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The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text

Michael Coogan
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Ten Commandments
    Book Description:

    In this lively and provocative book, Michael Coogan guides readers into the ancient past to examine the iconic Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue. How, among all the laws reportedly given on Mount Sinai, did the Ten Commandments becometheTen Commandments? When did that happen? There are several versions of the Decalogue in the Old Testament, so how have different groups determined which is the most authoritative? Why were different versions created?Coogan discusses the meanings the Ten Commandments had for audiences in biblical times and observes that the form of the ten proscriptions and prohibitions was not fixed-as one would expect since they were purported to have come directly from God-nor were the Commandments always strictly observed. In later times as well, Jews and especially Christians ignored and even rejected some of the prohibitions, although the New Testament clearly acknowledges the special status of the Ten Commandments. Today it is plain that some of the values enshrined in the Decalogue are no longer defensible, such as the ownership of slaves and the labeling of women as men's property. Yet in line with biblical precedents, the author concludes that while a literal observance of the Ten Commandments is misguided, some of their underlying ideals remain valid in a modern context.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20700-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Idols and Images
    (pp. 1-8)

    June 10, 1956, was a sunny day in North Dakota. Smiling for the camera, the actor Charlton Heston, Judge E.J. Ruegemer, and two elected officials stood on either side of a large carved stone slab titled “the Ten Commandments” (Figure 1). Since the 1940s Ruegemer, a juvenile court judge, had led the campaign of the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE) to combat juvenile delinquency by distributing copies of the Ten Commandments to Boy Scouts and other civic and religious groups throughout the United States. The matinee idol Charlton Heston was there as part of the promotion for Cecil B. DeMille’s...

  5. 2 A Contract Sealed with Blood
    (pp. 9-24)

    The book of Exodus tells how Moses, a divinely chosen if reluctant leader, led the Israelites out of Egypt. The miraculous escape from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land is the central event of the Hebrew Bible, celebrated in song and story, memory and myth, retold for each generation. It became the paradigm of divine action—God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 4:34)—not just for Jews, but also for Christians and Muslims. For example, in Luke’s gospel Jesus speaks of his imminent death, resurrection, and ascension as his “exodus” (Luke 9:31). In the complex web of biblical...

  6. 3 Which Version of the Ten Commandments?
    (pp. 25-34)

    The Ten Commandments have been displayed in public parks, courthouses, and classrooms around the nation. The 2012 Republican Party platform vigorously supported such displays “as a reflection of our history and of our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.” But the displays are routinely challenged by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, on the grounds that the displays violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; I agree, as have federal courts in many cases. I have another reason for objecting to them: the displays of the...

  7. 4 How Old Are the Ten Commandments?
    (pp. 35-49)

    Before the Enlightenment, both Jews and Christians believed that the first five books of the Bible, the Torah or Pentateuch, had been written by Moses, who lived in the thirteenth century BCE or possibly earlier.¹ Since the seventeenth century, however, scholars have recognized that those books were not written down at one time by one author, but are a pastiche, a collage of sources combined and edited in several stages, the latest of which was no earlier than the sixth century BCE. Sorting out and dating the sources can be complicated, and it is an aspect of biblical studies that...

  8. 5 Original Meanings
    (pp. 50-93)

    According to the book of Deuteronomy, Moses anticipated that the divinely given laws that he was passing on to the Israelites would need to be explained. That process of interpretation begins in the Bible itself, and has continued ever since. Because the Decalogue is an ancient text, probably very ancient, part of the process involves figuring out what it originally meant; only then can we begin to assess its relevance for today. In this chapter, we will examine each of the commandments with this in mind; as we do so, we will see that their original meanings are not necessarily...

  9. 6 Which Laws Are Binding?
    (pp. 94-112)

    In the Hebrew Bible, the Decalogue is the text of the primary contract between God and the Israelites, the Sinai Covenant. As such, it has a special status. Its occurrence in several different versions indicates widespread importance, as do allusions to it in the prophets and elsewhere in the Bible. Its special status is also implied in Deuteronomy. Following the proclamation of the Decalogue, Moses’s retrospective narrative resumes:

    These words Yahweh spoke to your entire assembly on the mountain, from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, in a loud voice. He added no more, and...

  10. 7 Up for Grabs? The Selective Observance of the Ten Commandments
    (pp. 113-126)

    Like many other sexual matters, gay marriage is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments, so supporting same-sex relationships is not in any way a violation of the Decalogue, although it is admittedly contrary to other biblical laws whose modern applicability I think questionable. But I will stick with the Decalogue for now. The assertion of Sean Cardinal O’Malley, Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, assumes that the Ten Commandments are immutable, presumably because they were divinely given.

    Careful reading of the Bible shows otherwise. As we have seen, the text of the Ten Commandments was not fixed in ancient Israel: the...

  11. 8 Honoring the Ten Commandments
    (pp. 127-134)

    Inside the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., friezes on the north and south walls of the court chamber depict great lawgivers of history in chronological order. The ensemble is remarkably ecumenical and international. From the ancient Near East we see Menes, Hammurapi, Moses, and Solomon (Figure 8). From the Far East we see Confucius. Ancient Greece and Rome are represented by Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Octavian, and Justinian. We also see Muhammad, and finally a cluster of Europeans—King John of England, King Louis IX of France, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, the British legal theorist William Blackstone, and Napoleon...

    (pp. 135-142)

    Here are excerpts of a treaty between Mursili II, the king of Hatti (the Hittites), in Asia Minor and his vassal, Tuppi-Teshub, the king of Amurru, in northern Lebanon. It dates to the late fourteenth century BCE. Translation by Gary A. Beckman,Hittite Diplomatic Texts(Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 2nd ed., 1999), 59–64.

    Thus says My Majesty, Mursili, Great King, King of Hatti, Hero, Beloved of the Storm God, son of Suppiluliuma, Great King, King of Hatti, Hero:

    Aziru, your grandfather, Tuppi-Teshub, became the subject of my father. When it came about that the kings of the land of...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 143-152)
    (pp. 153-154)
    (pp. 155-156)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 157-176)