The Ten Commandments
A book by Joseph Lewis
The Fifth Commandment

Page 323The Fifth Commandment Page 324

"Honor thy father and thy mother:
that thy days may be long upon the land
which the Lord thy God giveth thee."Page 325

Parents as Vice-Regents of God

The provisions of this Commandment bear a close relationship to those of the Second Commandment in which the Hebrew Deity threatens to punish "unto the third and fourth generation" the children of those parents who "serve other gods" in violation of the injunction to "have no other gods before me." The "honor" demanded in this Commandment was the strict conformity of the child to the religion of the parent, based upon the superstitious belief in sympathetic magic.

To the Biblical Hebrew, the land upon which he lived and from which he derived subsistence was the most precious thing in the world and could therefore only be a gift from the God he worshiped. To retain this possession, nothing must be done to arouse the anger of this jealous Deity, and therefore children were warned to honor their parents by imitating them in the observance of "my statutes and my commandments."

The words "the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" had deep significance for the Hebrews because their land was the binding tie between them and their Deity. [*1] To be removed from their homeland meant to be deserted by their God. The Bible is replete with many such references of their concern lest some act should provoke the loss of this valuable bequest to them. [**2]

I quote Deuteronomy, Chapter 26, verse 15:

15. Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel, and the land which thou hast given us, as thou swarest unto our fathers, a land that floweth with milk and honey. Page 326

Another Biblical quotation substantiating the above is from the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 7, verse 23:

23. And what one nation in the earth is like thy people, even like Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to himself, and to make him a name, and to do for you great things and terrible, for thy land, before thy people, which thou redeemedst to thee from Egypt, from the nations and their gods?

The above verses refer directly to the occupancy of the land as part of the inheritance of the Children of Israel from their God, and to the necessity of holding it inviolate as "thy holy habitation, from heaven." The fear that a child might commit some taboo act which would provoke the wrath of the Bible Deity against the parents was the reason for the provisions of this Commandment.

The readiness with which Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the proximity of this Commandment to the third, caused Philo Judaeus to place it in the category that dealt with questions of reverence and duty to God, as he contended the parents were "the visible gods." Many clergymen today include this Commandment with the previous four as being indicative of our "duty to God."

In early Greek writings there are numerous passages which put filial duties on a par with duties toward the deities. Aristotle speaks of "the affection of children to their parents is like that of men towards the gods." There is a Slavonian maxim that says: "A father is like an earthly God to his son." Indeed significant in revealing the primitive and underlying motive of this Commandment is the following Biblical injunction from Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 32:

32. Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord.

Much weight is placed upon the following passage because of its association with the Sabbath. It is claimed that the provisions of this Commandment are identical with the reasons for keeping the Sabbath, both being in the category of taboos that, if violated, would Page 327 bring down upon the perpetrators fearful punishment from this wrathful God. I quote Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 3:

3. Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father and keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.

There is a close association here of the fear of parents with the fear of God, and it is indicative of their vice-regency in relation to this Commandment.

The demand for conformity can best be illustrated by the following quotation giving the penalty for parental disobedience, particularly in the matter of unbelief, as well as for planting the seed of Israel in outside tribes, in violation of this Commandment. I quote Deuteronomy, Chapter 13, verses 6 to 11:

6. If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

7. Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;

8. Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

9. But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall he first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.

10. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

11. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you.

The great crime involved is enticing one to serve other gods -- "the gods of the people which are round about you..." To honor one's parents meant conforming strictly to the tribal religious belief, Page 328 and particularly promoting tribal unity. Disobedience in this respect was considered the worst possible offense because of the fear that not only the members of the household, but the rest of the tribe, would suffer from the wrath of their God.

The import of this quotation to the Commandment lies in the fact that adhering to the belief in the God of the parents was the most important duty of the child. For merely trying to entice someone away from that belief, "thou shalt surely kill him, thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death..." and "thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die ... because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." Verse 11 is an additional warning in support of this Commandment not to commit acts to provoke this Bible Deity to anger.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent substantiates my premise: "If we did not honor and reverence our parents, whom we do love next to God, and whom we have almost continuously before our eyes, how can we honor or reverence God, the supreme and best of parents, whom we cannot see?"

The following from Ephesians, Chapter 6, verses 1 to 3, deserves very careful consideration as it shows this thought carried over into the New Testament:

1. Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.

2. Honour thy father and mother, which is the first commandment with promise;

3. That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

The above quotation also repeats the phrase found in the Deuteronomy version of the Commandments, i.e., "that it may be well with thee," as further evidence of a reward for obeying parents as the representatives of the Lord.

Martin Luther, who is considered somewhat of an authority upon this question, said: "'Honor thy parents' does not refer to fellow Page 329 men, but to vice-regents of God. Therefore, as God is to be served both with honor and fear, his representatives are to be so, too."

To honor one's parents meant also to guard the purity of the seed of the tribe. The Children of Israel were threatened with being deprived of their land if they gave away any of their "seed unto Molech." I quote Leviticus, Chapter 20, verses 1 and 2:

1. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

2. Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.

Here again is the strict injunction to maintain the solidarity of the tribe:

3. And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.

4. And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and kill him not: [*3]

In addition, the slightest departure from the strict rule of maintaining tribal purity was condemned as "profaning" the tribal god:

5. Then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Molech, from among their people.

6. And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.

7. Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the Lord your God.

8. And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the Lord which sanctify you. Page 330

9. For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him. [*4]

To fanatically religious parents the greatest disgrace, the deepest humiliation a child could possibly inflict, is to marry a person of a different religious faith. To many this is a crime of such enormity that there is no forgiveness; according to the Bible, it constitutes a violation of this Commandment because the child "hath cursed his father or his mother" and committed "whoredom with Molech." This so-called act of dishonor has caused untold misery in the world. It has aroused the most violent bitterness and hatred. It has broken up homes and estranged families. And this Commandment has contributed largely to intensifying this condition.

Even though a child marries one whose faith permits him to accept this Commandment as part of the Decalogue, that does not in the least mitigate the enormity of the crime or lessen the hatred aroused. I have seen a Catholic mother weep as though her heart would break because her son was to marry a girl of the Protestant faith and the marriage ceremony was to be performed in a Protestant church. I have seen a Protestant mother disown and disinherit her son because he married a Catholic girl and the ceremony was performed by a priest. It was not until there was a death in the family that she permitted him and his wife and children to enter her house. Even today I have known orthodox Hebrew parents to mourn as dead a child who married outside of their faith. Some even go to the extent of performing the funeral ceremony as required by the ancient tribal law, to express their grief, as well as their condemnation of this filial breach. [**5]

In contrast to the hatred and bigotry caused and intensified by the Bible and religious systems in general, here is what the infidel Ingersoll said regarding parental affection: Page 331

"When your child commits a wrong take it in your arms; let it feel your heart beat against its heart; let the child know that you really and truly and sincerely love it. Yet some Christians, good Christians, when a child commits a fault, drive it from the door and say: 'Never do you darken this house again.' Think of that! And then these same people will get down on their knees and ask God to take care of the child they have driven from home. I will never ask God to take care of my children unless I am doing my level best in that same direction. Call me Atheist, call me infidel, call me what you will, I intend so to treat my children that they can come to my grave and truthfully say: 'He who sleeps here never gave us a moment of pain. From his lips, now dust, never came to us an unkind word.'" [*6]

At the conclusion of his address, of which this quotation is a part, a prominent United States Senator sought him out and said: "Colonel, you have converted me. For years I have been estranged from my only daughter because she did not marry to please me, but now I shall go to her tonight and beg her forgiveness for allowing a selfish pride to keep her from my arms and heart!"

The Biblical Hebrew felt that only by compelling their children to adhere to their belief and observe the other taboos and rituals associated with their religion, the disaster of losing their land could be averted.

I quote Deuteronomy, Chapter 11, verses 26 to 29:

26. Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse;

27. A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day:

28. And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known.

29. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord thy God hath brought thee in unto the land wither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt put the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal. Page 332

The constant repetition of a curse to be inflicted for disobeying this Commandment, and a blessing to be conferred for obedience, emphasized the necessity of conforming to its edicts. Its place in the Decalogue has no relationship whatever to the modern understanding of filial devotion, respect and affection. The "honor" to parents demanded in this Commandment was for the sole purpose of maintaining the solidarity of the tribe and the continuous "blessing" of the Bible Deity on all the Children of Israel who remain steadfast to his laws and statutes.

In Deuteronomy, Chapter 29, verses 18 to 29, is emphasized the warning against following other gods. It is imposed on parents by the Bible Deity, and reveals another reason why it was their duty to demand that their children "honor" them:

18. Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood;

19. And it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst:

20. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.

21. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law:

22 So that the generation to come of your children that shall rise up after you, and the stranger that shall come from a far land, shall say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses which the Lord hath laid upon it;

23. And that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim, which the Page 333 Lord overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath:

24. Even all nations shall say, Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this land? what meaneth the heat of this great anger?

The curse was forever an effective warning to the Children of Israel to obey their God:

25. Then men shall say, Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them forth out of the land of Egypt:

26. For they went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods whom they knew not, and whom he had not given unto them:

27. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this book.

The reason for this threat is repeated in the words "because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord God of their fathers..."

28. And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day.

29. The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and lo our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.

Here again is the threat of losing the land for disobedience.

Do we need more evidence to prove that this Commandment was formulated solely for the purpose of intensifying the solidarity of the tribe, as a mode of propitiation to the Bible Deity that the Israelites might continue to occupy the land which they believed their God had given them?

There still exists a strong conviction among the Hebrews that a father possesses a mystic power through his blessings or curses. Westermarck and other leading anthropologists support the contention that this Commandment, with its element of reward for honoring parents, was originally due to the prevalence of the belief that the parents were "vice-regents of God." [*7Page 334

The Element of Sympathetic Magic in Tribal Filial Obedience

The superstitious belief that parents possess the power of God on earth is found in nearly all primitive societies. Long before Moses is supposed to have lived, an Egyptian sage had written that "a son who attends to the words of his father will grow old in consequence." [*8]

Among the Moslems, parental disobedience is placed on a par with idolatry and murder; and some of the southern Slavs maintain that if a son does not fulfill the last will of his father, the soul of the father will curse him from the grave.

The Koreans believe that the richest rewards and the brightest heavens await the filial child, whereas curses and disgrace in this life and hell in the world hereafter are the penalties of the disobedient and neglectful child. A man who strikes his father is generally beheaded. [*9]

In ancient Egypt, the notion prevailed that a son who accepted the word of his father would attain old age on that account. [*10] In the Precepts of Ptahhotep we read: "How good it is when a son receives that which his father says. He shall reach advanced age thereby." [*11] Among the Nandi in Central Africa, if a son refuses to obey his father in any serious matter, the father solemnly strikes the son with his fur mantle. This is equivalent to a serious curse, and is supposed to be fatal to the son unless he obtains forgiveness, which he can do only by sacrificing a goat before his father. [*12] In Greece, the belief prevailed that a child who struck his parent would be accursed. In India, a child considered guilty of parental disrespect could only be purified with water taken from a sacred lake or river. Disobedience had to be purged with foods that were taboo -- food that had been licked by dogs or pigs, or defiled by crows or impure men. [*13] This superstition was Page 335 carried even further among the Hindus. In their sacred books we find evidence that even the oldest were sacred to the younger children. It says: "The feet of the elder brothers and sisters must be embraced, according to the order of their seniority."

So strict did the Chinese become in their obedience to parental authority, and so early did they instruct their children in this reverence and awe, that it became the basis of their creed -- the worship of ancestors. Confucianism has been briefly described as "an expansion of the root idea of filial devotion." In Korea and Japan, the authority of the father is equally great. It is said that a Japanese maiden, at the command of her father, will enter a brothel without a murmur and become a prostitute for life. [*14] In ancient Chaldea, a son or a daughter could be given as a hostage for a debt. Among the early Hebrews, a father could sell his child to relieve his own distress, or offer the child to a creditor as a pledge. He often sold his daughter to be a servant or concubine.

Fear of parents, and paying strict obedience to their demands, were almost universal in early times, and prevail in primitive societies today. The lower the scale of intellectual development, the greater the fear and the stricter the compliance. Eskimo and North American Indian children are described as being very obedient to their parents. Disobedience is practically unknown, and often a word or even a look from a parent is enough to enforce discipline. The son of a Central Asiatic Turk, when young, behaves as if he were his father's slave. Among the Ossetes, the young men never sit in the presence of their fathers or speak in loud voices. Parents in the Barea and Kunama Kafir tribes are highly respected, and a child would never dare to contradict them or oppose their commands, no matter how unjust. The son of a Kafir who is disrespectful to his father is subject to the contempt of the tribe and is sometimes even banished. [*15]

A noted historian, Leighton Wilson, says that among the Mpongwe veneration for age is carried to greater lengths than among any other Page 336 people. The young are instructed in reverence, and they never enter the presence of their elders without taking off their hats and assuming a crouching gait. [*16]

Even today, beating children as a punishment is still considered a parent's inalienable right. The law today will interfere only if the chastisement becomes too brutal. It is not uncommon even now for a mother to tell a child that has just received a whipping from its father that it has been punished by God for some disobedience.

Henry Sloane Coffin, associate professor in the Union Theological Seminary of New York, in discussing this Commandment, had the honesty to say: "To what extent can we apply a Commandment, devised for tribesmen among whom sons and daughters grew up to follow the callings and repeat almost exactly the careers of their ancestors, to conditions where the lives of children are so totally unlike those in which their parents were reared?" [*17]

This Commandment belongs in the same category as the four previous ones in admonishing "our duty to God." It does not prescribe moral conduct; it does, however, specify a superstitious religious duty, the performance of which would produce the results desired by sympathetic magic. The pledge of "prolonged days" and the occupation of the Promised Land for obedience to parents makes this Commandment an integral part of the primitive culture of the Hebrew tribal code and, as such, occupies an appropriate place in the Decalogue of superstitious taboos.

Faithfulness and Failure

The tenderest relationship in life is that between parent and child. To remember the tenderness, care and watchfulness of parents and to repay them in some measure for their unselfish devotion is not only one of the great pleasures of life, but also one of the greatest privileges. The man who recalls the loving kiss of a mother or the affectionate embrace of a father can never be completely without some consolation. Page 337 The child who mistreats his parents, who is ungrateful for their efforts in his behalf, who is indifferent to their welfare, will probably, when he or she becomes a parent, feel a pang for his callous indifference, for which there is no comfort.

What does this Commandment teach us concerning this relationship? What is meant by the words, "Honor thy father and thy mother"? In what did honor consist? Why was it necessary to honor parents in order "that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee"? Must affection for parents, must consideration for their welfare, must respect and duty toward them be determined by the consideration of a reward? Are these attachments of the heart for sale at a price? Must we be bribed to perform a duty that should be our first and greatest privilege? Must we give honor to our parents only upon the expressed condition that our "days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee"?

What baser bargain could there be? Cannot affection, consideration and filial duty be put upon a higher plane than that of a commercial product? What do you think of a son or a daughter who looks for value received in performing a duty toward parents? To permit the promise of long life to influence respect and devotion to parents commercializes the tenderest of relationships. It reduces our deepest emotions to the level of barter.

The man or woman who shows devotion and affection to his or her parents merely for the love of them is certainly manifesting a greater and more commendable degree of virtue than one who exhibits these attachments for the reward that is promised.

A high standard of morality is not built on rewards and punishments. Virtue, we are told, is its own reward. A good deed is performed because it is better to do good without reward than to withhold services for lack of compensation. We do good because it is good to do good.

The Greek and Roman philosophers could have taught us more in this respect than this Commandment. The Stoics said: "No deeds are more laudable than those which are done without ostentation." And Page 338 Seneca said: "He who wishes his virtue to be blazed abroad is not laboring for virtue, but for fame." And Persius said: "I do not shrink from praise, but I refuse to make it the end and term of right." And Pliny said: "That which is beautiful is beautiful in itself; the praise of man adds nothing to its quality." And the younger Pliny said of one of his friends that "he sought the reward of virtue in itself, and not in the praise of men." Peregrinus, the Cynic, said: "The wise man will not sin, though both gods and men should overlook the deed, for it is not through fear of punishment or of shame that he abstains from sin. It is from the desire and obligation of what is just and good." Marcus Aurelius said: "To be paid for virtue is as if the eye demanded a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking." [*18]

Can anyone say that this Commandment is a precept that could only emanate from a divine source -- that it required a special revelation to man? Do the words of this Commandment actually inculcate into the minds of our children that unselfish attitude toward parents which we so highly commend? Does it teach unselfishness? In this world of insatiable greed, some contend that unselfishness alone is all that is needed to solve many of the problems and help to bring peace and understanding to the human race. But does this Commandment contribute one iota to that much-desired end? Or has it only intensified those selfish traits which are the basis of so many of our baser acts?

What was the moral standard that the Bible God used in the formulation of this Commandment? Surely the words "Love thy father and thy mother" would have been sufficient to stress those affectionate attachments which are universally practiced, and it did not require the thunder and lightning of Sinai to remind us of them.

Since the word "love" is used in the Bible in the phrase "Love thy neighbor," [**19] surely it is equally desirable to love one's parents as to "honor" them. Page 339

Honor is not a term of endearment; it is a form of tribute. Love and affection are the binding attachments of family life; honor is an attribute exhibited as a public recognition for deeds and accomplishments and high positions of authority; it does not necessarily include affection and devotion.

More filial devotion and respect for parents, more consideration for their wants, more regard for their welfare, can be learned from King Lear than from these "inspired" words of this Commandment.

Bought love is false love. Love that depends upon a price, that looks for a reward, that is put on a commercial basis, is love that should be spurned and condemned.

The love and affection in family life is just as strong and just as fervent among human beings who never heard of this Commandment as it is among those who, parrot-like, call it a "divine revelation." The love attachment exhibited in the animal and bird kingdoms is in many respects equal, and often superior, to that manifested by members of the human family.

Why was the word "honor" used in this Commandment instead of the word "love"? There was a valid reason for this. "Honor" is the word intended. This Commandment was not formulated to inculcate love and affection between parents and children. Its distinct purpose was to impress upon the child the importance of exhibiting to parents the honor accorded to God and his representatives, and to make sure that the children of the Children of Israel would keep their God's "statutes and his commandments unto the thousandths of generations." The solidarity of the Children of Israel "upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" was the reason for its inclusion in the Decalogue. The dutiful attachment of child to parent was never even remotely associated with it.

If this Commandment has any significance whatever, it should demonstrate its power at the appropriate time. There have been countless children who have "honored" their parents, who have sacrificed themselves for their welfare, and who nevertheless suffered hardship and did not live long. There have been hundreds of thousands of Page 340 children who have behaved wretchedly to their parents and yet have enjoyed the best of the world's goods. There are children who waste and squander enough in one year to give their parents all the comfort and protection they need for the rest of their lives, and yet these children live long and seem to enjoy life. A false edict is not only valueless, but in addition creates a negative influence.

Even as a Commandment intended solely and exclusively for the Hebrews, subsequent events have definitely and irrevocably proved it to be false. On the whole, Jewish children have always been faithful and dutiful to their parents. They have the reputation of performing their filial duty with scrupulous fidelity. Yet the most orthodox and most fervent religious believer must admit that the Jews did not live long in the land that they thought their God had given them as an inheritance for keeping his statutes and his Commandments. In fact judging from authentic historical records, the Jews lived but a short time in their native land. They were not dispersed from that land because they were disobedient or failed to observe the Commandments or other edicts of their God. On the contrary, it was because the Children of Israel were too scrupulous in their observance of the Decalogue that they no longer possess the land of their forefathers. The loss of their land was due not to the breach but to the observance of the Commandments.

The sons and daughters of Israel have "honored" their parents as provided by this Commandment, but the Hebrew Deity has not kept faith with them. Their days have not been prolonged "upon the land" of their fathers; they are scattered over the face of the earth! The promise of their God was not fulfilled. The Hebrew people themselves are the best example of the falsity of this Commandment and the failure of their God.

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