Tag: Exodus

Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In the waning days of the Roman Empire, a monk named Benedict wrote a document that would direct how his fellow monks would live.  Used by Benedictine monks for 15 centuries, the Rule of St. Benedict laidout how monks were to live in a communal environment.  The rule provides order as well as helping the monks foster a sense of the relational nature of humans.

The Israelites crossed the sea and are now  “safe” on the other side.  Pharaoh and his army are gone. No more Egyptians to worry about.  But now they were out in the wilderness where they faced many unexpected challenges. In Egypt,  they followed Egyptian laws, but they weren’t in Egypt anymore.  They were now out in the wilderness. Rules were needed to help everyone get along outside the structure of Egyptian society and law. Common expectations and community norms were needed. The needed a rule, like the the Rule of St. Benedict.

As the people journey together, Moses presents them with a new Law from God.   The core of God’s Law for the Israelites is the Ten Commandments. Received by Moses and delivered to God’s people, these laws became important not only among the Israelites but also to many cultures and governments around the world.  In our own nation today, the Ten Commandments are widely accepted as social and spiritual norms.

It is important to note that the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews (actually the male Jewish head of households) and were not intended for universal use.  That said, we they can help us understand how we should live as Christians, what God expects from us and how following rules can be seen as an act of grace.

Engaging the Text

The Lord called to him from the mountain, “This is what you should say to Jacob’s household and declare to the Israelites: You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me.

-Exodus 19:3-5

It’s easy to see the Ten Commandments as rules to be on God’s good side.  But that’s not really what they are about.  In fact that aren’t really about us at all.  Theologian Rolf Jacobson notes that there are two things the Ten Commandments don’t do; they aren’t a pathway to salvation and they aren’t there to make you a better you.  Jacobson says the following:

The first is that God does not give the law as a means to salvation. To use the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship or a time-travel machine out of plywood. It’s not possible. And neither is it possible to earn salvation through the law. God does not give the law as a way to establish relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law.

That leads to the second point about the law. It isn’t about “us,”per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better “you”or a better “me.”The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.1

The Ten Commandments are for our neighbor and for God.  How do we relate to our neighbors?  How do we relate to God?  We aren’t blessed when we do good, but when we do good to the other and the other does good to us.

The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God.  The next four deal with our relationship to others and the last two deals with the desires of the heart.

We will look briefly at each commandment starting with the first one.

You shall have no other God’s before me. Don’t put anything or anyone ahead of God.  We are to pledge sole alligence to God. When we fail to love God, our neighbor is affected. As Jacobson notes, “When we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, or anything else — our neighbors will pay.”

 Don’t make yourself an idol. God is supposed to come first over everything.  It is easy to think we could love God and something else, but God commands that there are to be no idols.

 Don’t use the name of God wrongly.We call upon God to forgive us when we sin, to offer praise, to seek healing. God’s name is powerful so we should use it with care.

Take the Sabbath off.    The Sabbath is a day to worship God, but more importantly, it is usually about rest and fairness. This commandment gives the poor a day of rest. It is also a reminder that in Egypt, the Israelites had to work without a day off. Now they are free from having to work all the time, so take the time to rest.

Relating to Others.The next four focus on who we take care of our neighbors.  That includes are parents. The first one of these commandments, honoring your parents is about loving the other, our neighbors.  In a more modern tone, we are to care for the elderly in our midst.  We are also not to take the life of another (again, to murder is to not care for the other), not stealing and not having sex with a person’s spouse.  Again, we don’t do these things to get on God’s good side, but we do it for the benefit of the neighbor.

State of the Heart. The last two commandments deal with the heart.  Don’t bear false witness against a neighbor and don’t covet anything of the neighbor.

An aside about how Jews might see the Ten Commandments. Protestant Christians tend to look at law and gospel or grace differently than Jews.  Starting with Martin Luther, we emphasize grace and sometimes see the law as something that is archaic and has nothing to do with our faith.

Jews, however, see this differently.  They see the law as a response to God’s goodness.  Theologian Geoff McElroy explains: 

At first glance the Decalogue seems to be a list of regulations, and that’s what we assume they are, a list of do nots.  But maybe they are more like a framework through which life, specifically life with God, is interpreted.

Jewish tradition about the Decalogue gets this in a way that post-Pauline Christianity has seemed to have lost.  For many Christians, the Ten Words are “law” vis-à-vis the gospel or good news of God revealed in Jesus and even though we’ll still think following them is a good thing, they are seen as something distinct from the concept of God’s grace, as things that we as humans have failed to live up to and thus we need saving.

But in Jewish tradition, the Ten Words are a response to grace.  The Jews traditionally order their commandments differently; what the Jews regard as the first commandment or word, many Christians just dismiss as a prologue or introduction to the commandments.  But in Jewish tradition, the first commandment is not to have “no other gods before me,” but is instead: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”  (Exo 20:2).

In other words, the first word of life with God is to, “Remember what God has done for you!” 2

Conclusion

As Christians, especially  Protestants, it’s easy to look at the Ten Commandments as rules to follow or rules that weigh us down, take away our fun.  Because we are all children of the Reformation, Protestants tend to believe in grace over law.  That we are saved by grace is the central message that reformers like Luther and Calvin.

However, these passages were originally written by and for Jews,  so we need to see how Jews responded to these Commandments.  Jews tend to see the Ten Commandments or Ten Words as a response to grace.  The Ten Commandments are a response to grace.   The law is the vehicle for grace.  

It’s important to realize that the first commandment in the Jewish tradition is not You should haven’t other gods before God.  Instead, the first commandment is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

It’s these sentences that the rest of the commandment flows from.  The rules that follow are not God keeping tabs as it is a response to what God has done.  If God has shown mercy to you, then you are to not make idols to other Gods.  If God has led you out of Egypt, then you are to care for the elderly.  If God has loosed the bonds of slavery, then you are to not steal or covet anything your neighbor has.

Theologian Thomas Long has likened following the Ten Commandments to a dance.  He writes:

The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.3

Like the Ten Commandments,  Communion reminds us of God’s wondrous acts of freedom through Jesus Christ.  How will we respond?  If God has freed us, then we should take the bread and wine with great joy, learning to follow God’s ways in joyous response.  We will fail at times, but God forgives us and we are reminded again of God’s love.  

  1. Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher, June 15, 2014.
  2. Geoff McElroy, Desert Scribblings, 2008 (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/)
  3. Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p.17.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Advertisements
The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In our last lesson, we talked about Joseph the great-grandson of Abraham who was sold in slavery in Egypt.  He becomes the head caretaker in the house of Potiphar, only to be pestered by Potiphar’s wife and her advances.  He is then falsely accused when he rejects her temptations and is placed in jail.

But all is not lost for Joseph.  We are told over and over in this story that God was with Joseph and indeed, God was present in both good times and in times that were challenging.  He is released from prison becomes the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh, and saves his family from a local famine.  Pharaoh invites all of Joseph’s kin come and live in Egypt, a happy ending. But of course, it wasn’t a happy ending.  Today we talk about Joseph’s descendents as they leave the place that was one a refuge and became of place of hardship.

Engaging the Text

13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”

-Exodus 14:13-14

As the book of Exodus starts, we find things are not so good for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers. The book opens us by telling us that a new pharaoh rules the land and he “did not know Joseph.” Between the time of Joseph and the current period, the Hebrews grew in size from a handful of people to a vast group within Egypt.   The new Pharaoh did not have the same generous attitude as the first Pharaoh. He feared the Hebrews because of their large numbers. In order to keep the Hebrews from being a threat due to their vast numbers, he set them to work doing hard labor on his building projects.  A people who were once guests were now slaves.

Enter Moses.  He was saved from a terror campaign initiated by the Pharaoh which killed every Hebrew male child.  Ironically, Moses grows up in the Pharaoh’s household taken care of by Pharaoh’s daughter.  God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.  Pharaoh refuses to let the people leave and it become a match between Pharaoh and God.  A series of plagues strike the Egyptians until after a final plague kills all the firstborn Egyptians, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go.

But then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he sends the army after the Hebrews.  This is where the story beings for us.

Pharaoh sends his army on chariots to catch the Hebrews who are stopped at the seashore.  Word gets to the Hebrews of the advancing Egyptian army who naturally, freak out.

Moses tells the people to calm down.  See God’s work of salvation at hand.  God was going to save the Hebrews once and for all in spectacular fashion.

It seems that God is working long before the showdown at the sea.  Jewish commentaries note that God had the Hebrews take a circuitous route to the promised land instead the more direct route- which would make a great escape route back to Egypt if things got dicey.  This wandering would make it seem like the Israelites were lost, which then prompted the Egyptians to attack. (Beshalach Aliyah Summary, Chabad.org.)

It’s important to note that the two pillars that led the Hebrews, a cloud and fire are examples of God’s presence.

While the common story is that the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, some biblical scholars think they crossed the Reed Sea, which is shallow and surrounded by marshy land.  East winds can push the water away. The Egyptian army gets bogged down in the soggy soil.

Did all of this happen at the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?  If it’s the Reed Sea, how could the Egyptian army be drowned in shallow water? Who knows.  The story was handed down orally and there  is a possibility the story became “bigger” with each telling. Whether it happened at the Red See or the Reed Sea; whether it was winds that pushed away the shallow water or a huge wall of water is not the main point of the passage.  The point is that God saves the Hebrews from oppression.  The people see the power of God and place their trust in God.

 

 

Conclusion

This text is a well-known one not simply because the story has been told over and over, but because of movies that have dramatized the event.  In Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments the most memorable scene is when Moses (played by Charleston Heston) lifts up his rod and the mighty waters are swept away for provide a corridor for escape. 

While we know Hollywood’s telling of this story, what does this story have to do with our own story?  How do we see ourselves in this larger story?

The story of the Israelites in Egypt has been a story that resonated with African Americans.  Bogged down by slavery and then official segregation, Blacks in the United States looked to these passages as assurance that God was on the side of the oppressed and that someday, Pharaoh would be toppled.

Beyond this application, what does this story mean to you?  What does the liberation of a people thousands of years ago by God have anything to do with us today?

 

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Freedom amid Divine Expectations – Reflection for Lent 3B

comesundayfb

Exodus 20:1-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

20 Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

*****

We serve a covenant-making God. In the reading from Exodus 20, we encounter the third covenant-making event in this our Lenten journey. In the reading from Genesis 9 for the for the First Sunday of Lent, we read of God’s covenant promise to Noah. Never again, will God cleanse the earth with water. In the reading for the Second Sunday of Lent from Genesis 17, we hear again God’s covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah. They’re promised a multitude of descendants, who will inhabit the Land as part of an everlasting covenant. Now, we come to the third covenant, the one God makes Israel through the mediation of Moses. God has called Moses up to the mountain top so Moses might receive a set of covenant stipulations that will define relationship between Israel and its God.

We call the covenant stipulations revealed to Moses in Sinai the Ten Commandments. They are, we’re told, inscribed by God on stone tablets (Exodus 31:18-19). It should be noted that when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets laying out the covenant and discovered that the people were dancing around the golden calf, he threw them on the ground, breaking them (Exod. 32:19). Now, God did provide a second copy, so the people would have guidelines. With this second set, God renewed the covenant in preparation from the move from Sinai into the Promised Land (Exod. 34).

These stipulations that were intended to mark God’s covenant with Israel, have entered the public domain. We treat them today as if they were a legal code for American cultural life. Attempts have been made to put them in schools and court houses. In other words, we have secularized them, forgetting that they define a relationship with God. To forget their origin and turn them into rules diminishes their power to engender true freedom as a gift of God.

It is easy to miss, but these ten words begin with God’s declaration: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is an important word, because it defines God and God’s relationship with God’s people. In Jewish tradition, this is the first command. The second command prohibits worship of other gods and of making images of those gods. Thus, the opening statement is not a self-introduction. It is a command or word from God. Regarding this self-revelation of God’s identity, Rabbi Barry Schwartz writes: “

Note that while God could have been introduced as the creator of the world, God is instead presented as liberator of the people. The Torah is surely reminding us that the demanding and commanding God is first and foremost the liberating God. Concurrently, the text is also teaching us that there cannot be revelation without liberation. [Barry Schwartz, Path of the Prophets, ( Jewish Publication Society, 2017), p. 33].

What might appear to be rules and regulations are the foundations of freedom. True freedom comes from being in relationship with the one God, of whom no image can be created, a God who invites us to rest from one’s labors. While Sabbath laws often became burdensome, consider their origins. A people was enslaved. They had no rest from their labors, but now, they were free, and so Sabbath rest was theirs as a gift of God. Where once they had been in servitude to Pharaoh (who considered himself a god), now they are servants of Yahweh, and in this service, they find freedom.

We tend to equate freedom with an absence of rules, but to live in relationship with the covenant-making God, who is also the liberating God, is to recognize that true freedom is not anarchy. Again, I turn to Rabbi Barry Schwartz, who writes that “freedom is not simply the opportunity to act with impunity—it requires responsibility. The Exodus, after all, is not an end in and of itself. The Exodus culminates in Sinai—liberation is capped by Revelation. The mission is predicated on a covenant, and covenant implies obligation.” In this view, “responsible freedom leads to blessing” [Schwartz, Path of the Prophets, p. 36]. If we look back from this covenant to the one God initiated with Abraham and Sarah, it’s purpose is one of blessing. That promise of blessing continues through this covenant relationship.

While it may be true that these Commands form a basis for Western legal traditions, and that these words hold value for human life, it is important that we first see them in the context of God’s covenant purposes. These are, after all, not just any laws, these are a gift of God.

The commands provide a foundation for the relationships within the community for relationships with God and with neighbor. The first Table speaks specifically to one’s relationship with God. That is, love God with your entire being (Deut. 6:4-5). So, don’t worship other gods, don’t create images, don’t take oaths, and observe sacred time (Sabbath). When it comes to the second command, to love one’s neighbor, the remaining statements come into view (Lev.  19:18). Words that address such basic principles of life as not killing and stealing, seem uncontroversial, though we can obfuscate on the meaning of such words. But what about bearing false witness and coveting. How often do we break these two commands, which can often lead to breaking the others? In many ways the final command about coveting stands at the foundation of the entire law concerning one’s neighbor. Stealing, lying, killing, they all start with coveting.

When we speak of the two commands to love God and neighbor, we speak of a calling more fully delineated in the Ten Words, and further delineated in the 613 Mitzvot that make up the Law. If we fulfill the two, we fulfill the 613. Thus, Jesus affirms and fulfills these covenant stipulations, in calling for his followers to love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:34-35).

We hear these words anew in the context of our Lenten journey find true freedom in service to God. Since this is a season of contemplation and reflection, may the Ten Teachings, as laid out in Exodus 17, help us discern our place in God’s covenant people. As we use these words to look at our lives and how we are living them, if there are some areas needing adjustment, may we take the opportunity to do just that. As we take time to repent, we get back in the groove, for it is followed by words of assurance of forgiveness.

Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI and author of several books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).