Legal Analysis of the Ten Commandments

I was thinking about the Ten Commandments from the perspective of a lawyer. And from that perspective, they definitely leave somethign to be desired. I mean, let’s look at the most common (but hardly only) version of the Commandments:

  1. I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother
  6. Thou shalt not kill
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery
  8. Thou shalt not steal
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife or possessions.

This list begs some immediate questions. Questions like the following:

  • Are these commandments all worth the same?
  • What are the sanctions related to these commandments?
  • Are these exclusive, or can we have other laws?

The next thing that strikes me is, why is “thou shalt not kill” #6 on this list? Shouldn’t it be higher up. Like at #2? I mean, I can get why the Lord being God should be at #1. That seems most important. But after that, shouldn’t the prohibition on murder be at #2? Isn’t that one a lot more important than not making any graven images?

I’m just asking.

And then, the prohibition on killing seems simple, but is it?

First of all, the question arises, kill what? Animals? Insects? Trees? Viruses? It seems, at least by implication, that the intended answer is people. So let’s amend our commandment:

  • Thou shall not kill people.

Second, we see that God can kill. Because, let’s face it, in the Bible he kills an awful lot of people. Certainly more than the Terminator T-800 Model 101 does in the first Terminator movie. Really, more than all the Terminators in all the Terminator movies combined. By one estimate, adding up just the biblical numbers, God has killed something on the order of 2,821,364 people just in the Old Testament. So let’s revise out Commandment to say:

  • Thou shalt not kill people, unless you are God.

But we know that killing in one particular circumstance is warranted, and that circumstance is war. God himself models this behavior by slaying the enemies of Israel. And certainly the “chosen people” are not punished for killing in battle. So let’s amend our commandment again:

  • Thou shalt not Kill people, unless you are God, or you are in a war.

As we know, one man’s war can be another man’s terrorist campaign. So we will also need to define what we mean by war. Let’s amend our commandment to read:

  • Thou shalt not Kill people, unless you are God, or you are in a war, defined as a conflict sanctioned by the state in which you live.

And let’s not forget self-defense. People are allowed to kill in self-defense. While the Bible is a little ambiguous on this point, let’s include self-defense as a justification for killing someone. So, let’s amend our commandment to read

  • Thou shalt not Kill people, unless you are God, or you are in a war, defined as a conflict sanctioned by the state in which you live, or you are acting in legally recognized self-defense.

What is legally recognized self-defense? We’ll have to clean that up as well. Well, you get the point. In some ways, taking apart the Ten Commandments from a legal perspective is a lot like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s not very sporting. But the point is, there really is trouble if we take the Bible too literally. It’s not intended to be taken that way. And here is just one simple example of why not.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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One Response to Legal Analysis of the Ten Commandments

  1. Pingback: Philosophical Arguments about God | A (or One) Skeptic

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