What Hasn't Been Said about the Ten Commandments Controversy

By Larue, Gerald A. | The Humanist, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

What Hasn't Been Said about the Ten Commandments Controversy


Larue, Gerald A., The Humanist


The Ten Commandments have been in the news lately Most prominent is the case involving Alabama Circuit Judge Roy S. Moore. Moore insists on hanging the redwood plaque on which he carved the Ten Commandments in his courtroom as a support for the proclamation of this "nation under God." Protests from the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, and others have been ignored. Support has come from Alabama Governor Fob James, who has threatened to call out the National Guard to prevent federal authorities from removing the plaque.

A Downey, California, businessperson also made the news when he went to court seeking to have the Ten Commandments posted in an advertisement on the outfield fence of the Downey High School baseball field. Then, of course, televangelist the Reverend Robert Schuller, in defending his alleged assault on a United Airlines flight attendant, stated that he had not "broken any of the Ten Commandments."

Apart from legal and civil rights arguments concerning the posting of the Decalogue on public property, there are the following issues to be considered.

What are the Ten Commandments? The commandments are statements which the Torah presents as divinely revealed to Moses. There are two versions of the code: Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Exodus 34:12-26 also embodies some aspects of the formulas. The version chosen by Jews and most Protestants differs from that used by the Roman Catholics. Jews and Protestants look to Exodus; Roman Catholics to Deuteronomy. Which version would be posted?

Are the differences significant? Apparently they are. In an arrangement of the Decalogue that goes back to St. Augustine (fifth century), Roman Catholics and certain Lutheran groups omit the rule against making graven images which other Christians list as the second commandment. In some Catholic formulations, the prohibition against graven images is included as a supplement to, or extension of, the first regulation. To maintain the number ten, Roman Catholics separate the rule against coveting a neighbor's wife from the law prohibiting coveting a neighbor's goods. In other words, women are not listed as chattel.

Are all of the commandments relevant today? The answer depends on point of view. The regulation against placing "other gods" ahead of the biblical deity may sound like an anomaly to Jews, Christians, and Muslims--all of whom proclaim monotheism. So what is the relevance of a statement forbidding worship of "other gods"? One need only read the biblical account of the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 11) and the complaints of Jeremiah (7:17; 44:15-28) to realize that in ancient Israel numerous deities competed for recognition. The first full biblical statement of monotheism is found in the writings of an unknown prophet whose words, uttered during the Babylonian exile at the time of the pending rescue by Cyrus the Great, were combined with the earlier teachings of Isaiah of Jerusalem (Isaiah 45:1). In Isaiah 46:9, the unnamed prophet states that Israel's deity is the only deity and that there is none other. Today, in dealing with the commandment, clergy tend to substitute "money" or "power" for "other gods," but these substitutes are not what the commandment is about.

The rule against "taking the Lord's name in vain" does not refer to swearing or saying "Goddamn!" In ancient times, deities had personal names that distinguished them and their powers from one another. To utter the name of a god was to summon the attention of that deity. The Jewish deity also has a personal name which most scholars believe is "Yahweh." To use Yahweh's name for reasons empty of meaning was and is considered offensive. To prevent students from committing this offense while studying and reading aloud the Scriptures, wise scribes changed the vowels between the consonants in the divine personal name and inserted vowels from the word adonay--a word meaning "god" or "lord. …

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