Why did Moses have only 10 rules, but we have thousands?

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 2 June 2024

Life might have been harder in the times of Moses, but it was simpler: Move towards a promised land, move away from an evil persecutor, and survive in between. His people understood where they were going and what they were prepared to sacrifice for it, and they had a clear purpose. Reaching your destination and leaving a few offspring was enough for you to have felt you lived a good and moral life. Terms and conditions applied but they were few and could fit on two stone tablets: don’t kill each other, no stealing, stick to the rules and make sure you run fast enough when the time is right, so the Red Sea doesn’t close in on you.

It is difficult to establish what percentage of the population was considered ‘bad’ or harmful to others either in the time of Moses, or even 200 years ago, and whether the proportion per capita has changed through the ages, but the fact that one of the earliest stories known to man is that when there were only two brothers on earth, the one killed the other one, is a good indication it has always been a significant percentage. Humans can be vindictive, murderous, spiteful and greedy; so we have always had rules in some form or another. They are not only intended to guide us on how to live together but also serve largely to protect the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’

We have many more people on the planet today. This necessitated a structural social shift. We reorganised ourselves to cope with lives that were no longer nomadic or pastoral. and we adapted to denser population groupings with high access to technology. Thus, not only is there a larger absolute number of criminals around us in closer proximity, but it is easier to cause more destruction per act of criminality. Moreover, we live in a digital age. Information on how to harm others is more readily available on the internet. Anyone who has the impulse to be a criminal can simply look up how to do it without attracting suspicion.


If you were trekking across the Sinai, you would have had to plan a murder carefully. The most effective and surreptitious way to do it would have been with a knife. You could kill one person quickly and easily; just a pity about the screaming and the blood – you would be caught almost instantly. No killing spree for you. Rocks might have been a good second choice, but they are clunky and you can’t carry a lot of them around without people asking uncomfortable questions. In a close-knit group like that, your behaviour would be swiftly corrected by the savagery of bare hands. Imagine one homicidal individual brandishing a revolver or a machine gun under their cloak and the carnage is multiplied tenfold.

More mischief means more rules and the need for more centralised and specialised law enforcement. Close-quarter combat and the right attitude are not enough. That is why we developed centralised governments and allowed them the monopoly to kill with our permission in the form of police and law enforcement. Gun ownership regulations seem reasonable now, whereas enforcing a rock license on Mt Sinai would have been so ridiculous that you might have been stoned for suggesting it.

The additional rules in principle have utilitarian value, but only if applied reasonably and to achieve a specific purpose. Our modern concept of ‘harm’ has changed. In the absence of a life focused on physical survival and one where our value in groups is measured by social media feedback, it now might be considered ‘assault’ if you are offended by something on Facebook. The likes of Bernie Madoff can pilfer millions via remote control and the push of a button. You need rules for that, many rules.

It is thus understandable that more laws and rules have evolved. However, we appear to have over-corrected in many spheres. Moses had the common sense to keep it clear and simple: 10 rules, including some morality generalisations, finish and klaar. By contrast, South Africa has several hundred Acts of Parliament in force, each of which alone contains more than Moses’s 10 rules. There is at least one set of regulations in terms of each of those Acts, but often multiple sets, and each of these sets also contains dozens, if not hundreds of rules. That is not even to think of provincial legislation, provincial regulations, or municipal by-laws, of which there will be thousands if added up.

A bigger problem perhaps is that the largest group of baddies are the ones supposed to be the goodies: the government. In its power-hungry hands, red tape has become a legislative ligature that limits forward movement to the extent that, if the Israelites had had half of it, they might have drowned during the crossing. Envision an exodus where the speed limit for running across the parted sea is 5km an hour. Also, no overtaking.

Biologically the same

At the same time, while our group structures have modified over generations, we are biologically the same and our psychological assemblage remains unchanged. We instinctively know when our survival is at stake. The commandments of the Bible still make sense. We have a robust capacity for error-correction and deciding what is important; we must make that work for us now.

In South Africa, we should be considering ourselves in a survival situation. It is life or death for us now, literally and figuratively. We should be demanding that our government concerns itself with life and death matters. Violent and serious crimes to persons, property or infrastructure should be a priority for resource allocation.

Our people know how to walk across a challenging landscape. We’ve outlasted and outplayed the odds for centuries. Let us walk on our own two feet, but protect us in the process, that is all we ask. In the recent elections, we had an opportunity to tell our government: ‘Let our people go.’ If we limit the government’s control to that which should be their only job – to protect the good from the bandits who try to derail our voyage into the promised land (or a close enough version of it). Let us hope the message got across at least.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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