The Fifteen...Ten, Ten Commandments!


The Bible is a terrific book--a wonderfully amazing book full of philosophies that affect our daily lives to this day. What it isn't is consistent, which this terrific Newsweek article so terrifically points out. As this article is destined to be underpromoted thanks to the Fourth, the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor and the Rove/Plame connection, I'll try to get it out in the limelight a bit.

It begins, of course, with the recent Supreme Court decision on the Texas monolith.

July 11 issue - You may think that the Supreme Court ruled last week that the state of Texas could continue to display a Ten Commandments monolith on its capitol grounds in Austin. But you'd be wrong. Look at the monolith—you can find it at tspb.state.tx.us/spb/gallery/monulist/ 10lg.htm—and you'll notice that it doesn't contain 10 commandments. It has 11. And if you count "I am the Lord thy God" as a commandment, which Jews do but Christians don't, the Supreme Court has approved a Twelve Commandments monolith, rather than the traditional Decalogue.

This monolith, sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, was part of a PR campaign for "The Ten Commandments," Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 Biblical epic starring Charlton Heston. Yes, the Supreme Court was ruling on the legality of a Hollywood promotion. The Eagles' grand secretary, Bob Wahls, explained to me last week that the text is a compromise drawn up by Jewish and Christian clergy to respect everyone's beliefs. So rather than bearing Ten Commandments that are the Word of God, the monolith bears 11 or 12 commandments that are the Word of a Committee.
The first thing I wondered when I read this was whether a single wingnut anywhere who praises the public display of the Ten Commandments has any clue about the backstory of this particular piece. They must not because I guarantee you, they'd hold it up as blasphemous and demand that it be replaced with an accurate one.

But that's the problem. There really isn't an accurate version of the Ten Commandments--or rather, there's more than one version.
But while it's one thing to be in favor of ethics and morality in public life, it's a whole different thing to think—as I suspect most Americans do—that there is one single Decalogue. The complex textual history of the Commandments suggests that the more you study the Bible, the less certain you become of your ability to divine the precise Word of God. That's a useful lesson in this divided time.

I'm going to go off on a little tangent here and discuss another part of the problem. It has to do with translation, and why it's an art rather than a science. I'm going to hazard a guess here and suggest that most people in the US who believe in the infallibility of the Bible can't read an ancient language, be it Hebrew, ancient Greek, Latin or something else. I'll go a step farther and suggest that many can't speak or read with a high degree of fluency, a language other than English. That's a pretty safe bet because most Americans can't do it, their belief in the Bible notwithstanding.

But if you can, then try this little test--take a short piece of text from another language, preferably somthing old, the older the better, and something that you can find other translations of to compare your work against afterward, and try to translate it as accurately as you possibly can. A piece of a story or novel, a poem perhaps. Then do your comparison, and if you can get multiple translations, check them all, and notice the variations between them. Ask yourself if those variations are logical or reasonable. Chances are, they are.

Then realize that the Decalogue has not only gone through millenia of copying and recopying, but that it's also undergone at least two translations before it made it to English, and then start to wonder about just how accurate the English is. Ever play that game where you run a sentence through the Babelfish translator a few times, from language to language and then back to English?

But back to the article. What the author points out, and rightly so, is that there isn't a single Ten Commandments, no matter what the christian tradition pushes, and that the vast majority of people who claim the mantle of christianity don't know it (just like they don't know there are two versions of the creation myth).
Most public displays of the Ten Commandments, including the ones in Texas and Kentucky that the Supreme Court dealt with, are based on Exodus 20, verses 2-14, where God speaks directly to the Israelites. But if you grew up as I did, studying the Bible in its original Hebrew, you know that there's a second, equally valid version in Deuteronomy 5:6-18. And the two versions differ. In Exodus, God says to remember the Sabbath because he created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. In Deuteronomy, Moses recounts that God told the Israelites to observe the Sabbath because the Lord liberated them from Egyptian bondage. So which is it? The traditional Jewish answer is that God uttered both versions simultaneously, but fallible human ears heard it two separate ways. So how can you post one version or the other and declare it the Ineffable Word of God? You can't.

Well, you can if you're a wingnut, but then again, if you're a wingnut, you can use the Bible to argue that Jesus was a capitalist who believed in private property and free markets, a la Pastor Ted.

But Sloan (the author of this wonderful piece) is right--you can't do it logically, nor can you wish away the differences in translation between, as he notes, the prohibitions against killing and taking the Lord's name in vain in Exodus versus murder and swearing false oaths in Deuteronomy.

Then again, maybe Jesus understood the contradictions inherent in the old Hebrew tradition, which is why he tried to simplify it for everyone when he said "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." That's from Matthew 22:37-40, a part of the Bible that the wingnuts ignore far too often for my taste.

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