nonstampcollector’s latest: the ten commandments (as the supposed basis for the morality of western civilization)

My favorite YouTube author, nonstampcollector, has produced his latest film entitled, “The Ten Commandments: the basis of our laws and morals.”

The movie raises the question of the relevance of the 10 Commandments as the supposed fundamental basis for the ethics and morality of western civilization. Specifically, the video cleverly highlights those who argue that ALL Ten Commandments serve as the basis of modern morality (especially those who argue that said Commandments should be publicly displayed in courthouses and public places).

The incongruity of the 10 Commandments with modern foundational ethical concepts like freedom, liberty, and democracy is exposed in the following exchange:

Moses: “Surely, the way to nurture a society towards becoming amazingly advanced and prosperous is by having theocratic prohibitions against working on certain days of the week and graven images and all that.”

God: “Well, that’s where the problem lies, see. The more humanity progresses, the more it will base its laws and constitutions around things like freedom, liberty…”

Moses: “Freedom??!!”

God: “…democracy and self rule, opportunity, human rights, justice for all.”

Moses: “W…well, you haven’t commanded any of that here yet.

God: “Yeah, and I’m not about to either!”

Moses: “So the laws and morals of this mighty, advanced, western civilization aren’t going to come out of these commandments at all then.”

God: “Oh don’t rub it in!”

Give it a watch and I welcome your comments.

20 Responses

  1. I’m confused.

    You’re a professor of religious studies, right?

    Yet, a lot of your blog posts seem to be about what the Bible does NOT mean. Now, here’s is one that the Ten Commandments are NOT relevant. (Or, at least, not as relevant as we mere unenlightened pedestrians seem to think….)

    Instead of telling your readers what you do NOT think/believe, how about a bit more of what you DO think/believe?

    (That is what I originally came here to learn, after seeing you on the History Channel.)

  2. Tom, you’re actually NOT confused.

    When you take a math class, your math prof shows you how to do math properly, and what happens when you do math incorrectly. Remember when your math teachers asked you to ‘show your work’? That’s important because it allows the instructor to demonstrate when you were making a mistake.

    Same with chemistry. Remember when you took chemistry and your professor showed you the dangers of mixing the wrong chemicals together? Remember all the warnings and signs? Remember the safety goggles?

    The same is true for religious studies. My job is not only to show you how it should be done (that is where different religions, well, differ, and how social justice and service to others always trumps doctrine), but where mistakes have been made. This video demonstrates that American (and the larger Western Civ) ethics and morality are NOT based on the 10 Commandments, DESPITE the arguments of those who say they are.

    It is just as important for folks to know how the Bible is misused to argue on behalf of some of the most repressive policies (both in the church and in government) as it is to know what it DOES say.

    I try to offer both here.

    So thanx for your comments. And maybe keep those safety goggles handy ;-)


  3. Strict adherence to the 10 commandments are impossible especially when thought of as literal. But taking the commands out of context and attempting to plug them directly into today’s society is problematic and usually results in a form of isogesis (getting the Bible to say what YOU want it to say). Jesus “molded” the commands for his time and relevant to his context in Matthew 5-6. In this sermon he said repeatedly “You have heard [this] but I tell you [that]”

    The commands were further boiled down for us in the summary of “all the law and the prophets” to love God and love our neighbor.

    So the problem with the video is that they are guilty of the SAME error the literalists are. They pull the commands out of context to make fun of them (a la Bill Mahre) just like the literalists pull them out context to beat up the going-to-hell-sinners.(a la Westboro Baptist Church)

  4. While the principles of the Bible certainly promote doing good deeds for others, being kind, etc., I don’t think that trumps obedience to the commandments (which give rise to doctrine).

    “On the other hand” (as the famous character Tevye often says), I do agree that SOME doctrines founded by SOME people can go off the rails. We would likely disagree on which doctrines have gone off of which rails.

    Thank God that there is grace and forgiveness to complete the “formula”.

    As for the lab goggles, my assistant is bringning them. Click here.


  5. steve, i don’t know of anyone suing to have a copy of matthew 5-6 displayed in stone in local courthouses. do you?
    the fact is that modern america doesn’t even base its morality and ethics on the nt, nor should it. i mean, they tried it with slavery, but how’d that work out?

  6. Bob,
    Enjoyed the video. Just added the channel as my one of my favorites. It is actually very well thought out! Richard Elliot Friedman address the same issues you are discussing above in “The Bible Now”. Comparing why Exodus 20’s 10 commandments is more prevalent over Exodus 34’s 10 commandments. (Hint: documentary hypothesis) Why is no one suing for Exodus 34? no idea, I will be the first to sign the petition for 34’s (yes that is sarcastic)

  7. steve,

    yes, i point that one out in my intro courses. a few minor discrepancies between the 10 commandments in ch. 20 vs. ch. 34 for tablets that are said by god to be “the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke” (ex. 34:1).


  8. Bob,
    Not sure I would describe the differences as “minor” (a kid boiled in its mother’s milk, celebrating passover are part of the 10). However, I agree with your/the premise that Western civilization (if there is such a thing, or is it construct?) is much more influenced by, say the French Revolution or Magna Carta, than the Exodus 20’s 10 commandments.
    Keep up the great work on the blog.

  9. Bob,
    First, I absolutely love your blog. I too grew up in a church of Christ ( instrumental) and it is great to see serious, biblical scholarship on so many issues as well as a balanced, well thought out non partisan view of politics.

    I always thought it was funny that ppl wanted the ten commandments in front of a court house of a nation that greets ships entering its largest city with a massive “graven image” of a Roman goddess.

  10. BC

    Good point on no one suing for the “amended” commands in Matthew to be placed in a courthouse. I find that so many know ABOUT the Bible but don’t really KNOW the Bible. It both fascinates me and drives me nuts. Hence 10 commands are ULTIMATE LAW and so should be in every courthouse. HENCE, hence, these people have no idea what they are really saying and fall into Bill Maher’s trap.

    I play this trick on people who fall into the category of knowing about the Bible but don’t really know the Bible: I will say “Hezekiah 4:7 says, in the New King James, that God helps those who help themselves. Have you found that to be true?”

    You would be amazed at the answers I get….

  11. aaron, thanx for the note.
    i always thought it ironic that people wanted a graven image of the 10 commandments…

  12. i typically point people to chapter 2 of philemon or obadiah.

  13. steve, i should have put ‘minor discrepancies’ in quotes or followed it with a winky, as sarcasm (like deadpan in a freshman class) doesn’t always translate well… ;-)

  14. When I learned the real meaning of the statue of “Libertas”, then I concluded that it should go.

    The same is true for the Washington phallic symbol (er, Monument), the Jefferson temple (er, Memorial) and the Lincoln temple (er, Memorial).

    But, even if I ran for president and succeeded, what would be the chances that I could achieve that goal? (Yet, that is exactly what Gideon did in his time: rid the country of a pagan structure that offended God. And, “one with God is always a majority”.)

  15. Zing! Good point.

  16. Zing, again! Chapter 2… :-))

  17. The Golden Rule is far more influential on our laws.

    What’s the 10 Commandments basis for handicapped parking spots and the prohibition on their use by the non-handicapped?

    There is none. But it seems to be clearly based on “do unto others…”.

  18. Bob wrote: “i always thought it ironic that people wanted a graven image of the 10 commandments…”

    During one of those outbreaks down south, I read that there was an emotional protest gathering and prayer by pro-commandments people.

    I kinda wished someone had snuck in among them with a small golden calf and had a picture taken.

  19. Heh, that’s pretty funny, but then again so are the comments of those who keep advancing the commandments as the basis of American government.

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