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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Original Ten Commandments: A Declaration Of Independence From Religion?

March 29, 2005

Anarchism Against the Laws of Kings

The Subversive Commandments

By CARL G. ESTABROOK
Ignoring government assaults on the Bill of Rights (for which, admittedly, the remedy under the present US Constitution is impeachment, the responsibility of Congress) the US Supreme Court has instead fastened its attention on a political fetish-object: the Ten Commandments. In the midst of an illegal war, a torture scandal, and lawless administration actions -- such as imprisoning an American citizen, Jose Padilla, for almost three years now without trial or charge -- the court recently heard arguments on the question (as the New York Times put it), "what does it mean for the government to display a copy of the Ten Commandments? ... a six-foot red granite monument that has sat since 1961 on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, and framed copies of the Ten Commandments that were hung five years ago on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses."

In an impressive confirmation of the Postmodernist-cum-Humpty-Dumpty theory of the meaning of words ("The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all"), both sides (as we say) tell us what the Ten Commandments mean. Conservatives defend the postings in Kentucky and Texas on the grounds that the Ten Commandments "formed the foundation of American legal tradition." Liberals on the other hand insist that the posting is an "establishment of religion," contrary to the first amendment to the Constitution. In fact, both are wrong: the Ten Commandments in their historical setting are a revolutionary manifesto, dedicated to the overthrow of traditional authority and religion.

The Ten Commandments (unnumbered) were written down perhaps as early as the fifth century BCE in two passages in the Hebrew bible (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21), but they represent a view that goes back perhaps another eight centuries to the beginnings of the people of Israel -- who were probably not originally what we would call "an ethnic group." As described by Norman Gottwald in his magisterial
The Tribes of Yahweh, the Israelites as a people began in a revolution of slaves against the Egyptian empire, a massive rejection of the society of the time. That society was one of authority and religion, presided over by a king whose position was guaranteed by the gods. The Hebrews (the word seems originally to have meant "outlaws") rejected both the kings and the gods.

The Exodus events of perhaps the thirteenth century BCE were not so much a migration (as is pictured in the bible story) but a "going out" (exodus) from a society and its assumptions. The Ten Commandments are a proclamation of that revolution, a "Declaration of Independence of Liberated Israel."

The text begins with the presentation of a liberator, styled YHWH (a form of the Hebrew verb "to be"), "who brought you out of the house of slavery." YHWH is not a god in the sense of the surrounding society. Gods guarantee authority, and YHWH destroys it: "You shall have no gods." Idolatry is the greatest sin in Judaism, Christianity and Islam because it means bowing down before symbols of oppression. Even an image of YHWH is forbidden -- the only image of YHWH is humanity (Genesis 1:26). To "misuse" the name of YHWH is not a matter of saying "goddamn": it is to use the name to wield numinous power, as was done with the names of the gods -- that is to say, it is to practice religion. The Ten Commandments forbid religion (Exodus 20: 1-7).
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1 Comments:

At 5:15 AM, Blogger TheDevilIsInTheDetails said...

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