The History Channel aired a two-part program on the Ten Commandments last week (April 12–13, 2006). While I did not see all of it, I was able to watch from the eighth commandment to the conclusion. Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard and popular author who made a name for himself by getting a conviction overturned for Claus Von Bülow who had been accused of attempting to murder his wife,[1] commented that the Ten Commandments do not apply today. I thought this was a curious statement for Dershowitz to make since in the Von Bülow case he did not argue that since the sixth commandment does not apply there can’t be anything wrong in attempting to violate it.

Ted Turner made a similar claim about the Ten Commandments at the 1988 National Press Association meeting. “We’re living with outmoded rules,” he said. “The rules we’re living under [are] the Ten Commandments, and I bet nobody here even pays much attention to ’em, because they are too old. When Moses went up on the mountain, there were no nuclear weapons, there was no poverty. Today, the commandments wouldn’t go over. Nobody around likes to be commanded.” Do Dershowitz and Turner really believe that laws against murder (6), theft (8), and perjury (9) are “outmoded rules”? Would Dershowitz defend a person who killed his wife, emptied his bank account, and then lied about it by claiming that these laws no longer apply? I doubt it.

If people don’t like to be commanded under the “outmoded rules” called the “Ten Commandments,” then they won’t want to be commanded under anyone’s proposed substitutes. Turner has suggested replacing the Ten Commandments with “Ten Voluntary Initiatives,” some of which include helping the downtrodden, to love and respect planet Earth, to limit families to two children or no more than one’s nation suggests, and to support the United Nations. Of course, a “voluntary initiative” is not enforceable, and, therefore, is not a law.

The most fundamental question is what is the basis of law?[2] What makes something a law that should be obeyed? Some argue that only commandments six through ten are universally and eternally applicable since they don’t carry any religious specificity. (Dershowitz did not make this distinction.[3]) The producers of the Ten Commandments program attempt to support this claim by pointing out that while the depiction of Moses on the Supreme Court building shows him holding what looks like the Ten Commandments, he is only holding a single tablet that depicts only commandments six through ten. If you look closely at the image, you will see that Moses is holding both tablets of the law, one tablet on top of the other. The narrator failed to mention that as you enter the Supreme Court courtroom, there are two huge oak doors that have both tablets of the Ten Commandments engraved on each lower portion of each door.

Contrary to Dershowtiz and Turner, Ted Koppel, in his commencement address at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina (May 10, 1987), had this to say about the permanence of God’s law, specifically the Ten Commandments: “What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time. Language evolves. Power shifts from one nation to another. Messages are transmitted with the speed of light. Man erases one frontier after another. And yet we and our behavior and the commandments governing that behavior remain the same.”[4]

A law is nothing more than a social construct that is subject to eternal flexibility and change if it is not anchored in some transcendent reference point. Commandments six through ten have no abiding validity without the First Commandment.


[1] Alan Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune (1985). Also made into a movie in 1990 where Jeremy Irons won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
[2] Arthur Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal (December 1979), 1229–49. [3] Having been interviewed numerous times, I know how an editor can snip comments that never get into the final production. It is possible that Derwhowitz made such a distinction, but it ended up in the digital memory hole.
[4] Quoted in Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 164.