Man and The Ten Commandments


Written By:  Robert D Brinsmead

The Ten Commandments’ greatest feature is that the document says practically nothing about the way we should relate to God (like how to approach him in worship, rituals, right prayers, posture, formulae, rules of worship etc.  This is remarkable because all the surrounding religions were preoccupied with these religious things– but the Covenant’s great focus is really on the right relationship with humanity, namely, how to “love your neighbour as yourself.”  It is not a perfect or completed vision, but it is a good start.  The fourth commandment is not about a method of worshipping God, but about a humanitarian provision encompassing kindness to animals and slaves through not overworking them out of human greed.  Slavery is not condemned here, nor in the rest of the Law of Moses which is also called the Law of God in Holy Scripture.  Women are spoken of as if they were part of male property.  The big Ten does not condemn polygamy – but a woman is not allowed to have more than one husband.  The commandment re adultery is more focussed on a man’s rather than a woman’s right to exclusive fidelity.

But given the time they were given, the Ten Commandments were a great document and a great start with its focus on humanity.  The prophets took this further when they railed against religion – its sacrifices and rituals – and showed that real sin was man’s inhumanity to man.  Jesus took his cue from Hillel, the greatest Pharisee of them all, and perhaps the greatest Jew since Moses – in teaching that love of neighbour was the total fulfilment of both Law and Prophets.  It is clear that Jesus did not put the emphasis on the so-called First Great Commandment re love of God, and neither Hillel or Jesus said that the love of God totally fulfils the law and the prophets.  I too used to think like Guthrie the Jesuit scholar that love of neighbour was only half the law, until the penny dropped for me that Hillel and Jesus said clearly that love of neighbour was all of the Law (See Matthew 7:14 – and full marks to Paul for saying the same in Galatians 5:14.

Yes, Jesus and Paul are on the same page in that they teach (1) what they were on about was not a voiding or abrogation of Torah/ Law/Scripture (2) but a fulfilment of it in spirit if not in letter.  It is right to ignore or transcend the letter of the good to keep it in its true intent and spirit – and this is what the inclusive and unconditional love of neighbour does.  In other words, ignore what traditional wisdom or justice says, what the Law says, what the Bible says, what God is supposed to have said, what your religious tradition says, what political correctness dictates,  if it runs contrary to doing the human thing.  Have the courage to do the human thing under all circumstances.  Luther came close to it when he said that faith and love should be the mistress of all law and we should “sin bravely” or do what is not religiously lawful if faith and love demands it.  (Not an exact quote of Luther, but the sense of it – at least the young Luther, that is)

Breathing is an animal function, which is an admission that Homo sapiens is in reality an animal species sharing somewhere around 90% of the same genes as most mammals.  Man is a mammal. And the structure of human cells and other animal cells is identical.  This is not all bad since we inherit a lot of wonderful gifts from our animal inheritance too, and they can add to life’s enjoyment.

I refer to Watson’s book, “Dark Nature”, in which Watson started out wanting to know what could have motivated those two English teenagers to murder that two-year old in a kind of thrill kill along the train tracks.  He attended their trial.  His book is about the behaviour of animals whose genes we inherit.  The book makes a fascinating read and it was one of the great milestones in my own journey just to read his insights into animal behaviour that influences the human inheritance.  When I read that book I knew quite clearly that I did not need any doctrine of original sin to know where man’s predatory, xenophobic, band separation and hostility to strangers and much more came from.  We inherit the genes of a long animal past, and some of that history is not pretty.  But we also have of God a human spirit (mind, consciousness, reason, etc).  Some call it the higher nature in distinction from the lower nature.  Some call it the divine nature over the carnal (flesh) nature.  The gift of being made in the image and likeness of God (who is Spirit according to John 4) is surely not in possessing flesh and blood as all animals do, for even Paul can tell us, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”  Again, “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink (stuff all animals consume) but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”


Before the time of modern biology and human psychology, people did not speak of the “flesh” or “the carnal nature” in terms of our animal inheritance because it was generally thought that God made humans in a separate act of creation and thus not really made of the stuff of animals.  But modern science certainly brought us back to earth to realize that we came off the same assembly line as all life does.  We humans have culture as well as nature.  That gets us away from thinking along old religious lines.  Culture must rule over nature, otherwise we go back to the law of the jungle. To give one simple illustration, it is human culture that forbids incest – but incest happens all the time at a purely natural level.


Hillel lived for 120 years. It seems that Jesus repeated the greatest sayings of Hillel, such as do unto others as you would have them do to you.  On the Sabbath Hillel said, “You are not given over to the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is given over to you.”  So Jesus: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”  It used to be said that Jesus’ teaching of God as Abba Father was unique to Jesus, but it has been shown that this too was a teaching of Hillel.  Some scholars have even claimed that Jesus was a Pharisee.  But one thing is certain: Jesus did not indulge in that bitter badgering of the Pharisees cited in Matthew 23 (which of course is a total contradiction of the Sermon on the Mount re not judging others).  Matthew 23 is totally incorrect historically and illustrates how some NT authors did not hesitate to apply “Jesus said” to support the religious battles.  That bitterness toward the Pharisees was manifested 3 generations later when the Jesus people were expelled from the synagogue when Judaism became Rabbinic rather than priestly Judaism.  Matthew 23 is not a reflection of the historical Jesus, but a reflection of Matthew’s community’s bitter response to being put out of the synagogue.  This was more than a personal affront (no one likes being rejected in this way) but it meant that those excluded from being Jews had no protection from Roman Law demanding Emperor worship of all people except the Jews who enjoyed exemption from Emperor worship on condition of paying a special tax.  This is why circumcision of Gentile converts (as in Galatia) was an attractive offer – it was a means to escape persecution for accepting the Gospel, and could in fact save one from being thrown into the Colosseum to be eaten by lions.

Longevity is only one aspect of human progress.  The improvements since the first century are on many fronts.  More than 90% of people were illiterate back then, and slavery was widespread and accepted even by the Church.  There was no gender equality either inside or outside the Church.  There was no 40 hour week or Workers Compensation.  There was no democracy – only the divine right of the thuggery of rulers.  Cities were without proper sanitation, running water, and without electricity.  We can’t imagine the horror of life without electricity.  Nothing moved faster than a horse. Human rights were almost non-existent, to say nothing of rights of animals to be treated humanely.

This was pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment mankind who readily accepted myths without critical examination (ordinary people did not have the tools for any literary, historical or cultural criticism).  People could be persuaded that some ruler, healer, orator, philosopher or miracle worker was a god at the drop of a hat.  It was an age of superstition and appalling ignorance and desperate poverty on so many fronts.

People at that time were far short of the moral consciousness that now demands equal rights, racial equality, gender equality, human rights, animal rights, democratic institutions and so on.  Hence my reluctance to accept as authority what insight some herdsman was able to scratch on some animal parchment many centuries ago.  Our basic human freedoms were inconceivable back then.  We don’t accept any authority for what is truth except it is based on some observable and rational evidence.  We should not minimize the enormous human progress, even within our own lifetimes.