The Sunday Puzzle

Knoxville's struggle with a troublesome commandment

Perhaps impressed with the Taliban's success in introducing religion to secular government, a nationwide movement is prodding county governments to post the Ten Commandments in local courthouses. They've been successful mostly in rural areas so far, but a couple of County Commissioners say they want to post the Ten Commandments in Knox County's courthouse.

I'm not sure how many commissioners are enthusiastic about the proposal; if it passes, it'll probably be because a majority fear the consequences of being branded as atheists, libertines, or Unitarians. Passing it may be the easiest, quietest way to get this hot potato off the table.

Of course, it'll be interesting to see what version of the Ten Commandments County Commission elects to use.

Yahweh's original Ten Commandments are about 200 English words long. The shorter text we most often see, the one posted in pet-grooming waiting rooms and roadside diners, is what might be called the Ten Commandments Lite. It's an edited version never approved by either Yahweh or Moses.

Maybe they're edited just to save yarn on a needlepoint sampler. But I suspect they're edited for convenience. Some of the specifics of the original Ten Commandments make Americans' flesh crawl.

Take one of the most heavily edited ones, Commandment IV. It's usually printed as "Remember the Sabbath Day To Keep It Holy."

Put that way, it's a breeze. Everybody remembers the Sabbath Day pretty well, whether they observe it on Saturday, as all the Hebrews have for more than 3,000 years, or on Sunday, as a majority of Christians do. And if you ask most Americans if they "keep it holy," they'll say they do "in my own way."

The problem is that the original text, as printed in any Bible or Torah before the needlepoint interpreters got to it, is much more specific than that. It tells us exactly how to keep it holy. It forbids doing any sort of work on the Sabbath. It makes no exceptions for car lots, malls, groceries, or any other jobs important to maintaining the American economy. It doesn't even offer exceptions for running your leaf blower or changing your oil or cleaning your oven.

It also forbids your servants from doing any work. In 2001, not many of us have servants. What we do have, in abundance, is servers. I'm not sure whether, in the original Hebrew, there's any distinction between "servants" and "servers," but it's clear that there's no specific exemption for the people who cook, clean, and serve for you, at a restaurant.

Going to a restaurant on Sunday, paying people to serve you, would seem to be a direct violation. But Knoxville's steakhouses and all-you-can-eat buffets are packed with coat-and-tie crowds just after noon every Sunday. Sunday is some restaurants' biggest day of the week.

Knoxville's struggle with that commandment is nothing new. It was raising eyebrows here over 200 years ago. When Knoxville was founded in the 1790s, the Bible Belt was way up in the northeast; the South was a famously irreligious place, and pious Yankees were repeatedly appalled by what they found here. Thomas Weir, who visited us in 1798, was shocked to see drinking, dancing, and card-playing in Knoxville on Sunday; he wrote he'd never seen such behavior on the Sabbath before.

Embarrassed by Knoxville's heathen reputation, city fathers eventually enforced the Fourth Commandment in municipal legislation. Knoxville eventually banned Sunday drinking and public entertainments, including live shows, ball games, movies. By the 20th century, Yankee tourists like author John Gunther would be shocked by how much Knoxville forbade on Sundays. Just as shocked, maybe, as late 18th-century Yankee tourists were by how much Knoxville permitted on Sundays.

Today, Sunday in Knoxville remains a puzzle. You still can't buy beer before noon on Sundays, and you can't buy wine or liquor all day, except in restaurants. But the only part of town that's devoutly quiet on Sunday is the part that the pious Weir and the irreverent Gunther visited: Sunday is always downtown's quietest day.

Most of downtown's 40-odd restaurants stay locked every Sunday even at high lunchtime, when downtown's several thriving churches disgorge thousands of hungry parishioners downtown. Maybe the ancient architecture of downtown's famous churches hushes Sunday commerce with Fourth-Commandment guilt. Churches aren't quite as imposing on Kingston Pike, Chapman Highway, Clinton Highway. Out there, maybe, the Sabbath's easier to forget.

In my life I've known several people who observe the Fourth Commandment exactly as written, and who avoid all businesses on the Sabbath. It may not be the best strategy for the Knoxville economy, but it's following the commandment as written. Come Judgment Day, I can't guarantee you won't be glad you did.

According to the Fourth Commandment, even strangers in town shouldn't work on the Sabbath. Is County Commission ready to stand behind that one? If we do carve that commandment on the wall, can Tim Hutchison enforce it?

I trust the members of County Commission can clear up these theological issues before voting to install Yahweh's commandments to the Hebrews in the Knox County courthouse.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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