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.