Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
This text from the second book of the Torah, the book of Exodus, describes a key moment in the formation of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. God, acting through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, has just liberated the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and has led them to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea. God has singlehandedly defeated the powerful armies of the Egyptian Pharaoh. God has led the people through the desert with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God has miraculously fed the people with manna, bread from heaven, and with quail. God has miraculously given them water to drink, flowing like a fountain out of a dry stone.
And now God has brought the chosen people to the holy mountain, an active volcano in the middle of the Sinai desert, where God will forge the people, giving them the laws and instructions by which they should live. From the midst of fire and smoke, God’s voice echoes from the mountaintop, saying: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”
God declares God’s own name to the people, a name that, out of respect for God, by Jewish tradition is never spoken aloud. That’s why it appears in print in your bibles as “the Lord.” Anytime you see the Lord printed in all caps, or God, printed in all caps, it means that the word in Hebrew is actually the unspeakable name of God, which in Hebrew is spelled YHWH, and pronounced Yahweh, or sometimes Jehovah. God identifies Godself by name, and by action, reminding the people that God is the only one responsible for bringing them out of Egypt and out of the bonds of slavery.
It is that fact, the fact that God is Israel’s only liberator, that leads to the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” This command, which seems obvious and ordinary to us, was in fact extremely radical at the time. The norm for all peoples at this time was polytheism, belief in multiple gods. Everyone understood that the world was controlled by a multitude of gods and goddesses, each with their own spheres of influence. One was required to worship multiple gods because, after all, there was one god in charge of storms, but another one was in charge of fertile soil, and another one brought victory in war, and another one brought stability in the family, and so on. It was better to spread one’s worship among several gods so that none of them would feel neglected and get offended and start stirring up trouble.
But Israel’s God is going to require something completely new and novel: total allegiance to one God. YHWH declares that he is the only God that Israel needs, that he will provide for all of their needs. God has already shown that he is a war god, by defeating the Egyptians. God has shown Godself to be a home and fertility god by providing the Hebrews with manna and quail and water. God is also a storm god, as shown through the pillar of cloud, and a fire god, as seen in the pillar of fire and the fire on the mountain. YHWH will be their everything, and so they have no need to turn to other gods. In this way, YHWH will establish himself as the king of Israel, and everyone knows that a people can have only one king. The Almighty will tolerate no rivals. God explains that God is a jealous god, and like a jealous spouse, God will not tolerate infidelity.
This does not mean, incidently, that God is insisting at this point, or that the people believed, that there were no other gods besides YHWH. They still believed that there were other gods out there. God simply demanded that they not worship any of the other gods. They must be devoted to only one God, not necessarily believe that there was only one god.
To this end, God gives a second commandment, that they create no images for the purpose of worship. It was traditional in all religious traditions in the middle east, to make statues of the gods that they would be worshiping, and to offer prayers to those statues. YHWH, though, rejects this practice, and refuses to be cast into a statue. Instead, we will find later, the ark of the covenant will be understood as the earthly footstool of God’s heaven throne, and will be the only earthly representation of Godself that God will allow.
The third commandment: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.” As we still do today, ancient peoples, when they wanted to add some extra oomph to their oaths, would swear in the name of God. I swear by Apollo that I will fulfill my duty to the army, for example. God says, “If you’re going to use my name in an oath, you had better really mean it, because I will hold you to it.” This is one of the reasons why it became tradition to never speak the name of God, so that no one would ever accidentally use God’s name in vain.
The fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh. You should work for six days and then rest on the seventh. Also, you should let all of your children, and all of your slaves, and even all of your animals rest on Saturdays. This was a very strange concept in the ancient world. In all other cultures, all seven days were work days. Now, they broke up the monotony with plenty of religious feasts and festivals. But the idea that every seventh day should be free of work, and especially that even slaves should get one day off in seven, seemed ridiculous to Israel’s neighbors. Apparently, it seems fairly ridiculous to us today, too. Few would consider having one day a week in which every single business shut down. We still expect cooks and waiters work, even if we decide to take one day off.
The fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” You may have noticed that all of the commandments before this one are about God and the people’s relationship to God. All of the one’s after this will be about ethics. This commandment is the bridge. Honor your father and mother. As you respect God, you should also respect your elders. This means being respectful and obedient. It also means providing for them in their old age. This is another of the commandments that doesn’t make much sense to us in the modern world. If this were the ancient world, I would still be living in my father’s house, and he would decide what was right for me, and for Melissa, and for our children. Honoring one’s father meant doing exactly what he said until he died.
That, thankfully, is not the way our families work in modern America. Most of us would find it fairly odd to have grandparents living in the same house with all of their sons, and all of their daughters-in-law, and all of their paternal grandchildren, and all of their granddaughters-in-law, and all their great-grandchildren, and having the patriarch of the family making the decisions for everyone. We might even call social services on a family like that. In a culture in which we usually define a family as a nuclear family, and in which we expect children to strike it out on their own and become independent once they graduate high school or college, we have quite a lot of thinking to do about what it might mean to honor one’s father and mother, to honor one’s elders.
The sixth commandment: “You shall not kill.” That’s a difficult one too. Obviously, murder seems to be prohibited here. But what about revenge killings? What about capital punishment? What about war? Are those things allowed, or are they exceptions to this commandment?
The seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” In ancient Israel, this was understood to apply only to married women. Married women could not have affairs, but married men could. And the unmarried were not restricted sexually by this particular commandment. Of course, men were also allowed to marry more than one woman. That’s something we tend to forget when we assumed that biblical marriage was between one man and one woman. In the bible, marriage is actually defined as between one man and several women. Regardless, the commandment speaks; be faithful in your marriage relationship.
The eighth commandment: “You shall not steal.” Fairly self-explanatory. Don’t take what belongs to someone else. What, though, are we to say about the seed company that creates a genetically modified strain of rice and then sues the farmers in the neighboring fields because their genetically modified strain has shown up, through cross-pollination, in the peasant-farmers’ crops? Who is stealing from whom in a situation like that?
The ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Don’t make false charges against someone. Don’t testify falsely about anyone. In other words, tell the truth and treat others fairly.
The tenth commandment: “You shall not covet.” There’s a whole long list of things not to covet, but it boils down to “Don’t be greedy for anything that belongs to someone else.” This may be the hardest commandment of all. Our economy is built on people coveting what they don’t have. A bigger house, a nicer car, and more and better toys, both for children and adults. Sometimes we are told that it is patriotic for us to want more. That’s what drives innovation. That’s what keeps the economy moving. And we’ve worked hard, we deserve it, don’t we? How can we make sense of this if our culture tells us over and over: want more, desire more, buy more? And yet, the commandment says, “Don’t be greedy.”
So here we are with this list of ten commandments. Some seem straightforward. Some are hard to understand because our world is so different from the world in which these were first given. Some, like the commandment against of adultery, actually make more sense in our world of gender equality and partner marriage than they ever did in the ancient world.
For better or for worse, they are now our commandments. Ours to interpret in our new and modern world. Ours to struggle with. Ours to learn from. Ours to break our preconceived notions of right and wrong. Ours to hold us to account for even our most dearly-held misconceptions. Ours to keep us humble. Ours to lead us to repentance. Ours to lead us to forgiveness. Ours to show us just how far we miss the mark. Ours to remind us that we are all in need of God’s grace. Ours to give us sympathy for others. Ours to open our hearts to our neighbors. Ours to lead us in the struggle for justice.
Don’t put anything in the place of God. Don’t try to confine God to an image. Don’t invoke God’s name for no reason. Everyone, everyone deserves a regular break from work. Treat your elders with respect. Don’t kill. Don’t cheat on your spouse. Don’t steal. Don’t lie, especially not in order to hurt someone. Don’t be greedy.
We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Paul says. We all miss the mark. But so also, when we repent and turn to God, we are all offered grace. We are all offered forgiveness by God, through the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ. Even when we fail, God does not abandon us. God calls us to get back up, to get back on the path, to begin the journey again and again, as we all walk in God’s justice and grace. Thanks be to God.