Moses' Bill of Rights
October 14, 2008
What would the Ten Commandments say if it were worded as a Bill of Rights and not a list of prohibitions?
One of the most radical changes in the way Western philosophy has dealt with ethics came with Immanuel Kant, who asserted it was possible to derive natural rights from reason alone. This opened the door to a re-imagining of teleological ethics into deontological ethics, which in turn was a major force in giving us the modern notion of moral rights. The rights-focussed approach to ethics is one of three main schools of thought on ethics (the other two being what I have termed outcome-focussed and agent-focussed).
My general thesis on ethics is that one form of ethical perspective is in principle transformable into any of the others, and any that are not have a weaker claim to moral force, since they fail to be universal. With this in mind, I present here my translation of the Ten Commandments, originally composed by Moses and/or God (according to your preferred beliefs), translated into a rights-based language game:
- The top diety or absolute transcendent force has the exclusive right to be known as God.
- You have the right to avoid the worship of idols.
- You have the right to trust sacred oaths.
- You have the right to at least one day of rest (and/or worship) out of seven.
- You have the right to be respected by your children.
- You have the right to be alive, and thus may not be killed intentionally.
- You have the right to trust that your spouse will not engage in sexual intercourse with others without your express permission.
- You have the right to own possessions.
- You have the right to factual testimony in legal proceedings.
- You have the right to trust that no-one will scheme to take away your spouse or possessions.
Some commentary may help explain my choices:
- I like this formulation as I believe it captures what the first commandment intends, but it's a formulation which has little or no effect on non-believers. "Top diety" may seems a strange choice, but the original wording here is clearly dictating henotheism - devotion to one diety, while recognising others. (If you don't think this makes sense, explain why the stories told in Exodus say the Egyptians are able to transform sticks into snakes as well as Moses and Aaron). The first commandment does not say "there are no other gods", it says "have no other Gods before me" (and this is expressly addressed at the Israelites). Maintaining the henotheistic angle makes this formulation compatible with many more varied faiths, which I see as desirable.
- The reason why "graven images" are being prohibited is because these are a form of metaphysical con that was common at the time. In fact, the Jewish Bible contains a wonderful story called "Bel and the Dragon" which is the first detective story - it exposes a particular idol as a fake by an early application of what we now call the scientific method. (It annoys me that this was cut from the Christian version). So here I have worded this as a protection against being forced to worship idols, and an idol in this case would include any substitute for divinity such as when certain Christians take the wording of the Bible as more important than following Jesus teachings. Under this formulation, they are free to choose to do this - but not to force this onto others under any circumstances.
- Not "taking the Lord's name in vain" appears to have been a prohibition about invoking God in an oath and then breaking that oath. Here I have used "sacred oath" as this covers a wider range of related issues.
- This one is so often lost in translation - the Sabbath wasn't just being promoted as a requirement for worshipping God (for the Israelites), it was being given as a day of rest. In our modern society, where we work people (especially the poorer people) to the bone, this idea of a right to a day of rest has become obscured.
- This is a straight inversion of "Honour your father and mother" into rights language.
- This is always interesting. While pro-life individuals may well interpret this as precluding abortion, it's not clear at what point this right will apply (from conception or from birth) so the argument for this remains contestable. What is clearer is that it precludes capital punishment, and intentional attempts to kill in war. I have great respect for soldiers, but I have never understood how any Christian could join a military force that is intent upon murder, even on the battlefield. This isn't the only way war could be conducted - it's about time we started to explore new ethics of warfare.
- Now this may seem like I'm allowing for an overly permissive interpretation of "adultery" here, but the point is to capture what is meant by this word. Remember that Sarai (Sarah) encouraged Abram (Abraham) to have sex with Hagar when Sarai thought she was barren, so multiple consensual sexual relations are recorded in the Bible. Plus, wording this way allows for polyandrogynous relationships, which some religious and non-religious people practice.
- A prohibition on theft is a right to own possessions.
- This one is so often misinterpreted, even by Kant. "False witness" is a legal claim - this commandment doesn't say "don't lie", it says "don't perjure". That's a very different assertion!
- Finally, not "coveting your neighbours wife" et al is concerned with not making plans to take what is promised to or belongs to someone else. This is a subtle extension of (7) and (8) that seems to be intended to exclude conspiracy and conflict arising from jealousy, although the original intent is perhaps rather to encourage people to be content with what they have. The rewording seems to suggest that when a Government exercises "eminent domain" it violates the tenth commandment, which I find particularly interesting since the US Government exercises this power all too often.
What do you think about this transposition of the Ten Commandments? Whatever your beliefs, I'd be interested in your perspective, so let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Well, its a definite improvement. Submit it to the Vatican for inclusion into Bible v2.0
Posted by: zeech | October 14, 2008 at 11:53 AM
According to one source, the intent of the initial sixth commandment was more akin to Asimov's First Law -- Thou Shalt Not Murder, Nor Shalt Thou, Through Inaction, Allow Another To Be Murdered.
The key word being more akin to 'to murder' than 'to kill', in this case -- which allows for capital punishment and war. (Given that both are seemingly divinely sanctioned in surrounding passages, it seems likely that this interpretation is accurate to the original intention -- although both of these fall into the question of what the individual is allowed to do versus what the society is allowed to do together -- even aside from capital punishment, I'm not allowed to lock someone up for stealing from me, but a judge IS so allowed.)
Posted by: Trevel | October 14, 2008 at 02:51 PM
Also note that while Christianity was 'originally' (couple hundred years in?) pacifistic enough to be accused of causing the fall of the Roman Empire via refusing to fight, that apparently didn't 'take'.
On the other hand, war was a different thing under the Roman Empire than it was when the commands were given than it is now (Or at least here-and-now). At the time, war seemed to be a fact of life -- there would be one on a regular basis, and if you didn't join in, you and all your loved ones would die. The various empires -- while they lasted -- brought enough peace with them that people could AFFORD to be pacifists under them.
Posted by: Trevel | October 14, 2008 at 03:15 PM
I read your rights-worded versions and I find something amiss. Perhaps it is that the commandments are less about freedom and more about the duties of each individual. The Bill of Rights is not a set of laws and as such does not propose any duty on the part of the participant. Laws, on the other hand, have direct application to their adherents: they have obligation and consequence.
While I believe that the ten commandments represent a guideline to live by, they are active in their nature. Each one has an action associated with it that is to be preformed, upheld, or withheld as appropriate. The first four commandments relate to the adherent's worship of God, the last six are the adherent's duties in relation to other people.
Expressing them as rights removes the active participation that is required of them to be useful. Rights are something owed and due to everyone, inherent in existence (at least, as worded by the Bill of Rights). They are guidelines around which, and by which, laws may be created and upheld; each governing entity must implement and enforce them. In this same way the commandments are capable of upholding such rights when acted upon. Note that they do not demand enforcement beyond those who choose to accept them as law. They are merely laws created and enforced by a governing entity for its nation.
Posted by: Duncan | October 14, 2008 at 11:15 PM
zeech: 2.0? I think you'll find the Bible has been through at least a dozen different translations already. ;)
Trevel: I take your criticism here - clearly the Jewish society within which these 'laws' emerged accepted the society's right to kill. I suppose in re-writing them I have consciously tried to formulate a more universal stance, since I see one of Christianity's recurring problems is excessive attachment to the minutiae of the laws of a time now passed.
I like the comparison of the sixth commandment to Azimov's first law. I'm curious as to the basis for the claim here, but it is not implausible.
As for war and the early Christian Church, Augustine et al faced the problem of seeing what the ideals behind Jesus' ministry were versus the realities of life in that time (as you allude to here). Hence the idea that what was attainable in this world would always be less than the ideal.
What's been lacking in this regard, perhaps, is a revisiting to this issue in the context of the modern world - because war no longer means what it meant to Augustine et al, and our modern "fourth generation" warfare with its capacity to murder large numbers of enemy combatants and innocent non-combatants indiscriminately is far harder to reconcile with Christian ideals than the "first generation" warfare in which any killing was accompanied by commensurate risk of being killed.
A serious rethinking of the relationship between Christianity and war is, I contend, long overdue. If we have the capacity to construct non-fatal weaponry, do Christians not have a moral obligation in warfare to find alternatives to killing? The United States, being comprised primarily of a Christian population, inherits some kind of obligation here that it is currently failing to live up to.
Duncan: "Expressing them as rights removes the active participation that is required of them to be useful."
I understand what motivates you to this criticism, but I don't agree. I don't see rights as being distinct from duty - in fact, I see rights as another means of expressing duties, one which is less likely to fall prey of being excessively codified.
Doesn't the right to be alive (for instance) imply the duty not to kill? Such, at least, is my position, which I suppose I am deriving from Kant.
However, I accept your criticism that the Bill of Rights (which I allude to in the title) is very different from a set of laws. However, the purpose of such a bill *is* to protect these rights from infringement, and in this sense there are (once again) duties attached to rights.
The value to me in converting the ten commandments into a rights-form is not to replace them but merely to show that they are capable of such a transformation. For me, that serves as a rebuttal to the claim that they have no modern relevance - since thus converted they exhibit a more 'eternal' form, harder to dismiss as simply the legal foundation of an ancient society.
But then, I have always believed that Jesus' "eleventh commandment" countermanded the original covenant, so I suppose I have always viewed them as somewhat obsolescent. Perhaps by re-writing them in this form I was convincing myself of their value. ;)
Thanks for the comments!
Posted by: Chris | October 15, 2008 at 10:03 AM
I'm with Duncan on the active/passive role of rights. It doesn't read with anything like the
The murder/kill distinction is apparently pretty clear in the Hebrew text, and is very clear in English by looking at the surrounding text (as was already mentioned).
There's more than a dozen translations, however there are generally all translated from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), or are only a single language removed (IE translated from a Latin translation of the original). Any modern translations are done from the original source languages, any ambiguities are generally pointed out in footnotes (I've seen these in every bible I have read, save old King James versions (understandably)). Suffice to say, there are not many, and no major Christian doctrine rests on Biblical texts that are ambiguous.
Adultery - just because the bible records people taking multiple wives, does not mean it condones it. In fact, pretty much every instance of someone having more than one wife is shown to directly lead to problems.
The Bible is pretty clear the entire way through that the ideal is a maximum of one man and one woman together. Anything else is wrong.
Lying/False witness - I tend to agree with you here, not that I think the Bible condones lying, the truth is upheld as being what we should strive for, but I think that deception in some instances is permissable - although I have seen it strongly (and fairly persuasively) argued that we should be completely truthful at all times. I'm not sure though. The whole Nazi/Jew hiding thing is always a tricky one.
11th commandment? I'm assuming you mean "Love the Lord your
God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength" (paraphrased)? I don't think it countermands it, but rather summarises it and lifts the requirements even higher.
As for the first commandment, I would translate it to a right thusly: The deity known as Yahweh has the sole right to be worshipped as God.
I derive it thusly - in Exodus 20:2, in introducing the commandments, Yahweh says "I am the LORD (Yahweh) your God who brought you out of Egypt". Followed by "You shall have no other gods before (or beside) me".
He makes it pretty clear he is talking about himself there.
Also - I've heard (but don't know enough Hebrew to confirm) that whenever the Bible refers to other gods, it uses a word that we would more rightly translate as "gods", in inverted commas, which acknowledges they are worshipped, but denying any deity status to them. That's kinda the gist you get reading through the rest of the Bible too...
Anyway - interesting take on the commandments, thanks for giving me another way to look at them.
Posted by: RodeoClown | October 16, 2008 at 04:53 AM
So, the first right there isn't about only using God's diet plan?
Thou shall ignore the Barbara Currie and the F-Plan!
And thou shall remember that my diet is only useful as part of a calorie controlled regime, in which exercise plays a large part. Praying to Me shall not, in itself, reduce your weight.
Posted by: Neil | October 16, 2008 at 11:18 AM
A translation is not a revision :)
Posted by: zeech | October 16, 2008 at 02:37 PM
A translation is not a revision :)
Not if it's done right ;)
Posted by: RodeoClown | October 17, 2008 at 04:32 AM
RodeoClown: Nice commentary here - appreciated.
I think many Christians will feel the Rights version falls short of what it means to them, but I still think it's useful to see how it translates. It gives us a point of traction for discussion, for a start!
"The Bible is pretty clear the entire way through that the ideal is a maximum of one man and one woman together. Anything else is wrong."
I don't agree - much of this comes through Paul, and I'm sorry but as much as Paul strives hard to uphold the Gospel message, Paul ain't no Jesus. :)
It's clear that Hagar is still promised that a great civilisation will come from her - traditionally, this is taken to be the Arab world, and hence Islam. The reason Hagar is sent away is because of Sarai's difficulty accepting her - it's not divinely countenanced. I think there is enough room here to allow the other interpretation, but I appreciate it may be hard to get to this point inside a conventional Christian reading!
"The deity known as Yahweh has the sole right to be worshipped as God."
If you take it in this reading, I believe you must also constrain the first commandment as applying solely to the Israelites and their modern descendants the Jews. I don't think you can take this reading and have it apply universally - no wording of the original phrases can be stretched this far without letting one's prior commitments influence the decision.
"Suffice to say, there are not many, and no major Christian doctrine rests on Biblical texts that are ambiguous."
Hmmm... that the text might not be ambiguous doesn't mean the doctrines aren't, though. The language is never so robust as to eliminate the role of interpretation.
Thanks for sharing your perspective here! I enjoyed reading your position on this. It wasn't as far from my own as I might at first have thought! :)
zeech: "A translation is not a revision :)"
Except in so much that every new translation of the Bible is precisely a revision. :)
Translation is the act of converting from one language to another. The destination language also moves during time - no language is static, they are always fluid. So yes, every translation is inherently a revision. How could it be otherwise?
Posted by: Chris | October 20, 2008 at 09:16 AM
The operative words from the '1st amendment' always seem to be missed: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage thou shalt have no other gods before me".
If you want to rephrase that as a right, it would have to be a negative: "You have the right not to worship that which does not set you free".
Ian: for 'gods' the Hebrew Bible uses 'Elohim', a generic plural used both for 'God' and 'gods'. Only context can tell you which of the two is ment. There is no indication of 'inverted comma's' so to say.
Posted by: Shirhashirim.wordpress.com | May 10, 2011 at 08:51 PM