Wednesday, March 02, 2005


The Two Commandments

I'm almost too weary of the argument to weigh in on the matter of the Ten Commandments being displayed on Federal property, which, in two separate cases, is now before the Supreme Court. The only interesting thing about it is that it might tell us if the Supreme Court has gone completely insane, since there is only one proper Constitutional outcome.

I'll tell ya, though, I'd almost be in favor of putting the Ten Commandments on display wherever, if it would actually get some people to read the dang things.

If people would read them, they'd see that the Biblical list--famous, ancient, and honored as it may be--is not the foundation of our laws. The Magna Carta, English Common Law, and the Constitution claim that distinction. (In America, you can worship all the graven images you like.)

Secondly, they might even see that the Ten Commandments don't comprise a very good moral guide. Only six of the ten concern ethical behavior at all, and one of those (number 5, about honoring thy mother and father) is filial and can't have much to do with statute. The rest, if you're a believer, are religious edicts. (And if you're not a believer, they're kinda cultish.) The best one of the bunch in moral terms, number 6, "Thou shalt not kill," is widely ignored: we slaughter animals, Arabs, and capital criminals, and don't get me started on land mines and the bombing of non-combatant civilian populations. I like number 6, but I think Moses should have waited around for more clarification.

Then there's the little problem of just what the heck the Ten Commandments are. Moses got p.o.'d and smashed the first bunch (Exodus 20) and went back to the mountaintop for a second set, on which Yahweh said He'd "write the words which were on the first"; despite which, He got a lot of the words completely different (Exodus 34). . . proving something that comforteth me, that even Yahweh has trouble with rewrites.

In the rewrite, for instance, number 3 is "The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep in the month when the ear is on the corn," and number 10 is "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." Okay, so no veal in cream sauce. Nothing about killing 1200 cows a day with a pneumatic hammer between the eyes, though.

Next, there's the little problem of the recap in Deuteronomy 5, which gets number 4 differently. In Exodus 20 it says we rest on the 7th day (the Sabbath, which is actually Saturday, but never mind), whereas in Deuteronomy it says we refrain from working because the Lord brought us (us?) out of Egypt.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that the three major "religions of the book" for whom the Ten Commandments are important--Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism--each have their own differing versions of the list. For instance, in the Hebrew and Protestant versions, number 6 is thou shalt not kill; for Catholics, thou shalt not kill is commandment number 5. In others, the wording varies.

Personally, I like the Two Commandments better. As told in William Least Heat Moon's book Blue Highways, the Two Commandments of the Hopi Indians are, "Try to understand things" and "Don't go around hurting people."

I wouldn't object to having those graven in a few more places.

The Quotidian Meander

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