Ignoring government assaults on the Bill of Rights (for which, admittedly, the remedy under the present US Constitution is impeachment, the responsibility of Congress) the US Supreme Court has instead fastened its attention on a political fetish-object: the Ten Commandments. In the midst of an illegal war, a torture scandal, and lawless administration actions — such as imprisoning an American citizen, Jose Padilla, for almost three years now without trial or charge — the court recently heard arguments on the question (as the New York Times put it), “what does it mean for the government to display a copy of the Ten Commandments? … a six-foot red granite monument that has sat since 1961 on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, and framed copies of the Ten Commandments that were hung five years ago on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses.”
In an impressive confirmation of the Postmodernist-cum-Humpty-Dumpty theory of the meaning of words (“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all”), both sides (as we say) tell us what the Ten Commandments mean. Conservatives defend the postings in Kentucky and Texas on the grounds that the Ten Commandments “formed the foundation of American legal tradition.” Liberals on the other hand insist that the posting is an “establishment of religion,” contrary to the first amendment to the Constitution. In fact, both are wrong: the Ten Commandments in their historical setting are a revolutionary manifesto, dedicated to the overthrow of traditional authority and religion.
The Ten Commandments (unnumbered) were written down perhaps as early as the fifth century BCE in two passages in the Hebrew bible (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21), but they represent a view that goes back perhaps another eight centuries to the beginnings of the people of Israel — who were probably not originally what we would call “an ethnic group.” As described by Norman Gottwald in his magisterial _The Tribes of Yahweh_, the Israelites as a people began in a revolution of slaves against the Egyptian empire, a massive rejection of the society of the time. That society was one of authority and religion, presided over by a king whose position was guaranteed by the gods. The Hebrews (the word seems originally to have meant “outlaws”) rejected both the kings and the gods.
The Exodus events of perhaps the thirteenth century BCE were not so much a migration (as is pictured in the bible story) but a “going out” (exodus) from a society and its assumptions. The Ten Commandments are a proclamation of that revolution, a “Declaration of Independence of Liberated Israel.”
The text begins with the presentation of a liberator, styled YHWH (a form of the Hebrew verb “to be”), “who brought you out of the house of slavery.” YHWH is not a god in the sense of the surrounding society. Gods guarantee authority, and YHWH destroys it: “You shall have no gods.” Idolatry is the greatest sin in Judaism, Christianity and Islam because it means bowing down before symbols of oppression. Even an image of YHWH is forbidden — the only image of YHWH is humanity (Genesis 1:26). To “misuse” the name of YHWH is not a matter of saying “goddamn”: it is to use the name to wield numinous power, as was done with the names of the gods — that is to say, it is to practice religion. The Ten Commandments forbid religion (Exodus 20: 1-7).
The commandment about the sabbath has nothing to do with going to church. On that day, “You shall not do any work”: it is a commandment against the idolatry of work. The revolutionary Israelites were slaves, valued only for their work. “We are people, but you have forgotten it.” The next commandment is similar. “Honor your parents” has nothing to do with obedience: it means not to discard people just because they are too old to work.
The rest of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-17) are a picture of the society that was being rejected, a society that claimed the power of life and death (“You shall not kill”). The commandment against adultery is not primarily about sex (the Hebrew bible isn’t very interested in sex) and the commandment against stealing is not about property — they’re against stealing people. Biblical scholars have recognized for many years that these commandments are condemnations of the powerful who invaded households to steal concubines and slaves.
Such a society is based on greed (“You shall not covet”) and requires the protection of lies (“You shall not bear false witness”). The Ten Commandments sketch the sort of society that the Israelites thought themselves called upon by YHWH to construct. The commandments are not primarily individual but communal, a demand for a just community, without the domination and stratification of most previous (and most subsequent) civilization.
Three-quarters of the history of Christianity had gone by before the Ten Commandments became, on the eve of the Reformation, the primary expression of morality in western Europe — and then only after a revolutionary reinterpretation, as the modern attempt to discover their original intent (as the lawyers would say) shows. For over a thousand years, the tradition of the seven deadly sins, from late antiquity, formed the basis of Christian moral exhortation — not the Ten Commandments. The historian John Bossy writes, “For Chaucer, and indeed for Dante, these had been a high doctrine, to be left to divines; there were still in the sixteenth century quite well-informed Catholics … who had never heard of them … [the] transition to the Ten Commandments as the moral system of the West … may fairly be described as revolutionary.”
What prompted the revolution in moral theory was the rise of capitalism, as can be seen in the reinterpretation of the crucial commandment in the early modern world, that about “honoring your father” (“and your mother” — set aside for obvious reasons). An entire structure of obedience is spun out of it — and the other commandments are reinterpreted in its light — now that the (quite different) notions of of authority in the thousand-year reign of feudalism are coming to an end. Protestants and Catholics alike rather suddenly turned to the Commandments, wrenched from their historical context and twisted in an authoritarian direction.
The Ten Commandments in their proper historical context commend atheism in regard to the religion of the gods and anarchism in respect to the laws of the kings. Arising from a revolutionary people, they support the overthrow of authoritarian structures in the name of human community. That sounds pretty good to me.
C. G. Estabrook is a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois and conducts two weekly programs (one on politics, the other on poetry) on WEFT Champaign, 90.1 FM. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org