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Thursday, March 11, 2010  

The Ten Commandments x2

Christopher Hitchens has long since exhausted whatever it is he had to say about religion, but since his one kernel of a point--that there is a good deal of wickedness and folly in the Bible and in all religious traditions--is not without truth and since I hear it amplified to the point of distortion whenever you try to talk about religion in some circles, it's worth spending a little more time on his Ten Commandments piece in the current Vanity Fair.

Naturally he shakes the whole array of debating points into his blunderbuss and lets fly. There are multiple versions of and references to the Mosaic commandments! Remarkable. But considering that the Bible was written over a long period of time by many editorial hands, what's remarkable is less the diversity than the relative uniformity of the commandments. Some of his points are merely the artifacts of unimproved ignorance. The commandment against graven images, he imagines "seems to discourage Christian iconography, with its crucifixes, and statues of virgins and saints." Of course it seems to. Why didn't we think of that! Oh, wait--we did. Turns out there was a long and rather nasty debate about icons. Got rather ugly. One side won and one side lost, for a lot of reasons, including some musty arguments about incarnation and Jesus and all that. The iconoclastic controversy, and the recurring disputes over images, are not exactly entry-level topics, but they can be mastered to a satisfactory degree if you read about them. "Scholars differ," Hitchens says in his Sunday-best "I read about this stuff" voice--about the epoch during which the Jewish people decided on monotheism,"* but crucially scholars do not differ on the date of the Second Council of Nicaea, which settled the issue of icons for most of the Christian world.

But anyway, a better way to counteract this stuff is to say a little bit about what the commandments are and what they aren't. I can think of two broad ways to do this. The first I'll call "commandment minimalism." You shall have no other gods before YHWH, because the community requires a degree of religious unity in order to survive. If different factions start following different gods, the Hebrew people will cease to exist (as indeed they nearly did over the course of the Old Testament). You shall not raise up any carved images (that is, of other gods) because you can't very well have people making their own little gods with which to bless and curse and pronounce judgments upon their neighbors.** It is not at all clear, contra Hitchens, that this commandment was meant to prohibit all representative art except insofar as in some times and places all representative art has a cultic purpose. You shall not use the name of YHWH your God to pronounce a curse, because #1 won't do much good if people are turning the community's deity into a tribal totem. You shall remember the sabbath day and keep it holy because God ordains rest for His creatures (this from the later version, recorded during the Exile when the Hebrews mixed among sophisticated Babylonians who had the reasonable assumption that the gods created humans as slaves). Hitchens prefers the older version, which recalls the experience of slavery in Egypt, but sniffs all the same "Why can’t rest be recommended for its own sake? Also, why can’t the infallible and omniscient and omnipotent one make up his mind what the real reason is?" To take the latter first, yes there are two different versions, but both reasons are not only good, but profound; so much the better for the duality. As for rest and its own sake, Hitchens must not be very familiar with how laws work, his muttering about "invisible authorities" notwithstanding. You can't very well have rest for some when others are still able to work and take advantage at their expense. Once a day of rest ceases to be mandatory, it becomes impossible. We all know this. The commandment is aimed at people who own slaves and cattle because they're the people who have it in their power to work people and animals to death.

Honoring your mother and father is likewise a lynchpin of society, especially when you don't have police, schools, courts, and the army to do your social control for you. Hitchens takes a wide swing at the murder commandment, accusing it of vagueness and of conflicting with surrounding stories of divinely-mandated slaughter. Well and good, but a commandment--however rough and dishonored in the ugly culture of the ancient Near East--against murder is far preferable to a system of semi-regulated vengeance. If we have escaped the era of the blood feud, the tutelage of this commandment is part of the reason.

The adultery commandment (#7, for you keeping track at home), is widely misunderstood. Taken literally, and in its context, it prohibits only intercourse between a man and another man's wife. It is meant to secure inheritance and the family bond, since in a patriarchy a man needs to be able to trust that his children are his own. In this sense it had nothing to do with prostitution, polygamy, fornication, masturbation, or dancing. Number eight, I've heard it claimed, may refer more specifically to kidnapping, probably for the sake of enslaving someone. Either way it requires no justification beyond the obvious. Number nine, on lying in legal proceedings, should be pretty obvious. Number ten forbids scheming for or making false claims on your neighbor's goods or wife.

Commandment minimalism is not the burdensome, brutal, or bluenosey monstrosity of Hitchens' imaginings. It is a manageable and surprisingly humane ethic for ordering a community in the ancient Near East. It has little to say about what we today would call piety or private morality; it seeks to govern the community in its necessary relations. Insofar as it lacks some things Hitchens, and most of us, would find obvious today--never harm children, for instance--it throws the genuine achievement of the commandments into greater relief. Taken as a whole, the ethic of the Torah is strikingly humane and other-centered. Most of the commandments reflect what we today would call natural reason--see Hobbes on the laws and rights of nature--but how such reason became "natural" is not something most of religion's cultured despisers have anything to say about.

For commandment maximalism, stay tuned.

And here it is.

* I think Hitchens invokes the idea that Hebrew monotheism evolved from an earlier polytheism as a mark against modern-day monotheisms. If so, he is badly mistaken. Monotheism is strange enough in the ancient Near East, but a process by which gods are shed from a nation's pantheon is to me unknown outside of Israel. The general tendency is to proliferate, rather than reduce.

** Hitchens predictably pounces on the rider to this commandment, that YHWH is a jealous God who punishes children to the third and fourth generation for their fathers' sins. And yes, it's pretty rough stuff. But bear in mind that resurrection and life everlasting were not religious concepts here yet. Children were a proxy for life after death--a continuation of the self, so to say, which clashes with Hitchens' apparent belief that children had no moral standing in the world of the Old Testament.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:11 PM
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