Wednesday, June 15, 2016

How the "Ten" Commandments Refute Originalism & Fundamentalism (With Some Help From Herod, Caiaphas & Ahab's Additions to "The Apology Box")

Conservatives often like to claim that texts speak for themselves.  A review of the Ten  Commandments is an easy way to see how such claims are false.  First, such a review nicely shows that we must interject our own judgment even before we start reading a text because we first have to decide what the text is.  When we look for "Ten" Commandments in the Bible, we won't find such a neat list.  Instead, we'll find two places in the Bible (Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21) which support such a list though we could come up with a different number depending on what we expressly include (for example is not bowing down to other gods included in not putting other gods first or is it a separate command?) and depending upon how we group what we find.  The number 10 is thus in that sense arbitrary.  

Second, once we've used our judgment as to the content and number of the list, reading the commandments still requires much interpretation.  For example, read literally they say that we cannot kill.  That would mean we could not cut down a tree much less kill a wild beast attacking us.  Of course, no reasonable person would take these words that literally and thus no honest person who is reasonable would claim we don't have to use our minds and hearts when we read a text.  Instead, what we generally want to do when reading the words of others is to figure out what the speaker meant by those words.  This involves engaging in what philosophers of language call pragmatics, a topic that I have written about elsewhere.  Have Ahab, Herod, and Caiaphas really tried to understand and follow speaker meaning in the poems that follow? 

Third, the Ten Commandments also remind us of another wrinkle in cross-language cases.  The Commandments are in an ancient language that most of us cannot read.  We must thus rely on translations, and translations also involve judgment and often are erroneous or questionable at best. Anyone who tells us that we can and should take a translation literally and without question is thus wrong on multiple levels.

            Polemics of Herod Antipas

Unbound,  I would have kept John living yet
The promise had been made, the head was hers.
“Thou shalt not steal.”  No ambiguity
In your command left room to fetch it back.
In fact, another also forced my hand.
We're ordered not to covet “any thing”
That is our neighbor’s.  Both commands were clear.
(“Thou shalt not kill” changed nothing since the phrase
Of course implies the further phrase “without
Good reason." For the scriptures say as well
That you crave lambs and sacrifices and
That many mortal deeds are capital.)

The cousin was another gruesome case.
I wanted to preserve him, too, but he
Spoke not in his defense.  I would myself
Have fabricated something had you not
Proscribed “false witness.” My inventions would
Have borne false witness, Lord, against the man’s
Accusers at a minimum and might
Have done the same against the man as well.
Nor could I think of putting him before
Your word and therefore you--your Decalogue
Began with that proscription.  Therefore I
Returned the man to Pilate.  (And perhaps
By doing so I further honored your
Commandments.  Some maintained he claimed was
Divine.  But there can be no gods before
You nor vain things said of divinity.
Some said he had worked on the Sabbath. But
We are to sanctify that day with rest.
Perhaps, too, for these reasons it was best
To send him back to Pilate.)

                                                  As I rest,
O Lord, I won’t deny that I’ve known sin
I am of Adam where its roots begin.
I had no choice in that but gladly chose
To follow your commandments and through those
Would hope I have abated other sin.      

            Caiaphas’s Defense
                (A high priest)

Forgive this son of Adam who like all
In that descent is preordained to fall--
Though I would honor God by falling well.

How did I fall well?  God’s commandments I
Kept though I was of Adam’s sinful stock.
No other gods before God!  Thus, I drove
From earth a fraud who claimed that he was God.
I stopped him, too, from taking God’s great name
In vain by claiming God became a man.
The holy Sabbath! I prevented that
Same rogue from working more on such a day.
One’s parents merit honor!  Stopping that
Same knave stopped further shame to his own kin.
No theft or coveting!  That thief once tried
To free my several temple booths for his
Own selfish commerce. He did not succeed.
Adultery is wrong!  Yet he would treat
Foul whores respectfully.  I did not let
Him keep on flaunting God’s word brazenly.
Thou shalt not kill!  I did not do the deed
But let the hell-bound Romans kill instead.
As one can see, I therefore did my best
To keep the Decalogue.   Though scriptures tell
Men they must tumble, one can still fall well.

                  Ahab’s Account

My father must be honored so I wed
His choice of Jezebel--not mine instead.
I could not change my wife.  If I did, we
Would thus of course commit adultery.
Nor could I make her lie about her creed.
False witness can't be borne as you've decreed.
I therefore had to tolerate Baal, too,
Though I never put that god ahead of you
And thus kept your commandment. I took pain
To foster commerce so that men could gain
The property they craved.  I knew no one
Could steal or covet objects that they own.
As murder was prohibited, I formed
Some treaties with Phoenicia and I warmed
With Judah to the South so killing would
Be minimized.  I reigned in ways I should
By your commandments.  Though Elijah would
Condemn and tear worlds down, I chose instead
The harder course of building worlds.  He fled
Before death brought him down.  I stayed instead
And honored you  as your commandments said.

© Harold Anthony Lloyd 2016
The current contents of "The Apology Box" can be found here.

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