William Edelen: The Ten Commandments — A Cultic Code of Taboos…

The Contrary Minister

No one has so put the Ten Commandments in perspective better than the famous actress Ruth Gordon, probably without even realizing it. she said to an audience: “There is one commandment I have never broken… I can assure you I have never coveted my neighbor’s wife.”

Perhaps few other parts of the bible have been so misused, misinterpreted, misunderstood as have the Ten Commandments. They were a cultic taboo code written by Hebrew men for Hebrew men. Nothing more and nothing less.

Sir James Frazer in his classic The Golden Bough writes: “These commandments of Israel are taboos of a familiar type in primitive religions disguised as commands of the tribal god.” Dr. Ernest Colwell, former Dean of the Theological Seminary, Chicago University, writes: “These were prescriptions written only for the Hebrew cult. They acquired authority due to their association with the rites of the cult.”

All “thou shalt not kill” meant is that thou shall not kill another Hebrew. The giver of the commandment, Moses, quite obviously totally ignored it with everyone except the Hebrews. And all with the jealous tribal God’s blessing.
In the book of Numbers, Chapter 31, verses 17 and 18, Moses himself gives this order, “Now kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women children, that hah not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” Probably in all of history there has never been a command any more revolting to human sensibilities; kill every male and every woman not a virgin, but the virgins keep for yourselves. And in verse 7, it reads: “As God commanded Moses, they killed them all.” Quite obviously “Thou shalt not kill” was not understood either by Moses or the Israelites or God to be any kind of a moral or ethical prohibition of killing. And so today we still hand out free bibles to our servicemen going into battle to kill every one of the enemy in sight. At least for all the years I was a Marine Corps pilot we were given free bibles. I assume they still are being given.

According to the Christian fundamentalists, at the same time they are extolling the virtue of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” they claim that they would have been deprived of salvation if Jesus had not been killed. In other words, through the violation of the commandment they claim that the human race was saved. What double-talk they live with.

The commandments that present-day sexual moralists like to quote had nothing at all to do either with sex or sexual morality. Nothing could have been further from their minds. These were taboos based on rights of property. Women in this day were owned possessions. The men could sell them or divorce them at will. The men could have both wives and concubines. The greatest of them all, we are told, King Solomon, had more than 700 wives and 300 concubines. Adultery would hardly have been a temptation. With 1,000 women at his disposal there would not be enough hours in the day, or his lifetime. A Hebrew man’s real estate, his cattle, his land and his wives were owned property and please note that the wives came after the real estate.

Space precludes documenting each commandment. The majority of the commandments are saturated with what is known in primitive religions as “sympathetic magic.” The law of sympathy is “what happens to one will happen to all.” For instance, primitive people believed that if a jealous god were angry with one member of a family, then the entire family would be contaminated, and punishment would be inflicted upon all. The taboos against mentioning names and making images was due to the fact that a person could be sympathetically injured through naming names or making images of gods.

The word covet, in “Thou shalt not covet (what a man owns),” is all sympathetic magic. The word covet has nothing to do with envy, but more literally means “to cast a spell.” Covetous thought would call into existence evil spirits, which would cause the loss of a man’s possessions. No one was truly safe from such witchcraft; it was therefore feared. The anthropologist Levy-Bruhl writes on this: “Covetousness is of itself not a feeling of desire, but it was thought to have a positive and effectual action of the soul of him who ‘covets’ upon the thing coveted. A Hebrew word for covet means most literally a poisoner, to cast a ‘spell.'” Quite simply, witchcraft.

Kishif, another Hebrew word meaning coveter, is defined as witchcraft in the Talmud. In many languages, the words coveting, sickness, death and the evil eye are synonymous. The way people read the commandments today is far, far removed from what they meant at the time and why they were even written. There is no connection between them and any moral or ethical code for our time.

To take a superstitious cultic code of taboos from a primitive people of 3,000 years ago, and attempt to make it a divine code of morals for today is nothing short of ludicrous. If we really lived by and as the commandments were written, we would be buried in witchcraft, sympathetic magic, superstition, sorcery and taboos. I hardly think that is what those quoting the commandments today have in mind.

It may be right not to kill anyone instead of just another member of  your own race and ethnic group. It may be right to respect all things owned by your neighbor, but it is not the cultic taboo code of a 3,000 year old primitive tribe that makes it right and good. Rather, it is your own innate, humane, moral and ethical sensibilities and sensitivities today that makes it right and good, and that is quite enough.

Love is above man-made cultic codes. Few have said it in more beautiful and meaningful words than the theologian Paul Tillich. “Only the principle of love can recreate continually new guidelines in a changing world. Love alone an transform itself according to the demands of individuals in individual situations without losing its unconditional validity. Only love is eternally flexible and eternally relevant.”

One Comment

Well, this whole post is an exercise in futility UNLESS someone is willing to print up a few hundred copies for local distribution to the various assemblies of “god”, in whatever form they multifariously assume. There is a swarm of these establishments who continue, unfettered by any trace of intellectual or other introspective capacity, to blat out their primitive belief systems. Enuf said.