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Fifth Commandment: Honor Thy Father and Mother

Analysis of the Ten Commandments

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The Fifth Commandment reads:

    Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (Exodus 20:12)

The Ten Commandments are usually divided into two groups because of the popular belief that they were originally inscribed with five on one tablet and five on a second tablet. According to believers, the first five commandments were about people’s relationship with God and the second five were about people’s relationship with each other. This made for nice and neat division, but it doesn’t entirely reflect reality.

The first four commandments certainly involve people’s relationship with God: believing in God, not having idols, not having graven images, not taking God’s name in vain, and resting on the sabbath. This fifth commandment, though, requires some very creative reinterpretations in order to make it fit with that group. Honoring one’s parents is obviously and naturally about one’s relationship with other people. Even a metaphorical interpretation that argues this includes honoring authority figures in general means that the commandment is about one’s relationship with other human beings, not simply God.

Some theologians argue that one fulfills one’s obligations to God in part by honoring one's parents, the people given the responsibility to raise and teach a person, making them functioning members of the community of the chosen people of God. This is not an entirely specious argument but it is a bit of a stretch, and something similar could be offered for the other commandments as well. As a consequence, it looks more like a post hoc rationalization designed to make the commandment fit a preconceived notion of how they should be grouped rather than a realization of what was always already there. Catholic and Orthodox Christian theologians tend to place this commandment with the others regulating relationships between people.

The original form of this commandment is often thought to have been just the first five words: Honor thy father and mother. This would have been consistent with the rhythm and flow of other commandments, and the rest of the verse could have been added as a much later date. When and by whom, though, is unclear, but if the commandment might not have been being followed someone could have decided that promising long life to those who do follow it might rectify the situation.

Is the Fifth Commandment something that everyone should obey? It’s easy to argue that, 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 and therefore must be followed in every possible instance.

There are, after all, many people who have suffered greatly at the hands of their parents. There are children who have been emotionally, physically, and even sexually abused by their mothers and fathers. The fact that people in general should honor their parents does not mean that, in these exceptional cases, the same principle should hold. If the survivor of abuse does not feel able to honor their parents, no one should be surprised and no one should try to insist that they act otherwise.

One interesting thing to note about this commandment is that both the father and the mother are given equal consideration. People are commanded to honor both mother and father, not simply the father and not the father to a greater degree. This stands in contrast to other commandments and other parts of the Bible where women are given a subordinate status. It also contrasts with other Near East cultures where women were given subordinate status even within the household.

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