It’s All Showbiz by Dan Barker (May 2003)

Mystery solved–what are these characters at the top of the ubiquitious Eagles Ten Commandment tombstones?

Ordinarily, Annie Laurie and I would not spend Easter watching “The Ten Commandments.” Sunday is the day of rest, not torture. However, since the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been involved in numerous lawsuits and legal complaints over the display of the decalog in public places, we were curious to see the movie that started it all.

It had been decades since either of us had had the pleasure. Our teenage daughter, Sabrina, a fourth-generation atheist, was quite amused at the scenario of our freethinking family watching (and giggling at) a tacky bible story. The Egyptians get slaughtered by the One True God of Charlton Heston in a bathrobe (who looked like he was taking it all as seriously then as he does now), while the tormented infidel Pharaoh Yul Bryner looked like he was trying to pull out his hair.

This was the movie that prompted the Fraternal Order of Eagles and Cecil B. DeMille to donate hundreds of granite monuments to cities, counties and states around the country starting in the 1950s, hyping the Hollywood film as well as biblical morality. (‘Though it’s hard to see how turning the Nile to blood, raining hail-fire and murdering all the first-born children makes Jehovah much of a moral example.)

While we were watching the part where God was burning the commandments onto the stone tablets with eye-popping 1956-special-effects animation firebolts, something caught my attention. The laws were etched with characters of a strange language I had seen somewhere before. Then I remembered: they are the same characters that appear at the top of the granite markers we have been complaining about over the years.

When we sued the State of Colorado over one of those monuments on the capitol grounds in 1991, I was called in as an expert witness and was able to identify the Jewish Star of David, the Christian Chi-Rho symbol (which the state’s attorney had apparently mistaken for “peace”–Latin “PAX”–since they look like a ‘P’ and ‘X’), and everything else on the face of the monument except for those strange characters at the top. (The successful Books vs. Elkhart case calls them “ancient Hebrew script,” but they are certainly not Hebrew.) A witness for Colorado identified them as “Phoenician-like.” Since then, I have wondered exactly what those “Phoenician-like” characters mean, and why they are not called simply “Phoenician” or “Canaanite” or some other known language.

After the movie ended (with Heston looking more like a Macy’s Santa Claus than a moral lawgiver), I did an Internet search and discovered: those are phony letters! That “Phoenician-like” language was made up for the movie.
In “The Ten Commandments: Notes on the Film,” Jeffrey Dane clears up the mystery:

“Significantly, [DeMille] even made special arrangements to have stone tablets cut from the red granite of a peak known in that area today as Jebel Musa (in Arabic, ‘Mountain of Moses’): Mt. Sinai itself. The tablets, which DeMille kept in his office for a time after the film’s completion, are about 21″ long, 11″ wide and 1″ in thickness. This was corroborated in a letter to the author by Henry Noerdlinger, chief of DeMille’s research staff. Bearing little similarity to what we recognize today as Hebrew but having a strong resemblance to the ancient and angular Phoenician alphabet (roughly contemporary with the Canaanite era and written only with consonants and no vowels), the symbols on the tablets were written for the film by Dr. Ralph Marcus of the Institute for Oriental Studies at the University of Chicago.”

I suppose those characters were concocted to convey a sense of antiquity or authenticity in the film. How many people pausing to view the Ten Commandments in Milwaukee (before we got it removed), Denver, Indianapolis or La Crosse, Wisconsin (the site of our current lawsuit) realize those cartoon symbols don’t mean a thing? It’s a showbiz prop!

Well, it’s all showbiz. I always thought that when a movie is no longer playing in theaters, the posters should come down.

Dan Barker, a former minister and author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, is public relations director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Editor’s note: If you care to catch a secular antidote to the “Ten Commandments” next year, try the equally long “Easter Parade” with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. Dan’s father, a musician who used to play with Hoagy Carmichael and still plays in bands, can be caught in a cameo early in the film playing a trombone and flirting with Judy Garland as she sings “I Want to Go Back to Michigan.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation