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    Thou shalt not – the negative commandments

    A Christian clergyman told me recently that the negatives (all the “thou shalt nots”) in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:13-14) were because Adam bequeathed sinful traits to all subsequent generations.

    Human beings therefore wanted to murder, steal and commit adultery, and had to be stopped by a stern warning from God.

    I said that I did not accept his theology, nor did I think he read human psychology correctly.

    I told him that when I discussed the negative phrasing of the Decalogue with my classes, I asked the students to rephrase the commandments to make them positive, leaving out the word “not”. The result was never impressive.

    “Thou shalt not murder” became “Thou shalt respect human life”, but that is not the same thing. Obviously respect for life is axiomatic and indispensable – but it is not nearly as concise, sharp and clear as “Thou shalt not kill”.

    It was a Christian cleric, Dean WR Matthews, who wrote, “Our first inkling of the difference between right and wrong came to us in the form of ‘Thou shalt not’.

    “‘Thou shalt not’ is not the last word in morals, but it is the first word.

    “‘Thou shalt not slander, murder, commit adultery, steal, covet’: they don’t take us all the way, but they are a good beginning.”

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