American Law and the Ten Commandments
Soon after George W. Bush became president, Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama placed a 5,280 lb monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state’s judicial building. Moore claimed that the Commandments were “the moral foundation” of U.S. law (FindLaw.com). The ACLU filed a lawsuit based on separation of church and state, but the ACLU failed to ask the fundamental question: is American law truly founded on the Ten Commandments. According to R.G. Price, author of “The Ten Commandments: American History and American Law”, the answer is a resounding “No”. And yet the battles to place biblical monuments on state property in order to establish a link between the laws of God and the American Judicial system continue all across the country; in some cases being overruled and other cases, as in the Austin Texas Capitol Building case, being upheld. The debate continues to get hotter when just last year, vice-presidential nominee and Tea-Party advocate, Sarah Palin echoed Moore’s views to Bill O’Rielly on Fox News when she proclaimed Judeo Christian doctrine as the foundation of America’s laws, adding that future legislation should be guided by it. “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant,” Palin advised, “that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the Ten Commandments” (huffingtonpost.com).
With so many conservative Christians recognizing the Ten Commandments as the true legal doctrine of our nation’s judicial system, let’s examine exactly what these laws state. Here is a translation of the Ten Commandments from The Thomas Nelson & Sons Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Exodus 20:
- I am the lord thy God – thou shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the Earth beneath… for I am a jealous God, visiting iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy… in it you shall not do any work, you or your son, or your daughter, your manservant or your maidservant, or your cattle or the sojourner within your gates
- Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long…
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass…
And Moses took these commandments, according to the Bible, and “With a sound of… thunder Moses went to the people and told them these orders that were given to him by God” (Exodus, 20). Thus began the American legal system according to Justice Moore.
So let’s interpret these ten commandments as modern laws.
Commandment one: Worship the one true God or be arrested. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” which insures that this commandment stays in the Bible where it belongs (usconstitution.net.)
Commandment two: It is illegal to draw pictures or carve statues of any person or other living thing. This doesn’t work well in today’s America, where artists are revered; painters, sculptors, cartoonists, animators, and game designers alike. The elimination of these artists and the “graven images” they create would be Iconoclasm, an abhorrent destruction of art. But Iconoclasm is often praised in the Bible as being righteous. In the book “Their Iconoclasm and Our Idolatry,” Crispin Sartwell says that the first Iconoclast or destroyer of icons was Moses himself. Moses smashed the golden calf and shattered the stone tablets (Exodus 32.) And the destruction of art didn’t end there. Early Christians destroyed Roman statues. Spanish Priests burned hundreds of Mayan books (Mann, pg 303). And recently the Taliban destroyed the World’s largest Buddha statues in an attempt to follow the laws of God (reported by The New Republic). Worse yet, according to the wording of the commandment itself, not only would the person who broke the law suffer punishment, but their descendants would be punished also, “to the 3rd and 4th generation”: meaning grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Is this what Judge Moore and Sarah Palin want for America? I doubt it.
Commandment three: It is against the law to swear. In 1962 comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for using profanity in his stand-up routine. According to “The Official Lenny Bruce Site” at lennybruceofficial.com, the comedian violated California Penal Code, Section 311.6: “Every person who knowingly sings or speaks an obscene song…or… words in a public place is guilty of a misdemeanor.” Bruce was acquitted and arrested over and over until the third commandment became a joke. Now, fifty years later, Lenny Bruce is considered a maverick and most stand up comedians use profanity quite generously.
Commandment four: It is against the law for anyone to work on Sundays, even the cow. This is closer to being a law today than ever before, and we should be grateful that it is. According to the “Child Labor Education Project,” indentured-child-servitude, and child slavery have existed since America began. Only after unions formed in the early twentieth century did children and women begin to see conditions improve. Social reformers and the increased political power of working people spearheaded the fight for the rights of laborers (uiowa.edu.) So in general, some adherence to the fourth commandment is a very good thing in regards to labor laws. There are however a few cultures in the world that do follow the fourth commandment to the letter of the law. “Ultra-Orthodox and Secular Israelis Clash in Jerusalem,” on about.com/Judaism, reports that thousands of Orthodox Jews gathered “to protest driving on the Sabbath and… throw stones at passing cars,” as well as “slashing tires on cars of women not dressed modestly, physically attacking women… causing damage to restaurants and stores with non-kosher food…” Luckily in America it is okay to drive on the Sabbath but it is illegal to throw stones, slash tires, and attack women. Which will Judge Moore think is more Godly?
Commandment five and Commandment seven: these are together because they are both sensible good suggestions but NOT good laws: honor thy father and mother, and do not commit adultery. In other words: It is a crime for a son or daughter to be rude to his or her parents – and it is against the law to have sex with anyone other than ones spouse. As ridiculous as it may seem for either one of these to be a crime, they once were, at least in Switzerland, under the rule of John Calvin, the 16th century founder of Calvinism, which led to the Puritans and thus to conservative Christianity in America (calvinistcorner.com.) According to Robert M. Kingdon’s, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin was a hardliner when it came to disobedient children and adultery, and he was willing to do almost anything to enforce God’s will as stated in the fifth and seventh commandments. So in 1563, Calvin showed the world what breaking God’s law meant. Historian, Walter Babinski describes Calvin’s punishments in his work, Execution of a Child and Adulterers in Calvin’s Geneva. One young girl “who had insulted her mother” was confined, fed only bread and water, and forced to repent publicly. A peasant boy who threw a rock and swore was flogged and hung by his arms from the gallows. In 1568 a boy who had struck his father was beheaded (p. 361.) And there are equally horrible deaths that he condemned adulterers too. These two commandments; honoring one’s parents and not cheating on your spouse may both be sensible suggestions, but to make them crimes – what would America’s Founding Fathers say?
Commandment six and Commandment eight: Don’t kill anyone and don’t steal. Finally, here are two commandments that are actually laws in The United States today. The question is, did these rules originate in The Bible, or did they stem from documents and practices far far older? According to the Old Testament, Moses lived during the time of Rameses II, third Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, which puts God’s delivery of the Ten Commandments to the Hebrews around 1245 BC (eyelid.co.uk.). But by that time, Egyptian Civilization had already been around for over a thousand years; and I am sure that those pre-Moses Egyptians weren’t all killing each other in the streets, without laws, until the Ten Commandments came along. According to Mark Millmore’s Egyptology website, “Discovering Ancient Egypt”, the 1st Dynasty of the old Kingdom began in 3100 BC, with the Great Pyramid of Giza being completed in 2560 BC. At that time Egypt had no courts or judges but instead exercised their system of laws “through officials”, according to the section on “Law in Ancient Egypt” which can be viewed on digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk. Moses was raised and educated as an Egyptian prince; which means he knew military strategy, civic organization, and how to rule the masses. He would certainly have known the ancient Egyptian laws against murder and theft, and he would have enforced them, tablets or no tablets, because adhering to practical law was a necessary part of ruling. Sure he was a born-again fanatical Hebrew, but he also knew that people needed practical laws as well as spiritual ones; and he presented these laws in a way so that the rag-tag bunch of Hebrew slaves who followed him would sit up straight and pay attention. If that meant that he got them from the burning bush of God, so be it. But my guess is that these two laws were included in order to make some of the others seem more fundamental, because everybody had to know not to kill or steal already.
Commandment nine: It is illegal to bear false witness, or in essence to lie about other people. Of all the ten commandments this is the one that seems most likely to have come into modern law directly from the Bible. America’s libel and slander laws are a good example, as well as perjury. But not all lies are illegal in this country. In fact, most lies are perfectly legal. Politicians bear false witness against one another all the time. But none of them are charged with a crime. So some aspects of commandment number nine apply and some don’t. It’s a bunt, and the bases are loaded – one more commandment to go. Will it be a home run?
Commandment ten: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, or goat. So, it is illegal to want what other people have. Not a very American sentiment seeing as we all want what other people have almost as a rule. It is the American Dream to strike it rich so we can own fancy cars, nice clothes, big houses, live sexy lifestyles, and bask in fame, fortune, and success: just like the millionaires and the movie stars that we wish we could immitate. We want it all, including thinner bodies, higher grades, and better teeth, or else we’re just a bunch of commies. American society is based on coveting. Patriotism is based on coveting the belief in our righteous place atop the world, and no one, absolutely NO ONE can even suggest that those demands may be a little greedy. Without coveting the wealth of nations, and all the power and money we can acquire, we might as well turn our backs on capitalism and embrace socialism. It is surprising that the right-wing conservatives are embracing this commandment not to covet; it goes against everything they seem to stand for.
So if our code of laws didn’t come from The Bible where did they come from, Egypt? There was a civilization far older than Egypt, the Sumerians, who began their rise to power around 5000 BC (History of the Ancient Near East/tripod.com.) The laws of Sumer were passed down into the kingdom of Babylonia, where in 1792 BC, 500 years before Moses, King Hammurabi wrote down the first true set of laws called Hammurabi’s code. According to Cyrus Gordon’s textbook from 1957, “Hammurabi’s Code”, the laws of Hammurabi, chiseled into a large black stone in cuneiform, cover everything from ‘how to handle accusers, and false accusations’, to laws regarding murder, rape, incest, theft, and pensions. Each law in the code comes with a series of corresponding punishments depending on the circumstances of the crime. One of those punishments has even made it into our modern lexicon of common phrases; “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: all Hammurabi. And the codes are very extensive, far more extensive than any list of practical laws in the Bible. There are codes for unsolved crimes, the rights of military personnel, regulation of commerce, and liquor laws. There were protections for old soldiers, rules for divorce (both men and women had the right to demand a divorce), and controls on interest rates. The list of laws goes on and on, real laws, not about Gods and worship, but about people’s rights, protection from hucksters and scam-artists, codes covering inheritance, adoption, medical malpractice and even wet-nursing (Gordon.) According to Zechariah Sitchin’s The 12th Planet, the Sumerian and Babylonian cultures spread into the kingdoms of Crete, Persia, India, and Asia Minor, along with the laws of Hammurabi (73.); and then from there they went to Rome and so to all of the Western World, where other ancient codes of law were waiting to soak up the wisdom.
That is where our laws originated according to R.G. Price; the ancient world moving into the modern world, an evolution of law. The Bible may have giving our nation a moral backbone but it was Hammurabi, Rome, The Age of the Enlightenment, and the Democracy of Pericles that gave us our laws and government. And maybe most important of all according to Sir Frederick Pollock and Frederic William Maitlan, authors of The History of English Law, is Anglo-Saxon Law and the Magna Carta. Maybe we should build a monument to those things in front of our federal buildings and our courthouses. The Bible certainly gave the early Pilgrims the sense that they were creating a new kind of God-driven society, but even the men on the Mayflower had to write-up a mini-constitution in order to govern themselves, a document that set forth practical laws of governance. The Bible just wasn’t enough. And why would any American want the Bible to be the foundation for our laws and out behavior. This world already has countries that are ruled by Holy Scriptures and leaders that speak for God: like Iran, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. Do we really want to mimic that type of repressive theocracy here?
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