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The Three Commandments

You may remember (but this is more than likely just my ego surfacing again) that I wrote a blog essay a few weeks back which I titled “The Power of Three”. In this essay I conjectured if Readers Digest Condensed Books Division had got their hand on the Old Testament they might have distilled the Ten Commandments to the Three Commandments. As you have probably gauged by now, my writings are an extreme form of self-indulgence, and I rather liked this idea. Since then the concept has caught my imagination and I am intrigued to know that if I was revising an old religion (like Christianity) or indeed establishing a new one (perhaps Inanity?) and had to establish the three principal precepts which would cement its authority, what would they be?

This aberrant thought caused me to go back to the original Ten Commandments and see if I would want to perhaps select a number of them to satisfy my whim. It reflects my lack of scholarship and diligence that I took this course of action. I might if I had the stamina, for example, have commenced from the platform of Judaism where its holy treatise, The Torah, is said to have 613 commandments (including the Ten Commandments).

But then I encountered my first problem. Not being a biblical scholar and relying on my vague memory of having seen the 1956 film of “The Ten Commandments” (produced by Cecil B DeMille and starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner), I had this naïve belief that these important tenets were “written in stone” and formed the essential dogma of the Christian religion. But then I found that there were indeed a number of versions of these so-called immutable laws. Extraordinarily, in Exodus 20 Moses receives the Law engraved in stone but then later smashes the supposedly most sacred artifact ever known to man. There seems to be a rewrite (with minor amendments) in Exodus 34 and in the fifth chapter of Deutoronomy. Hey, but let’s not get too picky the main stuff is largely the same!

(We should not be too churlish about the fact that there seems no historical evidence of the existence of such a momentous religious artifact. It was indeed a long time ago – more than a couple of millennia in fact. These things are easily lost. For example the much more recent revelations made to one Joseph Smith which were inscribed on golden plates which constituted the Book of Mormon and initiated the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints were said to have been revealed only a couple of centuries ago. There is no historical evidence about their existence either. {A fact I think I recall Christopher Hitchens taking up in an essay somewhere.} You can’t expect religious people in their great devoutness and spiritual passion to be careful about material things like God inspired tablets and the like!)

Religious traditionalists contrast the Laws of Nature with the Ten Commandments. The Laws of Nature are such that they are inevitable – there is no escaping them, even if we should choose to do so. The Ten Commandments are however Laws about morality. The conventionally religious argue that because God bestowed on us Free Will we have the choice – either to obey these laws and attain everlasting life or flout them and suffer eternal damnation! (I have argued in other blog essays that the choice we have over human behaviour is probably more limited than these simplistic notions might imply!) And of course, according to religious tradition, we only have to make this moral choice because Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. If it hadn’t been for those miscreant rascals we could have all been living in blissful, sinless ignorance!

The Jews have often been called the people of the Law. And some religious writers suggest that the revelation by God to Moses of the Ten Commandments was in fact the symbolic act that initiated the Jewish nation.

But I have got a bit distracted here! Let us go back to the fundamental Laws embedded in the Commandments. Let’s not quibble about the various subsets of them.

Below I have copied a simple version of the Ten Commandments.
1. I am the Lord your God … thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
2. Thou shalt not make for thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thy days may be long upon the earth.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor his field … nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
Like much of Christianity, the Ten Commandments seem in no way unique to that particular religion. The extraordinary Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of Buenos Aires and South America, (who was also a NASA engineer) wrote:

“Some similarities can be found between the Ten Commandments and the laws of ancient nations that inhabited the northwestern part of Mesopotamia (well-known laws of the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu (2050BC), the Amorite king Bilalam, the Sumer-Akkadian ruler Lirit-Ishtar, the Babylonian king Hammurabi (1800BC), and the Assyrian and Hittite laws composed around 1500BC.)”

He offers this wonderfully naïve explanation, suggesting that the burden of original sin had fallen more heavily on the Jews, more so than their neighbours!

“These similarities and common elements between the God-revealed and natural laws is due to the fact that the moral law is ingrained by God into the human soul, so human beings, even when they don’t know God, have a good natural feeling of what is right and what is wrong. If our nature were not corrupted by primordial sin, it is most likely that just the voice of conscience would be sufficient to regulate our personal and social life.”

A quick analysis of the Ten Commandments suggests they may be broken down into three subsets:
1. Four outlining our duties towards God,
2. Five relating to our duties to other people, and
3. And the last relating to controlling our personal desires.

Let us now examine each commandment in turn.

I am the Lord your God … thou shalt have no other gods before Me. As you probably would have noted by now, I have some problems with the God of the Old Testament. He often seems insecure and jealous and needing to have His ego stroked. These seem to be unduly human attributes for someone who is omniscient and omnipotent. I would have been much more impressed had He just said, “I am the omnipotent and the only God in the Universe. Worshipping anything else is just a waste of time.” However, from memory I think that the Old Testament up to this time seemed to suggest that there were competing gods.

Thou shalt not make for thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them. And perhaps he might have said, “As for graven images, I am happy to encourage your artistic endeavours, but you must not have benefitted from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge if you think worshipping a stone effigy will get you anywhere.”

The third commandment is very ambivalent. What does it mean? Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Is this just another commandment to ensure that God is not affronted? (Which of course would be a problem for me.) So if I am to confine my commandments to three I can’t see this being one of them!
But the next commandment is problematic also. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labour and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God.
This particular commandment goes on and on. It rambles on to ensure that neither one’s children or servants or indeed one’s animals do any work on the Sabbath. On face value it seems fine. But why would an omnipotent God need to rest?

Putting that aside for the moment, the other issue of concern is that Christian religions have quarreled most heatedly about which day should be designated as the Sabbath. I presume that the God of the Jews and the Christians and indeed even of the Seventh Day Adventists is an intelligent God. If he determined that Mankind should have one day out of seven for rest it is hard to believe that He would concern Himself whether it was Saturday or Sunday or even Monday or Tuesday!

Consequently I can’t believe that this Commandment has enough merit to be included in my three.

The Fifth Commandment states: Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thy days may be long upon the earth.

Now, I have no problems with children showing respect for parents and I wished I saw more evidence of it. But this commandment seems to be offering the prospect of a long life as an inducement. But more than that, dishonouring parents in the Old Testament was treated as a heinous sin. (“He who curses father or mother let them be put to death.” Exodus 21:17). Any love we display for another should always be unconditional if it is to mean anything. It shouldn’t require carrots or sticks.

So let us put this one aside for the moment.

Thou shalt not kill. Well I suspect we can all identify with this – but what did this commandment really mean?
Moses seems not to have interpreted it in the way that you and I would. In Exodus 32: 27-28, just after having been given the tablets Moses returns to camp to find his followers revelling and some worshipping a golden calf. In a fit of rage he broke the tablets and then called the faithful to him. In punishment for their sins he and his allies (the Levites) slew some three thousand people in the camp.
Anyhow, despite all the accounts of killing in the Old Testament, most would concede not murdering our fellows might be a useful law. We still might to have some serious thinking about how to handle such aberrations as wars, the death penalty and suicide.
The Seventh Commandment is Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Putting aside the obvious sexual titillation associated with adultery, to my mind the moral dilemma associated with adultery is the issue of honouring our promises. If a man and a woman decide to marry and exchange vows attesting to their ongoing faithfulness, then there is an obligation to honour the promises. (A rule which seems to be largely honoured in its breach in contemporary Australian politics!)
So there is some merit here but not enough, I suspect, to give it such prominence as to warrant one of the exclusive three places available.
On now then to Commandment No.8 –Thou shalt not steal.

It is unlikely that we could ever have a civil society without preserving the property rights of its participants. This commandment does away with a whole host of affronts – theft, robbery, bribery, extortion, usury, fraud and so on can be dealt with in this simple commandment.

Yet, still, for reasons I will give later, I would not elevate it into the commandment triumvirate.

Thou shalt not bear false witness.

Just like the previous commandment, we can see an evolving ethical development again providing a platform for a civil society. While this is an admirable commandment, it won’t appear in my top three.

And finally number ten – Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor his field … nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
There is an interesting distinction here between this commandment and all others. The other commandments are about doing wrong – this commandment is about thinking wrongly. And I suppose I have sympathy for the concept, because it seems to me that mostly all of humanity’s problems emanate from “wrong” thinking.

And, tellingly, believing we could somehow be happier by possessing my neighbour’s wife, house, field (or as in the King James’ version) his manservant, maidservant, ox, ass or anything else that is thy neighbour’s, is a futile pursuit of happiness as I have elaborated on, many times.

Yes, certainly this commandment has merit. But will it make the top three? Probably not, because it is a manifestation of a greater issue.

Fortunately for Christianity it gained some maturity with the New Testament. God was no longer so jealous and imbued with a fragile ego. Believers were not so badgered about inconsequential things like their diet, mode of dress or pedantic issues about the Sabbath, and thus the Law was simplified.

As I have written in a previous blog along with Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Taoism, Christianity finally came to accept the Law of Reciprocity. In Christianity it is often called “the Golden Rule” The Law of Reciprocity can basically be summed up by stating that “you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

In effect the essence of the last six of the Ten Commandments can be subsumed by this one marvellous statement. As a result I would propose that the first of my Three Commandments would be a restatement of the Law of Reciprocity. It encompasses all those noble concerns we should have for one another, all the elements of altruism and as I have argued many times, puts aside the sense of self-interest that mitigates against our real opportunity of pursuing a sense of personal well-being.

Well, I have discarded the Ten Commandments by, perhaps controversially, suggesting that all of worth in them is encapsulated in the Rule of Reciprocity. But what next?

Having given the subject at least a half an hour’s contemplation I am inclined to nominate my second commandment as, “Know thyself.” I have often gone on in these pages and elsewhere about the wisdom of the good Dr Phil. His advice, ‘to know yourself, accept yourself and then forget yourself” is quite profound. But it is unlikely that we can compel people to “accept themselves and forget themselves’. That should happen naturally as a consequence of increasing psychological maturity. So, if we were to mandate something, at least it would be useful if people truly knew themselves. This at least might encourage them to embrace who they are and not try to be something else.

The maxim to “know thyself” has of course a long history. It is said that these words were proscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Wherever and whenever the adage originated, Know Thyself was seen as the foundation of knowledge, the corner stone on which, the temples of philosophy could be founded. “The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge,” claimed the Greek philosopher Plato. Centuries before him, an already established Hindu system of philosophy confirmed, “Enquiry into the truth of the Self is knowledge.”
Importantly, I believe that “knowing thyself” requires self-discovery. As a consequence it means that you must not casually adopt the belief of others. This is so important, and particularly with respect to religion. Religious orientation for most of us is conferred according to our circumstances and not because we have adopted the beliefs through rational deliberation. Whether I am Catholic or Protestant, Sunni or Shia, Hindu or Buddhist largely occurs as an accident of birth and geography. Most of us don’t choose our beliefs – we inherit them. We take on the beliefs of our families or significant others because of our inherent desire to belong and be accepted.
So it seems to me that an essential requirement for a meaningful life is to “know thyself!” I could elaborate on this, (and maybe I will in a further blog essay) but I have convinced myself (perhaps not you) that this is something of over-riding significance and should be my Second Commandment.

This seems to have captured most of all I wanted to say. So I am struggling for the Third Commandment. I probably should now have turned to my good friend and colleague, Prof. Bob Miles who has the unique ability to distill any issue of consequence into three essential elements. But I didn’t want to disturb you, Bob, on the weekend – so I’ll have to try and make a fist of it myself!

So what have I come up with? Well it’s not too intellectual. The people I know who make the most difference go gentle in the world. So perhaps my third commandment is “Don’t take yourself or the world too seriously.” Such people are at ease with themselves and help others who are too closely connected with the day to day exigencies of life.

Wordsworth wrote a famous poem which he called, as I recall, “On Westminster Bridge”. It started with the line, “The world is too much with us.” For most of us this is a very telling line. We forget that it is only a lack of our understanding and a misunderstanding of the spiritual world which makes us overly concerned with the physical connotations of our everyday existence.

Perhaps I could express it better, but at the end of the day, I would like to underpin my new religion (Inanity?) with these three commandments:

1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
2. Know yourself
3. Don’t take yourself or your world too seriously

Over to you. I am not expecting many followers but I would enjoy a little company.

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  1. 11 Comment(s)

  2.   By Peter Dowling on Jan 22, 2012 | Reply

    Can I just take the God tablet and be done with it?

  3.   By Gina Barrett on Jan 22, 2012 | Reply

    Amen to that! 😉

  4.   By The Venerable Father Robin on Jan 22, 2012 | Reply

    Father Ted.

    I suppose I have a problem with any commandments.

    Guidelines are fine but if anybody wants to control my actions they have a major problem.

    Your three guidelines are totally endorsed.

    I would suggest a more appropriate title would be ‘Insanity’

  5.   By di tinkler on Jan 23, 2012 | Reply

    Wow! More than half an hour’s thought has gone into this, Ted. Couldn’t we just live by the first one, and repeal thousands of laws?

  6.   By Matt Smith on Jan 23, 2012 | Reply

    “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof” Christopher Hitchens.

    Belief in god is not a leap of faith it is a basic rational selfish decision I.e. Pascal’s wager.

    Worship me or suffer eternal pain and torment! There’s a low risk choice here, but really, if that’s the key reason, is that the only moral foundation of the church?

  7.   By John Newman on Jan 24, 2012 | Reply

    Too late Ted, the Beatles said it years ago, Christ even earlier and I’m sure others before him: “all you need is love”. Christ goes the ultimate step further than your law of reciprocity, which is based on selfishness, when he is quoted shortly before he was crucified as saying “My command (singular) is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”John 15:12-13.

    Many of us have no idea what love is. Kahlil Gibran said “Work is love made visible.” Invisible love is no love at all.

    Some of us have trouble knowing ourselves, we compare ourselves to others and may be proud or deflated depending on the comparison. But try this comparison 1 Corinthians 13:4 defines love thus:

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

    Now read it again replacing ‘love’ with ‘I’ like this. I am patient, I am kind, I do not envy etc. It helps me to measure myself against this yardstick and to be accepting of my and others shortcomings. It is a rare person that truly measures up.

    Unfortunately religion has messed up Christ’s simple message.

    Keep up the good work, I ‘love’ your blog.

  8.   By tedscott on Jan 24, 2012 | Reply

    Peter, I suggested you might take three tablets. Is this overpresribing?

    John I haven’t heard from you for a long time. Your response was lovely – it would be nice to hear more from you!

  9.   By Greg Brown on Jan 24, 2012 | Reply

    All of these commandments are a good deal better than the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” that is still practiced in many parts of the world including the self proclaimed leader of the free world, the US where capital punishment is still practiced.

    You are right Ted that all the important commandments and our laws generally are about morality. It is the conflict between our animal nature (our mammalian and reptilian brains) and our higher consciousness that we need commandments to regulate. This conflict, we all struggle with but unfortunately some of us struggle much more with it than others. This is through no fault of their own as we have very little control over our neural wiring which largely dictates the level of self control we have. Despite this we still label these people as criminals, deviates, miss-fits and people of low morals because their animal nature overrides their human nature. We even call these people animals in extreme cases, the ultimate insult. The exact same behaviour in the animal community though we see as natural and certainly not to be interfered with.

    The traditional commandments tell us how we should live but they don’t help us with how to get there. Your first commandment, the golden rule covers pretty much all of the traditional commandments apart from the God ego stuff “the what to do”. Your second commandment though “know yourself” helps us with “how” to get there. In the process of knowing yourself and there are many exercises that can be used to achieve greater levels of self awareness (prayer, meditation, yoga,..) you improve the neural pathways that allow better control of the animal we all have in us.

    Your final commandment really to me is probably not necessary (except of course we must have 3) for the well being of society which is what the traditional commandments were for, but it’s nice because it is the path to happiness and very like the 10th commandment. So you have given us a what, a how and a gift. I doubt they will go main stream, but I like them anyway.

  10.   By Matt Smith on Jan 24, 2012 | Reply

    Ted, I agree with your three commandments, however it does cause me to think that such a variation from the prescribed dictates is sinful. Likewise, the adoption of any buddism (or other) creed, in part or in whole, could land a person in the Christian idea of hell.
    The belief within Christian and Muslim religions (others to) that is problematic (in my view) is one’s the absolute knowing that one is right, which means the others are wrong. Such conviction seems at odds with the range of interpretations, the changing out of one word for another, and the general lack of rigor in religious argument (or unwillingness to engage in argument).
    In regards to the above posting of John 15:12-13; the first thing that comes to my mind as a rational being is that the comparison between Jesus dying for his friends vs one of us dying for our friends is not comparing apples with apples. Jesus was far more knowing of ALL matters. We do not possess the same.

  11.   By Phil Harker on Jan 25, 2012 | Reply

    There is another take on the so-called Ten Commandments that doesn’t interpret them as commandments at all, and it is one that comes from a rather less literalistic and more metaphoric interpretation of the OT. The key to this different interpretation lies in the few words that you actually left out when you indicated you were quoting the first of the so-called ‘ten commandments’. You wrote “1. I am the Lord your God … thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” However, this is the introduction to the monologue: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” It then goes on to list the so-called Ten Commandments. I say ‘so-called’ because a more metaphorical interpretation (an interpretation held more by Jewish mystics) of the opening statement that precedes the ‘first commandment’ – i.e., “I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” gives a whole different ‘take’ on what follows.

    Being a ‘slave in Egypt’ has long been interpreted by the mystics as a metaphor for being a ‘slave to the egoic self’ or ‘the flesh’ (to use the NT terms). It was recognised that the egoic mind could not take itself out of ‘bondage’ to the fear driven, body based identity, and therefore that this had to be accomplished by that Mind (called God in the Bible) that was said to be “above all, through all, and in all” – and therefore was the ‘real’ unseen Mind that was shared by all ‘Life’ even when this had been ‘forgotten’ by an extension of this Mind (metaphorically referred to as Adam) when It became identified with – and enslaved by – a body based egoic self (the metaphoric ‘fall’).

    Being ‘enslaved’ by the ‘flesh based identity’ meant that every action was ‘self’ preserving in that it saw all others as potential ‘resources’ to use or potential ‘threats’ to be defended against. However, the ‘awakening’ of this Mind to Its ‘true shared ‘I’dentity’ — indicated by the preamble — which I will state more esoterically as “I AM is your real Life and when you wake up to your true invulnerable Identity you will be rescued from slavery to your body based egoic self [Egypt – the symbolic ‘house of bondage’]”. Then, as a result of this ‘rescue’ from individuated ‘selfishness’ “you shall…”. In other words, with a better understanding of the preamble and the real nature of ‘choice’ the results will be natural — and this is what it will look like.

    In other words, when you are ‘rescued’ from selfishness, you will recognise that there is only ONE INVULNERABLE LIFE THAT IS SHARED BY ALL LIFE (First Commandment/Promise) and will therefore make nothing special [i.e., an idol], (Second Commandment/Promise). When you really understand this, you will naturally have the humility to recognise that to share in ALL LIFE cannot be any basis for vanity (Third Commandment/Promise). And, if you do this completely you will enter into a great and abiding ‘rest’ to your inner being [The Fourth Commandment/Promise. ‘Rest’ is the true meaning of the word Sabbath – and the reference to the ‘seventh-day’ is merely a reference to the completion of the ‘pre-fall’ condition before the ‘fall into identification with the egoic self’ metaphorically described in the symbolic ‘creation’ story!

    Going in into the next six ‘commandments/promises’ mystic writer is stating that once this first change of ‘I’dentity occurs and the Mind is rescued from its ‘bondage’ to the egoic ‘self’ the life will naturally be one in which you will not treat others as ‘personal resources’ to be ‘used’ or enemies to be ‘defended against’.

    It is worth nothing that in the NT the whole lot was reduced to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (NB: “AS yourself” not “as much as yourself”! So what happened to ‘love God’? It is inbuilt when one recognises that the ‘real Life’ of One’s neighbour is not ‘material’ or body based but “that which is ALL AND IN ALL” – variously referred to in religious traditions as the Christos, Buddha Mind, Atman etc.

    It is interesting that if you go into any church and see the ‘Ten Commandments’ written up on the wall etc, you will never see that missing phrase at the beginning that turns ‘commandments’ into ‘promises’ of natural outcomes. “First cleanse the inside of the cup, and the outside will be clean also”. In other words, once the choice of ‘I’dentity changes from individuated, fear driven, body-based, egoic selfishness, to that of One Shared Life, the outward behaviour will be naturally and automatically be changed to align with this new motive of ‘unselfish unconditional love’. Once again, Love vs Fear – the only choice!

  12.   By tedscott on Jan 25, 2012 | Reply

    Wow what great responses!

    Greg, I must confess some sympathy with your point of view. When I came to delineating three commandments, I could really only find two and had to add something that was essentially “feel good” for me. But what a wonderful response! I enjoyed your comments immensely.

    Matt I can’t believe that any God of intelligence or compassion would label an action of ours as a sin that was an outcome of something we truly believed in and we genuinely believed was beneficial to humanity.

    And the good Dr Phil – how good to inveigle you to make a response, and what a marvellous reponse it was! I did indeed abbreviate the commandments and I was quite cogniscant of that. Perhaps I am too pessimistic about the ordinary believer to distinguish between the literal words and the metaphor.

    And how right you are that in the end we must face the moral dichotomy of choosing between “love” and “Fear”.It is a problem that the orignianl commandments (interpreted literally) had more to do with “fear ” than “love”.

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