Conservatives often like to claim that texts speak for themselves. A review of the Ten Commandments is an easy way to see how such claims are false. First, such a review nicely shows that we must interject our own judgment even before we start reading a text because we first have to decide what the text is. When we look for "Ten" Commandments in the Bible, we won't find such a neat list. Instead, we'll find two places in the Bible (Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21) which support such a list though we could come up with a different number depending on what we expressly include (for example is not bowing down to other gods included in not putting other gods first or is it a separate command?) and depending upon how we group what we find. The number 10 is thus in that sense arbitrary.
Second, once we've used our judgment as to the content and number of the list, reading the commandments still requires much interpretation. For example, read literally they say that we cannot kill. That would mean we could not cut down a tree much less kill a wild beast attacking us. Of course, no reasonable person would take these words that literally and thus no honest person who is reasonable would claim we don't have to use our minds and hearts when we read a text. Instead, what we generally want to do when reading the words of others is to figure out what the speaker meant by those words. This involves engaging in what philosophers of language call pragmatics, a topic that I have written about elsewhere. Have Ahab, Herod, and Caiaphas really tried to understand and follow speaker meaning in the poems that follow?
Third, the Ten Commandments also remind us of another wrinkle in cross-language cases. The Commandments are in an ancient language that most of us cannot read. We must thus rely on translations, and translations also involve judgment and often are erroneous or questionable at best. Anyone who tells us that we can and should take a translation literally and without question is thus wrong on multiple levels.
Polemics of Herod Antipas
As I rest,
To follow your commandments and through those
Would hope I have abated other sin.
And thus kept your commandment. I took pain
To foster commerce so that men could gain
The property they craved. I knew no one
By your commandments. Though Elijah would