10 Commandments 2.0

By | Nov 16, 2011
Moses receiving the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai

dividing our country

The significance of the Ten Commandments in contemporary America, where they’re called the nation’s “rightful heritage,” is more a matter of history than of religion. A case in point: Several years ago, The Colbert Report featured a Georgia congressman who was eager to put up copies of the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Capitol building. When pressed by Colbert to name them, he couldn’t. For this congressman, and undoubtedly for many of his constituents as well, it wasn’t the individual prescriptions, the specifics, that mattered so much as their cumulative symbolism. The U.S. is not known for its cultural literacy but for its commitment to the Bible. We probably know much more about Elvis than we do about the ancient text, but the Bible remains central to America’s sense of itself, its sense of providence and election. Little wonder, then, that in its 2005 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court, mindful of the larger historical and cultural context, said both “yes” and “no” to having the Ten Commandments displayed in the public square: “Yes” to a longstanding monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol where it can be seen as a physical testament to Texas history, and “no” to a brand-new, religiously motivated iteration of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse, which crossed the line between church and state. What’s also worth noting about America’s relationship to the Ten Commandments is that once upon a time they unified rather than divided the country. Today, the Ten Commandments are a source of rupture rather than community.

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and history professor at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she directs its Judaic Studies program.

civilization at its best

The Ten Commandments are as relevant now as they were when a motley but impassioned band of Hebrews wandered through the desert trying to discover how to be a just and moral symbol of what it means to be “of God,” “Godly” and “Chosen.” This template of civilization has been a guide for us ever since. They call on us to remember that we are not guides, that we, too, are each fallible, that we owe justice to the other, loving care to all, commitment to the family, security to the neighbor, integrity to the self and a sense of personal value high enough to want to secure it for others as well. The Ten Commandments are not “laws” in the legal sense, meant to restrict us, confound us or hamper our human development. Rather, they are the trumpeting of a vision of what it means to be truly human. They free us to be our best selves. In this world of massive violence, moral confusion, deep-seated polarization and destructive individualism in a global family, we have never needed them more than we do now. It is civilization at its highest, most developed, most spiritually centered that the Ten Commandments are all about.

Joan D. Chittister, Order of Saint Benedict, is executive director of Benetvision and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders.

not norms for everyone

The Decalogue [the Greek word for the Ten Commandments] is part of a specific covenantal relationship, born out of the Exodus, between God and Israel. It does not purport to be a set of universal norms. To act as if everybody in the world came out of Egypt, everyone in the world is required to observe Shabbat and everyone in the world was brought into the land of Israel would make a travesty of the actual biblical narrative. The truth is that neither biblical nor rabbinic traditions speak of the Decalogue as applicable to universal humanity. In rabbinic tradition, there is a universal set of norms, but it is the “Seven Noahide Commandments.” Among different Christian communities, the understanding of the Ten Commandments varies widely. Sometimes they are seen to include ceremonial norms that applied to the ancient Hebrew commonwealth but were superseded by the Gospel, but other times they are thought to apply in full force to Christians today. Given the prominence of Protestantism, and especially the Calvinist emphasis on the Old Testament in American culture, it is not surprising that the Decalogue has widespread significance and high prestige here. It is often mistakenly detached from its covenantal framework and treated instead as a code that binds society as a whole. Within the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people, of course, scrupulous observance of the Decalogue remains essential.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.

not the foundation of U.S. law

The notion that U.S. law has biblical roots is inconsistent with how it has evolved over the years. Early Puritan experiments with religiously based law were overturned in favor of British common law with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The founders, most of whom were very well-versed in the Bible from their traditional, Protestant, religious upbringings, made the concerted effort to set up a secular government, relying on a broad combination of sources including the Magna Carta, British common law and the philosophical works of enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. In the 19th century, there was a movement to systematize the law to make it more scientific and predictable—concepts inconsistent with the notion of a static, preordained biblical law. Part of the growing commercialism of that time meant pressure from businesses that wanted clear, predictable results, requiring lawyers and judges to put aside their morals and values when deciding legal issues. You see in the case law—in which there is barely a mention of the Ten Commandments—a rejection of religiously based justifications, even for

seemingly religion-based laws held over from the colonial days such as Sabbath and blasphemy laws. That set the stage for the major church and state trials of the 20th century. On the most general level, of course, the values represented in part of the Ten Commandments can be seen as having some type of manifestations in most legal systems, but when we look to a more specific grounding of American law, then they are just absent.

Steven K. Green is a legal scholar and historian at the Willamette University School of Law in Salem, OR.

9 thoughts on “10 Commandments 2.0

  1. To avert this controversy I had professed to worship the word ‘LOVE’, the object of ‘LOVE’ and the very sentiment of ‘LOVE’ and the very source of ‘LOVE’.It has more power than any thing else as it is attributed to the supreme being itself.It is not a ship to sink in the midway like any other ships.It will survive the generation to come.

  2. Jim Bynum says:

    I am amazed at the comments, The Jewish priesthood was not allowed to put anyone to death during the time of Jesus. Yet, supposedly followers of Jesus have used the Ten Commandments to kill many people who violated them — even in early colonial times. It is impossible to separate the punishment from the Commandment, therefore they belong to the past.

  3. Baruch Cohon says:

    Should we rewrite the Big Ten? Discard them? Or should we take a mature look at them and realize that these ten statements from so many centuries ago have something valuable to tell us? Ten Statements, as they are called in Hebrew — “aseret hadibrot”– not commandments. If American leaders of a much more recent time saw fit to post them on public buildings, maybe they knew what they were doing. These statements are not an “establishment of religion” prohibited by the First Amendment. They are principles of right and wrong, ascribed to a supernatural source which is undefined. We will do well if we use them to guide our lives.

  4. Harry Freiberg says:

    I find it interesting and educational that of the Ten only 3 “Commandments” (aka Statements in the original) have become secular law…

    1. Bryan Berg says:

      And how would the other 7 possibly be made into law in a Country that upholds religious freedom? The first four are God and Religious observance based, so those can’t be a part of US Law. The fifth commandment would entail telling people how to parent, and is that a good idea? the 7th commandment has it’s own societal consequences, not to mention the reality of divorce, child support and child custody to go along with it. The 10th commandment would be a “thought police” type of law, wouldn’t it? So, it is interesting and educational, but maybe not in the way you might have been thinking?

  5. Davida Brown says:

    The most important point in this dialogue is: did God really say this? If we mean the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, aka The God of Israel, who is ageless, timeless and sovereign over the universe, as well as Creator, then it would be absurd to think of eliminating these rules of life and certainly self-destructive to want to modify them for a modern liberal thinking world that is itching to remove all restraints and drive us all back to Sodom and Gomorrah or worse – the time of Noah and the flood (Yes, Virginia, there is a God and His Word is relevant and immutable. ) In the Christian New Testament, Jesus addresses an “unrepentant city” (Capernaum) and compared it to Sodom, stating: “Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” Matthew 11:24. What would he say to the cities of today?

  6. Bryan Berg says:

    I would say that human beings wrote them. Nothing more than that. There is no “ageless, timeless creator”. That’s all part of human imagination, no different than the gods of the Romans, Greek, Dakota, Cree, Ojibwa, Aztecs, Egyptians, Myan, and and the myriad others that human beings have imagined and told stories about.

    Is there some human truth to some of it? Absolutely. Going around killing others doesn’t make for a helpful, healthy society (as a simple example), and it probably didn’t make sense to eat shellfish (or pork) if you didn’t know how to cook it properly. Though that begs the question – why weren’t those instructions included in the Bible?

    We have these “Commandments” and yet it seems like under the “right” circumstances, it’s OK to kill while wearing a belt in an army that has “God With Us” inscribed on it? Is that because some of us think we are more special than others that a commandment can be broken for some perceived greater good?

    So, to answer your question – what if there was no Noah and flood that completely wiped out everyone but one small nuclear family? What if there was no Moses (or Aaron, since he seemed to have been a convenient add-on to the Moses story for giving priests certain authorities), what if there was no Exodus? What if it’s all made up (the Noah Story, for one, was not a Christian or Jewish story originally, but it was turned into one), and none of it is divine?

    Does that make US Law any less important? I don’t think it does.

  7. Davida Brown says:

    Ecclesiastes states that there is a time for every matter under heaven, including: 3:3 “a time to kill and a time to heal;…3:8 a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” It was a great song way back when. You seem to be upset about all the killing depicted in the Bible. Without the Bible and “the big ten”, why would we think anything was wrong? The world existed before the written Bible, didn’t it? What was it like as written in the bibical account? Genesis 6:11 tells us: “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.” Earlier, in Genesis 6:8: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” It’s hard to believe that only one man among ? had an active conscience. This is an awareness of right and wrong. Where do we stand on this today? You say you don’t believe in God; you are one of many. But, what if there is a God and what if He did inspire the scriptures? Challenge: Ask Him.

  8. John Terrell says:

    Religion is a social more, varying from one culture to another. The moral code that provides the “cement” that allows people to live together peacefully and productively is universal: that code is based on one principle: do no harm to other members of the “tribe”. The Bible and other works have codified some version of the moral code, but the code existed long before organized religion.

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