July 14, 1999

Which Ten Commandments
did the House intend?

___WASHINGTON (RNS)--When the House of Representatives voted to allow display of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public buildings, which Ten Commandments did it have in mind?
___The generally accepted Protestant version? The Catholic-Lutheran version? The Jewish version? The one in the biblical Book of Exodus, or the one restated by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy with slight differences?
___The amendment to the juvenile crime bill offered by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., speaks of the Ten Commandments in the most generic of terms.
___Arguing on behalf of his bill, Aderholt, the Congregationalist son of a lay minister, called the Ten Commandments "the principles which we as a civil society need to live by to maintain order and decency and to preserve the American family."
___His bill, the Ten Commandments Defense Act Amendment, approved by a vote of 248-180, is even less precise. Hood Harris, Aderholt's deputy chief of staff, said the congressman had no particular version of the Ten Commandments in mind.
___It's up to the states to decide which, if any, Ten Commandments are to be displayed, Harris said.
___"The essence of the bill is states' rights," he added.
___According to Exodus, God summoned Moses to the summit of Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Israelites had left slavery in Egypt. There, Moses received the two stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, Exodus says.
___In speaking against the amendment, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., noted the differences among contemporary Christians and Jews over just what those tablets said.
___"The Hebrew words are the same, but the translations are very different, reflecting different religious traditions and different religious beliefs," said Nadler, who is Jewish.
___For Jews today, the first commandment is a statement acknowledging that freedom "from the house of bondage" is God's doing. The second commandment for Jews is "You shall have no other gods besides me."
___The Catholic-Lutheran version combines the two: "I am the Lord your God; you shall not have strange Gods before me."
___The general Protestant version, meanwhile, reads much like the Jewish version.
___"You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God" is the third commandment for Jews.
___The prohibition against taking "the name of the Lord your God in vain" is No. 2 for Catholics and Lutherans.
___Most Protestants say No. 3 is a prohibition against making "graven images," or idols.
___Similarly, Jews refer to the Sabbath--which they understand to be Saturday--while Catholics and Lutherans say it is the "Lord's Day"--Sunday--as the day to be kept holy.
___And while all versions of the Ten Commandments end with the 10th, the Jewish and general Protestant version is about not coveting a neighbor's house, wife or "anything that is your neighbor's."
___Catholics and Lutherans, however, divide the prohibition against coveting into two commandments, the ninth that mentions "your neighbor's wife," and the 10th that warns against coveting "your neighbor's goods."
___Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a constitutional watchdog group, said that as far as the law is concerned, it makes no difference which version of the Ten Commandments is displayed in a public building.
___"The Ten Commandments are not just feel-good suggestions. These are profound theological statements," he insisted.
___"The Supreme Court (in striking down a 1980 Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms) has made clear their religious nature."


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