The Ten Commandments: Rated R

The House of Representatives, in a brave burst of piety, has just passed a law to promote the posting of the Ten Commandments in our public schools. Why not? It's cheaper than installing security systems, less controversial than gun control; and who can beef about it except card-carrying ACLU members? The hell--er, the heck--with the First Amendment. So maybe it wouldn't have averted the Columbine High massacre, but how can it hurt? It's got to be worth a few votes (the White House favors it), and the people opposed to it are a lost cause anyway. All in favor say "aye."

Hold it. Forget the constitutional issue: any close reading of the Bible will show that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.1-17) are a very problematic affair, and displaying a complete text of them would open a large can of worms.

For starters, which version of the Decalogue are we talking about? The text is divided and numbered differently by a) Jews, b) Catholics and Lutherans, and c) most other Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox. The very first line of the Ten Commandments (and how many legislators could recite it without peeking?) begins the headaches: "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Is that a commandment, or just an introduction? (Jews and Christians disagree.) And do we have to believe it? Did all of that Exodus stuff actually happen? It might bother any Egyptian kids in class, but what a neat coincidence that the only Moses we've ever known, Charlton Heston, is now the head of the NRA, so we--we conservative white Christians, that is--can probably smooth this one out.

But, to stick with #1 (or is it #2?), "Thou shalt not have strange gods before me": no big deal here, except for the children of witches, warlocks, and polytheists. But wait a minute. Actually there is a minor problem, because the language implies that "strange gods," however inferior, are real (which is why God is jealous of them). The Ten Commandments don't teach monotheism, but henotheism (belief in one god without denying the existence of others). Still, who cares about Baal and Molech and Astarte and the rest? Their popularity has plummeted so badly that this primitive little feature of the Decalogue won't ruffle many feathers.

Moving right along, we come to the prohibition against graven images of God (#2, or else part of #1). The sticky point here is that from the Jewish standpoint all Christian symbols, pictures, and representations of Jesus (which would include the use of crosses as costume jewelry) are an abomination. Of course, Jews are a small minority, except in the big cities, and they're generally polite about such matters.

But the rest of this commandment is worrisome: "For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation." Is that fair? Do we want to encourage our kids to behave like that? The Bible itself (Jeremiah 31.29-30, etc.) later amended the protracted vengeance clause, so maybe we could put in an asterisk explaining that.

Keeping the sabbath day holy (either #3 or #4) sounds pretty innocuous, assuming God doesn't mind whether believers pick Friday, Saturday, or Sunday as their Sabbath. (All those Buddhist and Hindu and atheist kids will just have to live with it.) The trouble is, in America, except for a handful of Orthodox Jews, everybody breaks the sabbath all the time: gas stations are open on Sunday, traffic is bustling, people are flooding the malls, mowing their lawns, and cooking their dinners. This country never rests. For the Bible all that is a sin, and a not a casual one. (In Numbers 15.32-34 Moses has a man stoned to death for gathering sticks on the sabbath.) What will happen when our kids learn that they and their parents are in direct violation of a major commandment? (Do we have to cancel the barbecue? call off the game? not study for Monday's final?)

"You shall not kill" (#5 or #6) is perhaps the main commandment that moralizing politicians want to stress, and everybody's got to like this one. Unfortunately the Bible allows many exceptions and approves of killing in areas we now forbid, e.g., death for idolatry, blasphemy, and homosexuality (some would like to bring that one back) or even the combined offence of disobedience, drunkenness, and gluttony by teenage sons (Deut.22.18-21). Luckily kids won't, for the most part, ever read the Old Testament, so if the few knowledgeable adults keep mum about this, it shouldn't be an issue.

"Thou shalt not commit adultery" (#6 or #7) is widely applauded in churches and on talk shows, though statistics have long since shown that a majority of Americans commit this sin at one time or other. Enthralled audiences of Shakespeare in Love pay no heed to the hero's wife and three kids back in Stratford-on-Avon. Perhaps that's all the more reason to hang this commandment up in public. Children of Muslim fundamentalist parents who applaud the executions of adulteresses by family members (NY Times 6/20/99) may wish to remind their classmates that this is no laughing matter.

True, the Bible defines adultery in a peculiar way: as sex between a married woman and anyone but her husband. Relations between a married man and an unclaimed female are not adulterous, though punishable (Deuteronomy 22.28-29). As biblical scholar John McKenzie trenchantly puts it, "The wife had no rights which her husband could violate." This might prompt some cultural confusion, but once again ignorance of the law should prevent that.

Finally, the prohibition against coveting one's neighbor's wife (#9 or #10) seems unexceptionable--if one-sided, since there's no parallel commandment about coveting of husbands. But even here there are difficulties. The Exodus text of the Ten Commandments lumps together "your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's." Oops. In other words, the wife is just as much a man's property as anything else in his house. Some finicky feminists are bound to complain about that one.

Oh, one more thing. The Ten Commandments come not just with a lifetime, but with an eternal, guarantee. Known as the Deuteronomic principle, it stipulates that obeying God's law always brings prosperity, and disobeying it always brings disaster. Of course, we could pass over this in silence, except that it's built right into commandment #4 (or #5): "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you." I.e., filial devotion is a no-risk investment. If this feature were a normal legal guarantee, we might have to anticipate protests and lawsuits when it didn't work as advertised. But, as Job found out long ago, no earthly court has jurisdiction here; so that threat collapses.

With all these sore points piling up, perhaps the best solution --since we do want to trumpet our devotion to the Commandments--is to display the traditional double tablet with the bare Roman numerals: (a silly anachronism, but Hebrew letters would be confusing to Gentiles). That should leave everybody happy: after all, we know what we believe, don't we?

--Peter Heinegg

Return to Reflections