The Ten Commandments, and many other biblical texts, used to be for me pious, nondescript, and rather gratuitous statements. That was youth. With maturity and age, they began to reveal (the right word) an immeasurable depth of wisdom, whose exploration occupied the life of a Pascal and a Chesterton. Our contemporary “culture” (various paganisms, abortion/euthanasia, inclusive language, overall politicization) has demoted these texts to the level of bored cliches or outright mystifications. Hence the need to focus on them again.

Among the commandments, perhaps the first has fared the worst. The ones about stealing, adultery, or respect for parents have retained a kind of corrupted referential value; they are at least “issues,” subject to discussion on TV panels and in newspaper editorials. Indeed, according to the counter-commandments, stealing (looting) is economically justified; adultery is still a valid notion in reverse, since about 50 percent of all couples do not divorce; and filial sentiments are at least indirectly a topic of debate when children’s rights, incest, and adoption by homosexuals come up for legislation.

But things like “do not defy me by making other gods your own,” “do not carve false images,” and “love me and keep my commandments” to moderns sound incomprehensible and look like fossils from a sunken phallic period, elucubrations of an opinionated God. What is more, we have been told by Ludwig Feuerbach, Pastor Eugen Drewermann, and some Notre Dame theologians that “God” himself is but a projection of man, derived from the image-making and myth-telling areas of the brain. The Heideggerian philosopher Jean-Luc Marion recently devoted a book to God Without Being and asked the printer to put a canceling “X” over the word God in the text, since the biblical God is an idol before whom David used to sing and dance.

The point I wish to make is that the Ten Commandments contain in a nutshell all that we must know of man, society, and the world. The remaining question—why is the First Commandment first?—is historically evident. The Hebrews had exited an idolatrous land but carried with them the cultural habits of that land, much like German-Jewish refugees in the 30’s and 40’s who were marked by Goethe, Schiller, Thomas Mann, and the Weimar Republic. The Hebrews then came upon a similarly idolatrous land, Palestine, where idol-worshiping city-dwellers looked down upon these nomads with their strange set of Mosaic rules. The former must have called the latter “pagans,” just as the city-dwellers of the Roman Empire 1500 years later judged the peasants of the countryside. So the Hebrews were now impressed by Canaanite idols, to the dismay of their judges and prophets.

Yet, this explanation is only half of the reason for the first commandment’s primacy. It is first because it also contradicts the principal human tendency of locating the divine in ourselves and of bringing our exalted ego into the focus of adoration. From the point of view of worship, the self has a drawback: it cannot be easily externalized or embodied in an object. But seen from the angle of its interests and passions, the self is an all-devouring monster, the test of God’s power. Feuerbach and gang were right: God is either outside the self or the exalted self projected into an idol. Not necessarily a visible and tangible article, hand-carved, it can be a system, a world view, a method, a form of society. On the other hand, if you love and worship only me, God says through Moses to his people, you and your community will live in peace and harmony, not devoured by the passion of extremes. You will obey my commandments, which fit your nature and its aspirations and limits. The decisive metanoia is to make the first commandment your own: resist the temptation of worshiping yourself, of regarding yourself as the center of creation. I have nothing against carved images as such, says God to the Christians, provided they remain mere props for your senses and do not become masks for your ego-satisfaction.

The modern objection to the first commandment is its emphasis on exclusiveness, the gathering of everything sacred under one transcendent divine dome so that the sacred is drained from the cosmos, nature, and man. This was and is the major pagan argument. Yet it ignores the fact that if multiplied, the sacred permeates the profane world at myriad points and in myriad individual selves, gathering momentum and oversize ambition, and ending as mythology or ideology, a war of gods or of the inflated egos of ideologues.

The carved images that the first commandment targets are thus not the innocent museum pieces we rightly admire as art, nor the archaic idols of tribes that anyway see through them and adore the One God beyond His diverse manifestations. The more dangerous idols we currently worship arc more subtle in their intolerance: science, history, a way of life, this or that regime, satisfaction with one’s own goodness, a cause like progress, Utopia, an “ism.” All these are absolutized with the greatest of ease—not because we believe they are perfect, but because it is we who adore them. In other words, self-idolatry is so immensely tenacious that whatever it chooses to embrace becomes ipso facto an absolute.

The meaning of the first commandment thus becomes clear: it detaches us from self-laden absolutes, from idols of our own choosing. “Love me, follow my commandment”—that is, trust that the direction I give and the tasks I assign are not drawn from your own self-love, but are authenticated by the stamp of my creation, by the divine order of things. Your self, habitual altar of your daily worship, will lose its assumed perfection, and your eagerness for sin will be drained.

The Egyptian pantheon was filled with animals, often in combination with the human figure, a subtle reminder. The divine warning against carving likenesses of creatures of earth. underground, water, and air gathers significance against this background. His dictates thus have a deeper content: adore God, not His creations. The latter do not have to be crocodiles, cats, hawks, or bulls, but can be selected from daily life: the program of a political party, a conception of society, an idea, a philosophy. Does the first commandment, then, veto loyalty, attraction, curiosity, work for a common or partial good? It only points at their right object and at the human, creaturely condition, asking that we see them as through a glass, darkly.

        —Thomas Molnar


Jesus sometimes used business analogies when He spoke His parables. Here I follow His lead. One way for a modern American to begin to understand this commandment is to that God’s name as trademarked property. In order to gain widespread distribution for His uncopyrighted repair manual—the Bible—and also to capture greater market share for His authorized franchise—the Church—God has graciously licensed the use of His name to anyone who will use it according to His written instructions. It needs to be understood, however, that God’s name has not been released into the public domain. God retains legal control over His name and threatens serious penalties against unauthorized misuse of this supremely valuable property. All trademark violations will be prosecuted to the limits of the law. The prosecutor, judge, jury, and enforcer is God.

There is a lot of confusion about this commandment. The misuse of God’s name in obscene language is, I believe, the primary focus, but it is not the sole focus. There is another way to misuse God’s name: unlawful cursing.

Many people think of cursing as a form of obscenity. Judicially, obscenity is not cursing. A curse invokes God’s wrath on someone or something. In contrast, an obscenity is an attempt to empower language in order to rhetorically drive home a point: a kind of verbal hammer. Like an addictive drug, the initial effect wears off with time, and the constant use of obscenities loses the ability to communicate effectively.

It is my belief that the Ten Commandments are structured in terms of a model, what Ray R. Sutton has described as a five-point covenant. This covenant structure can be summarized in various ways, but I have adopted an acronym suggested by one of my readers: THEOS (the Greek word for God):

Transcendence/immanence: the sovereignty of God

Hierarchy/representation: the structure of authority

Ethics/boundaries: the law of God Oath/sanctions: the judgments of God (positive and negative)

Succession/inheritance: God’s continuity of rule

Again, using terminology more familiar to the average American business, we can summarize this covenant structure in terms of five questions—the five fundamental questions to ask of any organization: Who’s in charge here? To whom do I report? What are the rules? What do I get if I obey (disobey)? Does this outfit have a future?

Just before I sent to the printer my study of the economies of the Ten Commandments, The Sinai Strategy (1986), Sutton presented to me a preliminary version of his thesis. I saw immediately that the Ten Commandments (as enumerated by most Protestants and Orthodox Christians) arc structured in terms of this five-point model: one through five and six through ten. Consider this commandment: the prohibition against misusing God’s name. Next, consider the commandment against stealing. If my application of Sutton’s thesis is correct, the two commandments should be related, since each is third on the list, and I do believe they are linked: the former commandment places a judicial boundary around God’s name, while the latter places a judicial boundary around men’s property.

In my book, I discussed the commandment against misusing God’s name in terms of oaths, a topic that more properly belongs to point four of this biblical covenant model. The use of God’s name in cursing someone is a misuse of His name, except when a church pronounces a lawful excommunication against a member or when a pastor or church officer pronounces a curse against a lawless persecutor of the local church or of the church in general. The common expletive “God damn” is in fact a formal invocation of God’s eternal negative sanction: a specific calling down of God’s wrath on someone. It is never a valid curse, for God’s curses arc in history uttered by His representatives only conditionally: “God will damn you if you do not repent before you die.” No man has the authority to call God’s eternal wrath down upon an enemy. (Calling down God’s temporal wrath can be valid if done by ordained representatives.)

We must not profane God’s holy name. Profanity is always a boundary violation: the transgression of a holy (set apart) thing or space. We are not allowed to invoke God’s name in order to validate our testimony, except in the unique situation of a court of law, whether civil or ecclesiastical. Taking a formal oath by invoking God’s name is valid, just as swearing on a Bible is valid, but only in a God-authorized court of law: an institution authorized by God to pronounce representatively His temporal judgments and to enforce His temporal sanctions.

Yet the oath-based aspect of this commandment is not its primary focus. It is to maintain the integrity both of God’s name and of man’s language: prohibiting God’s name as an expletive. Judicially speaking, using God’s name as an expletive is a profane act, a violation of something holy. Any social order that tolerates this misuse of God’s name will then move on to the toleration of other obscenities. The predictable result is the debasement of language, the substitution of obscenity for rhetoric.

        —Gary North


“The flower is the end or proper object of the seed, not the seed of the flower. The reason for seeds is that flowers may be, not the reason of flowers that seeds may be.” So Ruskin thought, and the idea seems obvious enough. Yet it can be a liberating revelation if one has fallen into the habit of assuming its opposite, that, for instance, a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg or that a student is the college’s way of adding to the endowment.

Ruskin believed passionately that in the case of plants what he called spirit strove to realize itself in the flower. Similarly in the case of people, he thought that they worked to live; they did not live to work. It would follow, according to Ruskin, that times of rest and celebration are a principle in nature’s cycles, which we represent figuratively with our Sabbaths, our Sundays, and our festivals. And that in fact is orthodox Christian thinking on the subject. As Bishop Lancelot Andrewes taught his students in Elizabethan Cambridge, “The Decalogue is the law of nature revived, and the law of nature is the image of God.” Ruskin’s route to the principle of rest and celebration would have struck Andrewes as curious and circuitous but not necessarily heterodox.

Sunday became the day of rest because it was the Lord’s Day, the weekly feast of the Resurrection. On that day Christians celebrated mankind’s salvation, the time when the Scriptures were fulfilled and things were made new. It was a day of new beginnings, a kind of human springtime and blossoming, in short, a cheerful, happy sort of day, marked, in Hooker’s words, by “worship, bounty, and rest.” By that standard Sunday was a real holiday, beginning with processions and solemnity and ending with dances and play. A popular verse of Psalm 118 sums up the day’s character: “This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

Apparently at their best the old Sundays were really like that. Unfortunately, though, Sunday play sometimes became Sunday riot, and the Protestant reformers, intensely respectable people with a great reverence for religion and a keen distaste for the rowdy amusements of “the meaner sort of people,” decided that Sunday needed tidying up. And no doubt it did. But the reform went too far and turned the day of gladness into a day of penitential misery for everyone. Sunday observance began with a welcome ban on work; yet in many parts of the English-speaking world it included until only a generation or so ago a ban on play as well.

Even the reformed Church of England began its Sunday morning service with such harrowingly penitential sentences as “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me”—and the Church of England was a fairly benign institution. Wherever the real Puritans (“the hotter sort of Protestant,” as one writer described them) dominated, hard-core Sabbatarianism followed. King James I and his son Charles tried to hold them off with a famous proclamation known as The Book of Sports, which forbade the Puritans to interfere with the people’s traditional Sunday amusements. These included decorating the church before services, as well as playing, dancing, eating, drinking, and singing afterwards. But the infuriated Puritans would have their revenge: they cut off Charles’s head, and in England under the Commonwealth, as in Scotland and Massachusetts, they forbade the keeping of holidays in general and banned in particular recreation on Sundays, even walking for pleasure. When the King came home on May 29, 1660, the people were so relieved they strewed his road from Dover to London with flowers and declared the occasion a new holy day.

Puritanism, like communism, was an aberration that was bound to disappear sooner or later. Even in Massachusetts and Scotland most of the “blue laws” are now repealed or in abeyance, although in Massachusetts one still cannot buy wine or beer on Sundays (unless he lives within ten miles of the New Hampshire border). Yet the effects of three hundred years of Sabbatarianism linger. The capacity for joy once lost is not easily regained; or as someone said, a roomful of Anglo- Saxons trying to amuse themselves can make a curious spectacle. We find it especially hard, except on rare national occasions, to enjoy ourselves communally as our pre-Puritan ancestors did. Worse, the pleasant habit of self-righteousness is a hard one to shake. One cannot help wondering how much of the sheer flapdoodle of the recent presidential campaign, especially the humorless moral grandstanding, is a legacy of the Puritan past.

Nonetheless, we still have our day of rest to do with as we wish. In these parts a fairly typical middle-class Sunday might begin with a devout reading of the Sunday New York Times, proceed to one of our local cathedrals of commerce—our malls—for an afternoon’s shopping, and end with Masterpiece Theater and British sit-coms on public television for vespers. It would not satisfy Ruskin or the writer of Psalm 118, but it sure beats a day confined to three sermons and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

        —Frank Brownlow


This divine order links children’s respect for their parents and the bonding of the generations to the promise of life and success on the land. In these latter days, to be sure, the extended family stands among the most battered of traditional institutions, while the quasi-religious linkage of land and family has all but vanished. It is well to remember, though, how recently these changes occurred.

Far into the 19th Christian century, the ties between the generations in America remained firm. They defined the duties and expectations of individuals and spun a web of protection against the ambitions of potentates, in ways that the ancient Israelites would have understood. As the new historians remind us, the dominant American social pattern through the 1830’s was hierarchical and patriarchal, in the Yankee North as well as in the Planter South. Americans gave first loyalty to kin, and they organized their lives around small household economies and subsistence agriculture, viewing them as the material foundations of liberty.

Until very recently, on the biblical scale of time, land and family formed the critical nexus. The preservation of the family freehold into the future was the American preoccupation. Farms and families were “two halves of a corporate whole,” where the family served as a revolving fund, shifting land resources between the generations. Family members subordinated economic gain to the extended family’s longterm security, achieved through settling and cultivating the soil.

The Great Disorder set in after 1840, when new forces began to tear families from the land and family member from family member. The standard, Whiggish course is to point to industrialization, or the rise of factories as replacements for primitive home economies and as liberating agents for individuals. But again, the new historians offer a more telling explanation. It was not industry, per se, that first disrupted American family patterns. For several decades, in fact, family and household frameworks contained the industrial impulse. Rather, it was the inculcation of “individualistic ideals” through the state’s new “common schools” that shattered the old system. As demographer Norman Ryder has explained, “education of the junior generation is a subversive influence. Boys who go to school distinguish between what they learn there and what their fathers can teach them. . . . There is a struggle between the family and the state for the minds of the young,” where state schools make “a direct appeal to the children over the heads of the parents.”

For the next one hundred years, American social history could be written as the government’s steady appropriation of ever more family functions. Mandatory school attendance laws and the “protection” of children from “inadequate” parents came in the late 19th century, while bans on “child labor” (or more aptly put, the socialization of children’s time) followed in the early 20th. In the 1930’s, the federal government socialized the insurance value of children through state old-age pensions, shattering the most important economic bond between the generations of a single family. More recently. Medicare took direct responsibility for the old, the sick, and the incontinent. All the while, farming families steadily retreated before the terrible union of big industry and centralized government, with the founding vision of an agrarian republic left buried in the rubble.

The contemporary American landscape is littered with the consequences: empty farmhouses and the latifundia of agribusiness and absentee owners; vast retirement cities in Florida and Arizona that rarely hear a child’s shout; gleaming nursing homes where the aged sick are warehoused until they die; isolated young families struggling to rear children in a declining economy with a rising tax burden; overcrowded cities held hostage to youth gangs; and “social security centers” everywhere, drawing in the dependent masses for succor.

I can remember when the pastor of my youth explained the meaning of this commandment to my fellow confirmands and me. With his grey eyes flashing, the Reverend Lack told his snickering charges that this was the only commandment containing both a divine promise and an implicit threat. If we lived as families in harmony with God’s natural order, he said, then all would be given to us. But if we failed to honor and follow our parents as God intended, then we would pay an awful price, in social ruin and the loss of all that God had granted. In 1961, his words struck my friends and me as the typical foolishness and exaggerations of an old man. In the more sober days of 1992, they carry the mark of inspiration,

        —Allan Carlson


“Thou shalt not kill” means you shalt not unjustly take X away someone’s remaining years on this earth. It does not mean you shalt not kill under any circumstances, and it does not mean you shalt not conduct war if it is just. The Torah knows the difference between manslaughter and murder, chance and intention, accident and malice, negligence and deliberation. The sages of the Torah, that is to say in secular language “the authorities of Judaism,” find ample warrant for the death penalty in Scripture. I wonder, therefore, how people find support in the Torah for a pacifist stance that condemns all war, rejects as illegitimate the violence required for self-defense, and insists that since the victim is always right, the use of righteous violence is invariably unjustified.

The message of the Torah is a very different one: justice overrides sentimentality. The pacifist position, so far as it appeals to the Scriptures shared by Christianity and Judaism, misreads the Torah. The message of the Torah is that God favors the victim—when the victim is in the right and the persecutor is in the wrong. And that is a very different message from the one derived, I think through an excess of sympathy and an insufficiency of reflection, by those who condemn all war, all civil justice, all legitimate violence. A striking passage from a rabbinic document makes this point with great power:

R. Yose b. R. Yudan in the name of R. Yose b. R. Nehorai says, “It is always the case that the Holy One, blessed be he, demands from the hand of the pursuer an accounting for the blood of those who have been pursued.


“Abel was pursued by Cain, and God sought [an accounting for] the pursued; ‘And the Lord looked [favorably] upon Abel and his meal offering.’

“Noah was pursued by his generation, and God sought [an accounting for] the pursued: ‘You and all your household shall come into the ark.’

“Abraham was pursued by Nimrod, ‘and God seeks what has been driven away’: ‘You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur.’

“Isaac was pursued by Ishmael, ‘and God seeks what has been driven away’: ‘For through Isaac will seed be called for you.’

“Jacob was pursued by Esau, ‘and God seeks what has been driven away’: ‘For the Lord has chosen Jacob, Israel for his prized possession.’

“Moses was pursued by Pharoah, ‘and God seeks what has been driven away’: ‘Had not Moses His chosen stood in the breach before Him. . . .’

“And the rule applies also to the matter of offerings. A bull is pursued by a lion, a sheep is pursued by a wolf, a goat is pursued by a leopard.

“Therefore the Holy One, blessed be he, has said, ‘Do not make offerings before me from those animals that pursue, but from those that are pursued: When a bull, a sheep, or a goat is born.

Eternities of the divine teach the same lesson as facts of history. God prefers the pursued to the pursuer, expressing that preference even in the animals that are to be offered on the Temple altar. But history—the catalogue of those whom God prefers—qualifies that judgment: God favors the pursued who is right over the pursuer who is wrong. So the message is clear: not pacifism but righteous conduct is what God has in mind.

Religiously based pacifism enjoys no monopoly on righteousness, and this commandment in no way forbids legitimate violence, including the death penalty and war. God wants justice, not sentimentality, and the rationing out of guilt to victim and criminal alike. Judaism’s position is a more balanced one, forming the basis for the social order. Hillel, the great sage, contemporary of Jesus, taught as follows:

If I am not for myself, who is for me?

And when I am for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

These three things must be kept in the balance: the right of self-defense, the responsibility to the other, and the imperatives of occasion and circumstance. Of these, justice is made; without them we feed on that lugubrious sentimentality—”the criminal was toilet-trained too soon,” “he is a member of an abused minority,” “the crime was not criminal because the miscreant has had a less privileged life than the victim”—by which society is abused, then destroyed.

The sages of Judaism maintain the opposite view: justice, tempered by mercy, is owed to everyone, including the victim of violence and the nation coveted by its neighbor. Everyone has rights, everyone has responsibilities, equally parceled out by the passionate God who cares for us all.

        —Jacob Neusner


When Paris seduces Helen, the Spartan king’s wife, and steals her away to Troy, it leads to a war that ravages a people and destroys a culture. That a single act of adultery could breed such passion and bloodshed is incomprehensible in the late 20th century. In fact, when sociologist Annette Lawson conducted a study of adultery in the 1980’s, she was amazed to discover how few people could even define the act without qualifying their answer with carefully measured words. Redolent of sin and shame, crime and punishment, the very word struck her respondents as archaic and insensitive.

Once upon a time people knew what the word meant and took it very seriously. “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20T0). Of course, the Scriptures were written in the long dark night of patriarchy, when every husband was a Petruchio who owned and lorded over his wife: “I will be master of what is mine own: / She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, / My household stuff, my field, my barn, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing.” A woman who slept with someone other than her spouse was an adulteress whose punishment was death by stoning, whereas a married man who slept with an unmarried woman was guilty only of fornication, a sin often associated with mere greed.

The wife’s status did improve, in theory, by Augustine’s altering of the order of the Ten Commandments to that still followed by Lutherans and Catholics. For by uniting the first two verses—concerning other gods and graven images—it was possible to split the last one into two, thereby liberating women from the category of animals and objects; hence the separate commandments on coveting a neighbor’s wife and coveting his “ox, his ass, nor anything that is his.”

However, the wife remained the neighbor’s legal property and as such could qualify as “stolen goods.” Adultery, in this context, was an act of theft. It meant taking not only another man’s “property,” but also robbing his children of the affections and perhaps even physical presence of the family’s prime nurturer. And if the bastard offspring from the unholy union were introduced into the household, either overtly or covertly under false pretense of paternity, then adultery also meant stealing the inheritance from the rightful heirs. This, as Dr. Johnson noted, was the justification for the double standard.

The idea of adultery as theft has a social and cultural dimension as well. Because marriage and the family have always been the institutions that maintain the stability of Western society, any act that cuts loose these anchors has been regarded as treason, in miniature, against the commonwealth. In fact, no theme is more common to Western literature. Whether it is Kent’s appreciation in King Lear of those “holy cords a-twain / Which are too intrince to unloose,” Imogen’s warning in Cymbeline that “The breach of culture / Is breach of all,” or Malory’s realization that Lancelot and Gwenyver’s affair means “thys realme holy destroyed and myscheved,” the message is the same—that the breaking of one bond portends the breaking of all others, that individual transgression breeds social and cultural chaos.

But it is on the personal and spiritual level that adultery most poignantly affects us as theft. For it steals from the marriage and from the loyal partner in particular that special bond of trust and faith that was forged in His presence, nurtured over time, and without which many marriages cannot survive. This “theft” is what most couples cannot forgive and forget and what so often leads them to divorce.

This shift from the social and cultural to the personal and spiritual is dramatically illustrated in the story of Jesus and the adulteress.

And the scribes and the Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst. They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? . . . So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them. He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

The scribes and Pharisees, steeped as they are in the rigid and labyrinthine Hebraic codes, can think of nothing but an impersonal application of the law, whereas Jesus focuses on the spiritual and the personal and even directs attention to the sins of the accusers and not of the accused. The woman’s sin, however, remains sin.

Of course, literary passages and biblical parables are still invoked for the more difficult questions on Jeopardy, but as sources of moral uplift and spiritual enlightenment their day of mass appeal has clearly waned. It is no longer Shakespeare, Donne, Jesus, and the Decalogue, but rather Donahue, Murphy Brown—yes, Dan Quayle was right—and the Gospel According to Dr. Ruth that now mold our sense of moral rectitude. Magic Johnson, after all, is a “national hero.”

In the 1960’s and 70’s adultery even became a virtue. Marketed as a sign of emotional health, it was called “finding oneself” and “self-actualization” and eventually became an “alternative lifestyle” known as “open marriage.” Movies like The Harrad Experiment