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The Ten Commandments in today’s society

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The Ten Commandments monument is pictured in the State Judicial Building in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003.

The Ten Commandments monument is pictured in the State Judicial Building in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003.

Dave Martin, Associated Press

Ten utterances. Ten words.

That is how some scriptural traditions refer to the imperatives Moses brought down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets.

Those utterances, known today as the Ten Commandments, transformed the world. They clarified for an emerging nation of Bronze Age refugees that deity was not simply manifest through miraculous deliverance. Yes, the God of Israel could unfathomably part the Red Sea — but instead of drawing his chosen people to him through repeated displays of awe-inspiring interventions, he would free and refine each one of them through the expectation of adhering to ethical edicts.

Those straightforward laws gave the men and women of Israel choice and accountability for how each one of them related to the true and living God and for how they interacted with one another.

What might they mean for us today?

As those 10 utterances were memorialized and universalized, they provided a code of conduct that honored family, protected life, secured property, defined boundaries, enhanced trust and thereby secured the foundation for cohesive and productive social interaction. The Ten Commandments launched into human history the hypothesis that a society could be peacefully ordered under a rule of generally applicable laws rather than the forceful whim of autocrats.

And humanity continues to test that hypothesis.

Today the Deseret News begins a series that looks at "The Ten Today.” Over the next two weeks our writers will explore what each of the Ten Commandments means in contemporary society. How well is our world responding to the expectations set on Sinai over 3,000 years ago?

As we began to explore this topic, we quickly discovered consensus among religious leaders, theologians, philosophers, psychologists and even economists about the historical importance of the Ten Commandments.

But we wanted to take stock not just of history, but of how each of the commandments operates in contemporary culture.

Without giving away too much (we encourage you to read each installment), the resulting picture is not black and white. For example, although secularization has taken its toll on traditional patterns of worship, an innate concern about doing what is right seems to draw many to seek how they can put God at the center of their lives. Although the incessant media reporting of violent acts can make people feel insecure, murder rates are actually down.

We also observed that the media, including the rise of the Internet and social media, are often at the crux of how these commandments play out in modern society. Whether coveting the items we see on social media, protecting ourselves from digital thieves or kindling romances online, our use of media provides a fresh canvas and a new test for the age-old principles enshrined in the Ten Commandments.

There is a strong residual influence in civil law of the commandments’ behavioral restrictions on murder, infidelity, theft and lying. Nonetheless, there seems to be an erosion of the rich Talmudic and Christian tradition of moral reasoning that tried to distill from the Ten Commandments core principles that logically extend beyond the blunt command. So, for example, there seems to be less serious reflection in daily moral choices about what “thou shalt not kill” might say about the sanctity of life generally or what “thou shalt not commit adultery” could teach about the bounds of sexual behavior.

Even more tenuous seems to be the influence today of what the commandments outline as mankind’s obligations to God. In an age when profanity is rife and the Sabbath is honored in the breach, what “gods” are men and women really worshiping? And if the importance of God’s authority has eroded, how truly lasting is the influence of the other commandments that protect personhood, property and life?

The series tracks the commandments in the order most familiar to the Protestant tradition, but is relevant to anyone interested in how ideas shape behavior. Although the series unfolds with a look at the first commandment, the order of the series is not numerical (e.g., we will publish a close look at the fourth commandment, the Sabbath Day, as eighth in our series on Easter Sunday).

Ten utterances changed the ancient world. Are they relevant today?

We believe that as long as people yearn for a cohesive and cooperative society that supports familial ties, secures the integrity of personhood and property, shuns petty jealousies and violence, and seeks to treat all alike in the eyes of social authority and before God, then the Ten Commandments — which accomplish these and much more — will continue to be inescapably relevant. We hope you enjoy “The Ten Today.”

Email: editor@deseretnews.com