I’ve been thinking about the Ten Commandments.
It’s not something I often do. But they came to mind because I’d been to a talk where the author David Bodanis mentioned that his next book, a book he’d been working on for several years, was on this very subject. If the book is even a quarter as entertaining as Mr Bodanis is in person, then it will easily be one of the best books of whatever year it comes out in.
Anyway, the talk got me thinking. But before I go on it’s probably worth stating that while I was half-heartedly brought up in a religious faith, I don’t have a religious faith. As a child I was a Catholic. By the time I had left my Catholic primary school at eleven I had, in Catholic parlance, lapsed.
To my mind, however, I hadn’t lapsed, more lost interest because so much of what I was supposed to believe seemed unlikely. Also, the big questions that came into my head, were never really answered. It was all the usual stuff – if God exists how can he let suffering happen to innocent children, if my friends don’t believe in the same God I do then what happens to them when they die, and, when the local priest talked so certainly in his sermons about what God wanted from me how did he know, I mean, had God actually been in touch?
The other question I couldn’t resolve in my church-going childhood was about a very specific aspect of Catholic theology. In the Catholic church God is descibed in three parts. There’s God the Father. There’s God the Son. And there’s God the Holy Ghost.
Now I understood God the Father. And I understood God the Son, on account of that being Jesus. But God the Holy Ghost? I understood the word holy, and I understood the word ghost. But put them together and you get what exactly?
For me, it was mystery that remained, and remains, well, mysterious. It’s like that bit in the 1986 film ‘Stand By Me’ when, as the young protagonists wander through a sun-drenched 1950s landscape, one of them poses the deeply philosophical question that had clearly been troubling him for some time:
‘ If Mickey is a mouse, and Pluto is a dog, then what’s Goofy?’
In the film they never come up with an answer. And, similarly, I never came up with an answer as to what, precisely, the Holy Ghost was. Hardly surprising then that I drifted away from the Catholic church. And given that I have the kind of mind that can equate a fundamental theological query with a question about a cartoon character with buck teeth and the speech pattern of an idiot, I doubt that the Catholic church overly worried that they were missing out on a potential Pope.
But, the truth is, that childhood is a strange place for anyone to grow up, and in many ways you can be shaped as much by the things you reject, as by the things you accept.
Meanwhile, back at my recent consideration of the Ten Commandments, the question that came to mind is this:
Obviously there are other questions about them too. I mean, look at them with a modern sensibility, and the benefit of all the recent advances in corporate Human Resources practice, and they do tend to be a bit on the negative side. And consequently not very empowering.
Eight of the Commandments are about things you shouldn’t do. So there’s stuff in there about not worshipping other gods, or graven images, or stealing, or bearing false witness. But only two of the Commandments seek to promote best practice. There’s the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, and there’s the one about honouring thy mother and thy father.
The overall effect of such a list which is biased towards the prescriptive is that it creates the impression that this particular religion is mainly concerned with telling people off, and seems to start from a view of humanity that is decidedly negative.
Not that long ago I started a job where one of the first things I was told when I was shown to my desk was that ‘we don’t eat at our desks’. For me it immeadiately created an image of the company which was less than encouraging. Eventually the company went bust, and while there were all kinds of recession linked reasons for this, along with bad management decisions, my personal theory is that the place went down because no-one was allowed to eat at their desks.
The point I’m trying to make is define the values of an organisation by telling the people in that organisation what they can’t do and it doesn’t exactly make them feel good about themselves. Or, indeed, about the organisation.
Which isn’t to say that the Ten Commandments don’t contain sensible rules. I mean, who could argue with ‘Thou shalt not kill’? But even that, I would suggest, for the vast majority of people isn’t that good a rule because it’s not that relevant.
Even back in Biblical times people killing each other in their daily lives must have been a pretty rare occurrence. So surely it would have been better to frame a Commandment that drew the line at a lower level of violence because, as it stands, anything up to actually killing someone is okay.
Then there’s the problem of the hierarchy of the Commandments. As they are reported each of the Commandments is given the same significance. So something like not coveting thy neighbour’s ox is accorded the same importance as not killing him. Which is a little odd.
Mind you, for me personally, having worked in advertising for a lot of my life, the whole ‘not coveting’ thing has always been a bit of a problem as advertising is an industry 90% built on the promotion of coveting.
Take Apple’s latest iPhone. If Apple hadn’t been able to create a business model fundamentally concerned with a coveting of the confluence between technology, functionality, style and cool, it would have real difficulty flogging a product that 95% of its customers will use to do exactly the same things as they did with their previous iPhone.
But all this is an aside. The question I started with, and would like to return to is, why Ten Commandments?
And the theory I would like to suggest is that maybe there are Ten Commandments because we have ten fingers.
I realise this sounds absurd, but stick with me for a moment.
Moses goes to the top of the mountain to converse with God. God lets him know he’s about to give him the rules by which he wants his people to live. Moses says he’s not brought any papyrus to write notes on. God says no worries I’ll inscribe them on two tablets of stone. Then as the two of them thrash out the logistics of it all they realise that no matter how devout his people might be, no-one’s going to wander round with two tablets of stone every day.
But then, because God is pretty bright, he comes up with this suggestion. If he makes the number of Commandments ten, then all a person has to do is look at his hands and he has a ready-made, permanent, portable reminder of just how he should live his life.
Now if things had panned out this way it would explain why, frankly, a few of the Commandments do seem a little like padding.
Obviously this far from authorized version of this particular momentous encounter between man and his maker is ridiculous. But the point it’s designed to highlight is this. Maybe some of the things we believe, some of the methods we have developed to make sense of, and navigate our way through our existence, are the way that they are because of the physical form of the human body.
Now if you are not an individual who is religious, or has a particular religious faith that stems from the words in the Bible, it’s easy to see the inherent absurdity in the possibility that the reason there are Ten Commandments is something as un-divine as the fact that we each have ten fingers.
But what if we extend the anlysis to the secular world? Is not all of our mathematics, and , consequently, much of our science, based on a numerical system that has 10 as its, well, base?
All of which raises the question that if we had evolved with four fingers on each hand would how we came to descibe and understand our world, and our existence, be different?
Or walk into another room of this particular house of thought and consider this. We live in a dichotomous world. There is black and white, there is right and wrong, there is yes and no, and there are two sides to every story.
Is this because this is, fundamentally, how the world is? Or is it because we have two arms with two hands at the end of them and given this particular aspect of our corporeal form then, of course our idea of balance and harmony involves duality.
Or to put it another way, if the upper evolutionary hand had been gained by octopi, would there be eight sides to every story?