of the Hebrews in the lettering of this injunction, it just says don't kill anyone. Then God has the Hebrews go kill a bunch of people. Hm.

      Let's assume that this is a universal rule; that you could never, ever kill a person, and no one ever did. Nobody needs to be told so. There are many civilizations much older than tribal Judaism, and none of them allow for willy-nilly-killy. Without divine revelation, how is this possible? Oh, that's right, because it's common sense. Let's go so far as to look at the ancient Spartans, warriors in the utmost. Their ultimate definition of glory not only allowed for death, but demanded their own death in battle. One of the bloodthirstiest civilizations we know of, even they did not allow Spartans to kill Spartans liberally. Of course, this did not extend to non-Spartans, because their laws were essentially tribal. Just like this one.

      (The ex-minister) Pat Robertson is a great example of how Christians somehow talk around this commandment. This is a man with an audience of millions. He can claim to be a Christian (Southern Baptist specifically), and tout "Christian" virtues on his Christian television network, but he openly advocates bombing mosques. Seriously. I...I've got nothin'.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

      This one, actually, I essentially agree with insofar as if you've promised someone that you weren't going to mess around on them, you shouldn't mess around on them. The problem here is, as usual, our (or the church's) interpretation of the word "adultery." This can be something as simple as a committed couple enjoying each other's company au naturel outside of wedlock, with no ill will, and still be condemned for it. I guess if you buy into the religious monopoly of marriage you might like this one, but still, is this anything we really needed to be told?
8. Thou shalt not steal.    

       At least not outright anyway. You have to come up with a scheme, like indulgences, or simony. Then you can steal, 'cause it looks like you sort of earned it.

      This command comes from Big Daddy Yahweh just before he boldly turns around and says "take Canaan!" It only works out of context, and only in most cases. Of course that is not to say I think it's okay to steal, but don't we love our Robin Hood stories? And what constitutes theft? Surely punching a guy and taking his wallet isn't the same as underpaying labourers, but aren't they both a kind of theft? Why is only one of them punishable?

      As yet another case where a lot rides on interpretation, I think it's at least safe to say that anyone who claims this commandment as an ultimate law has never really been hungry. Devotion goes out the window on an empty stomach.

      But this bit gets even funnier when we re-immerse it into its context: Yahweh issues this command, then sends his people (after a bit of a stroll) to take land that an established community already exists on (and the Canaanites didn't do anything wrong!). Is it not stealing if you kill them all? I suppose there wouldn't be anyone left to own anything...I'll keep this in mind.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

      Usually transliterated as "don't lie," I'd say this is basically a good commandment (though God had no problem with Abraham lying to the Egyptian Pharaoh to save his own behind), especially if we include gossip, arguably one of the biggest poisons in human society. Still, not an iron-clad rule. If I have to choose between death and a lie, I'm probably going to fib. As the Christian priests said when Saladin was at the gates of Jerusalem, "convert now, repent later!"

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house/wife/ox/iPhone.

      The intrinsic wrongness here isn't the bit about not coveting (some say that coveting is what drives the economy; I'm inclined to agree), though again, this is not an order exclusive to Abrahamic religion. Buddhism considers desire the root of all suffering, and those tenets developed entirely separately from Judaism.

      The wrongness is how equal value is put on the house, the animals, and the wife. Obviously cows are much more valuable than houses.

      But for real, this commandment numbers the women of the family, that is to say, half the human population, among the chattel, the live property of the male head of household. Not coveting can be left out of the equation, because it's not the important part here. Don't kill or adulterize will stop anything from happening by it. You've listed the wife...with the a belonging. The positively fantastic thing about this egregious offense to humanity is how long it went unnoticed. It's a good thing people don't really walk what they talk, or this would be some offensive noise. A society modeled on this kind of intrinsic mentality would be a terrible place indeed.

    So there it is.
      The reverence for this catalogue of crap is, of course, ridiculous in the literal sense; i.e we ought to all ridicule it. It is a perfect example of how we do things just because we always have. How many people do you know who can actually even name the whole list?
      Not only is it a goofy list, and not only is it mostly morally bad, but at points it doesn't even make sense. But it is a list! And therefore it is memorable and even more deserving of our attention. As if all the instructions for human experience can be coalesced into ten points. Go tell it to the relativists, or for that matter, a soldier, in any war, ever.

      So with all this silliness in mind, can we please admit that a lot of the power of this list is in the list form? (I will not have this turned into a chicken and egg argument!) People like things round and whole, with familiar numbers, or in the case of the ancients, sacred numbers. So while we could have, with a better editor at the job, ended up with the Seven Commandments, or even the Three Commandments, there would certainly have never been the Six or Eight, and especially not the Thirty-Four Commandments With Footnotes For Clarity.

      My intention is not to shake belief, but to encourage faith in humans. My whole point is that anything good to come out of our societies has come from within us. When we try to lay this down, we may fail, even with thousands of years of commentary on the creed, but there are still truths that come from within all of us, and simply, real recognizes real. The only reason the Terrible Ten has ever "worked" isn't because it's a divine list, it's because we know how to behave already. Sure, there's much to be said for guidance and education, and certainly experience, but these things are part of the condition of our very natural humanity.

      Next time, I'll introduce the real Top Ten Commandments; the list that we ought to all know, the best ten that can be divined (heh) from the mess of assorted text we call the Bible. I invite comment, rebut, or rebuke!

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to see another post sooner than the time lapse between the last two! Can't wait to read what the 'REAL' ten comandments are. I hope one is 'Thou shall remeber Downtown Battle Mountain and keep it sacred'.