If the Ten Commandments Had Been Organized by a Committee

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When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments in the book of Genesis, He was essentially a committee of three: God the Father, God the Son — Jesus Christ — and the Holy Spirit. Thus, since they were three Gods in one, they no doubt agreed unanimously on everything. Recently, however, I began to wonder what it would have been like if God had written up the Commandments for us in a random order but asked a private-company committee of five 21st-century workers to sort them out and order them. As a member of that fictional committee, here’s what I recall.

“ ‘Commandments?’ Do we really want to call them ‘commandments’?” Karen, a petite, young female in the marketing department asked at the outset. “That word seems so harsh, so didactic, so forceful, almost too forceful. Perhaps we could go with ‘suggestions’ or ‘recommendations’ instead. What do the rest of you think?”

We debated that question for a while with no clear consensus, so we decided to come back to it once we had the order of the ten “ideas” figured out.

“I think the first commandment should be ‘Thou shalt not steal,’” Bill, an elderly gentleman from accounting offered. “Somebody stole my leftover pizza from the frig in the kitchen today, and that really set me off. Nothing shows more disrespect toward our fellow man than refusing to honor ownership.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Agnes, a sarcastic, middle-aged woman from research responded. “You want to put ‘Thou shalt not steal’ ahead of ‘Thou shalt not kill’? Isn’t your life more valuable than your leftover pizza?”

“Actually, they’re about the same,” Bill responded calmly and seriously. “Killing someone is essentially stealing that person’s life, so maybe we should combine those two. Maybe we only need nine ideas.”

“Hmm, there’s an interesting thought,” I said aloud. “You might be on to something.” As an editorial guy, I’m always looking to shorten or simplify a text. “Ten is probably way too many. I could see three or four, perhaps even five, but really, who is going to read all the way to number ten?”

Encouraged by my response, Bill started consolidating: “Okay, like I said, we can just write ‘Thou shalt not steal anything,’ and that will cover killing, adultery, stealing, and coveting ‘thy neighbor’s wife’ and ‘goods.’ We are definitely on the right track now.”

Finally, Brenda, our committee chair and office supervisor, and easily the smartest person in the room, offered her thoughts: “I’m rather intrigued by what you’re saying, and there is some logic to it, but I’m not sure how the one about “false testimony” fits in there or the other ones about God and the Sabbath.”

Sarcastic Agnes spoke up again, and she saw the connection immediately. “False testimony is essentially lying, and when I lie, I am stealing the truth. I am taking what really happened — like the fact that I ate Bill’s pizza — and I am hiding the truth away, along with all my physical possessions, so that Bill won’t know that I valued my hunger over his rightful possession.”

“Did you really eat my pizza?” Bill asked.

“You’ll never know the truth, will you?” Agnes replied with a laugh.

“I can’t believe you ate my pizza.”

“I didn’t, Bill. I really didn’t. I’m just trying to make a point here.”

Brenda was working seriously during this exchange; I could tell by her furrowed brow and by her furious notetaking. When she stopped writing, Brenda addressed Agnes: “I really like what you said about ‘stealing the truth.’ Maybe we can combine the five that Bill mentioned with your false testimony into one and, then, keep the other four as they are. That would give us five ideas instead of ten.”

“I like our progress,” I said, “but maybe we can also combine the three ideas about God. Let’s see, basically these three say the following:

‘One, I’m in charge, and you’re not;

Two, don’t mess with my name; and

Three, honor Me, especially on the Sabbath.’”

“Ya know,” Karen said, “Maybe we should just take away the harshness here too. Instead of all the ‘Thou shalt nots,’ what if we put a more positive spin on these so-called ‘commandments’.”

Brenda encouraged Karen to continue by asking, “What did you have in mind?”

Karen thought for a second or two and answered, “Well, how about something simple, some straightforward directions like ‘Love God with everything you’ve got.’ If we do that, we won’t be distracted by other gods, we would never dishonor His name, and we’d be spending our time with Him every day of the week, not just on Sunday.”

“Karen, I have to admit,” Bill said, “I like that a lot.”

“So do I,” Agnes added.

Brenda, ever the committee chair, was writing down what Karen had said, and she also appeared to be crossing out some of what we had said earlier. Since we had all seemed to reach something of a consensus, we waited for Brenda to summarize.

“Okay, so now we have narrowed the ten ideas down to three: first, Karen’s ideas about loving God; second, ‘honor your parents’; and, third, ‘don’t steal anything from anybody.’”

“I like that too,” I said, “but I still think we can combine the second and third and give them the same positive spin that Karen did earlier.” Everyone looked at me and waited.

“Like Karen said, instead of keeping the ‘Thou shalt nots,’ how about if we parallel pretty much what we just did with the God ideas?”

“And as we do so,” Agnes contributed, “we can include both parents and everyone else in our lives.”

“Yes,” Brenda added. “We can basically say, ‘You should treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.’”

“In other words,” Bill said with a smile, “If you don’t want anyone to eat your pizza, don’t eat their pizza either.”

“It all comes back to pizza, doesn’t it, Bill?” Agnes asked.

“Indeed, it does, I’m ashamed to admit.”

The whole meeting took about four hours, and by the end, we had edited the Ten Commandments down to two, and we had tweaked the text to try to make it more memorable. We also agreed to call them the “Two Greatest Commandments.” Yes, even Karen said that we could use the word ‘commandment’ because we only had two and because they both had an upbeat tone to them:

The whole meeting took about four hours, and by the end, we had edited the Ten Commandments down to two, and we had tweaked the text to try to make it more memorable. We also agreed to call them the “Two Greatest Commandments.” Yes, even Karen said that we could use the word ‘commandment’ because we only had two and because they both had an upbeat tone to them:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

By the end, we all agreed that our final work had a certain familiarity to it, and I suppose we could have Googled the phrases to see if anyone else had ever said them before, but by that time, we were all tired and hungry. Besides, Bill had offered to take us out and treat us all to a pizza dinner, so off we went.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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