Ten Commandment Alternatives have been developed which are better suited to the 21st Century.

The Ten Commandments are a set of flaws laws which were allegedly given to Moses by God, written across both sides of two stone tablets (or "tables"). The story is outlined in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Although the passages in question do not stipulate punishments for breaking the commandments, many of the same rules are repeated elsewhere in the Old Testament, where they are usually noted to be punishable by the death penalty.

Some biblical literalists, including those espousing the totalitarian Christian movement called dominionism, have suggested that the Ten Commandments should form the basis of U.S. national laws. During the 2008 presidential campaign similar comments were made by Mike Huckabee. This article looks at the Ten Commandments from that standpoint to see how well they would work as laws in a modern society. Since many of these fundamentalists regard the King James version to be the only true Bible, this version has been used.

Which Ten Commandments?[]

There are three versions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. Two of them are very similar, Exodus 20:2-17[1] and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.[2]

The third version, in Exodus 34:12-26,[3] is radically different. This is the second set which were given to Moses following the destruction of the first tablets when he suffered from an anger management failure after witnessing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. While it has a few similarities to the original set, it does not include well known rational commandments such as "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not kill"; but has instead instructions about holy days, not cooking kids in their mothers' milk, and God expresses a distaste for sacrifices containing both blood and yeast (although either alone is apparently quite acceptable). God says (Exodus 34:1) that this second set was also written on the first pair of tablets, so the "Ten Commandments" from Exodus 20 are probably not the Ten Commandments at all.

Interestingly, Jesus could only name six commandments, one of which wasn't on any of these three lists.

The Qu'ran has no exact equivalent to the Ten Commandments listed in the Pentateuch, but various authors have found separate texts within the Qur'an which are equally restrictive..[4][5][6]

How many Commandments?[]

Depending on whether you are Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Protestant, the numbering sequence of the Commandments varies. Basically it depends on how you cut up the first two and the last two, but the effect is that there are somewhere between nine and eleven commandments depending on where the denominations split them. In fact, if you analyze them closely you can get up to twenty five,[7] but the Bible says there are only ten - so they must be shoe-horned into that number.

The Two Tables[]

Once you have decided which set of Ten Commandments and then decided exactly how you get the number "ten" you will find that historically they have been claimed to divide thematically into two sets, sometimes referred to by theologians as the "two tables", the first concerned with duties to God, and the second with behaviour within society. These two groups are imagined to correspond to the division of the commandments between Moses' two stone tablets, although the OT myths do not identify which commandments appeared on which stone.

Usually the first four commandments are regarded as the first table, and the latter six as the second, although some theologians have claimed that they split into two tables of five commandments. This is because the fifth commandment (to honour one's parents) can be seen either as an issue of veneration and service, placing it in the first table, or as a societal obligation like those of the second table.

The concept of the two tables was very important to the Protestant Reformation. Puritans in particular placed much greater emphasis on the first table, believing that duty to God should preclude any civic duty. They believed that Catholics had sold out the Ten Commandments, maintaining only the second table, which are largely rules for avoiding social conflicts, while allowing blasphemy and idolatry to flourish.

Could they be implemented?[]

Some politicians, such as Mike Huckabee, have suggested the Ten Commandments form, and should form, the basis of the national system of laws. This is a very bad idea. To show why this is, we are going to go through them one by one using the King James translation, and use the Protestant/Anglican numbering system, as we assume that is what Mr. Huckabee and other fundamentalists would prefer.

Perhaps surprisingly, some people think American law is already based on the Ten Commandments.

Before considering the Commandments in detail it would be well to remind ourselves of the existing protections in respect of religious freedom which exist in, for example, Europe and the US, or in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights[]

Article Nine of the Convention states:

1. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

2. "Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

The Bill of rights[]

The first amendment to the American constitution states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[]

Article Eighteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which most governments around the world are signatories, states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

Article Nineteen states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."


It will be shown that, at the very least, the first, second, third and fourth Commandments would represent clear violations of both Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights,[8] and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Articles Eighteen and Nineteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Furthermore, the fifth, seventh and tenth Commandments are also of doubtful legality.

First Commandment[]

Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.

I: Legal and social considerations[]

This Commandment says that no other gods can be more important than the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament. Normally this would be interpreted as "A particular god should be regarded as more important than any other gods" and would clearly remove any form of religious tolerance from any country in which it was implemented.

I: Religious considerations[]

It is interesting that it does not say “Thou shall have no other gods” but “Thou shall have no other gods before me”. Some speculate that this was written before monotheism became established, and monolatrism was the best the writers of the commandments could hope for.

I: Conclusion[]

This would be a clear violation of Article Eighteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the First Amendment to the American Constitution. Such a law could be implemented only in a theocracy.

Second Commandment[]

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

II: Legal and social considerations[]

Although counted as one by most protestant religions (and as a half by the Catholic Church and the Lutherans) this is really two Commandments with a follow up threat which are:

  • Don't make graven images of anything.
  • Don't bow down and worship graven images.
  • If you do this I will punish you, your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren.

A literal interpretation of the first element would seem to arbitrarily prohibit making statues of any type. This would require destruction of civic art and architecture on a massive scale in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The second contravenes national and international legal protections.

The final threat, while fortunately unenforceable in any real manner, is decidedly unpleasant, unfair and vindictive.

II: Religious considerations[]

The difference between the first and second commandment is not clear to all faiths and consequently the numbering difficulty arises.

Some Islamic traditions ban any and all statues on the basis of similar prohibitions in the Qur'an, while the Christian Puritans and their successors object to any kind of religious iconography, prompting waves of destructive iconoclasm during the Reformation era. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, on the other hand, have substantial quantities of these items.

II: Conclusion[]

This would be a clear violation of Article Eighteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the First Amendment to the American Constitution. Such a law could be implemented only in a theocracy.

Third Commandment[]

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

III: Legal and social considerations[]

It is not clear how a full-on blasphemy law - as implied by this commandment - could be policed in modern western states, as it would obviously conflict with the principle of freedom of speech, which is a fundamental and indispensable civil liberty enshrined in the constitution of any modern democracy. These are unlikely to be repealed any time soon, no matter what some people may wish.

Blasphemy was against the common law of the United Kingdom until 2008, when it was promptly abolished following the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the EU human rights laws already mentioned. Other countries still do enforce blasphemy laws, in Pakistan, blasphemy carries the death penalty. Ireland, a member of the EU, actually reintroduced a law making blasphemy illegal in 2009.[9] The law, which carries a fine of up to €25,000 (£22,000)) is being challenged.[10]

III: Conclusion[]

Such a law would almost certainly be a violation of Articles Eighteen and Nineteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the First Amendment to the American Constitution.

Fourth Commandment[]

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

File:Command 4.gif

IV: Legal and social considerations[]

This law would mandate the "honouring" of one particular day from one particular religion. It would represent an unwarranted attack on freedom of belief.

The final part of the Commandment would enshrine creationism in law.

But perhaps more importantly, which day would that be? This is an important question as the punishment for failing to keep this one is death. The original Ten Commandments obviously referred to Saturday - which is still kept by the Jews and some fundamentalist Christians. However, the Christian church began observing Sunday as a holy day as well - with the result that in some Christian denominations there are effectively two sabbaths, or maybe (depending on who you talk to) only one, being Sunday. Meanwhile, Muslims hold Friday to be holy. So this is really a very confusing instruction.

It might also mean the end of the forty hour (five day) work week. Perhaps in its day, it was a significant reform - preventing people being forced to labour every day - but we have since improved on it. In a modern society, every individual honouring the Sabbath and not working on it could prove disastrous. Emergency services, armed forces, internet server maintenance, construction and essential domestic services such as power generation and supply would all be essentially incapacitated — or at least unable to respond to a problem if the automation breaks down — for a full day. In practice, even the strictest of theocrats seem to have no problems granting exemptions and dispensations around this Commandement for work that is deemed "essential". Even in Israel, arguably the most Sabbath-observant state in the world, plenty of people work the whole day on the Sabbath. So much for absolute foundational principles.

Christian fundamentalists in the United States
The Religious right in the US is a coalition between believing fundamentalist Christians and business interests. Businesses often find it profitable to open on Sunday so we see no pressure to prevent Sunday opening, American Christians are not discouraged from buying things and giving other people Sunday work. Honoring the Sabbath has become going to church and learning more about Christian Republican values. After Sunday indoctrination Republican Christians frequently go straight from church to some dining establishment, where the family enjoys a good meal that other people worked to prepare.

IV: Conclusion[]

This would be a clear violation of Article Eighteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (as well as potentially Article Twenty Three, which enshrines the right to work),[11] and Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights. Such a law could be implemented only in a theocracy.

Fifth Commandment[]

Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

V: Legal and social considerations[]

There would be considerable enforcement and civil liberties issues with any law based on this commandment - especially so as this is one of the many Commandments backed up by the death penalty in other parts of the Old Testament. If taken to the extreme, this would mean every single child would be killed as no one's that respectful to their parents, especially during their teenage years.

In some very wonky leaps of logic, the commandment to honour one's parentage has sometimes been extended to signify one's ethnic origin and been used to justify racialism and segregation, as it was in South Africa under apartheid.[12]

V: Conclusion[]

The statement itself would be good or bad moral advice (depending on whom one's parents are), but makes a bad law. The definition of "honor" would be open to wide legal challenge and would be difficult to consistently apply.

Sixth Commandment[]

Thou shalt not kill.

VI: Legal and social considerations[]

This - number six - is really the first reasonable Commandment. It's more than half way through the list but it’s a start. Still, it's not exactly original, most cultures have this as a basic rule. However, some translations have it as “Thou shalt not murder”, so it’s not as clearcut as it seems. On the other hand, we're sticking with King James here - so that may not be relevant.

Presumably this would prohibit capital punishment and war; Thomas More argued exactly this in his Utopia, condemning the capital punishment levied on thieves in the England of his day.

But as the Old Testament is awash with genocide and death it seems a bit contradictory. Some have proposed that it means you should not kill another Israelite, but the Biblical record contradicts this, as in Exodus 32, 27-29 where Moses orders indiscriminate mass-murder among the Israelites following the Golden Calf incident. Also it presumably does not preclude the killing of animals, although this is not explicitly stated.

VI: Conclusion[]

The statement as it stands is a very good principle - especially so if it prohibits capital punishment and war.

Seventh Commandment[]

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

VII: Legal and social considerations[]

Notwithstanding its good intentions, there are clear civil liberties and policing problems[13] with this commandment.

VII: Conclusion[]

Good moral advice but bad law; unfortunately, the US still attempts to teach this as the only appropriate form of sex with its abstinence-only "sex education". The Turkish government tried to make it a crime in 2004, but failed.[14]

Eighth Commandment[]

Thou shalt not steal.

VIII: Legal and social considerations[]

This is another good one – that’s two. Although it might need a bit of development. Of course reasonable people will note there are exceptions.

  • Can you take a weapon away from an owner who is likely to abuse it?
  • Can a starving person take food from someone who doesn't need it?
  • Can you steal a drug which you cannot get any other way in order to save someone's life? [15]
  • Etc

VIII: Conclusions[]

This is a good idea, which is incorporated in all legal systems already.

Ninth Commandment[]

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

IX: Legal and social considerations[]

Perjury is a bad thing because it undermines any system of government by laws, so this is a good one – that’s three. This, however, assumes the false witness is being borne in the formal setting of a criminal or civil court while spoken under oath. Bearing false witness in an informal setting (ie lying about your neighbor) is still a bad idea, but not, in most cases, a crime. This commandment also falls a long way short of what we would consider to constitute a fair set of legal protections; compare the much more explicit guarantees (e.g. against double jeopardy, arbitrary punishment, or torture; the necessity of impartial judges; and the right to the presumption of innocence and to one's own defense) that appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. and most national constitutions, and in the foundation documents of the European Union. Additionally, the commandment, as stated, takes no position on bearing false witness against someone who may live far enough away from you to not be considered your "neighbor". Nevertheless, bearing false witness against such a person is still a bad idea, perhaps especially so, since modern legal concepts of human rights are based around the protection of people from different origins, whatever some deity might say about it.

IX: Conclusions[]

This is a basically a good idea, and is incorporated in all legal systems already, but to be ethically acceptable would have to include a prohibition to bearing false witness against strangers.

Tenth Commandment[]

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

X: Legal and social considerations[]

Perhaps the most insidious one of all. Firstly because it considers a man's wife to be a piece of property at the same level as real estate, and secondly because it is an instruction about what you must think. It is clearly the least enforceable one of all and an obviously impossible law. And to be honest, coveting is the foundation of the American system of capitalism. Many would say that for a country's industrial complex to prosper, people must want what their neighbors have.

This commandment is also somewhat contradicted by the Second Commandment, in which God declares himself a "jealous God", which quite frankly isn't setting a very good example for enforcing this commandment.

X: Conclusions[]

Although the suggestion that you should not covet may be good advice depending on who you ask and the context, this is marred by sexism.

Another interpretation of the Commandments[]

  1. I'm special.
  2. I'm jealous. (You're not allowed to be jealous, see no. 10.)
  3. No paparazzi, please.
  4. Introducing the six-day work week! (See your local religious authorities to see which day isn't the workday)
  5. Mom and dad are good.
  6. Don't kill.
  7. Don't cheat (on your spouse(s)[16]).
  8. Don't steal.
  9. Don't lie.
  10. Don't ogle your neighbor's ass or his wives'[17] ass or anything else of his.


Stupid enough as it is that some idiots think these arcane rules should be the foundation of national laws, there is obviously an enormous body of legal code that is not covered by the 10 Commandments, one of the more obvious examples being that nowhere is one forbidden to beat someone to a pulp because they look funny, or for any other reason for that matter (unless they're your mother or father, in which case you'd probably be dishonoring them). One of the more serious omissions, telling perhaps about the society's view of women, is that there is nothing here to prohibit rape, which is arguably a far worse crime than saying your parents ideas are whacked or wishing you had that really hot Lexus.


Some jackass Congresscritter (Lynn Westmoreland, R -- GA) who is in favor of posting them all over United States government buildings could not name more than three of them on the Colbert Report.[18][19] Of course, Colbert, a practicing Catholic, could rattle them off in a brief few seconds. If he wanted to. Stevie pwns the Jesus freaks dominionist assholes, all day long. (On an unrelated note, the cretin in the same interview demonstrated that he did not understand the difference between the judicial and legislative branches of government, despite serving in one of them, though it is possible the segment was edited to make it appear that way.)

Are they still binding?[]

Christianity generally teaches that the Old Testament is not binding on Christians; it applied only to Jews, and Jesus' death created a new covenant. However, they are rather selective about what is ignored, and for some reason the Ten Commandments are generally understood to still be in effect.


The website Citizens for the Ten Commandments argues for imposing the Ten Commandments on all people. They further argue that because "the majority" don’t want to be ruled that way, democracy should be abolished. It’s unclear precisely what they want in place of democracy, or how they plan to prevent arbitrary abuse of power. It’s unclear what safeguards there would be to prevent some potential ruler saying, “Those who appoint rulers say I’m God fearing. You must not criticize me or suggest that I’m not God fearing. The Bible is against free speech.” It’s further unclear if those behind the ideas in the website want there to be safeguards.

There is a good and a a bad side to Christianity, see the category page

See also[]

The Ten Commandments in popular culture[]

  • The Ten Commandments - a motion picture by Cecil B. DeMille (1923)
  • The Ten Commandments - another motion picture by Cecil B. DeMille (1956)

External links[]


  1. Exodus 20:2-17 (KJV)
  2. Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (KJV)
  3. Exodus 34:14-16 (KJV)
  4. Muslim Ten Commandments 1
  5. Muslim Ten Commandments 2
  6. Muslim Ten Commandments 3
  7. The Twenty-five Commandants
  8. European Convention on Human Rights
  9. New Blasphemy Law in Ireland
  10. Irish Atheists Challenge New Law
  12. See, for example, Thomas K. Carr, "Apartheid and Hermeneutics", in Religious Fundamentalism in Developing Countries, p. 55.
  13. Especially for those Christians for whom even the thought of it is a crime. Good luck with policing that.
  14. Turkey moves closer to EU after retreat on adultery law
  16. For the purpose of this Commandment, concubines are considered spouses as well (Otherwise King Solomon, a man with seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, would have too much work to do to prevent adultery).
  17. For the purpose of this Commandment, concubines are classified under "anything else"
  18. Transcript: Colbert: Name all ten.
  19. Video: Westmoreland v. Colbert - Video

Adapted from RationalWiki