You shall not commit adultery, and other things I learned when I was six (illustrated)
This piece was originally published at AlainaMabaso.com in October 2017.
If you had to draw a crayon picture demonstrating that adultery is bad, what would you draw? Would you make an elementary schooler to do this? My teachers did, sometime in the late 80s, and recently, I rediscovered the documents.
I think the Bible is a much racier book than most people let on back in the days when I had to go to chapel and religion class five days a week and church every Sunday.
Have you read the Song of Solomon? It’s nine pages of erotic poetry.
How fair and how pleasant you are;
O love; with your delights!
This stature of yours is like a palm tree,
And your breasts like its clusters.
I said, “I will go up to the palm tree,
I will take hold of its branches.”
Let now your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
The fragrance of your breath like apples,
And the roof of your mouth like the best wine.
-Song of Solomon 7:6-9
Anybody need a break?
As I recall, creative approaches to the text of the Bible weren’t encouraged at my school. When I was in junior high, I remember a religion class assignment in which we had to write the story of the prophets Elijah and Elisha in our own words. This is where a flaming chariot appears and Elijah gets sucked up to heaven in a “whirlwind,” leaving his protégé behind to rend his clothes.
In my imagination of the scene, I added a sentence about Elisha staggering in a blast of wind. The pastor who graded the paper circled this with a red pen and disapprovingly wrote that the Bible has its own “rugged beauty” that needs no additions.
To this day, I’m not sure of the point of this assignment, unless it was simply an exercise in memorization, or maybe a way to alert the clergy to the presence of potential apostate writers.
In retrospect, the fact that I wasn’t allowed to describe how the whirlwind might have felt to Elisha was an early clue that my adult life would have little truck with my hometown church.
My own Ten Commandments scroll (it looks like it could be a first or second-grade project) was long buried in boxes of things I tried my best to discard when I purged my belongings after my divorce (which is perhaps an even greater stain on me than my embellishment of Bible stories). But throwing anything away is anathema to my mother, who took the boxes home with her. Claiming there was no longer any room for them in her garage, she delivered the boxes to me at home more than a year after I thought I had rid myself of them.
A little disconsolate rummaging in the top box immediately produced this mildewed scroll.
Now, I’d like to give my early work the publicity it deserves.
YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME
I see now that my teacher combined two Commandments (no other gods and no idols) into one, and I was apparently none the wiser.
There are a few reasons I like this picture. I got to break out the metallic crayons to draw the Golden Calf. I like the detail of the tuft on its tail, and its benign expression. And now I have the pleasure of revisiting this Old Testament story, which is a doozy.
Twelve chapters after Moses delivers the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel at the base of Mt. Sinai, he’s taking his sweet time up there again, and the people decide they need a new god. So Aaron, in charge while Moses is hanging out with God, melts down all their gold jewelry, sculpts a golden calf out of it, sets it on an altar, and everyone gets down to a huge party.
God gets wind of it up on the mountain, and threatens to waste everyone, but Moses convinces him not to. Aaron the great calf artist turns out to be total bullshitter, claiming that the calf came out of the fire on its own after he threw in everyone’s gold. Moses hurls the calf back into the flames, grinds it up, scatters it into the camp’s water, and forces the Israelites to drink it. THEN, apparently on God’s direct order, he commands the sons of Levi to go door to door and “let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.”
They slaughter three thousand people in one day.
No wonder that calf made an impression on me. Look at the serious, geometrically satisfying black lines crossing it out while still preserving the integrity of the drawing underneath.
We had to learn to recite the Commandments in toto, and I particularly remember enjoying the part of the Second Commandment that goes,
For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.
I never thought about what it meant. I just liked the authoritative rhythm of the sentence. In retrospect, the idea that God will punish the kids and grandkids and great-grandkids of anyone who defied Him, just to remind everyone how jealous He is, is pretty fucked up.
YOU SHALL NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD YOUR GOD IN VAIN
Judging by the text I added, this must have been an important one to me at the time. I like how I colloquialize the Commandment, subbing in “don’t” for “you shall not,” even if I can’t get the apostrophe right and there’s a missing “t.” I see my teacher gently adding a possessive “s.” Clearly, grammar is no less important than the Decalogue.
I dearly wish the words under the black crayon were legible. They must have been bad.
REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY, TO KEEP IT HOLY
This is obviously a picture of a priest in his white Sunday vestments. I can tell because of the rounded goatee, a very popular look for priests of my family’s church at the time.
It just now occurs to me to wonder if this has anything to do with my strong preference for clean-shaven men today.
HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER
I’m trying not to read too much in to the relative sizes of the male and female figures in my artwork. Maybe this is a visual metaphor for the pay gap. At least the woman has a sweet purple skirt.
YOU SHALL NOT MURDER
This may be my favorite.
I have no recollection of how much my teacher guided these illustrations, and how much we were left to our own devices. Did teachers expect us to draw pictures of murder? I like to think my picture evokes a certain sophistication and depth of imagination by avoiding the act itself, yet still communicating the heart of the Commandment. Clearly, judging from the chain on this person’s left wrist, a serious crime has already occurred.
Did you see her FACE?
Whom did she kill?? Look at the toothy smile, the sideways glance, the rad, I-don’t-give-a-fuck purple hair. Not a shred of remorse. She’s just getting started. What does she know that we don’t?
On another note, I always found this Commandment (and the next three) a little sparse. Back in the Second Commandment, God says,
You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, that is in the water under the earth.
Anyone else think this is overly specific?
–Hey God, I know you said no carved images, but what if it’s a likeness of something in the sky?
-No. Nothing from the sky.
-Ok, what about something on the earth?
-No, goddammit! No. Nothing on the earth.
-Would it be ok if—
-Jesus, do I have to spell it out? No. NO. Get out of the pool!
When it comes to properly respecting Him and observing the Sabbath, God is full of extra provisions. But for something like murder, He has nothing to add. No reminders about the people you shouldn’t kill or the places you shouldn’t commit murder. It’s just “You shall not murder.”
Maybe dwelling on this would’ve been awkward given the fatalities at Mt. Sinai following the whole Golden Calf incident.
YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY
Long after I first learned to recite the Ten Commandments, I still wondered what “adultery” was. One day, I asked one of my teachers.
“Adultery is a kind of lying,” she answered, and I was still confused, but could tell I wasn’t supposed to press the matter.
I’m fairly sure that at the time I was illustrating these Commandments, I did not grasp the concept of sexual infidelity (or even sex). I can imagine a dicey scene in the classroom as the teacher suggests we all draw a picture of a man and a woman who love each other, and hopes nobody connects the dots about where this special brand of “lying” comes in.
Either way, I like the contrast of this picture against the apprehended murderer. In that case, I illustrate the Commandment with someone under punishment for the violation; in this case, I draw people who are not breaking the rules, each drawing in service of the same “you shall not” edict. It’s an interesting range of abstract concepts for a child to put on paper with crayons.
I also still note the relative sizes of the man and woman. But again, at least they know how to dress.
YOU SHALL NOT STEAL
Finally! I stop beating around the bush and catch someone right in the act! It looks like the item in question might be a bag of M&Ms. (Tasty. Portable. Probably close to the door. Good choice.)
Again, I have illustrated the breaking of a Commandment with no discernible remorse.
YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST YOUR NEIGHBOR
This drawing reminds me that, as with the Commandment against adultery, I found the prohibition on bearing false witness confusing.
I didn’t understand what it meant to “bear false witness.” I think I had a vague idea that if “you shall not commit adultery” meant “you shall not lie,” then “you shall not bear false witness” meant something related but more specific.
I think this picture, in all its impressive complexity, helps to explain where I must have been with the concept of bearing false witness. To me, even if I didn’t have the vocabulary for it all, the word “witness” conjured an idea of man-made crisis, testimony, judge, and jury.
Here, it looks to me like a person in a house has witnessed a possibly fatal rear-ending (is that a turquoise body on the ground?). The automotive damage looks extensive, but maybe there are two sides to the story. Will the witness tell the truth?
YOU SHALL NOT COVET YOUR NEIGHBOR'S HOUSE. YOU SHALL NOT COVET YOUR NEIGHBOR'S WIFE, NOR HIS MANSERVANT, NOR HIS MAIDSERVANT, NOR HIS OX, NOR HIS DONKEY, OR ANYTHING THAT IS YOUR NEIGHBOR'S.
Even as a child, I appreciated the nuance of the concept of coveting. It’s easy enough to operate on the principle that it means you shouldn’t want things that aren’t yours, but my teachers impressed upon me that coveting goes deeper than that. If you covet, you not only want something for yourself; You specifically wish that the person in possession of the thing you want should not have it, in favor of having it yourself.
Look at the person in purple pants. I like the resemblance to the work of artist and writer Brian Andreas, who has perfected a poignant, articulate yet childlike whimsy of color and line.
I also appreciate how gamely I set out to illustrate this abstract concept. Here, I seem to have sidestepped the representational quandary by drawing a person who is apparently content in her own house, and similar to the panel on adultery, we might be viewing the Commandment operating by the lack of violation thereof.
Additionally, here we are back at the same issue I have with the carved idols. Why not just say “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s” and be done with it?
(It was always a lot more fun when the translation read “you shall not covet your neighbor’s ass.”)
I just love the fact that a schoolchild of the 1980s in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. was reciting rules about not coveting people’s servants and livestock. It makes me want to rewrite the Commandment to be more relevant to my adult life in Philadelphia.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s roof deck. You shall not covet your neighbor’s stable domestic partnership, nor her ability to just call a cleaning service, nor her well-adjusted dog, nor her backyard herb boxes, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”