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Glad you found it provocative.

—Chris Corrigan

Ten Commandments vs. The Beatitudes

Note: I am reposting the following completely from the web site of Chris Corrigan as the content for this entry is his. I am reposting it instead of just having a link so that I can easily email the contents to my address book. Thanks Chris!

Cody Clark posts an intriguing thought from Kurt Vonnegut:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

This is a really good point. Theological merits aside, the difference between the two is stark and represents an interesting insight into the nature of our legal systems here in Judeo-Christian societies.

The Ten Commandments are the big don'ts of the Bible. These are the things you get in huge trouble for. You could probably name most of them, even if you were only marginally associated with Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. 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.

The beatitudes are a different beast altogether. These are the blessings that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount, and they offer an entirely different moral code, one which is inviting rather than prohibitive:

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  2. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
  3. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
  4. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
  5. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
  6. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
  7. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
  8. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  9. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Google News shows people prefer the first set of instructions to the second, and a regular Google query shows about the same.

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I'm sure you (and Kurt Vonnegut) know that the so-called Ten Commandments are just a few of the many laws God supposedly dictated to Moses. Leviticus contains plenty of rules about proper treatment, abuse, and killing of slaves, witches, daughters, and farm animals. My favorite is "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," which justified the killing of many innocent people in its day. No one ever proposes to post ALL of the Mosaic laws in public school classrooms, just the ten they learned in Sunday school.

I don't know the Koran, but "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" sent thousands of Christian martyrs to their deaths with a smile on their face in the days of the Roman Empire, and is sending Muslim terrorists and their victims to their deaths today.

Although I am a long-time atheist (though I attended Catholic school as a child), I agree that Christians would do well to pay more attention to Jesus and less to the wrathful God of Moses; in fact Jesus said much the same thing himself.

—Greg Jorgensen
24 June 2004


Agreed Greg…and why is it that people are so desirous to post the Ten Commandments but not, say, some of the more choice selections from Leviticus.

Like the stuff about putting adulterers to death por the instruction to women to kill a couple of pigeons and turtledoves if she has a heavy period or a miscarriage so the priest can burn them for an offering.

That would be interesting to see posted up in courthouses and parks.

—Chris Corrigan
27 June 2004


Last year I had a short email exchange with an Oregon state legislator, I think from Grant's Pass, who had introduced a bill to post the Ten Commandments in public schools. She was hoping to skirt the fairly well-established legal precedents by posting the commandments in their "historical" (i.e. mythological) context, emphasizing how the commandments were part of American history. I mentioned the laws God handed down concerning slavery, witchcraft, and when a father can kill his daughter, asking if those should be posted "in context" as well.

I also proposed that she resign her office. Either she is unqualified to hold public office because she didn't know that her bill would violate the Oregon and Federal constitutions, or that she did know but decided to waste public time and money to promote her religious views.

To her credit she responded politely, and revealed that her understanding of the Bible and the Ten Commandments didn't extend much beyond the annual TV showings of the Charlton Heston movie. A large majority of Americans adhere to the Christian faith in one form or another, but sadly most don't know much about their faith that they didn't get from comic books in third grade, or from movies. The widespread deep ignorance of the message and meaning of Jesus, and the history of Christianity, combined with a misguided sense of moral superiority, scares me more than almost anything else that happens in this country.

The bill she introduced failed to get additional sponsors and died in the Oregon house.

—Greg Jorgensen
27 June 2004


"Blessed are they which are persecuted…" is not the same thing that Muslim terrorists refer to, and the martyrs died believing in something greater that was waiting for them.

The big deal about the Ten Commandments is that they are the first and most important revelation to Moses of the law of the Hebrews: they were not only revealed, but actually inscribed on stone tablets by the hand of God himself. That elevates their status in a believers mind just a bit. Not to mention that they contain the precepts which all the specific laws that followed were based on.

And as a side note, in talking about killing witches you said it was justification to kill innocents. However, that is exactly the point of the law, they weren't innocent, and were in fact breaking the first commandment: have no gods before Yahweh.

(Also, many (the majority?) people who claim to be Christian are not, simply because you can't believe in what you don't know. Many people believe that you can be born into a religion, instead of having to choose and understand it oneself.)

And the God of Moses is the God of Jesus, He always desires love and mercy above judgments, but love cannot exist without truth, and truth demands justice. The whole point of Jesus was that he met the requirements for justice, and so now we can focus on the more fun part, the love. Hope I was clear.

—Danny Summerlin
23 July 2004


Danny, you seem to illustrate my complaint very well, as you seem to get quite caught up in all this judging… If you'll excuse me, I need to shift this beam in my eye in order to write this…

Who are you to judge the beliefs and motives of these "Muslim terrorists"?

Who are you to judge that the "majority of people who claim to be Christians" are not?

And concerning the bit about being justified in killing witches… who are you to justify the murder of wealthy Medieval women due to so-called confessions induced from their torture?

Since we can never fully understand or even comprehend God, how could any one love God if "love cannot exist without truth"? And sorry, truth doesn't demand anything, only other people demand such compulsory obedience and belief.

I love your quote about the "whole point of Jesus was that he met the requirements for justice, and so now we can focus on the more fun part, the love," but I'm not seeing any love or even understanding of others from you.

—Howard Abrams
26 July 2004


Willful ignorance is a prerequisite of religious faith, for far too many people.

Mr. Summerlin's posting contains the usual misconceptions that come from confusing Sunday School comics and the Charlton Heston movie with what Exodus actually says.

"The big deal about the Ten Commandments is that they are the first and most important revelation to Moses of the law of the Hebrews."

Fair enough, though God gives Moses and the Hebrews instructions and laws before He gives the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. In Exodus 16:28, for example, God asks the Hebrews "How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?" and refers to the keeping of the Sabbath. That happens before He starts giving laws to Moses.

"[The Ten Commandments] were not only revealed, but actually inscribed on stone tablets by the hand of God himself."

Only in the movies. According to Exodus, God inscribes a Testimony on the two stone tablets -- the Bible doesn't say or imply that the Testimony consists only of the Ten Commandments, or even whether it includes the Commandments. That happens after God gives Moses the hundreds of laws I referred to earlier, and the very detailed instructions for constructing the ark and the temple to hold the Testimony. Before God inscribes the Testimony on the stone tablets, Moses and Aaron write down the many laws God gave them; whether that means ink on papyrus, cuneiform on clay, or inscribing on stone we don't know.

"That elevates their status in a believers mind just a bit. Not to mention that they contain the precepts which all the specific laws that followed were based on."

The Ten Commandments are an opening salvo, but the many laws that follow are hardly based on The Commandments. In fact several of the laws directly contradict the Commandments; the laws regarding the proper occasions for killing a slave or a witch come to mind.

It's also instructive to compare the laws God gives Moses with the shorter lecture He gives to Noah.

The devout really should study their documents more carefully, but I find that no amount of Bible study opens the mind of a true believer. It just gives them more memorized quotes from Scripture to spout off out of context.

—Greg Jorgensen
27 July 2004


Howard Abrams:

As to the Muslim terrorists, I did not in any way judge them. What I was pointing out is that going out of your way to commit suicide (i.e. planning, building, and generally preparing explosives and methods of deployment) is not the same thing as being persecuted. Persecution happens to you, terrorism is something you do (passive vs active). That is not judging them.

Allow me to modify my former statement from "many" (I did not say majority, I questioned it) to "many that I know", which is a sizable number. Simple statistics says that I cannot draw a final conclusion, but I can form a working assumption from the data I have gathered. And again, this is not judging them (not once did I say "This person is going…"), this is looking for facts.

As for love and truth, I disagree based on the meaning of the term love itself. To love something is to love that thing: love implies a certain object that is being loved. If I say I love you, and then go on to describe someone who is nothing like you, then I do not love you, I love some mistaken image of you. Who knows how I would respond to you as you really are! My love is built on a false understanding of you. If the fullness of who you are is unknowable to me, as it really is, then does that mean that I can't be said to love you in truth? I think not, because I can love what I do know of you, even if it isn't the complete definition of who you are. A partial definition in truth is better than a total but false definition.

I am sorry that you don't see love or understanding from me. I really felt like talking about this was half way toward understanding. And as for love, since I believe that truth is a part of love, I also believe that helping people find truth is a loving thing to do. And again, I do apologize if you felt I was judging someone; I don't judge anyone, it isn't my job. But, that doesn't mean that we can't try to speak truth.

Greg Jorgensen:

The Law as given to Moses marked the beginning of the Mosaic covenant. That is the key to the Commandments, that they marked a new beginning for the people of Israel.

For the record, I have never seen Heston's movie, and I had flannel board in Sunday School, not comics. I apologize for not stating that their were other laws written on the tablets, but the Ten Commandments are the first thing mentioned, so it seems safe to say they were on there too.

And I am sorry, but the Ten Commandments absolutely foreshadow all the other laws. Killing a witch was not seen as murder (remember, it is not "Thou shall not kill", it is murder that it is concerned with). Right or wrong, it isn't a contradiction, given that almost everyone prior to our current age had the death penalty. And there are no proper times to kill a servant (unless you can provide a reference for that: I searched and could find nothing).

The Ten Commandments give precepts or categories of law: idolatry (putting anything or anyone above God), social laws (stealing, murdering), purity and holiness (coveting, Sabbath) and so on. If necessary I will try to explain them all, but the point is that the Ten Commandments capture in a very simple way the gist of the laws to follow.

That is interesting, the Noah v Moses thing. I will have to do that some time.

Now, to be fair, if I can't get away with generalizations, you can't either. Sir, the critiques you offered are hardly the sort of thing to merit being harsh. What have I said that is so out of context? And I really don't understand why you are coming across so spiteful and harsh.

To all: I don't know what I can say to be more understanding and loving. Not once have I condemned anyone, or said that someone is dumb or anything like that. Actually, the reason I ended up on this site is because I like the Vonnegut quote so much, and was searching for it. I like discussion, but the ad hominem argument's are rough. I will make you a deal: I won't assume you don't know anything, and you don't assume I am dumb either. Deal?

—Danny Summerlin
30 July 2004


We humans are creatures who specialize in patterns and labels. While it saves on thinking, it often gets us into trouble. For as we experience something, we immediately start to look for patterns of previous experiences, and once we have a match, we place a label on it, and from that point forward, we deal with it habitually.

As a software engineer, I often look at a particular problem to see if matches a problem pattern that I've previously encountered. Doctors do this by gathering up all of the symptoms until it matches a disease signature. Once the label goes on the patient, the treatment can be out of the book.

Obviously, this assumes that nothing is new or different, and this isn't the case. But it is also why we are all guilty about treating each other, not as individuals, but as a category.

So first of all, allow me to apologize for placing you into a particular pigeonhole. When I run into someone who labels himself "Christian" and uses the word "justice", I have a tendency to label them, "Intolerant," and that is not fair… or necessarily accurate.

My purpose in originally posting this concept was to explore the perceived (to me anyway) emphasis of the Ten Commandments of the teachings of Jesus. As "Cody" said over here:

Somewhere along the line, Christians started to put more stock in who Jesus was rather than what he did and said… I get the impression that they believe that Jesus' death is what "saved" us, not his living example and his teachings.

Granted, this is a perceives view or projection by us on the outside, and probably doesn't accurately represent the views of those on the inside. But why do we have this view? That was the point of the posting (not that you missed the point… I'm just talking here).

I've been wondering what would happen to our society if we did have a posting of The Beatitudes in every court in our country. My interpretation of that entire chapter of Matthew (as well as Jesus' teachings in general) is the adage to think outside these labels, and try to address the real problem and not cast as many stones, "Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more."

So, if we did post the Beatitudes, I think there just might be a lot more criminals on the street. But would there be more crime? Lowering crime is the ultimate purpose or goal of our courts, and it comes from the notion that punishments deter crime. Clearly, that is a good deterrent for some, but not everyone. States that have the "death penalty" do not have lower homicide rates, etc.

After the 9/11 attacks I wrote a piece where I mentioned that many people perceive Jesus' counsel to "turn the other cheek" as weakness. So maybe taking this approach in our courts wouldn't help… but maybe it would. Regardless, I thought it was interesting to think about.

Concerning Muslim suicide bombers… clearly their "act" is quite active and certainly not passive. But I was thinking past the act to their motive. Self preservation is one of our strongest instincts, so anyone willing to die for any cause must have serious motivation. Granted, you or I may not value the motivation and may compare the early Christian martyrs' refusal to deny Jesus above Japanese kamikaze pilots… but that would be judging, wouldn't it?

So yes, persecution is something that happens to you, but it could also be the motivation for a different response.

Yes, you are quite correct that a love based on a fuller understanding is better than a love based on a partial understanding… and even that is better than no love at all. So perhaps our next task is to first try to love the terrorist (while still condemning the act) and also try to understand him better. This love and understanding may not only answer the question of why "they hate us," but may also lead us to a better way.

—Howard Abrams
8 February 2004


I agree with almost all of what you said (and I only say almost to save myself from having to conflict myself at some time!). I totally agree about the Beatitudes: I think that if followed, they would fundamentally change how society functions and individuals respond for the better. And "turning the other cheek" is one of the hardest things that Jesus ever said, and it is hard for any court to embrace because it implies that God will take care of justice and judgment, that it is not our job. Kind of invalidates the entire legal system (just a pinch of hyperbole there). One point to clarify: since Christianity is founded on grace and freedom (though indeed, not often practiced as such), there is a huge spectrum of how Christians look at Jesus, etc. [Ironically, it is exactly the freedom which they have been given in Jesus that permits them to be such jerks, for those who are.] But I can say that the orthodox, biblical view is that it is in fact Jesus himself who saves us, not his teachings. His teachings give us a model, a way that we can keep faith and come to know God in deeper and deeper ways. However, following his lead ("believe in God, believe also in me", "go therefore and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit", "even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in him may have eternal life"), the work of redemption was done by "the great High priest" by his own sacrifice. The idea is that we couldn't even live up to the Ten Commandments et al., much less the amazing Beatitudes and "turning the other cheek". So to save us, God served our sentence for us in human form, doing what we couldn't do for ourselves.

Sorry if that was preaching, that is just a pretty central bit to the faith.

"How good and pleasant it is when the brothers dwell together in harmony." some psalm I can't remember the number of.

—Danny Summerlin
8 February 2004


Wonderful thread, that headed in the wrong direction… Sorry I am a bit late

"they offer an entirely different moral code, one which is inviting rather than prohibitive"

A very interesting exercise is to Google the different meanings of "poor in spirit" from the first Beatitude. My personal interpretation comes from Johnny Cash's Man In Black {"The reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold"}, but it has been co-opted to justify every conceivable view.