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Exodus 20:1-17

Having been introduced to two covenants in the first two weeks of Lent (with Noah in Genesis 9 and Abraham in Genesis 17; see Lent 1 and Lent 2 for comment), we follow the great saga of Israel’s founding myth in the Old Testament by reading the Ten Commandments. This is a point of high drama and significance in the Exodus narrative, and indirectly introduces us to the third great covenant between God and Israel, that established at Mt. Sinai with all Israel (Exodus 19-24).

After going up to the top of Mount Sinai to receive instruction from God (Exod 19:3), Moses is sent back down to the people (19:10-11). The people are not to approach the mountain of the Lord (19:12), only Moses and Aaron are permitted to come close to God. The people must stand a long way back and only when directed come near the mountain (19:12-25). The writer indicates at least two things about drawing near to God in this dramatic scene. It is a dangerous business and one must be prepared for it. The people are encountering one who is transcendent and wholly other. Attempts to breech the boundary between the divine and worldly are dangerous. We will see in the coming weeks ways in which the people or even Moses sought to ‘cross’ that boundary but were either punished or forbidden. Desiring to know what God is really like is quite understandable. We all pursue that end in different ways. But the text speaks of divine mystery and majesty, things which we cannot ever know or even fully perceive. Instead, Exodus points us to ways in which God is revealed to us: through liberation, law and worship. In New Testament terms, of course, we would see the incarnation of God in Jesus incorporate that list.

Exodus 20 begins with: ‘Then God spoke all these words’. This relates in the immediate context to the commandments following directly in the chapter, known in Hebrew as the ‘Ten Words’. But the phrase ‘these words’ also encapsulates all of the laws which are to follow in Exodus-Deuteronomy. The ‘Ten Words’ are, like other lists of laws in the Old Testament (e.g. Exod 34:10-26; Deut 27:14-26 etc.), representative of a wider body of legislation. Such representative lists often contained 10-12 laws. The ‘Ten Words’ in Exodus 20, and the parallel but slightly variant version in Deuteronomy 5) were more significant in that they represented the totality of the law.

It is worth noting at this point the purpose of law given by a god to the people in the ancient world. In this, Israelite law was no different to other law in its day. Law was not simply a means to limit and direct human behaviour so that equity and justice may be experienced by all and peace might prevail. Law in the Old Testament always had a theological aspect to it. In many ancient reliefs, a high god is seen giving the codes of law to the reigning monarch. Law was always thought of as being of divine origin and was intended to order human society so that it functioned in a way consistent with the divine will and ordering of the whole cosmos. In other words, law was seen as part of creation itself. Just as there were ‘natural’ limits and behaviours set within the cosmos itself, so law set these limits within human society. And just as creation was intended to offer life to all, so law was given that people may prosper in a long life (see Deut 6:1-3; 30:19 etc). The law or torah (also ‘teaching’) is therefore an instrument of mutual relationship in which the faith of the people responds to the love and grace of God. It is that understanding behind the torah that gives life to its observance. It is a lack of understanding of torah in that sense that leads some Christians to say it is purely ‘legalistic’, and does not reveal a God of grace (as known by Christians). That could not be further from the truth.

The commandments given in Exodus 20 were edited and updated by the compilers of the torah according to the conditions of the Israelite people following their Exile in Babylon. They begin with God introducing ‘himself’ but not as creator of the universe as we might expect (although that is the basis for Sabbath observance later), but as the one who has rescued the people from slavery in Egypt. The ‘Ten Words’ begin then with a concern about God. It is only after that that concern shifts to matters of human interaction.

The first commandment is that “you shall have no other gods before me.”  There is no specific mention of the local gods of other peoples, but for the people of Israel there is to be recognition that God is the one and only God (cf. Deut 6:4). No other gods will be tolerated. This is, in fact, a practical monotheism, even though early Israel recognised that other peoples had their gods. There was no sense that such gods didn’t really exist until probably after the exile. They did exist in earlier Israel’s thinking and hence were a real point of temptation. But the gods of other peoples, Baal and others, were not the only ‘gods’ who could demand recognition. Israel was also thinking of all else that can absorb our attention and allegiance in a destructive way.

The idea in the first commandment is linked with the second in verses 4-6, which spells out the implications for worshipping the one God, or not! ‘Idols’ translates the Hebrew which means ‘carved image’. Here we also get a sense of the law reflecting the nature of a gracious god (vv. 5-6 in which ‘grace’ extends far beyond any sense of ‘punishment’). There follows another commandment related to the holiness of God. Verse 7 forbids the use of God’s name in the swearing of false oaths. This is a reminder that God’s holiness, majesty or power is not to be used or presumed upon for cheap human purposes.

Verses 7-9 indicate the practice of ‘rest days’. The commandment to observe a ‘sabbath’ or rest day is more likely to have originated in settled communities than amid the unpredictability of life for more nomadic people. In the Exodus version the reason for observing the Sabbath is that God rested on the seventh day of creation (cf. Gen 2:1-3). In Deuteronomy it is given because God brought Israel out of Egypt. In both versions we note that such rest is to extend to slaves, animals and resident strangers. Our rest is not to be at the expense of others. Such rest is meant to be a reflection of the majesty and gracious life-giving rule of God over all creation.

In vv. 12–17 we turn to more societal or ‘relational’ commandments. They concern familial relationships (particularly with father and mother), and rules necessary for the peaceful ordering of human community. They indicate a society in which there was no social welfare system capable of caring for the elderly apart from the care of their children. They mark out the strict boundaries past which no one may trespass. Murder (v.13) relates to unauthorized killing. Killing animals for food, or enemies in war for protection, or even the execution of criminals in some cases were not ruled out. In modern circles of faith we might even wish to reassess some of these exceptions. The commandment also did not say anything about suicide. Adultery (v.14) in ancient Israelite society had a direct bearing on whether or not a man could claim his wife’s children as his own. Men also took concubines and had sexual relations with female slaves, so the meaning was more to do with property rights and inheritance than with a moral view of the ‘sanctity of marriage’.

The keeping of the 8th, 9th and 10th commandments (vv. 15-17) ensure the peaceful interaction of the settled community. They concern honesty and trustworthiness where a neighbour’s property is concerned and acknowledge that thought and planning to steal or defraud are equivalent to the action (v.17); to ‘covet’ something belonging to someone else is to think the thought that leads to taking it.

Preaching on this text can be somewhat challenging. It is easy to slip into a presumption of legalism, or sound negative or moralistic. But such is not the intention of these commandments. They were given so that people may live fully together and before God. They were not given so that people may be worthy to come into God’s presence. On the contrary, we have noted that they are given after God liberated his people from Egypt and led them in the wilderness. Law or torah in the Old Testament, is always a way to live in the presence of the gracious God who first comes to us in our despair and need. They are also a reminder that living in the presence of this God brings responsibility toward God and toward all God’s creation. Law or torah was a way of helping God’s people live such a life. The torah was not dismissed by Jesus who lived as a faithful Jew (Matt 22:37-40; Mark 12:28-34). Nor can we dismiss the ‘Ten Words’ as no longer relevant. Their content argues otherwise, and our commitment to discipleship, with its implication of discipline, also demands otherwise. There is plenty in these commandments to provide a healthy challenge to the preacher.

Psalm 19

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