The Ten Commandments have always been and will always be the foundation of the Judeo-Christian morality. “They require no justification, nor can they be argued away. They are not dependent upon circumstances, nor may they be set aside because of special considerations. They are not propositions for debate. They are not suggestions. They are not even “ten challenges.” They are exactly what they seem to be—and there is no getting around them or (to be more spatially precise) out from under them.”[i] The Commandments are made law by God, define an indisputable objective morality and simply work to ensure human to human decency. For these reasons, the Ten Commandments fit perfectly into today’s society and will always fit perfectly in any future society.
The first thing one must consider when questioning the contemporary relevance of the Ten Commandments is the source. The origin, meaning and implied power of the Commandments is the belief in God. Exodus 20 begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”[ii] The primary message of this statement denotes authorship to the Commandments: God, not Moses, nor any other human, is making the declaration. The laws are coming from an entity greater than any man. Further, they are coming directly. God is commanding His people without any actor relaying the message. This is critical to understand as it implies a beginning-less and endless divinity to the statements. Were the Commandments given by a human, a future human could suggest that the issuer was antiquated, blinded by context or just plain wrong. A future scholar may argue on the grounds of human equality, suggesting he knows better than a simpleton from the past, as he is also an enlightened human. The divinity of the statements reject this argument. Any future person, present person or past person is lesser than God, imparting important qualities to the Commandments that will be discussed later on.[iii]
The opening line of the Ten Commandments verse is must be understood for another reason: the way in which God relates to the nomads He was addressing. God does not say He is the Creator of the earth, He does not say He is the Father of man. He does not define Himself by any of the terms used elsewhere in the Old Testament. He tells Moses and his followers that he is the breaker of chains. He brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. God defines Himself as the one who set them free. It is ironic, at first, that God chooses to begin a speech of direct orders by defining Himself as a bringer of freedom. Wouldn’t the Commandments hamper the freedom of the Israelites? Wouldn’t the new laws prevent the Israelites from fully expressing their free will? No. And No. It is important that God relate to His followers as a God of freedom because the Ten Commandments unlock the power of free will, they do not inhibit it. By paying the very small price of following a few rules, the Israelites, and their followers, were (and still are) able to live largely free from fear, free from violence and free from hate. These freedoms so massively outweigh the costs, they serve to make the price look vastly insignificant. The greatest gift God gives to humans is the ability of every man to act freely in his community publicly or privately. The reason a person who follows the Commandments is “good” while a person who doesn’t is “bad” is because either actor had the opportunity to choose the opposite action. Without free will, there is no objective good or bad, there is only meaningless action (This objectivity will be deeply explored in a moment). Freedom is of the utmost importance when considering the Commandments and the relevance they have in modern society because freedom is a value that has not and will not be taken from man while, in contrast, laws made to make men less free are routinely changed, overthrown or scrutinized over time.
For these reasons, the opening line of the Ten Commandments passage is every bit as powerful and important as any single commandment when relating the ancient orders to modern times. The facts that, first, the Commandments come from God and, second, the Commandments are designed for a free people, are both critical qualifiers. This is clearly demonstrated, as Dennis Prager notes, by the quote inscribed on Philadelphia’s (and America’s) famed Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof.” This is pulled directly from Leviticus 25:10. What God is demanding with the Commandments and with the Liberty bell inscription is that His people are a free people, governed only by free will and a common, central belief in God, a being greater than any human. This idea is essential to the modern United States, modern Christians the world over, and every modern human who wishes to live a decent life.
These principal themes of the Ten Commandments can be summarily described as ethical monotheism. Ethical monotheism is the foundational religious concept that there is a single God whose rule constitutes a moral law for all of humanity.[iv] Ethical monotheism was a revolutionary concept brought forth by the Israelites in the form of the Ten Commandments. The concept establishes the pivotal concept of objective morality. Consider this: how does one know murder is wrong? It seems clear and obvious as an educated American that murder is morally wrong, but how does one actually know? The answer to this question is proof of the righteousness of objective morality and objective morality is proof of God’s existence.
Explore: if one believes that there is no God, as atheists do, one contends that the greatest possible power is the human mind. There is no idea, no being, no concept or collection of power that can ever trump the human mind. The brain is inherently individualistic. Atheists believe that any individual has the opportunity, then, to be the greatest and most powerful individual in human history and that this status can change at any time to any person with any demonstration of intellectual superiority. These conditions, however, are not objective. If all human brains were the same, it would be very simple to recognize the most powerful individual among us (even though the equality of our brains would negate this possibility, but for the purposes of this thought experiment we will allow the incongruity). Since our brains are not the same, the matter of intellectual superiority is deeply personal, as is taste in music, actors or food. It is an opinion, just as atheists disagree over which philosopher is the most relevant or most important or most ground-breaking et cetera. Because of this, all morality and ethical norms are made up of solely independent opinions to the atheist community.
There is no objective right or wrong to atheists, there is only the consensus of opinion of human individuals. As such, any opinion can be deemed wrong by any other atheist at any time. Thus, one cannot ever know that murder is wrong, he can only be of the opinion that murder is wrong. All rational humans would balk at this sort of illogical thinking. It is so clear that the murder of an innocent human is wrong, and seems so obvious that this should be declared wrong in all communities, and all societies through geography and time… it seems like common sense. This overwhelming feeling of common sense is derived from a human’s natural inclination to believe in a higher power. In order to actually know that murder is wrong, one must believe that there is a force which transcends the human mind over space and time. One must know that there is a power that is greater, more robust and more absolute than the wavering opinions of humans. Christians call this higher power “God,” and we call the absolute laws He set forth the “Ten Commandments.” This natural, logical encountering of God is the foundation of ethical monotheism, and ethical monotheism is how we describe the objective morality that boundlessly exists in the world. This boundlessness is how one knows that the Ten Commandments fit perfectly into modern society. The objective nature of the Commandments has been promised by God to His free people. In the words of Frank Underwood, the nature of a promise is that it is immune to changing circumstances.
Since we agree on the existence of an objective morality and, thus, the existence of God, we can now go forth into the Commandments themselves and dissect the specific reason they are so powerfully relevant in the modern era: they govern our interactions with other humans. The Commandments have a very interesting central message that is frequently described as “The Golden Rule” or the “Unspoken Commandment.” Every one of the Ten demands that man treat his fellow man with respect and kindness. This is easily seen in Commandments 5-10 which deal with, respectively, familial honor, murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and jealousy. Each of these has either a stated or an implied purpose of demanding one man do no harm to his fellow man, but even Commandments 1-4 find purpose in human to human interaction, not in human to God interaction. Once we understand this, we can see how as long as two humans exist in the world together, the Commandments will be relevant.
The first and second Commandments forbid humans from having any other gods. The careless reader will picture a demanding, jealous God with masculine features and perhaps a white beard making clear that He is the one and only authority. In fact, when we recall what we have discovered regarding the existence of objective morality leading logically to the existence of God, we find that the first and second Commandments are only clarifying what we already know: objectively, there is no human truth greater than God. God is saying, “If any man attempts to warp you or tarnish your objectivity with a tempting, subjective lie, do not be fooled.” The first commandments simply re-declare the objective superiority of God.
The third Commandment asserts that God will not forgive the use of His name in vain. Usually, grammar school teachers pass this Commandment off to students with the tragically simple explanation that saying “God,” “Jesus,” or any variants of these used out of a religious context is a sin. Why, then, does God say “the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name?”[v] It seems a bit asinine to think that God would be unwilling to forgive a bad bit of language but that He’d eventually come around if you killed a guy. The feeling of insanity is well founded. What God is actually saying is that if one sins and does so under the banner of objective good (read: God), he is doubly sinning by at once committing the original act and tarnishing objective morality with a subjective influence. This sin is unforgivable because, as we discussed above, the objectivity of God is what makes His laws compatible with every generation for all time. Sinning in the name of God jeopardizes the freedom and righteousness of anyone who uses the name of God to do good.
Finally, the fourth Commandment asks humans to keep Holy the Sabbath: to relax every now and again. The Sabbath is God’s way of demanding that humans refocus on the things that actually matter: meaning everything but work. It tells us to stop only thinking about ourselves and our day to day goals and look outward toward those around us.
The Ten Commandments are perfectly in tune with contemporary values because humans will always be required to interact with other humans. The laws can never be outdated or up for discussion. For example, unlike the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Commandments were perfectly written to describe timeless interaction. A set of laws like the Bill of Rights uses terms that are shallow, bound by time and made ancient or irrelevant by technology such as “arms” and “press.” Nassim Taleb defines the longevity of the Commandments (and other ideas) as the Lindy effect: the mere fact that the Ten Commandments have been so profoundly impactful and relevant for so long bears testament to notion that they will survive for a proportionally long period of time.[vi] Said again: future life expectancy of an idea is proportional to its current age, so that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy. Once more: every second of eternity that ticks by in which we discuss the Ten Commandments provides evidence that another second will be tacked onto the expected lifetime. Since the Commandments have been around for roughly 3300 years, we can anticipate a University student in the year 5500 could easily “write a paper” detailing how the Commandments are still important to the contemporary society.
[i] Cahill, Thomas (2010). The Gifts of the Jews. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
[ii] Holy Bible. NIV.
[iv] Nikiprowetzky, V. (1975). Ethical monotheism. (2 ed., Vol. 104, pp. 69-89). New York: The MIT Press Article Stable
[v] Holy Bible. NIV
[vi] Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House.