20:12. The fifth commandment, to honor parents. The duties and commandments relating to God (the first table or tablet, commandments one through four) are followed by duties and commandments relating to other humans (the second tablet, commandments five through ten). There is a certain logical progress in these commandments. It is through parents and the tradition that they and other elders convey that the child comes to know God: parental authority instills divine authority. It is fitting, therefore, that the fifth commandment forms the pivot between the two tables of the Law and the first commandment relating to duties to human beings. A properly ordered family life is the foundation of stable and successful individuals and societies. If the family is healthy, it is much more likely than otherwise that the other commandments will be observed and kept. It is demonstrable that children who live with, love, and honor their parents will tend to be truth-tellers, to respect the property of others, and in general to keep the other commands of the second table. Saint Augustine notes the dependence of the later commandments on honoring parents: ‘It is your parents you see when you first open your eyes, and it is their friendship that lays down the first strands of this life. If anyone fails to honor his parents, is there anyone he will spare?’ (ACCS, Exodus, p. 106)
This is the only commandment in which neither ‘no’ nor ‘not’ appears (Alter, p. 431).
Saint Paul in Ephesians 6, where he inculcates respect for parents, quotes this commandment with commentary: ‘Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with a promise; that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.’ (vv. 2-3) Our Lord sustains the duty against its evacuation by the Pharisees in Matthew 15:4-9. It is repeated elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments in various ways (e.g. Leviticus 19:3, Jeremiah 35:7 & 18).
The Catechism expands the commandment to inculcate respect for superiors and those in authority in general: ‘To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the civil authority: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters….’ (BCP page 580) This extension of the commandment is in line with the original spirit of the command, which was to inculcate general respect for parents and elders: this commandment is ‘not restricted to children, but is a universal precept’ (Huesman, p. 57).
The commandment includes support for parents in their old age. On the one hand, the commandment does not demand absolute obedience in all things, though it sometimes might include that. On the other hand, the commandment to ‘honor’ is in many ways broader than merely to obey: ‘To honor is to “prize highly” (Prov. 4.8), “to show respect”, to “glorify and exalt”. Moreover, it has nuances of caring for and showing affection (Ps. 91.15)’ (Childs, p. 418). Honoring requires respectful attention to parents and their wishes; obedience to their lawful and reasonable commands; giving the benefit of the doubt to them when their wishes are possibly legitimate; and showing them kindness and generosity. Honoring parents and authorities in general does not require obedience in matters unlawful or unreasonable.
If we take the Catechism as a guide insofar as parents are concerned, the commandment is to love, honor, and succor (or help) parents. These three duties are listed in their proper order and with a descending degree of permanence or absoluteness. The duty to love is permanent and absolute. It may be difficult, but even a bad parent is to be loved: the child should wish his parent well, pray for his improvement, and generally do his best for him. The duty to honor is permanent, but it is not as absolute as the duty to love. The duty to honor is limited by the honorableness of the parent. A parent who is wicked or dishonorable must be loved, but honor need not extend so far as to make one approve or support or respect evil. The duty to succor and help is limited by the parents’ needs, the child’s ability, and perhaps in other ways.
The commandment concludes with a promise or reward attached: ‘that thy days maybe long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.’ ‘For the penalty for [this commandment’s] violation, see Ex 21:17, Lv 20:9; Dt 21:18-21.’ (Huesman, p 57) This commandment may assume the group responsibility which is a feature of early Old Testament thought. Parents and children are rewarded or punished for the family’s virtues or sins. Until belief in personal immortality becomes strongly fixed, punishments and rewards were experienced in this life or were visited upon those closest to the good or evil doer. These aspects of early Old Testament thought (group responsibility and temporal rewards and punishments) lessen in the later Old Testament and in the New. See the note on 20:5-6 above – there is a sense in which family strengths and failures do affect the whole group. Alter describes the promise of longevity as ‘the sort of hopeful moral calculus reflected in the Book of Proverbs’ (p. 431).
20:13. The sixth commandment, against murder. The Prayer Book translation of the commandment (against ‘murder’) is better than the King James’ translation (against ‘killing’). Israel had the death penalty and warfare, so ‘murder’ is what is in fact in question. The Hebrew word here, from the root verb rṣḥ, is used 46 times in the Old Testament, while other common verbs are used more than 350 times. In Numbers 35:16-21, the word is used for particular acts of killing ‘which call forth the vengeance of the go’ēl (avenger)’ (Childs, p. 421). At least by the prophetic and wisdom literature of the Old Testament the killing in question is ‘intentional and evil violence (Isa. 1.21;Hos. 6.9; Job 24.14; Prov. 22.13; Ps. 94.6)’, acts ‘which arose from personal feelings of hatred and malice’. (ibid.).
Some laws or moral norms are said by theologians to be ‘formally true’. That is, the law itself in its form or formulation contains a definitional element. ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ is an example. Murder is, by definition, wrongful killing. This formal rule, therefore, says in effect, ‘It is wrong to kill when killing is wrong.’ A material, as opposed to formal, law or rule provides material, concrete, practical guidance that would, in this case, let one decide whether or not a given case of killing is in fact actually wrong, and so a case of murder.
One might ask what the point is of a formally true law. In part the answer is that such laws help to teach moral seriousness. In the case of the sixth commandment, for instance, the condemnation of murder tells us that killing is extremely serious, and that in any case of killing when it might be wrongful we must act with very great care and deliberation. It may be that a given act of killing is not murder but rather is justified homicide and morally lawful. Even in what possibly may well be such cases of lawful killing, however, we must examine the matter with great seriousness and care, seek out good advice, consider the applicable laws and moral rules, and if in doubt should take the morally safer path.
A more detailed form of this commandment in its meaning is: It is always wrong to will directly the taking of innocent human life. ‘Innocent’ human life rules out cases of capital punishment, lawful warfare, or self-defense: in these cases the rights of the person whose life is taken may rightfully be forfeited. In any event, different rules apply in situations involving war, self-defense, and the like. ‘Directly’ willed rules out some cases in which a life may be taken as a result of another act which is itself good and legitimate. Some acts have two or more results, some good and some bad. In such cases of ‘double effect’, death may be ‘indirectly’ willed, while the good effect is directly willed. It might more helpful be said that the indirectly willed effect is regretfully tolerated, but would be avoided if possible. So, for instance, suppose a bomb factory is destroyed in Nazi Germany. The Allies foresee that some civilian lives may be lost in destroying the factory. The primary goals of the Allied action are to destroy a bomb factory, to help to defeat a wicked enemy, and to save lives on both sides by shortening the war: all of which primary, ‘direct’ goals are good. The good goals or effects are prior to the loss of civilian lives and are not caused by the loss of civilian lives. In such a case the loss of civilian lives is said to be ‘indirectly’ willed and is not condemned under this commandment. Likewise in the case of the death of an unborn child that results from an action that saves a pregnant woman’s life (e.g., in cases of an ectopic pregnancy), the bad effect may be tolerable and not a case of murder.
In such ‘double effect’ cases, the key often is whether or not the good effect precedes or at least is simultaneous with the bad effect. It is always wrong to do evil that good may result. It often, however, is tolerable to do good even though some foreseeable evil also may result. If the evil effect is prior to the good, however, it probably is wrong to perform the act.
The sixth commandment prohibits murder, suicide, euthanasia, abortion, and all forms of directly willed killing of innocents. The traditional extension of this commandment condemns also those attitudes that can lead to killing, such as anger, wrath, and malevolence. Such extension of meaning already is present in the Old Testament itself: e.g., Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 19:17ff. Our Lord extends the commandment in this way in the Sermon on the Mouth (Matthew 5:21-6). Positively, then, the commandment teaches us ‘To hurt nobody by word or deed’ (BCP p. 580). The Sermon in fact extends most of the second table of the commandments so to apply them to the heart, to inner attitudes, as well as to external behavior.
20:13, ‘kill’ (KJV, RSV); ‘murder’ (Prayer Book; Alter). As noted above, ‘the Hebrew verb ratsaḥ clearly means “murder,” not “kill,” and so that ban is specifically on criminal acts of taking of life.’ (Alter, p. 432)
20:14. The seventh commandment, against adultery.
There is no doubt about the original sense of this commandment, especially in the context of the whole of Scripture and of subsequent rabbinic and Church tradition. The verb used ‘means to commit adultery…and the prohibitive is directed towards maintaining the sanctity of the marriage’ (Childs, p. 422). The commandment is directed to men and women. Furthermore, the relationship to be protected embraces ‘a woman married or betrothed to another’ (Gray, p. 55). Indeed the principal matter of note about the commandment, in the light of later provisions of the Pentateuch, may be that it extends the sanctity of the relationship to betrothal as well as full marriage (Noth, p. 165).
The penalty for violating this commandment is capital (Deuteronomy 22:22-7).
Childs, by way of background, notes the way in which Abimelech ‘reacts in horror’ to his near commission of adultery by mistake in Genesis 20. Likewise Joseph calls Potiphar’s wife’s proposition a ‘great wickedness and sin against God’ (Genesis 39:9).
This commandment condemning marital infidelity is repeated and reinforced by the teaching of Christ and the Church. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Christ extends ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ to condemn to inappropriate sexual lust (Matthew 5:27-8). Such lust, when entertained and consented to by the will, is the root of marital infidelity.
Traditional interpretation of this commandment, following Christ’s lead in the Sermon on the Mount, extends its meaning beyond a narrow condemnation of adultery and marital infidelity to teach the Christian positively ‘to keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity’ (Catechism, page 580), and to teach negatively a prohibition against all forms of sexual impropriety or immorality.
20:15. The eighth commandment, against stealing.
The commandment (like the sixth and seventh) consists of two words with an implied object. The Hebrew verb root, gnb, can have as its object either a person or a thing. Some commentators believe, given the possibility of a person as its object, that in its original context the commandment referred to kidnapping, the ‘stealing’ of persons.
Clifford, for example, argues that here ‘kidnapping is prohibited; ordinary theft is forbidden by the last commandment’ (p. 53). While this kind of stealing might seem to be a rather rare sin in our culture, in the nomadic world of the early Old Testament, it was not so. Already in Genesis are the examples of the kidnapping of Lot (14:12) and Joseph (chapter 37). Tribal warfare, raiding parties, and hit-and-run warfare, made kidnapping a common occurrence. See also later the kind of raiding and kidnapping that went on in the early days of David: I Samuel 30:1-3, 18-9.
If correct, this older sense obviously differs somewhat from its meaning in the subsequent tradition of synagogue and Church. Brevard Childs, in contrast to the kidnapping interpretation, suggests that the commandment’s term for stealing is distinguished from other ‘types of misappropriation’, for which there are other terms, by ‘the element of secrecy’ (p. 423). The word gnb is used for taking by stealth both in good and bad cases. For an example of ‘good’ taking, Childs notes II Kings 11:2, the hiding of Joash for his own protection from the murderous Athaliah. Childs also argues that while the reference of the verb to kidnapping may be part of the prehistory of the text, as we now have the command, with no explicit object, it has a wide scope beyond any particular object of theft (p. 424).
Both the rabbinic and Church traditions see this commandment as a conventional prohibition against theft in all its forms. As the Catechism says, in summary of this aspect of our duty, I am ‘to keep my hands from picking and stealing’ and ‘to learn and labour truly to get mine own living’. Stealing includes theft or taking the property of others in any form or manner, some of which are charmingly described in Georgia law, such as ‘theft by sudden snatch’. Theft includes: keeping the property or wages due to another; removing or taking or appropriating to oneself such property; wasting the goods and money of others; mooching and borrowing unreasonably from friends or family or strangers; theft of time (as when one is habitually late for appointments, or when one wastes time that is properly due to one’s employer); penuriousness; failure to pay lawful taxes; failure to return borrowed things; cheating customers; and withholding from God and the poor that which is their due, as in reasonable alms and tithes.
The positive meanings embraced by this commandment include contentment with one’s own and respect for that which belongs to others. For
…godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare…. (I Timothy 6-9)
[W]hat hath the wise more than the fool? what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than he wandering of desire. (Eccl. 6:8f.)
In general a disciplining of one’s own desires and generosity towards others are effective preventatives against temptations to sin against the eighth commandment.
20:16. The ninth commandment, against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.
This commandment in the first instance forbids the giving of perjured or false testimony. It envisions legal proceedings and formal oaths, as the English translation (‘false witness’) suggests. See Psalm 27:12 for a complaint against false accusation by false witnesses. The original sense is ‘not a general prohibition of lying, but forbids lying which directly affects one’s fellow’, first in legal proceedings, and then more generally (Childs, p. 424).
By extension, this commandment forbids any falsehood that is damaging to one’s ‘neighbor’. The definition of ‘neighbor’, in turn, probably was very broad: anyone with whom one comes into contact, whether in a legal proceeding, in business that involves one’s word, or in daily life in general. This broad definition of neighbor certainly is that taught by the New Testament, where our Lord directly defined the neighbor in universal terms through his parable of the Good Samaritan (St. Luke 10:30-7). This parable, of course, is an answer to the question, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ (in 10:29), though the question is posed in a context concerned with our general moral duty to the neighbor, and not with the duty of truth-telling in particular. In any case the basic meaning of the commandment is clear: it demands of us truth-telling, reliability, fidelity to oaths, and straight-forwardness in word and speech. The Catechism summarized this commandment as a duty to ‘keep… my tongue from evil speaking, lying, and slandering’. This makes clear that the commandment extends beyond legal contexts, to condemn all manner of falsehoods.
The general duty to be a truth-teller is clear. Nevertheless, its exact extent in all circumstances is not something that can be defined in advance absolutely. In general, moral theologians have said that we have a duty to give the truth to those who have a right to it, which in general is those with whom we have dealings. The duty is not absolute, however, as becomes apparent when one considers some extreme cases. For instance, if I am sheltering a family of Jews in my attic, and the Gestapo knocks on my door to ask if I have some Jews in my house, I do not owe them the information that they seek and am not obliged to expose my guests to death. Likewise, if a man is plainly deranged and asks for information concerning the location of his gun, I am not obliged to tell him the truth, and in fact it would be uncharitable and harmful to do so. In such cases it is legitimate to withhold the truth: the person who asks does not deserve truthful information and it would be wicked to convey it.
This qualification concerning truth-telling, however, is dangerous and difficult. Lying, like many vices, can become habitual, and it is easy to tell ourselves that a given lie is a ‘white lie’, or harmless, or positively good, when in fact we may just be shirking the unpleasant consequences of honesty. If we often tell such ‘white lies’, we may soon find that we are no longer truth-tellers but liars.
One way some have sought to avoid this difficulty is through equivocation and mental reservations. One might, for instance, tell the Nazis that ‘There are no Jews in my house and never have been!’, while mentally recalling that the house belongs to my wife and so is not ‘my house’ strictly speaking. This is an equivocation which produces a literally truthful statement which, nonetheless, is misleading and deceptive. Such stratagems do not really solve the problem. My duty is to be a truth-teller and not to deceive and is not merely a duty not to speak words which are strictly false under all constructions and interpretations. Or again, my duty is to give the truth, not merely to say that which is not strictly speaking necessarily false. Equivocation, sharply pointed definitions, and mental reservations produce an unpleasant effect against which we instinctively recoil: ‘It depends what you mean by “is”’ was not one of the more admirable sayings of 1999.
The best thing, perhaps, is to say that we should cultivate the habit of truth-telling, even — and perhaps particularly — when it is costly to us. But we also should remember that the duty to tell the truth is not absolute if the truth is not owed to a person who may do serious harm to himself or others if the truth is spoken.
Likewise, keeping my word or promise is a general duty flowing from the obligation to be a truth-speaker, which, however, is not absolute in its extent. The classic example of wicked promise-keeping is Herod’s killing of John the Baptist in fulfillment of his promise to the daughter of Herodias to do whatever she asked as a reward for her dance (St. Matthew 14:6-11; St. Mark 6:22-8). A sinful and intrinsically evil act is not justified by the fact that it is performed in fulfillment of a promise or vow or oath. I do not have the right to promise that which is sinful, and it is wrong either to perform such a promise or to hold someone else to perform it. Nonetheless, we have a general duty to fulfill our commitments and promises, even when doing so is costly and inconvenient to us.
Perhaps the best way to paraphrase this commandment is to say that I have a duty to keep my word and to speak the truth and not to mislead others, except when to do so will cause a grave harm to others, which harm is clearly foreseen and which cannot be avoided except by withholding the truth.
The Catechism’s warning against slander contains a final point. Again, it is not enough to avoid speech which is necessarily and unmistakably false. Gossip, detraction, and slander, even about matters that may be true and factual, are wrong. Self-restraint in speech and a positive desire to avoid harming others by my speech are duties included in this commandment. Scripture is full of admonitions against false, hurtful, slanderous, and excessive talk about others: consider, e.g., James 3:2-13 and St. Matthew 15:11, and often in the Psalms (as in 27:12, 34:13) and Proverbs (6:19, 19:5 & 9, 21:28).
20:17. The tenth commandment, against coveting. There is some debate about the meaning of the verb, ḥamad . Alter notes that the Hebrew verb exhibits a range of meanings from ‘“yearn for,” “desire,” even “lust after” (the usual sense of postbiblical Hebrew), to simple “want.”’ (p. 432) The KJV translation, ‘covet’, seems to cover this range of meanings best. Noth and others assert that the word ‘describes not merely the emotion of coveting but also includes the attempt to attach something to oneself illegally.’ (Noth, p. 166). Cf. Exodus 34:24. The debate, then, is between those who think the commandment mainly concerns the emotion of desiring and those who think it mainly concerns a corresponding action. A detailed discussion of scholars holding these positions is presented by Childs (pp. 425-7).
Clearly, then, the commandment proscribes and prohibits something illicit. The desires in question are those that may lead to violation of the seventh (adultery) or eighth (stealing) commandments. Some commentators believe that in this commandment ḥamad, includes taking steps to acquire the prohibited person or thing, not merely an act of will that remains entirely internal to the agent:
As comparable inscriptions make clear, ḥamad means conspiracy, taking steps to steal (not merely ‘covet’). (Clifford, p. 53)
Alter notes a similar concern in the medieval commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, to avoid the ‘legislation of desire’ itself (Alter, p. 432). This interpretation, however, that the commandment mainly deals with actions to acquire illicitly, seems inadequate. On that narrower interpretation, dealing with external action, this commandment would seem to add nothing to the seventh and eighth commandments, unless, like a prosecutor loading up charges, it condemns conspiracy to steal or commit adultery as a sin separate from and additional to stealing and adultery. This seems unlikely. So, we prefer the traditional interpretation: lawless and inordinate desire in and of itself is wrong, even if it does not proceed to express itself in actual theft or adultery. This interpretation fits with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It seems safest to acknowledge the difference between the desire and the resultant action but not to overemphasize it.
The parts of this commandment are in a somewhat different order in Deuteronomy 5:21.
Exodus 20:17 – ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.’
Deuteronomy 5:21 – ‘Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbor’s wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbor’s.’
We note in the general introduction to the Decalogue that whereas the Exodus version seems to place wives as one item in a list of property (and perhaps not the most important, since the wife is listed between the house and the servants), Deuteronomy seems to place the wife in a different category from the items of property. The Deuteronomic version is closer to the Lutheran/Roman Catholic theory that divides this commandment into two, with adulterous desire treated as a separate prohibited thing from the coveting of property. In support of the separation of v. 17b as a separate commandment, one notes that the prohibited verb is repeated there.
Certainly in the Christian tradition, flowing from the Sermon on the Mount, while this commandment is related to the seventh and eighth, it is more internal and more directed to the heart. It teaches us ‘[n]ot to covet or desire other men’s goods; But to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, And to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.’ (BCP p. 580) This last element makes clear the point of the commandment: contentment is the opposite of covetousness. Contentment is ultimately not a matter of being content with the things that we have but rather is a matter of being content with what we are: with that state of life to which we have been called and in which we find ourselves. Discontentment, spiritual restlessness, the ‘wandering of desire’, excessive acquisitiveness, are all kinds of rebellion against what God has sent and given us. This rebellion against our vocation and God’s providence is at the heart of coveting. Covetousness is an attempt to replace God with things. And so, in a sense, the final commandment returns us to the first: God is God, and no one and nothing else is to displace him in our hearts. St. Paul seems to connect covetousness and idolatry in Ephesians 5:5, as is made particularly clear in the Revised Standard translation: ‘no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.’ Covetousness, as a radical misplacing of priorities, amounts to idolatry and false worship.
Covetousness can lead, as noted already, to other sins such as theft and adultery. Scripture is alive to the social dimension of this sin: ‘they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.’ Covetousness and greed lead not only to private sin, but also to social injustice and oppression. Less obviously, when covetousness leads to excessive acquisitiveness, we are less free for almsgiving and charity, and so can do less social good than we otherwise might.
There is a powerful strand of Biblical thought opposed to the amassing of wealth, particularly when that is done in the context of the poverty and suffering of many others. The prophets’ condemnations of luxury and of indifference to the sufferings of the poor issues forth in Christ’s preferential treatment of the poor: see the series of incidents and sayings in St. Matthew 19:21-9 and in the parallel passages in Mark 10:21-31, and Luke 18:22-30. The rich young man is particularly poignant in Mark’s version: ‘Then Jesus beholding him loved him’ and calls him to give up his riches. Apart from St. John, the beloved disciple in St. John’s gospel, this is, I believe, the only case in which we are told directly that our Lord loved someone. And yet this rich young man, who here is being called as a disciple and perhaps even an apostle, prefers his possessions to Christ’s call. St. Luke’s gospel, which is sometimes called the gospel of absolute renunciation, is particularly strong in its picture of Christ’s preference for the poor: consider, e.g., St. Luke 16:19-31. St. James continues the idea of partiality to the poor with a sharp condemnation of preferential treatment for the rich in 2:2-8 (and cf. 5:1).