The American Bible Society funds an annual “State of the Bible” survey, and this spring the Christian Post cheered some of their findings: “The Bible continues to dominate both mind space and book retail space as America’s undisputed best-seller.” According to the study, conducted by Barna, over 88 percent of American homes contain a Bible. In fact, the average is 4.7 copies per household.
Now, I should note that a young non-religious friend once came home from school with a bright green Gideon’s New Testament that she later touted as a reserve of fine rolling papers, which may explain why the household average isn’t a solid 5.
But most Americans treat the Bible with some degree of deference.
Among adults who responded to the survey, 56% were classified as “pro-Bible” meaning they think it is the actual or inspired word of God with no errors. More than a quarter said that they read from the Good Book daily or at least several times a week. Fully half said the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to lead a meaningful life.
Surveys about religious behavior and belief are highly susceptible to social desirability bias, meaning the very human tendency to tell researchers want we think they want to hear and to polish our self-image a little. Survey responses are selfies with mood lighting and make-up.
Even so, it’s hard to dispute the fact that the Bible has an enormous influence on our society, not only American society in 2014, but Western society going way back.
That’s what makes all of the pages devoted to useless things like tribal spats, genealogies, rules for slaveholders, menstrual rituals, misogynist trash talk, and loquacious donkeys such a wasted opportunity. But even that would be less painful if core moral mandates like the Ten Commandments were of higher caliber.
Secularists had a good laugh a few years back, when Stephen Colbert nailed Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland, who had co-sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in the House and Senate chambers. “What are the Ten Commandments?” asked Colbert. Westmoreland came up with three.
In the darkest part of my heart I hope the esteemed congressman from Georgia spends the rest of his life wearing a scarlet H for hypocrite, even if no one can see it but him. But the truth is, very few Christians know the Ten Commandments from memory, for two very good reasons.
One reason is that the Bible actually gives three different sets of Ten Commandments, and they don’t match. In Exodus 20, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with a set of stone tablets. (This is the most popular version.) Then he gets mad and smashes them and has to go back up and get another set. And God says, “Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.” (Exodus 34:1). A set of commandments that are similar to these appear in Deuteronomy 5: 6-21.
But then, apparently, God can’t resist tweaking them a little. Ok, a lot.
Here, from the perennially popular King James Version, is the Exodus 20 set:
Ten Commandments From Exodus 20
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
- Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
- Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
- Thou shalt not kill.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
- Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
And here, from Exodus 34, is the set with which God replaced them:
10 Commandments From Exodus 34
- Thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
- Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
- The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep.
- All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male.
- Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest.
- Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end.
- Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven.
- Neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.
- The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the Lord thy God.
- Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.
This is the set of commands that the writer of Exodus actually calls “The Ten Commandments.” But setting aside the fact that females are relegated to a list of possessions that includes oxen, cattle and slaves; it’s not hard to see why the shattered set has the broader appeal. (In fact, it appears they have had broader appeal for a long time; they are repeated, approximately, in the book of Deuteronomy.)
But seriously, the second reason few Christians have memorized the Ten Commandments is that even the popular set lacks the moral clarity and relevance of, say, the Golden Rule or All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
Think about what you’ve just read. Now imagine for a moment that you are a perfectly Good and All-Knowing Being. Imagine that your core attributes include love, truth, justice and mercy. Imagine that the qualities you want to spread in humankind are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness and kindness—what the writer of Galatians called the “fruit of the Spirit.” Imagine that what you most want is for people to fulfill two “Great Commandments”—to love you and to love their neighbors as themselves—and that, as the writer of Matthew said, anything else you tell them is just a way to get there. Imagine that you are going to take one shot—well, ok, two—at dictating Ten Commandments that will be timeless and universally relevant, literally and metaphorically written in stone.
You get where I’m going. With a little help from his weed, Bob Marley could have done better.
For two millennia, or maybe three if the Old Testament stories are rooted in history, people who sincerely believe the Ten Commandments to be the apogee of divine guidance have been doing things like pillaging, slaughtering other species, burning books and witches and infidels, owning sex slaves, beating children, conquering heathens, and generally deciding who counts and who doesn’t based on gender hierarchy, religion, and tribal boundaries. Imagine how radically different Western history might have been if the Ten Commandments went something like this:
- This above all shall ye take as my first command: Thou shalt treat living beings as they want to be treated. And the second commandment is like unto it:
- In as much as be possible, thou shalt avoid afflicting pain or sorrow, which shall be unto thee my signs of ill and evil.
- Thou shalt honor and protect all of creation, for I the LORD have created it that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
- Thou shalt have sexual relations with neither human nor beast who chooseth not freely what pleasures thou mayest offer.
- Thou shalt not beat the child, but by admonition and instruction with kindness shall teach both wisdom and skill.
- Thou shalt do unto members of other religions and tribes as thou dost unto thine own.
- I, the LORD your God, forbid thee to own other persons be they woman, man or child; neither shall ye subject any gender nor race one to another, but shall honor my image in all.
- Thou shalt not destroy the lands of thine enemies, nor poison their well, nor salt their earth, neither shalt thou cut their shade tree nor burn their vineyard, nor wantonly slaughter the beast of their field.
- Thou shalt wash thy hands before eating and shalt boil the drinking water that has been defiled by man or beast.
- Thou shalt ask the questions that can show thee wrong, so that through the toil of many, from generation unto generation, ye may come to discover the great I AM.
This list of Ten Commandments would have changed the course of history. Think Crusades, or the Inquisition, or Salem, or the American Holocaust, or the slave trade, or Northern Ireland, or the Iraq War.
It would have changed history despite the fact that it is seriously flawed. Some points are redundant. Important concepts are missing. The thoughtful reader will immediately notice gaps or think of improvements. And that, precisely, is my point. People with their brains engaged and moral intuitions intact can do better.
The 56 percent of Americans who think the Bible is “the actual or inspired word of God with no errors” are stuck, anchored to the Iron Age. Many, when they get trapped by the ugly contradictions inherent in this position, do whatever moral gymnastics are necessary to defend the Book.
I once listened in amazement as an elderly pair of sweet and pacifist Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to justify the child-slaughters perpetrated in the Old Testament by the Chosen People: The Israelites had to kill the other Palestinian villagers. They were so evil they practiced child sacrifice—they were the first abortionists, don’t you know! And once the parents were dead it was simply a mercy to kill their children as well.
Whew. Try to wrap your brain around that one.
I said at the beginning of this article that the State of the Bible survey this year published some numbers that Bible believers find reassuring. Fortunately, that wasn’t all the news. Between 2011 and 2013, the percent of American adults who believe the Bible is “just another book of teachings written by men that contains stories and advice” has almost doubled, from 10 to 19 percent. And the shift is being driven by Millennials.
There’s hope for us yet.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
If the Bible Were Law, Would You Qualify for the Death Penalty?
Eleven Kinds of Verses Bible-Believers Like to Ignore
What the Bible Says About Rape and Rape Babies
15 Bible Texts Reveal Why “God’s Own Party” is at War with Women
Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like if We Actually Followed the Bible
Valerie, right on!
Thanks for writing another article that gets us thinking. And disagreeing;-)
You say “even that would be less painful if core moral mandates like the Ten Commandments were of higher caliber.”
Actually, I think the basic concepts of the 10 Commandments are of high caliber. The problem has been that most of the time through history Jewish, Islamic, and Christian people haven’t lived up to the 10 because they have interpreted them in narrow ethnocentric ways.
Take a look at a paraphrase I once wrote when trying to explain the 10 Commandments to non-religious individuals. (Yes, I know the list smacks of the liberal, but that’s what I was for most of the 57 years during which I was a devout Christian, before I came to the conclusion that Christianity can’t be true. I still read the Bible every day and I know there are many horrific parts, as well as the good. I think the 10 are good.)
1-2. Don’t make anything finite into the absolute. Not any of your obsessions, or possessions, not even your family or your country, certainly not yourself. Put the Truth first.
3. Be sacred in your words and thoughts. Don’t ridicule and demean the Truth and other people. (Think how nice it would be if fewer people used f-words and b-words, etc.)
4. Take at least one evening and day a week for recreation, reflection, and seeking the truth.
5. Show caring and concern for your parents and the elderly.
6. Don’t kill.
7. Be faithful and loyal to your spouse.
8. Don’t steal.
9. Don’t lie. Tell the truth. (Think how that would drastically change countries and their governments, businesses and individuals!)
10. Don’t covet what others have.
Those seem like a good start on the Golden Rule, if I may say so.
Right off the bat, I’d say we have to immediately delete #3. It appeals to the holier-than-thou and arms the controlling censors among us to ride herd upon those of us who love words, and want to use all the words. It suppresses and puts an onus on free speech and free expression. It makes jokes unfunny and flattens satire. It ruins songs. Plus, it’s an incredibly prissy-pants commandment. I suspect this is more about Daniel Wilcox feeling ooky when he hears dirty words and less about how nice (blech, I hate the word “nice”!) society would be if we suppressed our natural instincts to create and use taboo words to good effect.
One of the best songs ever written is “Closer”. It would not exist under Commandment #3.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’ll check out the song, “Closer.” As a mental health worker and then as a high school teacher for many years I saw bad stuff when it comes to cursing.
Consider the case of a popular song which said, “Smack the bitch up.”:-(
And I could quote a few more, but I’m sure you know the hate, sexism, abuse, etc. that runs through the media and music like an open sewer.
It’s not like I haven’t been around cursing. I used to drive a truck for a chrome company.
Lastly, I’m not against free speech. I’ve been a human rights worker for years.
But that’s also why I hate speech that denigrates and demeans.
Speaking of “mental gymnastics,” years ago, I had a conversation with a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who came by my house. I pointed out the contradiction between God being omniscient and people having free will.
Since God knows everything, it is impossible to do anything other than what He knows will happen; there are no alternatives. Choice means to select between alternatives, and since no alternatives exist, choice is impossible.
Apparently, this was the first time they’d encountered this thought. After a rather long pause, one of them said “God does know everything, but He deliberately hides some knowledge from Himself.”
I have a feeling they were both glad to get away from me.
well played. :)
People have more than one Bible in their homes because 1. some translations are more readable to them than others 2. the different translations say different things, even though they were allegedly translated from the KJV, not the original Greek version, As for the 10 Commandments, I to memorize all 10, in the Protestant version (the first one) as a child, along with give it’s “meaning”. ie “Thou shalt not bare false witness against thy neighbour” of course means one should not lie. So yeah, that was fun NOT! It was actually gruelling and I would have rather been doing anything else but that, like watching Capt Kangeroo, if it was on on Sunday Morning. lol Why not just come straight forward, as you did (except maybe drop the archaic language), and make the 10 Commandments simple and easy to learn, as well as understood, without anyone having to state what its suppose to mean? Actually, I think Sesame Street does a better job in teaching children how to relate to others and always has, I think (I was forbidden to watch it as a child and only caught at friends’ homes on very rare occasions, when I was allowed to visit, but allowed my sons to watch it when they were little).
It is odd that you make no reference to Deuteronomy 5, which is another (third) version of the Ten Commandments and is, compared to the Exodus 20 version, a much more, so to speak, “Jewish” / “parochial” version. This probably accounts for the popularity of the Exodus 20 version, at least in Christian usage, since it has a much more universalistic tone, such as for example framing the Sabbath in the context of creation rather than referring to the Egyptian slavery narrative in that command – even if both of these versions do preface the commandments with the declaration that YHWH was the one who led the Israelites out of Egypt.
I am not sure if this omission reflects the typical Evangelical ignorance (even for ex-Evangelical atheists) of Scripture or not though.
Ah, I should have gone back and looked at the Deuteronomy 5 version, and will. I thought it was approximately the same as the Exodus 20 version. Thanks for the heads up.
Thank you for your response Valerie.
I’ll note that my post was intentionally needling / negative in the last sentence. Your reply by contrast is both excellent and charitable. Thank you for that and my apologies in relation to the last sentence.
My favorite version is the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. I wonder if that one was included in the survey… :-p
Yes, I have that Bible too – along with quite a few other versions :P
No worries. I appreciate the fact that readers point out things I miss.
Pingback: Another Ten Commandments – Actually, Two | Views from Medina Road
I guess you are right
I was under the assumption that the 10 Commandments were from Hammurabi’s Code, which is some 500-600 years older than the Books of Moses. Also, since he was an Egyptian Royal, he would have probably had the education, and opportunity to have read them.
Pingback: The Satanists are wiping the floor with Christianity when it comes to morals. | McBrolloks
It always amuses me when xtians cherry pick from the 713 laws Jealous lays out in the Old Testament. Ex. 20 and Deuteronomy 5 are two examples. Both are basically just advertisements for Cecil’s movie. That is where all the stone monuments came from. Neither of them is ‘the ten commandments’. Neither contains the exact words written on the first set of stones that Moses broke. Jealous dictated those to Moses in Ex. 34: 1-28. These are the only actual 10 Commandments according to Jealous and all xtians should be aware of that.
34:1 And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.
These commandments say nothing about theft, adultery, murder, coveting, lying, honoring Mom and Dad or taking Jealous’ name in vain. The only three I see in common are keeping the Sabbath and worship no other deities before Jealous and make no molten images. What it does have in common with the other random sets of laws is that it does not have any issues with rape or slavery so at least there is some consistency. In fact the Ex 20 version condones slavery in 2 places…don’t let your slaves work on the Sabbath and don’t covet your neighbor’s slaves.
Two other things that trouble me greatly are the fact that xtians do not call their deity by his proper name: Jealous. He states that is his name right in the 10 Commandments. All other references are disrespectful.
2. For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:
Also the Ten Commandments call for the sacrifice of all first born human males. Why isn’t THAT a big deal?! Yes you can “redeem” them with a proper lamb but most people do not have those and Jealous is adamant: “None shall come before me empty”.
34:20 But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
Then of course is the clincher where Jealous names this list of laws The Ten Commandments. That is the only place in the bible where a list or covenant is so named.
34:28 And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
That’s Jenga. Why the hell don’t xtians actually follow their own book?? And if they are going to put stone 10 C’s they cannot recite on courthouse lawns and other tax funded properties why don’t they put the right ones?
Thanks for letting me rank a little. I really enjoy everything you write Valerie!! Don’t go seething a kid in it’s Mother’s milk~~~
Oops….that is 613 laws…I don’t know why I would want to add more!
I’m categorizing your comments as — interesting, so mine belongs here too. (I was raised Christian and took it very seriously, I used to consider all of you mere extras in this movie made for me, you were therefore expendable).
The idea that a loving creator made flawed beings knowing ahead of time by name which ones he would torment forever is hellaciously impossible.
I resolve it this way: Jehovah was an alien group violating the non-interference policy, playing God. Jesus was a cross-breed virgin birth from a competing alien group. He had gone to the council saying, I want to be their protector. They said oh yeah, hotshot? Go there, see how they treat you and if you feel the same way afterward, you will have that power. Yes, there is a creator of some sort, all about love, but hell was injected by men to leverage fear for control.
We live many lives, this is kindergarten. The pressure’s off. Have fun, but try not to break things.