Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Coogan, Michael, The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). Pp. 192. Paperback. US$18.00. ISBN 978-0-300-21250-1.

The Ten Commandments (TC) have played a key role within Judaism and Christianity for millennia. Indicative of this fact, pointed out strongly in Michael Coogan's recent work on the subject, is that there is not one single text of the TC. The Hebrew Bible (HB) includes at least three versions of the TC, found in Exod 20, Deut 5, and Exod 34, each unique in its own right, with the “Ritual Decalogue” in Exod 34 differing the most from the other two. Besides the fact that there are multiple versions of the TC within the HB itself, modern displays of the text also differ greatly from the TC they are supposed to be honoring. Coogan's study highlights how this is almost never brought into the contemporary American debate about the display of the TC on government owned property. Questions at the heart of this debate are explored in an approachable scholarly study on the TC, written for a popular audience with a bent toward modern Biblical Studies. The author explores how applicable the TC are to our contemporary religious and legal situation. Coogan has done a great service for lay readers and scholars alike by providing a good introduction to this complicated subject. The study will be accessible to both scholars and non-scholars alike.

In eight chapters Coogan explores the TC from their earliest inception to the present day. Chapter one orients the reader by sharing the story of the promulgation of the TC within the United States in the 1950s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in conjunction with the Cecil B. DeMille film, The Ten Commandments. The erection of TC monuments throughout the United States led to further problems and debates about the legality of the government displaying these on their grounds. Coogan aptly demonstrates the fact that, not only were the versions of the TC used on these monuments creative fictions of the text, their erection violates the commandment not to make idols and images (cf. Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8; and Exod 34:17).

Chapter two describes the context of Moses's reception of the TC from God. The literary setting is important not only to understand what led up to Moses receiving the TC, but also in order to comprehend Coogan's later statements on the difficulty of accepting the narrative at face value. Coogan also describes important concepts in Near Eastern literature like the covenant formula, the concept of “cutting” a covenant, and the relationship of Hebrew literature with historically prior Near Eastern texts. As Coogan makes clear, these commandments were not created in a vacuum or simply revealed from heaven, but have clear parallels to the legal procedures of the neighbors of Israel and Judah.

Coogan sets out in his third chapter a detailed investigation of the variants among recensions of the TC within the HB and those modern editions produced for public display and religious education. Coogan explores the prohibition on scheming against neighbors and the significant differences in the versions of the TC on the Sabbath day, namely, an appeal to either the exodus or creation. All of these important data suggest, Coogan claims, that the text of the TC was not fixed in ancient Israel. Authors and scribes were allowed to make changes to this important text as they saw fit.

In chapter four Coogan explores the dating of the TC, an area where many scholars disagree with Coogan's treatment. Coogan briefly describes the classic Documentary Hypothesis (DH) and argues for the early dating of each of the four sources, placing the latest of the four, P, in the sixth century B.C.E. He points out how these sources are neither the earliest nor the latest parts of the Torah, and therefore argues that the core of the three versions of the TC has an implied social setting in approximately 1200–1000 B.C.E. This reviewer finds it methodologically problematical that Coogan is willing to date, in this instance, 100–700 years prior to the classical dating of the DH sources—a claim which will already be problematic for many scholars. On the other hand, however, he notes the difficulty of extracting traditions from a century earlier out of the Mishnah and Talmud.

Chapter five examines the reconstruction of the earliest meanings of the TC in their historical and literary contexts. Coogan goes through each commandment, one by one, in order to explain the TC in full detail to his readers. This is the longest section, by far, and arguably the most important chapter in the book. Here Coogan contrasts the differences in the earliest contexts of the TC with the ways that they are (mis)read and (mis)understood today. One example is Exod 20:14, where the simple command to “not commit adultery” has been expanded in some modern traditions to include masturbation, pornography, prostitution, rape, homosexuality, polygamy, incest, and several other sexual acts. While this may be a possible way of appropriating this verse, the original intent of the text is much more narrow than that. As Coogan points out, the commandment only excludes an Israelite man from having sex with another Israelite man's wife or fiancée, violating the sexual rights of the Israelite man to his wife or wife to be. The idea that this commandment is meant exclusively for this context would surprise many modern readers.

Coogan then turns to the function of the TC in early Judaism and Christianity in chapter six. He elucidates the import of these passages in daily temple worship, their use in phylacteries, and in the New Testament and early Christian literature. There was, according to Coogan, a tension within early Christianity, particularly between Paul and the authors of the gospel of Matthew and James, on the binding nature of the Torah for new members of their faith tradition, particularly Gentile-Christians. Should they follow the entire Law or only some of it? Was faith alone more important than faith with works? These are questions that are still debated today.

In chapter seven Coogan looks at the many ways the TC have been “up for grabs” within Judaism and Christianity, meaning that they have been interpreted and used at different places on the spectrum of literal or close readings. Coogan describes his personal experience growing up in the Catholic Church and the version of the TC he memorized as a child. This version strikingly excluded aspects of the TC that could potentially cause issues in a Catholic context. He notes several historical examples, including Jewish art of late antiquity, which exhibit indifference toward a plain reading of the TC, including a sixth-century C.E. Jewish mosaic that includes the sun god and the signs of the Zodiak. There have been various ways of appropriating the TC in different Jewish and Christian societies that seem to have ignored some of the most basic concepts in the TC.

Chapter eight concludes the book and summarizes some of the major ideas found in the earlier chapters by asking how the TC can be honored. Coogan describes contemporary uses of the TC, such as its portrayal at the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Coogan asks how this secularizes aspects of American religious and legal history. While some of the arguments in favor of monuments erected elsewhere include the fact that the Supreme Court Building has Moses and the Law on display, the details of the religious aspects of the story of Moses are not readily apparent. Moses is the lawgiver in the art on the Supreme Court Building, not God. It situates Moses as part of the whole story but not the centerpiece, thereby permitting the separation of church and state. The author concludes that the best way to honor the TC today is by loving one's neighbor as oneself. The United States, especially over the last several decades, has become a diverse country where many people come from religious backgrounds that do not include Moses or the worship of the God of Israel, and it is un-American, Coogan maintains, to push many of the TC on those who have differing faith traditions.

Colby Townsend, Utah State University