Tuesday, July 05, 2005


In what apparently passes for insightful religious commentary, Allan Sloan (who studied the Bible in Hebrew) isn't sure how many commandmentsthere are:
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/10.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.

Now this, really, could be the basis for at least an amusing column. But no, the good Mr. Sloan (who studied the Bible in Hebrew) sees it as Meaningful:
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.

Actually, I imagine just the opposite is the case. Throw a Bible at a complete novice and it's likely he'll have an understandably difficult time figuring out a Biblical timeline, understanding many of the cultural settings and grasping the symbolism. But I also think that the big picture can be grasped pretty quickly.

At any rate, the column all hinges on the fact that--you see--there really are (you may not have known this) two Decalogues in the Old Testament:
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.[Bold added, nac, italics are Mr. Sloan's]

This is what passes for penetrating Biblical insight these days? You may have noticed that Mr. Sloan studied the Bible in Hebrew, which apparently gives one the ability to count to two. In every copy and version of the Old Testament I have the Ten Commandments is listed in both places. I've been able to count them every time. And if the use of "remember" one place and "observe" in another is a crisis of faith for Mr. Sloane then I have some insight into why he's having a hard time "divin[ing] the precise Word of God."

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