Every few years, I pick up the Bible and read it through, just to keep me fresh. I’d just happened to have finished Exodus when I heard Tom Ashbrook interviewing Chris Hedges, author of Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, on the NPR radio show On Point. Hedges has a lot to say, but basically argues that the ten commandments has lost its central moral place in modern society, to modern society’s detriment. I’d been thinking of writing a blog entry about Exodus and the “ten commandments” (see why I put it in quotes below), but suddenly found myself speaking my thoughts out loud when I called in. Here’s a snippet from that conversation, and an invitation to use that snippet to continue a conversation here.
Tom Ashbrook: James is calling from Durham. Hi, James, what do you think?
James: Hi. I’d like to thank Mr. Hedges for writing. I found his prior book [War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning] really harrowing. I’m coming to this conversation as an atheist, not from a hostile point of view, but as someone who was just raised without religion.
J: I do have moral values that aren’t based in the Bible, but I’ve read the Bible a lot. Something that keeps coming back to me, again and again and again, is this notion of ten named commandments. They were put right out there on Judge Roy Moore’s monument…
TA: This is the Alabama Supreme Court Justice who got kicked out and now may run for Governor of Alabama.
J: Yes, sir. The thing I can’t find in the Bible is a place where God actually says what they are… he says at one point in Exodus, “I have ten commandments,” but he never says which ones they are. You folks were talking about Exodus Chapter 20…
J: If you go right on to Chapter 21, there is no point of delineation, and the first thing he says is, “These are the judgements which thou shalt set before them.” And he moves right into discussion of how one can be a moral slaveholder.
One has right a judgment there, for instance, in Chapter 21, Verse 4, that if a master has a slave who has a wife and who has children, if the male slave is set free, the master must according to God leave the children and wife behind.
TA: Well, James, we’ll look at that, why there are ten commandments instead of ten thousand. But as an atheist, I just want to know: do you find in that position, do you find the ten commandments oppressive, illuminating, irrelevant? How do you look at them?
J: I think they are an illuminating example, not because they come from God, but because I think they are an illustration of something that is conceptually prior. For me, it boils down to the Golden Rule, which says “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” The reason I believe that’s a central moral value — for societies, not just for individuals but for societies — is that it works. It binds a society together. Social psychologists have found this at the small and medium scale.
TA: So there’s wisdom here, even if you take the “Received From God” out of it. Let me take up your question with Chris Hedges. Chris, James says, “Why not eleven or twelve or thirteen?,” and if you’ve got all those, suddenly you’ve got slaveholding in there in the commandments.
Chris Hedges: Well, you know, the Protestants, Jews and Catholics have compiled slightly different lists, and, you know, what I did is essentially draw from the religious tradition. He raises a good point. Slavery is sanctioned in the Bible, not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also in the New Testament. St. Paul talks about slaves being “obedient to your masters.” There were condemnations of homosexuality; Jesus never does it, but it happens in Leviticus.
TA: So are you standing up for those, too?
CH: No. I think the problem with people who claim to take the Bible literally is that it’s always a selective literalism. They pick and choose what they want. And this is, with that whole issue of Creationism, a terrible distortion of what the writers in the Bible were trying to do. The writers of the book of Genesis basically thought the Earth was flat, with water above and below it.