A customer and the checkout person were engaged in a discussion when I arrived at the checkout counter. The checkout person was waxing eloquent at the mistake the corporate office was making by removing the greeters at the door (now you know where I was shopping). She was quoting statistics about how greeters at the door lowered the number of shoplifters. The customer, on the other hand, was going on about how the decline in good moral behavior was because we no longer have prayer in schools and the Ten Commandments were forbidden to be posted on public buildings.
Statements like that really make my blood boil. Forced prayer anywhere and a public display do not influence anyone’s beliefs and behavior. Developing the kind of character that exhibits good moral behavior is a complex, chaotic endeavor for everyone, including people of any faith. Legislation and indoctrination are not the answers for matters of the heart and will.
So let’s talk about the Ten Commandments, more correctly called the Decalogue. Unfortunately, most people’s authority on the subject is from the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments featuring Charleston Heston as Moses. As entertaining as the movie is, it’s hardly a foundation for a subject that finds its way into the heart of today’s polarizing political-religious debates in the United States. It’s also unfortunate that the religious right won’t believe the Founders, in all their wisdom, did not create the United States is as a theocracy (a government ruled by or subject to religious authority). Only by stepping back and putting things in their proper perspective can we see God’s intention in giving the Decalogue to Moses in the first place, and then how it relates to our lives as people of faith.
Why is that distinction so important for our consideration of the Decalogue? Because plucking something out of the context in which it was given completely diminishes its purpose and intention. It’s like telling a person that their life depends on building a house and not providing any money, land, plans, supplies, or expertise to do so. It doesn’t make any sense! Telling someone they must obey the Ten Commandments doesn’t make any sense either.
If God hadn’t reached out to the people of Israel, the Decalogue wouldn’t have made any sense to them either. No other group of people in ancient history believed their deity made a covenant with them. No other god was thought to make and keep specific promises without fail. Because the Big Ten have survived from antiquity to the modern era and because they are at the center of so much debate, maybe it’s time to take a peak at them.
Not today. (I hear a sigh of relief)!
The picture is of the 1768 Decalogue Parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer at the Portugese Synagogue Esnoga.