In the midst of chaos—a classroom, a courtroom, a hasty exit from Egypt—a clear set of rules can go a long way. That fact may help explain the enduring currency of the Ten Commandments, an economical list of shalts and shalt-nots etched onto stone tablets 3,300 years ago somewhere in the Middle East, or so the story goes.
The tablets upon which the commandments were inscribed have long since disappeared, if they ever existed at all. But the ten edicts have proved surprisingly hardy in other ways, serving as the foundation not just of modern morality, but for lawsuits, blockbuster movies, self-help books, and conflagrations in the culture war. Last year, the oldest-known stone version of the commandments sold for $850,000 at an auction in Beverly Hills.
In Set in Stone: America's Embrace of the Ten Commandments, historian Jenna Weissman Joselit argues persuasively that the Ten Commandments have special resonance in the United States. Joselit spends ample time with the Cecil B. DeMille movies of the same name (yes, movies—you know the 1956 version, but the director also released a silent epic in 1923), but she is also drawn to more obscure expressions of the commandments’ clout. She exhumes arcana, including a proposed “Decalogue Bill” that would have enshrined them into law in late 19th-century Kansas, and “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger’s 1998 best-seller promoting them as “moral focal point” applicable to modern-day personal quandaries. Moses, for his part, has been deployed as a mid-century comic book hero, an action figure, and according to a 1920s life insurance pamphlet, “one of the greatest salesmen and real-estate promoters that ever lived.” (This is territory well covered in Bruce Feiler’s 2009 book America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story.)
The commandments have a way of popping up in peculiar places. Joselit writes about a retired surveyor who claimed to discover an ancient stone copy in Ohio, electrifying the whole country in the 1860s. The artifact seemed to confirm a popular theory that Native American burial mounds in the Midwest were remnants of an ancient Hebrew civilization—proof, one Ohio pastor wrote, that the “sons of Jacob were walking on the soil of Ohio many centuries before the birth of Columbus.” The “Newark Holy Stones” were almost certainly a hoax, though scholars still debate whether the surveyor was the scammer or the scammed.
Alas, unlike the concise document that inspired it, Joselit’s book is flabby and meandering, even at just 160 pages of text. The chapters are structured rather confusingly around the media in which the Decalogue has been wrought between the mid-19th century and the present: stone, paper, stained glass, and film. The result is a scattershot stream of consciousness in which clarity is sacrificed for cleverness and cliché, and anecdotes stretch for pages. There’s nothing wrong with an anecdotal approach, but too often Joselit’s flimsy stories are neither entertaining nor enlightening. Timelines, motives, and historical context are often hazy. She zeroes in on a conflict within a New York City synagogue over its unusual round Ten Commandments–themed stained glass window in the 1850s, for example, but admits halfway through her account that the records don’t say who, precisely, objected to the window or why. She spends 12 pages riffing on it anyway.
Joselit, a professor of Judaic studies at the George Washington University, is strongest on the significance of the Decalogue to the American Jewish community. The commandments’ widespread popularity in the United States linked Jews’ religious identity to the broader American project. Isaac Mayer Wise, a prominent 19th-century rabbi, called them the “first declaration of Independence, the first proclamation of Liberty, the first and eternal blast from the trumpet of freedom.” Joselit writes poignantly about screenings of the 1909 silent film The Life of Moses, embraced by recent Jewish immigrants who cheered on the Israelites on-screen “as if completely in the dark as to the ending.”
But Set in Stone makes clear that American Jews have tended toward caution in public displays of the Commandments, while Christians have been the ones eager to brandish them in city squares and courtrooms. When Paramount Pictures collaborated with the Fraternal Order of Eagles to promote DeMille’s second Ten Commandments, it was the American Jewish Congress that objected to the installation of hundreds of promotional granite monuments in public spaces around the country. The AJC’s argument rested in part on the notion that reducing the Decalogue to a list of nice, nonsectarian pieces of advice stripped it of its power as a theological text.
Joselit surveys these topics in her peripatetic way, but she leaves many questions unanswered—even unasked. Why, for example, do the Ten Commandments mean so much to so many American Christians? Different Christian traditions take different approaches to Mosaic law, but in general they view it as the “Old Covenant,” superseded by the arrival of Jesus. Joselit, alas, skips any kind of orientation to the document's historical and theological significance, breezily suggesting in the introduction that “your bookshelves, like mine, probably sag under the accumulated weight” of other books about the Decalogue. (In fact, mine, like yours, sag with books about the excitement of breaking the commandments.) Starting in medias res in the mid-19th century, the book never addresses the question of how, say, the Puritan concept of America as the new Israel might have shaped the American Christian interest in the Ten Commandments.
Maybe that’s too much to ask from a peppy cultural history. But it’s impossible not to read Set in Stone and not wonder: OK, but why is this particular set of ancient rules so resilient in this particular country? It’s not obvious why the document would mean so much to someone like, say, Roy Moore, a Southern Baptist who became chief justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court in 2000 running as the “Ten Commandments judge.” The nickname was a reference to Moore’s decision as a circuit court judge to fight a lawsuit demanding he remove a hand-carved wooden Ten Commandments plaque from his courtroom.
When he won the election, Moore defiantly placed a 2.6-ton granite monument in the state judicial building’s rotunda. He refused a federal order to remove it, so a state ethics panel removed him instead. Moore then took “Roy’s Rock” on a national tour, speaking to audiences including a conference of Southern Baptist pastors. Only 1 in 5 Americans had approved of the order to remove the monument, and voters later elected him chief justice again. Moore announced last month he is running for Senate.
The Decalogue's endurance may rest in part on the rules themselves. In comparison to, say, Levitical laws regulating salt usage, tattoos, and sex with slaves, the commandments sound practically timeless (respect your parents; don’t kill). But as sensible as they may be, they still represent a serious challenge (honor God; don’t lie; don’t be envious). It's easy to imagine them sounding both as reasonable and arduous to ancient Israelites as they sound now to us.
For Americans who hunger for law and authority, however, the Commandments play a role that is more secular than religious: a signpost against which to measure society's slipping standards. “America does not know the Ten Commandments," Joselit reports one church survey lamented in 1927. For many of the commandments' contemporary fans, the problem of who doesn't know them is paramount. As Ten Commandments actor Yul Brynner grandiosely observed at a monument dedication in Milwaukee in 1956, “The need for the Ten Commandments is even greater today than it was 3,000 years ago.”
Roy Moore’s 5,280-pound granite monument eventually found a home at CrossPoint Community Church, in the same Alabama county where he made his name as the "Ten Commandments judge.” At a dedication ceremony at the church in 2005, he emphasized the continued importance of the Commandments in 21st-century America. "Today we live in an age where many in our society have rejected God's law and his sovereignty," he said, holding up a newspaper and pointing out stories about murder and mayhem. "Clearly, we've had a loss of morality in our society." Eleven years later, the church’s leaders announced it was dissolving, apologizing to members for unspecified "behavior that has hurt so many.” Having the rules written down doesn't always make them easier to follow.
Set in Stone: America's Embrace of the Ten Commandments by Jenna Weissman Joselit. Oxford University Press.