The 5,300-pound hunk of granite carved with the Ten Commandments has been rolled out of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s Montgomery courtroom to gather moss in an unspecified back room. According to a Gallup poll, 77 percent of Americans think the rock should have been allowed to remain; many are hopping mad at Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, only yesterday the darling of the religious right and the object of an ongoing Senate filibuster against his nomination to an appellate court, because Pryor reluctantly agreed to do his job and enforce a federal court order to have the monument removed. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof loves to remind his readers, Americans are big believers–the virgin birth (83 percent), creationism (48 percent), the devil (68 percent). Forty-seven percent think the Antichrist is on earth right now. How many of these devotees, though, have actually read the Ten Commandments lately? There’s a reason the laws inscribed on those stone tablets are often represented by Roman numerals or squiggles. As a vague wave in the direction of law and order, the Decalogue pops up in thousands of public places, including the Supreme Court building, where Moses shares a frieze with Hammurabi and Justinian. Spelled out in all their ancient splendor, though, the commandments are a decidedly odd set of directives to be looming, physically or spiritually, over an American courtroom.
Consider Commandment One: God identifies himself as God–as if you didn’t know! Who else crashes about with thunder and lightning? He reminds the Jews that he brought them out of Egypt and orders that “thou shalt have no other gods before me.” What does that mean, exactly? No other gods, period, or no other gods come first? No other gods because they don’t exist, or no other gods because they are minor and inferior and God doesn’t like them? His need for constant reassurance is one of God’s more perplexing characteristics. If you had created the universe and everything in it down to the seven-day week, would you care if people believed in you? Wouldn’t it be enough that you knew you existed? Why can’t God give anonymously? So what if people give Baal or Ishtar the credit?
In any case, God’s status anxiety has precious little to do with the civil and criminal codes of the state of Alabama, where worshiping Baal and Ishtar is legal. Commandments Two, Three and Four continue God’s preoccupation with himself. No graven images, indeed, no “likeness” of anything in nature, to which he holds the copyright; no taking his name in vain; no work on the Sabbath. Representational art and sculpture, swearing a blue streak and working on Saturday (or, in Alabama, Sunday) are all legal; nor does the law require that we honor our fathers and mothers as enjoined in the Fifth Commandment, despite God’s barely veiled threat of death and/or exile if we sass them. Adultery is legal (well, actually, not in Alabama), as is coveting your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, livestock–or husband, a possibility God seems either not to have considered or not to have minded. In fact, the only activities banned by the Ten Commandments that are also crimes under American law are murder, theft and perjury. But those are illegal (I’m guessing) under just about every civil and religious code. Even Baal and Ishtar presumably took a dim view of them.
What sets the Ten Commandments apart is not content but style: that gloomy, vengeful, obsessive, insecure authorial voice, alternately vulnerable (he confesses he’s “jealous”) and dissociated (he talks about himself in the third person, like an American celebrity). As elsewhere in the Bible, God looks constantly over his shoulder at the competition, threatens to visit the sins of the father on generations yet unborn, raves against those who hate him. He is equally disturbed by killing and cursing, and is incredibly possessive (I made that tree! no copying!). Granted we all know people like this, but would you want them presiding over your trial?
When you consider that God could have commanded anything he wanted–anything!–the Ten have got to rank as one of the great missed moral opportunities of all time. How different history would have been had he clearly and unmistakably forbidden war, tyranny, taking over other people’s countries, slavery, exploitation of workers, cruelty to children, wife-beating, stoning, treating women–or anyone–as chattel or inferior beings. It’s not as if God had nothing more to say. The minute he’s through with the Decalogue, he gives Moses a long list of legal minutiae that are even less edifying: what happens if you buy a Hebrew slave and give him a wife who has children (he goes free after six years, but you keep the rest of the family); what should happen if a man sells his daughter as a “maidservant” and her master decides he doesn’t fancy her after all (he can give her to his son). God enjoins us to kill witches, Sabbath violators, disrespectful children, and people who have sex with animals, but not masters who beat their slaves to death, especially if the death takes place a day or two after the beating, because the slave is the master’s “money.” No wonder the good white Christians of Alabama believed the Bible permitted slavery! It does! After several chapters in this vein, with much tedious discussion of oxen and more inveighing against other gods and their benighted followers, God finally settles down to the subject closest to his heart: the precise mode in which he would like to be worshiped. He drones on for pages and pages about the tabernacle, the ark and the ephod, like a demented Bronze Age interior decorator–golden candlesticks, mind you, and ten linen curtains twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide, and loops around the edges, and eleven goat-hair curtains, maybe a little wider, and loops around their edges too. He specifies down to the last beryl the ostentatious get-up he wants his priests to wear and what animals they should sacrifice and when, and which parts of the burnt offering he likes best (the fat around the tail and liver–well, that’s everyone’s favorite, isn’t it?); he even gives recipes for incense and priestly perfume.
Has anyone checked out Judge Moore’s aftershave?