Putting the Decalogue Under a Microscope


The “Decalogue”—more commonly known as the Ten Commandments—is

a set of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship.  These are fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity.  The text of the Ten Commandments appears twice in the Hebrew Bible:  at Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–17.

I, however, prefer to think of the Decalogue as a collection of normative statements, as opposed to empirical ones.  This source says of the former that “a normative statement expresses a value judgment about whether a situation is desirable or undesirable.”  I, however, prefer to think of “normative” statements in simpler terms—as statements that declare what one should, and should not, do.

An empirical statement  about human behaviors is one that not only describes behaviors, but does so truthfully.  Thus, works of fiction often contain descriptive statements, but the reader will understand that such statements are merely fictional.  A descriptive statement that is also empirical is one that (a) pertains to the real world and (b) is objectively true; i. e., scientists are in agreement that the statement is true.  Not necessarily all scientists, but most—as is the case with this statement, for example:  “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree:   Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”

It’s important, then, to distinguish between “normative” and “empirical” statements regarding human behaviors because although both pertain to behaviors, the first one pertains to someone’s opinion as to what people should, and should not do, the second one is a statement of agreed-upon fact, rather than opinion.  Statements of the first type are what one finds in, for example, religions and governmental legal codes; statements of the second type are what one finds in the sciences.

Having now made the distinction between “normative” and “empirical,” I can now note that the Ten Commandments are an example of normative statements—those statements claimed, by those who claim to accept them, as “given” to them by the God of Judaism (and, later, Christianity).  Although I believe it more reasonable to believe that these commandments were literally man-made—created by male humans—I make no effort here to prove that assumption.   Rather, I address these two questions:

  1. Given that these commandments have not, from an empirical standpoint (!), “worked”—i. e., resulted in behaviors consonant with them—how does one explain why they were created?
  2. Also, given that they have not “worked,” why have they persisted through time—with a different approach being recognized for getting desired behaviors, that different approach then being implemented?

I feel no need to quote the Ten Commandments here, and begin with my first question—offering an explanation of why they came into existence.

To understand why one must recognize what was probably the most important “event” in human history—the Agricultural Revolution of about 12,000 years ago, the development of agriculture (to replace hunting and gathering) being (according to Jared Diamond) “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”!  Archaeology, he wrote, is demolishing a:

sacred belief [that we have]:  that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress.  In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.  With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

What Diamond failed to do, however, in that article was articulate the basic reason why the development of agriculture became such a problem:  The fact that it initiated the development of a Discrepancy between:

  1. The way of life for which we had become “designed”[1] (i. e, one based on hunting and gathering); and
  2. The new ways of life that began to develop during the Neolithic Revolution.

A Discrepancy developed because:

  1. Agriculture fostered a more sedentary existence than had characterized hunter-gatherer life.
  2. That development fostered a growth in the population size of groups.
  3. That growth, in turn, weakened the bonds that had formerly connected members of a group, one to another.
  4. The fact that genetic diversity will characterize any given human group, combined with that growth, meant that some members of a group (those with tendencies toward gaining dominance) were now able to exercise that tendency.
  5. Such individuals now began to exploit other members of the group—the eventual result being the creation of social class systems.
  6. That development is what enabled our species to begin to have a history, with that history often interpreted as having a “progressive” trend.

The fact of exploitation within “civilized” societies was something that some members early Hebrew society objected to—and were not quiet about their objections!  Those individuals have come to be called prophets,   Here’s an extended discussion of them.

I believe that it was after some of these prophets “came on the scene” that some other members of the society “hit” on the idea of codifying some of what the prophets were saying, and adding to the moral ideas of the prophets some cultic ones as well![2]  That is, these “others” sensed an opportunity to create jobs for themselves, doing so in a manner that seemed to continue the “work” of the prophets!

The fact that the commandments that they created didn’t “work” all that well didn’t bother them, though, for their “efforts” had created “cushy” jobs for them!

A point to keep in mind here is that civilized life—unlike life in a hunter-gatherer band—presents its “inmates” (!) with coping problems, and people react to those problems in different ways.  Some in ancient Hebrew society reacted by helping others to cope—by creating “religious”[3] practices and institutions.  In doing so, however, they were helping themselves cope!—by creating a function for themselves in the society.  Thus, what they did was not an unmitigated evil!

These “gentlemen” could not have known, of course, that the reason for exploitative behaviors was the Discrepancy that had begin to develop much earlier; and in not having that knowledge, they could not have known that to get non-exploitative behavior it would be necessary to work for a “return,” in some meaningful sense, to a way of life related to hunter-gatherer life—for example, one that involved living in small groups.  After all, is there not such a thing as “human scale”?  Isn’t it true that “small is beautiful”?

I have now answered my first question to my satisfaction, which leaves the second one:

Given that the Ten Commandments “have not ‘worked,’ why have they persisted through time—with a different approach being recognized for getting desired behaviors, that different approach then being implemented?”

My answer:  They have “worked”—but especially to the advantage of those who created them!  They’ve enabled the creation of large organizations, offering numerous employment opportunities!  Opportunities that they have taken advantage of!

Unfortunately, those organizations, and the minions who “operate” them, have done little to change the direction of societal development—that direction being a downward one!  A point that I argue in my History is Against Our Species!

The true continuers of the prophetic tradition have been those in the utopian and communitarian traditions.  Those people at least sensed that to get desirable behavior from humans, it’s necessary that people be living in the right societal situation (one at least somewhat comparable to hunter-gatherer societies).  Needless to say, their efforts have not changed the direction of human history!

What’s likely then, is that our species will soon be joining the 1,000,000 other species “slated” to go extinct in the near future!

[1]  Anthropologist Alan Barnard stated recently that we humans “have been designed to live, by hunting wild beasts and by collecting wild plants.”   In Hunters and Gatherers:  What  Can We Learn From Them (2020), p. 56.

[2]  This is merely a hypothesis; for a discussion of the “origins of Judaism” see this.  A point that I would add here, however, is that I doubt that the “intellectual world” of ANY biblical scholar includes the Discrepancy concept!

[3]  But not as “religion” is defined in James 1:27!

Alton C. Thompson is an independent writer from  USA




Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News