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Ten Commandments

The TenCommandments: The Law for the Ages

The History Channel aired a two-part program on the TenCommandments last week (April 12–13, 2006). While I did not see all of it, Iwas able to watch from the eighth commandment to the conclusion. AlanDershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard and popularauthor who made a name for himself by getting a conviction overturned for ClausVon Bülow who had been accused of attempting to murder his wife,[1] commentedthat the Ten Commandments do not apply today. I thought this was a curiousstatement for Dershowitz to make since in the Von Bülow case he did not arguethat since the sixth commandment does not apply there can’t be anything wrongin attempting to violate it.

 

Ted Turner made a similar claim about the Ten Commandments at the1988 National Press Association meeting. “We’re living with outmoded rules,” hesaid. “The rules we’re living under [are] the Ten Commandments, and I betnobody here even pays much attention to ’em, because they are too old. WhenMoses went up on the mountain, there were no nuclear weapons, there was nopoverty. Today, the commandments wouldn’t go over. Nobody around likes to becommanded.” Do Dershowitz and Turner really believe that laws against murder(6), theft (8), and perjury (9) are “outmoded rules”? Would Dershowitz defend aperson who killed his wife, emptied his bank account, and then lied about it byclaiming that these laws no longer apply? I doubt it.

 

If people don’t like to be commanded under the “outmoded rules”called the “Ten Commandments,” then they won’t want to be commanded underanyone’s proposed substitutes. Turner has suggested replacing the TenCommandments with “Ten Voluntary Initiatives,” some of which include helpingthe downtrodden, to love and respect planet Earth, to limit families to twochildren or no more than one’s nation suggests, and to support the UnitedNations. Of course, a “voluntary initiative” is not enforceable, and,therefore, is not a law.

 

The most fundamental question is what is the basis of law?[2] Whatmakes something a law that should be obeyed? Some argue that only commandmentssix through ten are universally and eternally applicable since they don’t carryany religious specificity. (Dershowitz did not make this distinction.[3]) Theproducers of the Ten Commandments program attempt to support this claim bypointing out that while the depiction of Moses on the Supreme Court buildingshows him holding what looks like the Ten Commandments, he is onlyholding a single tablet that depicts only commandments six through ten. If youlook closely at the image, you will see that Moses is holding both tablets ofthe law, one tablet on top of the other. The narrator failed to mention that asyou enter the Supreme Court courtroom, there are two huge oak doors that have bothtablets of the Ten Commandments engraved on each lower portion of eachdoor.

 

Contrary to Dershowtiz and Turner, Ted Koppel, in his commencementaddress at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina (May 10, 1987), had thisto say about the permanence of God’s law, specifically the Ten Commandments:“What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They arecommandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the TenCommandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable humanbehavior, not just for then or now, but for all time. Language evolves. Powershifts from one nation to another. Messages are transmitted with the speed oflight. Man erases one frontier after another. And yet we and our behavior andthe commandments governing that behavior remain the same.”[4]

 

A law is nothing more than a social construct that is subject toeternal flexibility and change if it is not anchored in some transcendentreference point. Commandments six through ten have no abiding validity withoutthe First Commandment.

 Gary Demar

Endnotes:

[1] Alan Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune (1985). Also madeinto a movie in 1990 where Jeremy Irons won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
[2] Arthur Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal(December 1979), 1229–49.
[3] Having been interviewed numerous times, I know how an editor can snipcomments that never get into the final production. It is possible thatDerwhowitz made such a distinction, but it ended up in the digital memory hole.
[4] Quoted in Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America: The PoliticalSeduction of the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 164.

 


The Ten Commandments




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No Other Gods




God's Name in Vain




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Do Not Steal





Do Not Bear False Witness





Do Not Covet