Thursday, 14 November 2013


I gave The Girl a bullet-point version of the Decalogue; “Don’t cheat,” “Don’t lie,” and so on. It’s the version of the Ten Commandments that most of us learned to scribble in crayon, the version we want to believe as grownups.

Then, the other night, we read the original.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me, I read.

 “Wait – did they think there were other gods?” The Girl said.

Yep, they believed in a world full of gods. Back then people worshipped all kinds of magic symbols, and did whatever they thought the symbols told them to do. They believed that there were people with special powers, who could see the future, and they paid them for advice. They believed in prophecies and rumours, that bad weather was an evil omen and that talismans brought you luck. They were just like people are now.

I continued reading. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them … 

“Hang on,” she said. “Like statues? You’re not allowed to have statues?” I know, I said. Every church defines itself by the parts of the Bible they disregard. This is one of the things we Catholics ignore.

….for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

“What?” The Girl said. “What does that mean?”

It means they punished children, even great-grandchildren, for what their great-grandparents did, I said.

“That’s not right!” she said.

I agree with you, I said, but people did that back then, and they imagined that God did too. I kept reading: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

The Girl started to smile. “They repeat everything over and over,” she said. “It’s like they’re saying: ‘You shall not hit each other. You shall not strike each other over the head, or the bottom, or any other part. You shall not slam them with a club, and you shall not slam them with an axe…’”

…. For I do not like it when you slam, I do not like it Sam I Am, I continued, reducing The Girl to giggles. Then we composed ourselves and went on.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male or female slaves, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates… 

“Wait … um … slaves?” said The Girl.

I’m afraid so, I said. Every house had slaves back then -- the very next chapter of the Bible is all about how to keep slaves. Well, and in-between there is a part about not walking up the steps of the temple too closely behind someone else, for fear that you could look up their robe and see their backside …

“People cared about that, but not about slaves?” The Girl said.

I’m afraid so, I said. Nobody said it was wrong, and people kept having slaves for thousands of years. The USA, where I was born, had slaves only 15 decades – two lifetimes -- ago. The last place on Earth to have legal slaves had them in my lifetime.

“Oh my goodness,” said The Girl, genuinely sobered. I know, it’s sick, I said, but that’s how most people have been. We’re lucky to live when we do.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

“These are good,” The Girl said. Yes, these were also the Noahide Laws hundreds of years earlier, I said.  

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. 

The Girl failed to suppress a chortle. “… or his ox, or his donkey, or his chicken, or his Tyrannosaurus Rex…”

I know, I said. And there’s slaves again – most men and women were listed as belongings, like cattle. So if anyone ever says we should follow the Ten Commandments ….

“We shouldn’t?” said The Girl. Well, we should, I quickly said, but like everything else in the Bible, we have to sift out the terrible things they describe people doing a few thousand years ago, and keep the bits where they really hit upon something noble. But you do that in science too – Newton discovered calculus, but he also thought you could turn lead into gold. Hopefully, you do that in everything, and you learn.

“But we’re better than that now,” The Girl said.

No, we’re not, I said. Our history is filled with monstrous people, and genetically we’re not different than they were. We’re just luckier, because we’re less afraid and desperate than they were, and partly because people have been straining the good ideas from the bad for generations.

Do you notice something else? I asked. The Girl shook her head, and I continued: Why do we think there are ten?

The Girl took the Bible and ran her finger down the page. “There are 22,” she said.

Twenty-two verses, I said. They don’t neatly divide into ten commandments – we just shoe-horn them into how we want them to be. Jews consider that first part two commandments – ‘I’m your God,’ and ‘Have no others.’ Catholics consider those to be one verse, and divide that last paragraph into two.

“That was a lot of lines to carve into two big stones,” The Girl said.

I know, I said – and the second time he had to carve it all himself. Remember, when Moses came down with the first stones, his people were busy worshipping a statue they just made, and Moses got so angry he smashed the first bunch of commandments.

The Girl looked more incredulous by the minute. “Well, that wasn’t smart,” she said. “On anyone’s part.”

I know, I said -- the Bible is full of people doing things that weren’t very smart. The weird thing that no one mentions is this: The second time, they were a different set of commandments, all about how to hold a ceremony at the temple. Except for the part about the Sabbath, there's no overlap. It was like God said, I'm not going to repeat the entire thing again - we have too much to cover. You'll just have to keep up. 

“Wait …” The Girl said. “Then how do we know what the first list of commandments were?”

Great question, I said. Perhaps Moses had to remember the whole thing later, and mixed up the really good things he was told with his own unfortunate ideas. I suspect that describes a lot of holy writings.

“That first list you gave me?” The Girl said, referring to the bullet-point version I showed her earlier. “I like that list better.”

Yes, I’d appreciate it if you’d follow that one instead, I said.


Florence said...

Your daughter is very fortunate to have a parent who takes the time and interest to discuss such important topics with her.

Unknown said...

I'm impressed that you have really read and researched religion so thoroughly. You would be a challenging person in a debate on just about any topic.

Brian Kaller said...

Florence, Unknown, that's very kind of you. I learned from people who know far more.