Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Ten Proposals: Exodus 20

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I don't actually want to write this post. For some reason in the last commentary the Orange Sky inspired me to say I would discuss the Ten Commandments separately, and so now i must. There are, however, at least two grand ironies about conservative interpretation of the Commandments which is worth bringing up.

I also don't actually like the Ten Commandments, at least as Christianity usually treats them. Maybe they're the ideological inspiration for the rest of the laws that follow, but it's also difficult to disentangle them from the patrimonial context in which they written by the priests (the last commandment, for example, instructs that we "not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." One wonders whether these items are listed in order of importance - should I sell my wife before I give up my house, but not before I give up my ox or donkey?

Whoever wrote Exodus doesn't actually count the Commandments, so it's interesting to see that people have subsequently recounted them. The Jews, most interestingly of all, actually use what we call the preface as their first commandment: I am the Lord your God. The Catholics lump togehter "no other gods" and "no idols," but the Protestants separate them out: "no other gods" and "don't make idols" are two separate commandments. In some ways the Catholic counting system actually makes more sense here, since the text specifically says an idol takes "the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them." I can only assume that the Protestants decided to re-number the Ten Commandments so that they can burn the Catholics for having icons without accusing them of having other gods, which would clearly be untrue. (The Catholics' counting is equally convenient for them, of course, since they can say that revering icons and idols and so on doesn't count as having other gods.)

Everyone keeps the same count for most of the rest, including the Jews, but then we get to the one on coveting and envy, which poses a clear problem, because while you could fudge on the rest and say they apply to everyone, clearly the last sentences apply only to men, or maybe to men and lesbians, I suppose. Wives, in the plain language of the commandment, do not covenant with God - rather, they are possessions of the men who covenant with God. Those who suggest we ought to be taking "God's laws" seriously and applying them to everyone, then, must take the unusual step for a Biblical literalist of actually adding rules into the Bible - specifically, that when the Bible says "you shall not covet your neighbor's wife," it actually means "you shall not covet your neighbor's husband or wife." The very concept of "coveting" implies ownership by someone else, and this ownership is not mutual, though Paul would later re-interpret marriage in 1 Corinthians to be an agreement of mutual submission and mutual ownership (and then would subsequently re-interpret it again to clarify that men were still in charge).

My second and related complaint about how the Ten Commandments are often treated today is that people somehow see them as absolute commands, always of course qualifying them - I can't count, for example, how many conservatives have confidently informed me that killing in the name of the state is perfectly okay because the Ten Commandments are only against "murder." Well, that's fair enough, but if you really wanted to interpret what "murder" meant, or "adultery" in the case of the seventh commandment" as another example, in all fairness you really ought to judge how the early Jews interpreted such concepts. This is why I didn't want to talk about the Ten Commandments separately - we haven't seen all these later qualifiers yet - but rest assured they are there. In the coming chapters and books following Exodus 20, readers will learn that "thou shalt not kill" doesn't apply to your human property (i.e. slaves, who you can kill with impunity), and there are a few other exceptions too. Adultery is an even more qualified term - the Bible makes clear you shouldn't do it, but so long as the woman isn't married (and especially if she isn't an Israelite, or is your slave), the writers add in a virtually limitless series of plausible scenarios in which you can freely have sex with her. I know a prophet in Saskatchewan who has thus proposed that the laws of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy amend the Sixth and Seventh Commandments to read "Everything goes, because boys will be boys"; or perhaps, seeing the later requirements that mistresses be financially supported, "Thou shalt not commit adultery unless you can afford it, and also you can have sex with slave girls because that doesn't count."

The Ten Commandments, whatever their original divine inspiration may have been, are communicated to us by and through a rigidly patrimonial culture which possessed, among other things, numerous forms of ownership of human beings which we now reject: ownership of wives, ownership of slaves, etc. We have to re-interpret the Ten Commandments, because we simply cannot relate to them as the original writers would have; and even the religious right knows this, because they re-interpret the Commandments too. And no one seems to regard them as a truly fixed set - the Jewish scribes spent a meaningful chunk of Leviticus and Deuteronomy writing in exceptions to the Seventh Commandment.

Two further irritations remain. First, I hate it when evangelists - it is usually evangelists - attempt to universalize the Ten Commandments and apply them to everyone. They don't apply to everyone. God gave them to the Jews and only to the Jews. Nothing in the text involves God saying "These laws are laws by which I will judge every human being and send people to hell if they don't obey them." Granted they look like very good things to do and not to do (I am personally against killing, for example), but nowhere does God claim this is a standard against which he intends to judge all of humanity. So fuck you, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, with your asinine Way of the Master brainwashing "techniques."

Second, the Ten Commandments are not the cornerstone of English common law, any more than Christianity is the cornerstone of Western democracy. I shouldn't have to say this, but clearly it's necessary, because both statements are made routinely by the religious right. Christian activists sparked a ludicrous shitstorm a few years ago over the presence of a Ten Commandments monument in an Alabama courthouse, which was scheduled to be removed on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state. At the time I was still frequenting Christian forums and I remember evangelicals' irrational rage at this affront to American freedom and democracy.

Any notion that the Ten Commandments actually have any meaningful relationship to our criminal legal system is of course moronic. Our laws don't ban other gods, they don't bidols, they don't ban misuse of the Lord's name, they don't protect the Sabbath, they don't require honouring mothers or fathers, they frown on but don't prohibit adultery, they only prohibit lying to the state, and they certainly don't prohibit coveting; indeed, our entire free-market system is based on the assumption that people covet. Murder and theft are the only things that the Ten Commandments and the Western legal system universally agree should be prohibited. This isn't saying much, because pretty much every culture has some rules regarding murder and theft, even if he definitions and the consequences differ. In the past a few of the other commandments were in the law too, but it's time to toss this notion that there's any inherent meaningful connection.

The fact that the Jewish law will subsequently clarify several of the commandments by writing in exceptions and limitations and interpretations, and that everyone today continues to re-interpret the commandments to fit their own particular cultural agendas, leads me to my conclusion, which is that they aren't much use as eternal and fundamental moral laws for human behaviour, and that pretty much everyone implicitly agrees with me on this, even if they don't admit it.