Exodus 20:1-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 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. 5 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, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 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.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 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).