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Analysis of the Ten Commandments

Background, Meaning, Implications of Each Commandment


Most people know the Ten Commandments — or perhaps it is better to say that they think they know the Ten Commandments. The commandments are one of those cultural products that people imagine that they understand, but in reality, they frequently can't even name all of them, let alone explain them. People who already think they know all they need are unlikely to take the time to research the subject with any great care and precision.


First Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Have Any Gods Before Me
The first, most basic, and most important commandment — or is it the first two commandments? Well, that’s the question. We’ve only just gotten started and we’re already mired in controversy both between religions and between denominations.

Second Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images
What is a “graven image,” exactly? This has been the subject of a great deal of controversy between various Christian churches over the centuries. Of particular importance here is the fact that while the Protestant version the Ten Commandments includes this, the Catholic does not. A prohibition against graven images, if read literally, would cause a number of problems for Catholics.

Third Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord in Vain
What does it mean to “take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”? That has been the subject of quite a bit of debate. Some have argued that this prohibition was limited to the use of the name of God in any frivolous manner. Others have argued that it was a prohibition against the use of the name of God in magical or occult practices.

Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath, Keep It Holy
This is the only ritualistic commandment in this particular listing, and curiously enough it is pretty much unique among ancient cultures. Nearly all religions have some sense of “sacred time,” but the ancient Hebrews seem to be the only ones to have set aside an entire day every week as sacred, reserved for honoring and remembering their god.

Fifth Commandment: Honor Thy Father and Mother
Is the Fifth Commandment something that everyone should obey? As a general principle, honoring one’s parents is a good idea. It would have been especially true in ancient societies where life could be precarious and it’s a good way to ensure the maintenance of important social bonds. To say that it’s good as a general principle is not, however, the same as saying that it should be regarded as an absolute command from God.

Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill
Many believers regard this as the most basic and easily accepted of all the commandments. Who would object to the government telling people not to kill? Unfortunately, this relies upon a superficial and uninformed understanding of what is going on. This commandment is, in fact, much more controversial and difficult that it appears at first.

Seventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
What does the word “adultery” mean? People today tend define it as any act of sexual intercourse outside of marriage or, perhaps a bit more narrowly, any act of sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not their spouse. That is appropriate in today but it isn’t not how the word has always been defined.

Eighth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Steal
With this commandment, the simplest and most obvious understanding may actually be the most correct one — but not necessarily. Most people read it as a prohibition against stealing, but it may not be the way that everyone understood it originally.

Ninth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
There is a question of just what “bearing false witness” means. It might have been originally intended to prohibit lying in a court of law. For the ancient Hebrews, anyone caught lying during their testimony could be forced to submit to whatever punishment would have been imposed upon the accused — including death.

Tenth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Covet
Of all the commandments, the Tenth Commandment has a tendency to be the most contentious. Depending upon how it is read, it can be the most difficult to adhere to, the most difficult to justify imposing upon others, and in some ways the least reflective of modern morality.

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