The turmoil over the removal of the Ten Commandments display from the Alabama Courthouse has died down but thus far only one commentator has hit on what I think is the big issue that was neglected in this case… even if displaying the Ten Commandments is lawful in certain contexts, how do you pick which version of the ten commandments that you use.Anyway Bob Minor in his op-ed piece entitled “Alabama’s Justice Roy Moore and His Graven Image” discussed this whole facet of the case well. For anyone who assumes that there is only one version of the Ten Commandments, read on (btw, I don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions but do agree with the general thought of the piece)…
- . . . Moore and his supporters declare that the display isn’t an establishment of religion but a monument to the nation’s foundation on God. In that case it’s a “graven image” that should be forbidden by the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make for yourself a graven image….”Yet, even that’s not always true. The second commandment is not the same in the Protestant version Moore wants to post as in those of Judaism and Roman Catholicism. There are different versions of the list based upon Exodus 20:1-17. So, deciding which version to post is choosing among religious options, establishing a single version.
In the Jewish version the first commandment is what Christians regard as merely a prologue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That places the Ten in a specific and central context important to Jewish identity — the Exodus from Egypt.
The Protestant second commandment is merely the second part of the Jewish second commandment, which begins with the Protestant first. The prohibition against “graven images” isn’t included in the standard Roman Catholic summaries at all. In their version the tenth Protestant commandment is split in two.
The question for Moore is, which version of the commandments should be displayed by government? Answering that question is to choose one sectarian version over another. It’s to take sides in centuries-old battles between Protestants and Catholics as well as in the history of anti-Semitism.
And even then, the Protestant Ten Commandments are never displayed as they really are in the Bible. They’re edited. The tenth, usually posted as “Thou shalt not covet,” is never presented fully: “Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
The complete version makes it clear what historians know. The Ten Commandments are based upon the idea that the man is the owner of his property, and that a man’s property should never be violated. The tenth commandment defines his property as his slaves, his animals, his land, and also his wife.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” the seventh in the Protestant version, sixth in the Catholic, is also about property, not monogamy or faithfulness. One should never, it taught, have sex with someone else’s property. It’s okay to have sex with your own but not another man’s daughters, wives, or slaves.
And in a society where its heroes were polygamists – think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Kings David and Solomon, and on and on – these commandments, not surprisingly, say nothing about being monogamous. Seen in their full versions and in their historical context, they are about women treated as property and protecting the property of men.
But no one wants to talk about that, particularly out loud. Posting the Protestant or other Ten Commandments is a historic reminder of masculine dominance in world and U.S. history. It reminds us of the days when only white males could vote, when women and slaves of both genders were the property of male bosses.
And then there’s the Protestant third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” which in its unedited version continues “for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” What more unspiritual, vain place to put God’s name than on money!
If there’s anything our religious traditions have taught, it’s the incompatibility of serving God and “mammon.” So, it’s likely that since in 1864 “In God We Trust” was first inscribed on our money, our nation has been disobeying this commandment. Apparently in our thinking our cash must be sacred objects. Otherwise we’d have doubts about desecrating God’s name by putting “God” on our Almighty dollars. . .