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Is there a problem with the Ten Commandments?

July 2, 2007

‘The Ten Commandments, accepted by adherents of a variety of religions, also have their limitations. Consider the Second Commandment, which, after prohibiting the making or serving of sculptured images, goes on to say, “For I the LORD you God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep my commandments.” But to punish one person for the moral lapses of another isn unethical, as is rewarding a person for the good deeds done by another. This point is made emphatically by the prophet Ezekiel, who declared: “A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent the burden of a parent’s guilt, the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone.” Incidentally, Ezekiel’s principles rule out the possibility that anyone, including God, could act in such a way as to absolve us of responsibility for our failings. Only we as individuals can atone for our errors.

The Fifth Commandment instructs individuals to honor their father and mother. Suppose, however, parents break the Second Commandment by making and worshipping sculptured image. Or perhaps they break some of the remaining commmandments by coveting a neighbour’s property, bearing false witness, stealing, engaging inadultery, or even commiting murder. Although they might still merit their child’s concern, parents who acted in such ways would not deserve to be honored.

 Two of the commandments take slavery for granted. The Fourth, which requires individuals to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, prohibits work at that time by “you, your son and daughter, your male or female slave.” The Tenth prohibits coveting anything that belongs to aneighbor, including his “wife, or his male or female slave.” Slavery we all now agree is immoral, yet the Ten Commandments treat it as an acceptable practice.

A further problem is that the commandments are stated as if they allowed no exceptions. Yet under certain circumstances, not to break a commandment would be widely regarded as unethical. For example, if a young girl’s life depended on her mother’s stealing a small amount of money from a wealthy, immoral person, most of us would view the theft favorably.

Not only do certain circumstances call for making exceptions to the commandments, but situatins can develop in which fulfilling one commandment would amount to breaking another. If, for instance, a man had to work on the Sabbath in order to take his critically ill father to the hospital, the commandment to honor one’s father and mother would take precedence over the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. The commandments have exceptions, but do not themselves provide any guidance for when or how to make such exceptions. Thus regardless of claims of their divine origin and despite their moral worth, the Ten Commandments fall short as an ultimate guide to morality.’

Steven M. Cahn, “Life without God,” God, Reason and Religion,  72-73

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