Rave On: The Editorial Page
rants on the issues of the day.
Heston. Take Back Your Ten Commandments.
Is Year 2000 the Millennium Of?
With an ever-increasing number of biblically illiterate politicians pandering to ever-larger caucuses of religiously intolerant voters, it's no surprise that a major move is underfoot to force children to absorb the hate-filled messages implicit in the Ten Commandments. The House of Unrepresentatives, ignoring the First Amendment, recently passed a bill to allow all public schools to display copies of the Ten Commandments. Obviously ignorant of the many volatile religious debates over what passages of the bible properly constitute the Ten Commandments, and which commandments properly belong in the Decalogue, legislative proponents flaunt their lack of knowledge by publicly proclaiming the Ten Commandments a simple non-controversial bedrock of western civilization. Bedrock that it may be, the Ten Commandments is far from a religiously neutral non-controversial document.
Ask most Americans what the Ten Commandments are, and they'll probably tell you that it's that crazy legal document that prohibits cops from beating confessions out of dark-skinned citizens. Older Americans might remember it as Cecil B. DeMillle's gift to Charlton Heston on the occasion of his escaping from Yul Brynner (as the King of Siam, or some such foreign place.) Most of those who have actually touched a bible outside of a courtroom witness chair probably know better, but not much better.
The Ten Commandments are, theoretically, a set of laws handed down by Moses to the people of Israel, laws that he received directly from God. However, biblical scholars note that there are at least four different sets of laws in the bible laying claim to being the laws of Moses, and they vary greatly in scope and content. The confusion stems primarily from the fact that the biblical story of Moses was cobbled together centuries after the fact from competing and contradictory textual accounts. For example, in Exodus, Moses receives the laws on Mount Sinai shortly after the Exodus from Egypt while in Deuteronomy, he receives the laws some forty years later on Mount Horeb.
When religious teachers and political panderers talk about the Ten Commandments, they mean either the version set forth in Exodus 20:1-17 or the one in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Both are identical for the most part, but there are a couple of very important differences between them that generate religious and political ill will. These differences have to do with the wording of two of the commandments, one requiring respect for the Sabbath and the other prohibiting coveting.
Exodus and Deuteronomy word the commandment against coveting differently. Exodus lists a wife as part of the husband's household property, i.e., a slave; in Deuteronomy, the wife appears separate from and independent of the husband's property. Posting of the Exodus version in a public school would certainly constitute a form of sexual harassment against women under our present state and federal statutes, and could result in devastating financial verdicts against public school systems that choose to display such language in the schoolroom. It goes without saying that such usage would trigger an aggressive and angry debate over the role of women in society. On the other hand, posting the Deuteronomy version might trigger strong resentment from religious fundamentalists who see the role of women differently than do the politically correct.
As to the Sabbath commandment, the Exodus version invokes Creationism as the basis of the Sabbath, stating that we rest on the seventh day because that is the day that God rested after creating the world in six days. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, says that we celebrate the Sabbath to commemorate God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt. This commemoration, however, celebrates one of the most monstrous episodes in the entire bible, including the complete massacre of every innocent eldest child in each Egyptian family. Not exactly the lesson one wants to teach in the age of zero tolerance for violence in public schools. With kids getting expelled just for placing angry thoughts on their own web sites, how can we tolerate the celebration of a mass murder of innocent children? Teens might just get the wrong idea. ("Let my classmates out of detention, or I'll kill the Principal's eldest child and slaughter all his pets.")
The alternative version in Exodus, however, insists we take Creationism as an accepted fact, certainly a matter of religious and scientific controversy. Are proponents of the Ten Commandments in schools aware that they are taking a pro-Creationist viewpoint in advancing their position? (Nah! That would require that they actually read the Ten Commandments.)
Another difficulty with the Sabbath Commandment is the instruction "six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work." Clearly Moses failed to take into consideration the National Labor Relations Act and the right of unions to collectively bargain with management over hours and working conditions.
While these two versions of the Decalogue correspond to what most Jewish and Christian cults identify as the Ten Commandments, the bible never explicitly identifies either set as the Ten Commandments. That honor is reserved for a third version of the laws of Moses. It is the only one explicitly identified as the Ten Commandments Moses receive from the Hebrew God and passed on to the children of Israel. Enumerated in Exodus 34:12-26, this third version says nothing about murder, stealing, lying or adultery, --(this may have been the version President Clinton had in mind during his religious musings in l'affaire Monique)--but it does have some advice regarding diversity and tolerance. As to religious differences with your neighbor, "destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves." As to getting along peacefully with others, we are told that God will "cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders." And, as to religious neutrality in the schoolroom, one of these commandments directs that "thrice in the year shall all your men children appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel." (Perhaps we could coordinate one of those days with National Bring Your Daughter to Work Day.) Because this third version concerns itself almost exclusively with virulent religious practices, scholars have distinguished it from the traditional Ten Commandments by calling it The Ritual Ten Commandments.
A fourth biblical version of the laws of Moses actually consists of some fifty or more commandments, depending upon punctuation, and incorporates almost all of the three other documents and much more. We will pass over it for now, because almost everyone agrees that few public school children could read a document of that length with any comprehension.
In any event, even if we restrict ourselves to one or both of the two traditional versions of the Ten Commandments, we still have to face up to a number of deeply divisive issues concerning which portions of the documents are commandments and which aren't. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox have profound differences as to how the Ten Commandments should be interpreted and can't even agree on the order and number of the commandments. (And do we even won't to expose young children in the public schools to the theological issue of whether or not wearing an image of a dead Jew around your neck or posting a picture of President Roosevelt in the auditorium violates the commandment against making "unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above." School kids will want to know.)
Among Jews, the First Commandment says, "I am the Lord thy God." Christians do not agree, considering this phrase to be part of an introduction to the Ten Commandments. They begin the First Commandment with what Jews consider to be the start of the Second Commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Even among Christians, though, we have significant disagreements about the substance of specific commandments.
Most Protestants and Eastern Orthodox consider the prohibition against other gods and the prohibition against graven images to be two separate commandments, while Catholics combine them together as the First Commandment. Jews consider those two together as the Second Commandment. As a result, where Jews, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox have two commandments (but with different content) the Catholics have one, resulting in two different numbering systems for the remaining eight commandments. Because Catholics combine two of the earlier commandments they have to divide one of the later commandments to make up a list of ten, and do so by separating the Tenth Commandment (prohibiting coveting) into two separate portions. Given the difficulty public school children already have with simple arithmetic and reading comprehension, can you imagine the trauma they will face when trying to sort out the Ten Commandments from twelve sentences.
Once we (take polls and) decide whether to offend Jews, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, or Catholics by our choice of content and numbering systems, we then have to take a number of other steps. First, we will have to establish a national "Federal Regulatory Commission on Ten Commandment Displays" to make sure we don't violate the rules and regulations of other agencies established by Congress. (See above re the issues of sexual harassment, slavery, union work rules, mass murder, violence against children, arithmetic and reading problems, Creationism.) Such displays will probably first have to be cleared for content by the Justice Department, DOE, EEOC, ICC, FCC, NLRB and the EPA (if we cut down too many groves). We might even have to delete the biblical Ten Commandments from the display authorization bill and substitute an ecumenically sound Federal Registry of Ten Recommendations. But don't worry. We won't really be regulating religion, just protecting civil rights.
For a dwindling army of hard core perfectionists, the celebration of January 1, 2000 as the start of the next millennium generates grief and anguish. Clearly, they argue, the next millennium starts in 2001, not 2000. Give them a minute and they'll spend the next hour elucidating on such arcane trivia as how people mistakenly believe that there must have been a Year 0. (Yeah. Like most people even know what that concept means.) The argument begs the question of what the millennium celebration is all about. After all, any year in any century can be the millennial celebration of some event. It all depends on what date you are counting from and what you're celebrating.
The traditional assumption is that the millennial celebration has something to do with the birth of Christ and his anxiously awaited return a thousand years later, or some arbitrary number of thousands of years later. A thousand years ago, when the first expected reappearance was to take place, this same debate flourished and the pedantic faction carried the day, with the new millennium being celebrated on January 1, 1001. But if the millennium was geared to the sequence of thousand year jumps from the birth of Christ, and we celebrate that birth on December 24th of each year, then presumably we should celebrate the first day of the millennium on December 25th of whatever the correct year should be.
The problem stems from the invention of the modern dating system, which goes back only to about the sixth century AD, when a Monk named Dennis the Short came up with a new way to count years. Until then, Christians counted years from the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Among many peoples in the Christian world, years were often counted in terms of the current year of a particular king rather than in absolute terms from a fixed date.
Dennis thought it made more sense for Christians to count years from the birth of the Jewish guy they worshipped, which by his calculations occurred at the beginning of what we now think of as 1 AD. Since the Roman calendar year started on January 1, he considered that the starting date of Year 1 AD and the day on which Jesus was born. But according to Christian tradition, based on earlier Jewish customs, a child's true birth date occurred on the date of circumcision, not on his actual physical birth date. (I'm not going to touch on when they thought a woman was born.) Since circumcision occurred eight days after the physical birth, Dennis the Short placed Christ's physical birth eight days earlier on December 24th of the year 1 BC. So, to the extent that Christians believe in the importance of the millennium they are celebrating not the birth of Christ but the occasion of his initial cosmetic surgery.
Unfortunately, we have an additional problem with relating the date of the millennium to some weenie slicing a long time ago. Dennis the Short was simply wrong about the birth year of Christ. Most scholars who study the matter now agree that Christ was born in either 4 BC or 6 BC. When Bishop Ussher in the seventeenth century famously calculated the date of Creation to 4004 BC, he did so under the belief that Christ was born in 4 BC, and wanted to reach a nice round multiple of a 1000 years before Christ's birth as the Creation date. So, if you still hope to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Christ's little nip and tuck, you're a couple of years late. The party is over. You missed it. Nyaahhh, Nyaaah! And the world is still here. No Armageddon. So, you better cancel your New Year's Eve reservations and avoid getting hit with that outrageous addition to your credit card. It looks like you're going to have to pay the bill after all.
The fact of the matter is that the real reason we are having such a worldwide celebration of the millennium on January 1, 2000 is that it is the start of the next millennium beginning with a year ending in three zeroes. That happens only once in a person's lifetime and it's only happened once before. It's as good an excuse to party as any other, so why not?
Those of you hardcore perfectionists out there, face it. Don't you get just a little bit of a charge when your car's odometer turns from a number ending in 99999 to one ending in 00000, or when your digital clock changes from 11:59:59 to 12:00:00? Doesn't it give you a slight sense of joy, a feeling that there is order in the world? Don't you feel just a little bit of a goosebump at the idea that the year is going to change from 1999 to 2000? Party now. And next year, when your real millennium comes up, it will be much easier to get reservations on New Year's Eve.