On June 17, 1999, the House of Representatives voted to allow states to require public schools to post the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments Defense Act is the latest move in a campaign to impose a narrow view of biblical tradition on the nation as a whole. The House bill is unlikely to pass the Senate or to be signed by the president, and it conflicts with the Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in Stone v. Graham, which declared the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky schools unconstitutional.
Perhaps, however, the display of the Decalogue in schools isn’t such a bad idea. It might force people to think harder about the nature of biblical tradition and the basis of biblical authority, especially in our pluralistic society. To begin with, I wonder which version of the Ten Commandments will be posted. For there is not just one immutable Decalogue in the Bible, but several versions of the legal code that the Bible sometimes calls “the ten words.” The first, and most familiar, is given to Moses in Exodus 20:1–17. It is reproduced with some interesting if minor variations in Deuteronomy 5:6–21. But the story doesn’t end there. When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai after 40 days and 40 nights to find the Israelites cavorting around the golden calf, he is so angry that he shatters the tablets. So, after quelling the Lord’s anger at the Israelites and quenching the rebellion in the camp, Moses has to go back up the mountain for a replacement set.