The Irrelevant Wisdom of the Ten Commandments

atheism and christian apologeticsFew Christians can list the Ten Commandments in order, but almost all are familiar with them:

  1. Have no other gods before me
  2. No graven images
  3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain
  4. Keep the Sabbath day
  5. Honor your mother and father
  6. Don’t kill
  7. No adultery
  8. Don’t steal
  9. Don’t lie
  10. Don’t covet

These are the well-known Ten Commandments from Exodus 20.  What could be ambiguous about this list?  Stay tuned as we run through the story.

It takes 11 more chapters for God to finish giving all his secondary commandments, first rules for how the people should conduct themselves and then rules for the temple and priests.

After weeks of waiting for Moses to return from Mt. Sinai, the anxious Israelites make a golden calf in chapter 32.  Moses is furious when he finally returns.  He smashes the tablets, has the calf ground up and force-fed to the faithless people, and orders the Levites to slaughter thousands of their fellow tribesmen.

Then follows an indeterminate amount of time during which God descended on Moses’ tent as a pillar of smoke and “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.”

As a side note, it’s interesting that this appearance of God to Moses (Ex. 33:11) as well as that to Abraham (Gen. 18:1–2) is denied in other parts of the Bible.  We’re later told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18) and “No man has seen or can see [God]” (1 Tim. 6:16).

Back to our story: Moses goes up Sinai a second time in Exodus 34.  God says, “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered,” so we know that this nothing new, just a replacement set of commandments.  But the contents are very different:

  1. Make no covenant with the Canaanite tribes
  2. Destroy their altars
  3. Make no idols (“molten gods”)
  4. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread
  5. “The first offspring from every womb belongs to me”
  6. Rest on the seventh day
  7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks
  8. No leavened bread during Passover
  9. Bring the first fruits of the soil to the Lord
  10. “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk”

The chapter ends with these words: “And [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”  This is the first time this label is used in the Bible.

You want to display the Ten Commandments in public?  Go for it, but put up this list.  It’s the official list, after all.

Contrast this with the story of the first tablets, which concludes at the end of chapter 31, “[God] gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.”  There is no mention of a “ten commandments,” and these stone tablets presumably contain all of the rules given in chapters 20 through 31.

Another detour: chapter 34 has this savage claim, “[God] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 34:7).  And yet, three books later, we get this contradiction: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).

I guess this too can be rationalized: Deut. 24 is talking about what man must do.  Man needs to treat people fairly and punish only the wrongdoers.  Ex. 34 is talking about what God will do.  God has a long memory and will hold a grudge against you to punish your descendants.

Speaking of punishments, the Ten Commandments list crimes without giving punishments.  For you traditionalists who like the “thou shalt not” set of commandments, “Positive Atheism” has handy list of the corresponding punishments.  God has a pretty limited imagination, and you can guess what they are: “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed” (Ex. 22:20), “the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 24:16), and so on.

Display the Ten Commandments in public, just put up the correct ten.  I dare you.

Say what you will about the Ten Commandments,
you must always come back to the pleasant fact
that there are only ten of them. 
— H. L. Mencken

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What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much.

Novel about Christianity and atheism (and Christian apologetis)The Old Testament patriarchs would scratch their heads at the problem conservative Christians have invented and seized upon.  “That’s not what ‘Thou shalt not murder’ means!” they’d say.  “It means that you shouldn’t take a stick and beat someone over the head until he’s dead!  We kill people around here at the drop of a hat—both our own people when they transgress the Law and people of other tribes when we get into border squabbles.  And God has no hesitation in killing people.  To simply make someone not pregnant is vastly different.  People try lots of folk remedies to bring about that very thing, and our only complaint is that they’re not effective.”

All this hand-wringing about the safety of a single cell, less than one trillionth the size of an infant, would baffle them.  God is happy to slaughter (or order slaughtered) lots ’n lots of humans—men, women, and children.

If the Big Man doesn’t care, why should we?  That’s a rhetorical question—of course we should care.  It’s just that we shouldn’t imagine an argument against abortion based on what the Bible says.

About Babylon, it says, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9).  And: “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished” (Is. 13:15–16).  Whether God uses genocide against the other guys, poisonous snakes against his own people, or an old-fashioned global flood against everyone, God has a broad palette of options when it comes to death, and he makes no special provision for children, infants, or fetuses.

The Bible even describes a potion to deliberately induce a miscarriage, used by the priest when a woman is suspected of adultery.

God himself has a hand in abortions.  Roughly half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, a far greater rate than that of clinical abortions.  If God exists, he’s the biggest abortionist of all.

Why imagine that the Bible is against abortion?  Maybe it’s that whole “thou shalt not murder” thing.

But you do know that “thou shalt not murder” isn’t in the Ten Commandments, right?  Let’s review the story.  Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and then smashes them when he sees the golden calf.  He goes back up for another set (Ex. 34), but God must’ve been stoned when he dictated them the second time because it’s quite a different set of rules.  But these rules aren’t just an addendum of some sort; these are the replacement Ten Commandments.  Exodus 34:28 makes this clear: “[Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”  In other words, if you’d been able to peek inside the Ark of the Covenant to see this Ten Commandments 2.0, nowhere would it have said, “Thou shalt not murder.”

But let’s ignore that and assume that the scripture say not to murder.  What is “murder”?  Is capital punishment murder?  It’s illegal in Europe, and many people think it’s murder in the U.S., and yet it’s legal in 34 U.S. states.  What about killing in wartime?  Or killing in self-defense?  Or killing accidentally?  Or killing animals?  Or euthanasia?  Murder is undefined, so “Thou shalt not murder” is meaningless.

You’d think that this vaguely supported legal opinion that God is against abortion would give Christians pause, but I guess the hearts of pro-life Christian soldiers are resolute.  They’re quick to argue that God’s actions are beyond our understanding when it suits them—when confronted with the Problem of Evil or the justice of hell, for example—but at other times they acknowledge no vagueness and know for certain what God wants.  In particular, they know that God is against abortion!

Why is abortion that big a deal from the Christian standpoint when abortions send souls to heaven without the risk of doing the wrong thing in adulthood?  That murdered babies go straight to heaven was one way William Lane Craig tried to wriggle out of the moral consequences of God ordering the Canaanite genocide (“Christianity Can Rot Your Brain”).

Using Craig’s logic, abortion clinics may save more souls than churches!

Next time: 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals.

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