On June 17, 1999, the House of Representatives voted to allow states to require public schools to post the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments Defense Act is the latest move in a campaign to impose a narrow view of biblical tradition on the nation as a whole. The House bill is unlikely to pass the Senate or to be signed by the president, and it conflicts with the Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in Stone v. Graham, which declared the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky schools unconstitutional.
Perhaps, however, the display of the Decalogue in schools isn’t such a bad idea. It might force people to think harder about the nature of biblical tradition and the basis of biblical authority, especially in our pluralistic society. To begin with, I wonder which version of the Ten Commandments will be posted. For there is not just one immutable Decalogue in the Bible, but several versions of the legal code that the Bible sometimes calls “the ten words.” The first, and most familiar, is given to Moses in Exodus 20:1–17. It is reproduced with some interesting if minor variations in Deuteronomy 5:6–21. But the story doesn’t end there. When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai after 40 days and 40 nights to find the Israelites cavorting around the golden calf, he is so angry that he shatters the tablets. So, after quelling the Lord’s anger at the Israelites and quenching the rebellion in the camp, Moses has to go back up the mountain for a replacement set.
This replacement is not the same as the original, however. Although still called “the ten words,” the new laws set out in Exodus 34:11–26 are a very different set of rules, dealing entirely with proper and improper worship. The compilers of the Bible had already set down the more familiar version of the Decalogue in Exodus 20, so they took advantage of the plot to include yet another code.
There were thus several Decalogues floating around in ancient Israel over the centuries. And to preserve these ancient legal traditions, the authors of the Bible included them all despite their inconsistencies. So maybe all three biblical versions of the Ten Commandments should be posted in classrooms to stimulate reflection about the nature of the Bible and its formation, as well as its status in contemporary society.
As a guide for belief and practice, the Decalogue has some potential pitfalls. For instance, the first commandment, in its most common version, reads, “You shall have no other gods besides me.” Prohibiting the worship of other deities might offend students who see the divine as many rather than one. But at the same time, this rule also implicitly recognizes the existence of multiple gods. The Bible is not so much an immutable catalogue of ideas as a record of their development, and strict monotheism developed only later in ancient Israel. Introducing students to concepts of the evolution of thought (as well as life) might not be such a bad idea.
There’s also the question of values. The Decalogue does formulate limits on human conduct essential to the preservation of any society: respect for a person’s life, marriage, reputation and property. But the last commandment, which deals with property, mentions the neighbor’s wife between his house and animals, revealing the subordinate status of women in patriarchal Israel. The legal establishment of a society characterized by inequality will challenge students’ thinking about how the Bible relates to more modern ideals.
Finally, there’s the intriguing question of observance. The fourth commandment enjoins rest on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, which is Saturday. Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists still observe this as their day of rest. But Christianity in general has broken the letter of this commandment by cavalierly changing the day from Saturday to Sunday—although there is no biblical basis, even in the New Testament, for doing so. And the second commandment prohibits the making of “a graven image,” a statue really, depicting anything that is “in heaven above or…on the earth beneath, or…in the water under the earth.” Most Jews (and Muslims) at most times have kept this commandment literally. But at times, Christians have simply ignored it; the magnificent history of Western religious art is in direct violation of this commandment. Reminding students of these changes and lapses in observance might make them think about how the authority of a foundational text can be modified in different historical contexts.
Why not put the Ten Commandments on every classroom wall? They could have a subversively salutary effect.
On June 17, 1999, the House of Representatives voted to allow states to require public schools to post the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments Defense Act is the latest move in a campaign to impose a narrow view of biblical tradition on the nation as a whole. The House bill is unlikely to pass the Senate or to be signed by the president, and it conflicts with the Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in Stone v. Graham, which declared the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky schools unconstitutional. Perhaps, however, the display of the Decalogue in schools isn’t such […]