Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 - link to the NRSV text
There are many iconic images and stories in the Bible that shape our imaginations, but few rival this Sunday’s reading from Exodus, which is the giving of the Ten Words (or Commandments) to Moses on top of Mount Sinai. For Jews and Christians alike, it is a formative theological memory, and the Ten Words themselves are foundational teachings that inform moral behavior.
All that being said, sometimes iconic texts are the hardest to preach because they come with so much baggage. To quote Alan Rickman’s character the Metatron, the Voice of the Almighty from Kevin Smith’s Dogma: “Tell a person that you're the Metatron and they stare at you blankly. Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and suddenly everybody is a theology scholar.” We assume that, “Yeah, the Ten Commandments. I know those things [Note: Well, maybe not]. I know what they mean. How can I not? I’ve been hearing about them my whole life.”
But often what we think we know about a text gets in
the way of what the text is actually trying to communicate. 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!” All the other commandments flow from this, even the commandments about relations with other human beings because they flow out of response to God’s goodness. Those that had been slaves in Egypt have been liberated and thus are called to a new allegiance, a new bondage to the one that has provided for them so graciously, and these Ten Words define what life with this new lord and master shall look like.
And note that life with God is defined by a dual relationship, a relationship with God and with other people. Jesus noted this when he refused to separate the commandments to “Love God with all that you are” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But that principle is traced back here, to the Ten Words, these foundational spoken commands from the liberating and life-providing God of Israel.
In many ways, the rest of Torah is a working out of what living out these Ten Words looks like in everyday life and is a continuing, on-going process of reflection and discernment in the midst of life’s toils and troubles. The Jewish rabbis frequently understood that Torah observance must shift according to new times and contexts, and I think this principal is found in the character of the Decalogue. For the Decalogue defines the boundaries of faithful living, but does not provide the answer to how this is to be lived out.
What does it mean to hallow the Sabbath and to rest? How is an image defined? What does it mean to honor your parents? These and other questions are the work of discernment and God’s working in the community of faith to guide God’s people to faithful observance.
But first and foremost is the word: Remember! Remember what has been done. "I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, up from a house of slavery."This is the Word on which all faithful living is formed and founded, that God has already done so much on our behalf. How will we respond?