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A letter from our director and CEO; how to Be good--what the ancient texts say.

The Ten Commandments hold our attention at the ROM this year, inspiring public debate as well as appearing "in person" this fall in their earliest written form during our landmark exhibition Dead Sea Scrolls. They are among the foundations of our culture, recognized in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

Since the Second World War, the West has been preoccupied with human rights. History has demanded this focus. But the presence of the Ten Commandments reminds us that we also share a deep historical preoccupation with human obligations. Indeed, the better part of our history has been defined by obligations rather than rights.

When we look at ancient documents, what do we find? What can we discern about "how to live a good life" in ancient texts across different civilizations? Comparing the Ten Commandments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the 42 "commandments" in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, we see that many of the rules are similar, describing norms required for any workable community ("You shall not murder"--Exodus 20; "I have not killed men"--Book of the Dead). The similarities may also reflect the close proximity of peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, where these commandments originally arose. Some might also see the hand of an ultimately common deity in these texts.

The first four of the Ten Commandments refer to the relationship between humans and God, the other six to relationships among humans. If you wish to live a good life, you must live properly in connection to both. It is striking how similar this is to the "commandments" in the Egyptian Book, as expressed by the deceased as he makes his case for salvation before Osiris. "I have not blasphemed God in my city," he says. "I have not reviled God." But also (in part), "I have not done falsehood against men, I have not impoverished my associates ... , I have not made suffering for anyone ... ." Many of the phrases have the ring of the Ten Commandments.

Recognized as authority in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, and in the Islamic Koran, the Ten Commandments embody common values across different traditions. But if you were solely a child of the Egyptian tradition, you would also share these values. There is not much evidence of a "clash of civilizations" in these texts.

Finally, there are some extra commandments in the Egyptian text, some of which are relevant to our own time. We find these strictures governing the relationship to nature: "I have not deprived the herds of their pastures, I have not trapped the birds from the preserves of the gods, I have not built a dam on flowing water." How relevant is this to our own time and place. Just this spring, the ROM opened the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, which explores the symbiotic relationships in our biospheres--among the most urgent subjects of global discourse today.

It is timely to focus again on how to live a good life in the ethical sense--what our obligations are to God (if you wish), to ourselves, to each other, and to nature. And it is fortunate that the ROM has the means and mandates to assist.


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Title Annotation:First Word
Author:Thorsell, William
Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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