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Louisiana mandate stirs debate about the 10 Commandments and their purpose

A statue of Moses smashing the tablets of the 10 Commandments is on display in the atrium of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The 17-foot-tall sculpture is on loan from the Skirball Cultural Center.
Jason DeRose
A statue of Moses smashing the tablets of the 10 Commandments is on display in the atrium of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The 17-foot-tall sculpture is on loan from the Skirball Cultural Center.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — A 17-foot-tall modernist statue stands in the atrium of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Shards of broken metal lie at the figure’s feet, and he raises a rectangular slab over his head, about to dash it against the ground. This is a statue of Moses.

“It's trying to capture the moment when he goes down and sees the Golden Calf and gets so angry that he smashes the first set of the tablets," says professor of Bible Kristine Henriksen Garroway.

The tablets represent the 10 Commandments. For some, what the Commandments are seems straightforward. But those who study and teach the text say context and nuance are everything.

Garroway explains that for Jews, the 10 Commandments — listed in both the biblical books of Exodus and Deuteronomy — are just the beginning.

“That's a stand-in for the entire Torah,” she says, “for the entire revelation and covenant that was given to the Jewish people.”

It’s a covenant that includes 613 laws about which ancient rabbis loved to argue.

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“The one they really hone in on is Shabbat,” she explains, pointing out the two variations of the commandment governing a day of rest. “So the commandment to keep the Shabbat versus the commitment to remember the Shabbat. And different wording appears in Exodus and Deuteronomy.”

Much ink has been spilled about the nuances between the words keep and remember – just one example of multiple understandings of the text.

Evangelicals push for the Bible in the classroom

That millennia-old tradition of arguing over the exact text of the 10 Commandments has now moved to some U.S. public schools.

In Louisiana, a new law mandates that the 10 Commandments be displayed in all public school classrooms, and Oklahoma’s top education official hasordered that the Bible – including the 10 Commandments – be taught starting in the 5th grade.

Evangelical Christians are the main proponents of both these measures, and their understanding of the Commandments is somewhat different from those of Jews and many other Christians.

“It is a very important part of a covenantal relationship,” says Professor Kyong-Jin Lee, who teaches the Bible at Fuller Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, California.

She says the 10 Commandments are crucial because they are “about how you relate with divinity vertically, and how you relate with your fellow human beings horizontally.”

Lee elaborates that the first five Commandments – including prohibitions against graven images and taking the Lord’s name in vain – are about the human relationship to God.

“God has delivered you from slavery in Egypt and he has walked with you all this time,” she explains. “You are going to become a nation. You're going to have an identity.”

The second five Commandments are about people’s relationships to each other – don’t lie, don’t covet.

“There are these basic guidelines,” Lee says, “and they will teach you how you can make major decisions in terms of the basic ethics.”

Those who pushed for the Louisiana law say the 10 Commandments were and continue to be an important, foundational, and influential document in American history.

Those who oppose the posting of the Commandments on legal grounds object, generally, to the fact that they are taken from specific Jewish and Christian religious scripture and insist on a specific relationship with the divine.

There are also religious objections to posting the Commandments. A federal lawsuit filed against Louisiana for its new law includes plaintiffs who are Jewish, Christian and Unitarian, as well as non-religious. The people of faith bringing that lawsuit say they object to it because they don’t want the state involved in their children’s religious education.

Public displays diminish context and nuance

The 10 Commandments are not meant to be understood out of context, says Marvin Sweeney, professor of Hebrew Bible at Claremont School of Theology in Los Angeles, a Methodist seminary. The language of the Commandments, he explains, comes from ancient treaty formulas that begin by stating the names of the parties and then go on to include the terms of the relationship going forward.

Teaching them as part of a world history or a world religions class is one thing, Sweeney says, but understanding the Commandments cannot be accomplished by simply displaying a specific version of them, even if Louisiana’s law also requires a brief description of how the Commandments influenced thought during the country’s founding.

They are complicated, he says. And they’re not even easy to count.

"When you look at the Ten Commandments, there are more than ten,” he says.

For example, in Judaism “I am the Lord Your God” is the First Commandment. But in the Roman Catholic tradition, that sentence is part of the First Commandment, which includes what Judaism lists as the second commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Some traditions, Sweeney says, separate the commandments about coveting into multiple commandments, while others group the prohibition against coveting your neighbor’s wife and maidservant along with their house and their cattle.

He points out that “different traditions number them differently. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine different orders of the Ten Commandments.” And specific translations are laden with interpretation.

“Thou shalt not murder is sometimes rendered as thou shalt not kill,” Sweeney says. “The Hebrew means, specifically, ‘murder.’”

But Louisiana mandates the word “kill.” In fact, the wording of the 10 Commandments specified in the law isn’t a direct quote from either Exodus or Deuteronomy. The heavily edited lines are from the 17th-century King James Bible.

Hebrew Union College professor Kristine Henriksen Garroway opposes both the posting of the 10 Commandments in public schools and this playing fast and loose with the text, because doing so dishonors the very tradition from which the Commandments come.

“As a scholar of the ancient world,” she says, “this drives me nuts.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.