Sunday, May 13, 2007

Exodus 19 - 20: The Ten Commandments

Mt. SinaiThree months to the day after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arive at Mount Sinai. They make camp near the base of the mountain, while Moses makes a series of climbs to the top of the mountain, sometimes with Aaron, to receive the laws of God. If the Hebrews obey these laws, God says,

then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (19: 5-6)

Now, I hope I do not seem unduly cynical if I point out that God's meetings with Moses were not exactly carried out with transparency, public scrutiny, and neighborhood forums for public input. God descends on Mt. Sinai in fire, so the meetings take place behind a smoke screen, if you will. It's the original smoke filled room, except without the room. While the meetings are taking place, the Israelites are told:

'Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.'
Now, I am not sharpshooting here. Exodus 19 is really all about how and why nobody was able to see what was going on while Moses and Aaron were communing with God. To any modern person over the age of 9, it can not but raise a series of snotty, sceptical questions. So, the interesting thing about Exodus 19, really, is that it is in the Bible at all. After all, if you -- yes, you, dear reader -- were going to start a religion, would you include passages in the holy texts about how you didn't want anybody around for the key sacred events?

OK, that's a dumb question. But you see my point.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Mt. Sinai. And it is on Mt. Sinai where Moses is given:

The Ten Commandments
Painting: Moses with the Ten Commandments. Philippe de Champaigne. Oil on canvas. 91.5x74.5 cm. France. 1808.
I'd always wondered: God just speaks the commandments. There is no scriptural reference to two tablets shaped like old gravestones with five commandments on a side.

But before we go on, it's quiz time for the MRTB readers -- if there even are still MRTB readers at this point. Without peeking below or anyplace else, how many of the Ten Commandments can you name? Post your score as a comment; the best score gets a free year's subscription.

When you hear about the Ten Commandments in the media so far this century, it is usually in reference to an attempt to have them displayed in a public place. There was of course the Alabama judge who married self-promotion and religious populism with his courtroom display of the commandments. Wasn't he fun? There have been scads of states, including MRTB's own beloved Oregon, in which legislatures have toyed with the idea of mandating, or suggesting, or "permitting" the display of the commandments in classrooms. (State legislators involving themselves in the decoration choices of schoolteachers is exactly the kind of bombastic micromanagement that really sticks in my craw. But I digress.)

When advocates of commandment posting encounter the argument that, since separation of church and state is one of the first principles of our form of government, it might be good to exercise caution when displaying religious materials, they are quick to clarify that the Ten Commandments are not so much a religious text as THE FOUNDATION OF WESTERN AND AMERICAN LAW.

I have heard that argument many times, and have always bought it to an extent. Sure, I've noted the hypocracy of its use by people who are so religiously fired up about the issue that they are on the verge of peeing their pants. I've noted the lack of similar campaigns in support of posting the Code of Hammurabi or the Magna Carta. But I always took it as read that they had a point about the commandments being a critical underpinning of our legal code.

But, on closer inspection -- actually, on very casual inspection -- they ain't. They just ain't. Here, I'll show you:

Commandment I: You shall have no other gods before me.
In American law: Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of American law. Citizens are welcome to have as many other gods before God as they like.

Commandment II: You shall not make for yourself an idol.....
In American law: Citizens may manufacture, transport, purchase, sell, collect, display, distribute, or worship idols to their heart's content. There's no law against it.

Commandment III: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God....
In American law: It is considered bad form for public officials to use religious expletives, but it's certainly no crime. I myself have been known to use a religious expletive in a moment of weakness. Haven't you?

Commandment IV: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
In American law: Oh please.

Commandment V: Honor your father and your mother, which reminds me:
Happy Mother's Day, Mom!!!

In American law: Well, I honor MY parents, and I'm sure you do too. But we wouldn't have to if we didn't want to.

Commandment VI: You shall not murder.
In American law: Yeah, we have laws against that. Kind of like EVERY OTHER SOCIETY THAT EVER WALKED THE SURFACE OF THE PLANET. The idea that one specific religion, or religion in general, is all that stands between humanity and random sociopathic behavior is demonstrably silly.

Commandment VII: You shall not commit adultery.
In American law: This is the one where there may be a grain of truth to the assertion. Most human cultures are pretty down on adultery, but not all of them to the extent that we are. A handful are downright down with adultery. So in that sense, you could argue that this commandment is the foundation of our adultery laws. You know, our archaic adultery laws. Our flouted, anachronistic, meaningless adultery laws. Those.

Commandment VIII: You shall not steal. (Anybody else here missing the King James language?)
In American law: Yeah, this one really separates us from the world's many pro-theft cultures.

Commandment IX: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
In American law: ....and the pro-libel, pro-perjury cultures.

Commandment X: You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
In American law: Covet away! This one is pretty hard to enforce, anyway. You can't slap irons on every dude who gazes longingly at his neighbor's ox.

Lucas County, Ohio.
So, more fool I for believing the hype. The nicest thing about reading the Bible is that I'm realizing how much of the common understanding of the Bible is strictly traditional, with no reference to what is actually written in the text.

My own take? I actually have no problems with the Ten Commandments being posted in public places. They really are culturally important, but also so iconographic as to not be too intimidating, in and of themselves, to someone not of an (ahem) Abrahamic faith. In terms of pushing religion, well, it ain't exactly passing out Watchtowers, is it? And nobody is going to have a charismatic conversion experience on the strength of You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Someone who posted the Ten Commandments in their workspace would be well-advised to make absolutely sure they weren't pushing a religious agenda, of course, lest their decorating choices be cited as evidence against them. But the essence of my belief is that people should have control of their workplace, so that the labors of the day may pass more pleasantly. Teachers, judges, and anybody else should be able to decorate however they want.

Next Week: It's not just 100 good ideas -- it's 100 laws!


Sue said...

I got nine out of ten. I missed the one about bearing false testimony against your neighbor, but that was all Nan's fault. Truth be told, I was also a little fuzzy on precisely how adultery got separated out from all the coveting.

I think in pictorial representations it's not five commandments per tablet, but four and six. The first four spelling out your relationship with God, the other six your relationship with fellow humans. There's some fancy name for the division that escapes me.

Karin Leak said...

I thought I would really nail this one, but only got seven out of ten because I mistakenly thought coveting your neighbor's wife belonged in a category separate from coveting say, your neighbor's ox, house or stuff in general. I can be silly that way.

Plus, I completely forgot about the no idols bit--seems obvious what with having no other gods et al--and I forgot to remember the sabbath day. Me. I forgot to remember the day set aside especially for doing nothing. What kind of daughter of Judy am I? Sheesh.

Jennifer said...

All right, I got 8, plus I had another one that you don't think actually is a commandment (no graven images). Wanna know which ones I forgot? #4 & #7. Oops.

But, I should point out that maybe you should consider the OTHER 10 commandments. (Sorry--I guess I should give you a spoiler warning.)

michael5000 said...

There are actually several different ways to compartmentalize the Commandments so that they end up as ten, so that the numbering is different among Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, other Protestants, and so on. I just called 'em as I saw them, and -- amazingly -- ended up with the Other Protestant list. There's a chart at the wiki article on "the Ten Commandments," referenced above, and probably a lot of other places too.

The notion of forgetting the fourth and seventh Commandments immediately made me think of a series of really sophomoric questions about the cumulative nature of sin. Let's say, for instance, that you vigorously, non-restfully committed adultery on the Sabbath. Is that worse than committing adultery on Monday, or than building a garden shed on the Sabbath? If so, is it twice as bad (additive), MORE than twice as bad (multiplicative), or LESS than twice as bad (decimally multiplicative). Or do you get a twofur? Or, as we are sometimes told, do two wrongs make a right?

Probably not that last one.