The Ten Commandments - How Relevant are they Today

Explore the enduring relevance of the 10 Commandments in today's world. Join the discussion on their significance and impact.

The epic 1956 movie, the Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter and Charlton Heston in the leading role of Moses depicts the Israelite's Exodus out of Egypt. En route to the Promised Land, Moses climbs Mount Sinai where God gives him the 10 Commandments. These sacred tablets were placed inside the Arc of the Covenant, carried all the way to Jerusalem and kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple there. Critics of the Old Testament poke fun at the implausibility of the 10 Commandments and they question their relevance in a modern world. In this episode, I try to help you to decide. Who's right and who's wrong? Do the 10 Commandments have any relevance in your life? Should they?


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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Today, we examine the ten commandments given to Moses by God during the Israelites exodus from Egypt. We will hear from many critics who believe that these commandments are plainly ridiculous and have no place in a modern world. There are of course many people who hold these commandments as sacred instructions from God. While we obviously can't reconcile all beliefs, we can chew on some ideas, leaving the final say as to their applicability up to you.

This is a complex story which I shall try to explain in the easiest way I can.

First, there is Abraham.

You might remember him as a wise Old-Testament man with whom God conversed. He was the man God tested by asking him to sacrifice his dearly beloved son, Isaac, on an altar. Nice one! Poor, poor Abraham must have been beside himself with stress yet it appears that God only needed to test Abraham's intentions and called the whole sacrifice off, moments before Abraham would have plunged the dagger into his son's heart. One wonders why such a Supreme Being who sees into people's hearts, would devise such a cruel test when He probably already knew of Abraham's loyal devotion to Him. Anyway, that's just the way God did it back then and who are we to argue with Him. Let's eavesdrop on a dialogue God had with Abraham, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years." (Genesis 15:13) Not only was Abraham expected to murder his son, but now he is told that his children, for generations to come will be dispossessed of their land and held captive in a foreign country for four centuries. That's one hell-of-a punishment.

Before we try to understand why God was so annoyed, let's get context for the length of the sentence. It wasn't just a few years in slavery, it was slavery that lasted for four centuries. Early South African pioneers discovered gold on the Reef here in South Africa in 1884 — that's only 132 years ago — this punishment is close to three times as long! We know that Jan van Riebeek reached the Cape a very long time ago, in fact he disembarked in 1652 — that's 364 years ago. God was so maddened by something that had Him plotting a merciless scheme to punish Abraham's offspring. But isn't this a God who is supposed to be, "slow to anger, and abounding in mercy" (Psalm 103:8)? Richard Dawkins is very outspoken in his criticism of the Old Testament God, here's how he describes Him:

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The Bible gives us a bit of a clue as to why God was so angry. Here's what He said to Abraham, "[it is because] the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." It all boils down to the fault of the Amorites.

The Amorites first appear in history as nomads who regularly made incursions from the west into established territories and kingdoms. 'Amorite' may not have originally referred to a specific ethnic group but to any nomadic people who threatened the stability of established communities. Joshua J. Mark is a freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York. He writes about the Amorites: [they were] a certain tribe of people with a specific culture based on a nomadic lifestyle of living off the land and taking what was needed from the communities they encountered. They grew more powerful as they acquired more land until finally they directly threatened the stability of those in the established cities of the region. They played a pivotal role in the development of world culture. The Amorites lived in what is now modern-day Syria and worshipped their own pantheon of gods. As inhabitants of the land of Canaan, they were clearly separate from the Israelites.

The theory that the Amorites, through their appropriation and transmission of Mesopotamian myths, would produce the biblical narratives of the Old Testament, has been challenged repeatedly over the years and, no doubt, will continue to be. There seems to be more evidence to support this theory, however, than disprove it.

I don't quite get why Abraham's offspring had to endure such long hardship because the Amorites worshiped other gods and participated in numerous other sins. The only thing that seems to make any sense is that God promised to remove them from the land where the exiled Israelites would one day live. Why couldn't He point His finger at the patch of land where the Amorites were living and blitz them? Poof! No more Amorites. It would have saved a lot of time and hardship for the poor Israelites, wouldn't it?

Isaac, the son that escaped being slaughtered by his father at God's request, was a bit of a miracle child. He was conceived when his mother was 90 and his father, a 100 years old. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau sold his birth right to his younger brother for a bowl of stew. Jacob, who had his name later changed to Israel, is regarded as the patriarch of the Israelites. He had twelve sons and they became head of the twelve tribes of Israel. It was during Jacob's lifetime when a seven-year famine occurred in the land of Canaan that he and his family had to move to Egypt.

Egypt put the Israelites to work as slaves but the time would come for them to leave. By then, Moses (remember, he was the kid that floated down the Nile in a wicker basket) had risen in power and led the nation out of Egypt, across the miraculously parted Dead Sea and into the Sinai peninsula but archaeologists find no evidence of this exodus and historian Carol Redmount comments, saying, "Presumably an original Exodus story lies hidden somewhere inside all the later revisions and alterations [to the writings of the 8th century BCE prophets], but centuries of transmission have long obscured its presence [. Its] substance, accuracy and date are now difficult to determine." There's also a logistical conundrum: if one takes the biblical account of the number of people traipsing through the desert, one arrives at a figure of some 2 million people. Walking 10 abreast, they would have formed a line some 150km in length. It is also estimated that the population of Egypt was just over 3 million at the time yet there is no record of it having suffered the demographic loss of 1/3 of its population. Lastly, there seems little evidence that the harsh Sinai dessert could have supported a couple of million people on the move. The comedian Eddie Izzard has his own unique way of describing this situation:

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Let's pause here for a moment to review this situation. God had been deeply annoyed at the Amorites and chose to punish the Israelites by enslaving them in Egypt for four hundred years. Now freed from their ordeal, a column of people, 10 wide and 150km in length, wandered around the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years. Finally, God had a chance to lay down the law. It's not surprising, given this extended tribulation, that the Israelites had lost their faith in their God, and turned to smelting gold to create an image of a bull, which they then worshipped. Silent for so long, God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai to instruct him on the final leg of the exiled nation's journey back home to the Promised Land. Given the poignancy of this moment, what would you said to Moses if you were God? I might have offered a heap of praise, "Thanks guys for your loyalty! I know that I tested you to the extreme and I'm really pleased with your loyalty, having come this far. I can understand why you might have lost faith in me, that's to be expected, but I am now here to instruct Moses to take you home."

But what does God do instead? He becomes autocratic and in an ungrateful way lays down a list of 10 bans and directives: they instruct these forlorn people to worship only God, to honour their parents, to keep the Sabbath, and prohibit against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, and coveting.

Here's a snippet of the dramatic soundtrack from the epic 1956 movie, the Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter and Charlton Heston in the leading role of Moses:

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It's very easy to get caught in the theatrical performance portrayed in the movie but here's Richard Dawkins' reaction to the 10 commandments. He as you know, is an English ethologist. What the heck is an ethologist, you rightly ask? Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, usually with a focus on behaviour under natural conditions, and viewing behaviour as an evolutionarily adaptive trait. Dawkins however, is better known as an ardent critic of religion:

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The late George Carlin was an American stand-up comedian and social critic, noted for his thoughts on politics, and religion. He too reflected on the 10 commandments:

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If religion is keen to discard most of the prohibitions of the Old Testament, should we then discard the 10 commandments too? If the Bible is mainly a complex metaphor instead of being a true story about real people, then what are we to learn from all of this?

What if God doesn't exist at all as a tyrannical old man living somewhere out there in a place called Heaven? What if God symbolised the highest achievement we could ever attain as a human being? If God was within each of us and not in one external location, then it would be very appropriate to worship just one God and not many. What does this mean in practical terms? If false gods represented worldly possessions, financial wealth, fame and status, then idolatry would be our worshiping of a pantheon of demi-gods, each of which gives us an unauthentic, false perception of who we are. However, if God symbolised our highest pinnacle of self, then it would make sense to devote our existence to attaining the highest levels possible as a human. As for all the prohibitions of the ten commandments, they all urge us to seek our highest status, our God within.

I repeatedly ask myself just one question, "This that I'm about to do, say or think, will it enhance my relationship with my highest self?" If it does, I do it with gusto; if not, I avoid it like the plague.

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