Culture Clash and the Commandments
It's amazing how much has always been at stake in the interpretation of these 10 terse phrases.
BY: David Klinghoffer
A pair of Supreme Court rulings dealing with the display of the Ten Commandments on public property are only the most recent illustration of the power of the Decalogue (from the Greek, meaning "ten words") to illuminate philosophical, religious, and cultural fault lines. For two thousand years, it has served as a potent symbol of the clash between moral cultures.
The identity of the cultures has changed, but this most familiar of all biblical law codes has remained the ultimate token of victory: He who controls the meaning of the Ten Commandments and the purpose to which they may be put, has won the culture war. Ancient Christians and Jews, 20th-century fascists, and 21st-century political liberals and conservatives have all understood the stakes in the tug-of-war over the Decalogue.
That this would prove to be the case wasn't necessarily obvious to the first people to hear the Ten Commandments.
The Bible's Book of Exodus relates how the Jews were liberated by their God from Egyptian slavery, fled into the desert, and, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard the Lord's voice speaking the commandments that would become the heart of Jewish faith, as well as of the Christian religion. After the Hebrew tribes had spent 40 years in the wilderness, immediately before entering the promised land of Israel, Moses reviewed for them the whole Teaching (or "Torah," as the Five Books of Moses are called in Hebrew) that God had revealed at Sinai. As given in the written text of the Torah, this Teaching actually comprises 613 commandments (according to Jewish tradition)-including rules for everything from distinguishing between kosher and forbidden foods to circumcising baby boys-of which the Ten Commandments add up to less than one-sixtieth.
Yet neither in Exodus, nor in a slightly different version given in Deuteronomy, is there any explicit indication that the Decalogue stands out for special regard among all the other commandments in the Torah. Distinctions that later religious thinkers would make between the Ten Commandments and all the rest, or between "moral" and "ritual" commandments, are nowhere evident in the Torah itself, which recounts the giving of the whole body of the commandments in the form of a narrative of those 40 years in the desert. The commandments are simply recorded in the order in which God chose to reveal them.
Thus, in the Exodus narrative, the Decalogue is followed almost immediately by instructions on a matter that some much later biblical interpreters would anachronistically regard as being of "merely" ritual significance--how to build an altar for animal sacrifice. The latter subject is treated in the Bible with no hint of a suggestion that we're making a transition from commandments of ultimate, permanent importance to others of lesser or transient value. The fact that God makes no distiction of the kind that these later Bible readers would make should suggest to us that either in his eyes, or (if you prefer the conventional academic viewpoint) in the eyes of the Pentateuch's editors, there was no such distinction to be made. In any event, from the Bible's own perspective, the Decalogue is simply 10 out of 613.
So where, then, did there arise the idea that these ten are The Ten-the vaunted Ten Commandments, as if the other 603 were little more than chopped liver?