The Magazine

Honor Thy Fathers

The biblical rules in cultural perspective.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By DAVID WOLPE
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This is a somewhat eccentric book. It is written to oppose the display of the Ten Commandments in American public spaces, but it makes little reference to American law, precedent, principle, or polity. Rather, it is an erudite and interesting tour d’horizon of modern scholarship on the Ten Commandments, contextualizing and (inevitably) relativizing them, on the assumption that dethroning their preeminence as an unchanging moral code will persuade us that they should not be elevated in public places. The scholarship is sound, but the concluding peroration is simultaneously the point of the book and its weakest chapter. 

Honor Thy Fathers

Michael Coogan is a Bible scholar who lectures at Harvard. He points out that there are multiple versions of the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible (to the ones in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 he adds a questionable third, “the ritual Decalogue” of Exodus 34). He explains the formula, how the Ten Commandments relate to suzerain treaties (that is, ancient compacts between Semitic kings and their subjects), and reviews the Exodus story. As is inevitable in such a short summary of scholarship, conclusions that could easily be disputed are stated as givens: “The text of the Decalogue was written on two tablets because each party—in this case, God and the Israelites—was to get a copy of it.” Needless to say, although many modern scholars might agree, in the long history of Jewish exegesis no one has thought that God needed a copy just in case recordkeeping in the heavens got sloppy or the divine memory needed jogging.

Coogan points out that there are small but significant differences in the two versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus and the one in Deuteronomy, and that even the numbering differs in different religious traditions. If you are Jewish or Anglican, observing the Sabbath is the fourth commandment; if you are Roman Catholic or Lutheran, it is the third—the difference is dependent on whether the prohibition against images is counted separately from God’s initial self-identification. If we must display the Decalogue, writes Coogan with self-conscious mischief, simply display all the versions side by side. 

He is not, at heart, a radical revisionist, a position common among modern Bible scholars, who discount the antiquity of biblical teachings. Rather, Coogan assumes that the Decalogue is very old and may indeed be “the essence of the teaching of Moses himself.” Although such provenance would argue for its prominence in our society, Coogan himself argues against this presumption.

Coogan’s own attitude toward the Bible is clear: It commands his respect but not his allegiance (“The fact that the Bible prescribes it does not make it right.  .  .”). As he traces the history of the Decalogue, he demonstrates that the text is not “fixed” because there is more than one version and that even its place in tradition is not immutable. Judaism, for example, moved the Decalogue away from the center of Jewish worship because of the fear of outside groups claiming that only these ten laws were given to Moses at Sinai. (Coogan misidentifies the source of this comment as “Mishnah Berakhot.” It is from the Jerusalem Talmud.)

All of this is fascinating material, lucidly presented: textual history, ancient parallels, the way in which the Decalogue was treated historically by believers. The reader can certainly understand that a scholar who views the Bible as a human, evolving document would feel uneasy about setting up the Decalogue in a public square. But in this book’s last polemical chapter, even the sympathetic reader may feel that Coogan is insufficiently sensitive to the deep religious roots of America: “We are much more diverse, especially religiously,” he writes. “[W]e should not, we may not elevate a text from one or two religious traditions to privileged status.” 

Well, yes and no. We are, indeed, diverse and proud of our salad of traditions. Nonetheless, the United Nations has a quote from Isaiah across its portal. The Liberty Bell enshrines a quote from Leviticus. Does acknowledging the complexity and diversity of religious traditions—and celebrating their flourishing in the United States—compel us to downplay those that shaped this pluralistic land? It is both ahistorical and unwise to ignore the preeminence of the Judeo-Christian heritage (an overused term, but one with real substantive content) as the critical theological impetus to America. Surely, when America’s sins are laid at the feet of its Western heritage, some of its merits might be as well?

Coogan writes that “display of the Ten Commandments is a blatant and un-American effort to impose a basically Christian perspective on all citizens of the United States.” In an increasingly secular society, a reminder of the central text from which our ancestors drew great inspiration is at least an understandable desire, to be sure. The crude triumphalism that Coogan documents is distasteful, and a greater appreciation for the ways religions change and develop would be salutary. Still, in a book devoted to demonstrating that the Ten Commandments themselves have a history, is it too much to ask for more recognition that they are an indispensable part of our history as well? 

David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.