An Anthropology of the Ten Commandments: If Yahweh were a hip college professor
Assigned reading for today: Exodus 20:2-17. Luther’s Small Catechism, pp. 5-8.
1. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. I’ve done the science. There are no other Gods. I am the only one. I made the cosmos, created the great chain of being, set off the Big Bang, or whatever your next theory leads you to call it. If there are any other gods out there–like capitalism, or communism, or even jihad or humanism–they were created by you, and thus they are not God. I am.
And those other Gods, like Baal, that at one time seemed liked rivals to me? They were created by this particular group or by that culture. They served their purpose, to help those people stay together and settle the inevitable conflicts that the group’s members came up with. But when the time was right, and you all needed to know who was really God around here, I did what was needed.
I pride myself on my creativity and my subtlety. Sometimes you got it. Sometimes you didn’t. So today I thought I should spell out a few really important points. I hope you’re taking notes. You need to write these down. Should I decide to give a final exam, these will be on it.
2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. I wish I could find an easier way to express this, because I can see some future time (I am, after all, God) when a Sunday school teacher will struggle to explain this to a room full of twelve-year-olds. The best they’ll be able to come up with on the spot is that the second commandment means don’t cuss or use any of my names as a swear word.
But I have something deeper in mind. I made you, I evolved you in my image. But I don’t want you to forget who the creator is here. It will be so tempting for you to take that “in my image” thing and think that you can speak for me. It will be so easy for you to put my name on your own creative efforts, because after all you are made in the image of God. You can glibly let others think that your thoughts are my thoughts or that you know my will. You will attempt to usurp my authority to make things run the way you want them to. This second commandment (If you want to number them, that’s cool, but not crucial.) is to remind you to be humble. I am your God. You are my people. That should be good enough.
3. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. I put you on one of my best planets, and I put you in charge of an incredible abundance of resources. But I didn’t just hand you stuff on platters. I made it so you still had to get off your duff and go out and gather food every day. I also gave you a fair portion of my creativity (My subtlety? Not so much.) and you figured out that if you made a few keen tools, a stone with a sharpened point or edge, you could hunt, kill, and dress a meerkat or squirrel and have some meat with your nuts and berries. And then you realized that if you all worked together (mostly just the men, the women shouldn’t endanger the babies they fed), you could use your puny spears to bring down big game, and enjoy steaks and a rack of ribs every once in a while. And that was just the start.
The point is, the way I made you, you had to produce. And you discovered that if you worked really hard, you could improve your material culture to make things better for your band or your clan or your tribe. Okay. But let me give you a little advice. Give yourself some time off to rest. And it sure wouldn’t hurt to stop and think about why you’re here and what you’re doing (ideational culture), and how it effects the others you live with (social culture). Rest and reflection are good for you. It also wouldn’t hurt if you remembered to say thanks to the guy (or gal, I don’t really care about gender labels) who made all this.
Why the seventh day? No special reason, other than habit. You can pick the sixth or the first. It doesn’t really matter. But notice that counting and setting apart a regular day gives you a way to mark time, so that the way of life you’re making doesn’t become a grind of the same old thing, day after day.
4. Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. I shouldn’t even have to say this. Listen to your elders. They have so much to teach you, as they were taught by their elders. Life experience brings knowledge and wisdom, and you’re going to need that to make your way through this world. Wherever your way of life takes you–to the mountains, grasslands, deserts, forests, savannahs, or coastal plains–you’re going to need to know what it takes to produce what you and your people need to survive and thrive.
And take care of each other, starting with those who birthed you and raised you and taught you how make your way in the world. And by father and mother, I also mean father’s father and mother’s mother and mother’s brother and father’s sister and so on. You get it. And then, of course, you will birth and raise and teach your own offspring and the next generation, and they will honor you and take care of you in your old age, and give you grandkids (son’s son and daughter’s daughter, etc.) to delight in, who will take care of them in turn. It’s genius, don’t you think? Thank you.
5. Thou shalt not kill. This one should be a no brainer, and for the most part it is. Life is an incredible gift. Who are you to take it away from one of my people (Umm, that would be all people!)? In case you’re not clear about that, read commandment #2 again.
But, and I am afraid to even mention this, there will be occasions, hopefully rare, in which you might have to protect your family or neighbors from a rogue sociopath or two, who, if not stopped, would cause serious harm. But be very careful. The taking of a human life seldom stops with just one killing. The violent death of a loved one–even in your enemy’s camp–is a grievous loss, and the deep emotions that spill forth easily lead to the desire for revenge. Once killing gets started, even as a way to handle serious conflict, it becomes difficult, almost impossible, to stop. Such cycles of revenge can quickly develop into family feuds or open warfare between villages, tribes, or nations.
You’ll be far better off if you just stick with the simple commandment (#5). You must talk long and hard with each other, especially on your day of rest, when you’re not distracted by productive labor, before you admit of an exception to this rule. Consensus is important. Try hard to reach it before you act rashly and spin out a stream of unintended consequences you can’t stop.
Page 2. I think you are starting to get the picture. I made you to be social creatures, not rugged individuals. None of you could ever make it entirely on your own. “People who need people are the luckiest. . .” Ack. That was a crappy song, and pointless. Everyone needs other people. But here are some common sense suggestions I can offer to help you get along with each other. All are pretty straight forward, but how some of them get worked out in your particular tribe will be unique to your circumstances. Still, these are about as close to universal as we’re going to get
6. Thou shalt not commit adultery. This is another one I’m really proud of. But I need your help. Get your nervous giggles and lewd comments out of the way so you can really understand what’s going on here. Replenishment of the species is extremely vital to how this creation of mine evolves. Yet, and some of you know this from personal experience, replenishment of the human species can be a great burden on any family or community, not to mention that physical annoyance of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. Babies are young and helpless. They contribute nothing to the productive labor necessary for survival. And sometimes they keep you up all night. As children they can be disobedient and unruly. And as adolescents they may become sullen and/or rebellious. Why go to all the trouble and tie yourself down?
I thought my solution to this problem was ingenious. Let’s make the act that ensures replenishment fun in and of itself. You know, sex. I gave you the drive to want it, and if you do it, everyone gets kids and grandbabies and so on. Furthermore, sex is at its best when it is combined with true intimacy, trust, and caring. You know, love. Sex and love create bonds that hold people together. Not just the two people who do it and make a baby, but also their respective extended families or households. Sex and marriage and child-rearing create ties and alliances that are the glue that holds social groups together, be they bands, or clans, or tribes. You’re welcome.
But you all are going to have to figure out what works best for your group. Some of you may find it works best to have the mother, father and offspring set up their own household (neolocal post-marital residence), for others of you it makes more sense for the newlyweds to move in with the father’s family (patrilocal) or the mother’s family (matrilocal). And there might be cases where the most feasible customary practice is where the mother and father do not live in the same household (walking marriage). Then there’s also the question of how you reckon the responsibilities and benefits of the baby’s kin. Does it work best if the child belongs wholly or primarily to the mother’s side (matrilineal), the father’s (patrilineal), or both (bilateral)? There are lot of other possibilities for adapting to specific conditions. Talk to me after class, or send your question to me by email. (Don’t use Blackboard.)
But the main point of this commandment (#6) is that so much is riding on this complex of marriage and childrearing practices, household formation and kinship organization. Don’t fuck it up. Literally. Stealing away for a little selfish pleasure can have ramifications far beyond the benefits of a little extra nookie.
7. Thou shalt not steal. It took a long, long time for this one to become necessary. For countless generations, my people lived in a veritable Garden of Eden. All they needed to sustain themselves could be gathered from the environment around them. There was no need to horde a surplus. And if nothing was set aside for later, there was really nothing to steal. I kind of have to put this one on you all. You wanted to improve yourselves, and thus expanded both your material culture and your production of wealth. The unintended consequence is you also created the conditions for theft. As you know, like adultery, theft can tear at the bonds needed to hold families and communities together. It is selfish and destructive of social solidarity. Don’t do it.
8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. It can’t get anymore straight forward as this. Telling lies and tearing you neighbor down in front of others is destructive of community. It also destroys your neighbor’s reputation and sense of self-worth. Yours as well. Don’t do it.
9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. I’m going to group this together with the next one, #10. (Some theologians think my man, Marty, split these into two separate commandments, because the no graven images thing made little sense in his time and place. Also, it seems to be important to many of you that they be ten in number.)
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his. This is another one that can be hard to fully understand. I know some of you will interpret this in terms of property rights. And I can see a future time when this one will be bandied about to protect the wealth of those who have accumulated the most. In that vein, this commandment will have no relevance to those who have little or next to nothing. Here’s what so many of you fail to understand. Property is not that which you obtain through hard work, merit, or good luck. Property is not wealth. It is a right.
All humans, yea, all creatures have a right to take from the earth what their bodies need. Yes, that leads to conflicts between predatory species and those which are prey. But in the case of homo sapiens, gifted by evolution with creativity and imagination, with rationality and adaptability, it was always possible for a human group to move on to a new territory all their own. Each group could have its own garden on earth where their biological needs could be met.
Like #7, this commandment has only been needed relatively recently (5,000 years or so). At some point in time, it became apparent to some groups of people that they no longer needed to move to new land, but could claim the property and labor of others. Thus the harvest of others, food producers, would feed them, non-food producers, and provide for all their needs.
We’ll cover this topic in much greater detail later in the semester. Some anthropologists have argued that the development of agriculture was humanity’s greatest mistake. Some have likened it to the fall that led to the loss of the Garden of Eden. For now let’s just say that agriculture led the development of surpluses that allowed some to live off the labor of others. This led, further, to the establishment of cities with populations stratified into lower and higher classes, the emergence of ruling and religious elites, and the development of states, empires, and civilizations. It also led to the creation of poverty, where some, in the midst of plenty, do not have enough to sustain themselves. Poverty, in fact, is a human creation, a social construct.
I’ll close this lecture with a song that expresses the dilemma over commandments #9 and #10. In the 20th century, a descendant of African-American slaves living in the south of the United States sang a song that began with this line: “Ain’t I got a right to the tree of life?” Perhaps we should come up with a new way of expressing these last commandments: something along the lines of Though shalt not covet the tree of life in a way that keeps your neighbor from picking its fruit. Maybe this is better: Thou shalt not hog the tree of life. I’ll work on it.
Note: The author of this blog, not Yahweh, is preparing to start a new semester tomorrow at City Colleges of Chicago, with three sections of Cultural Anthropology and one section of Biological Anthropology.