Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
“The 10 Commandments” (as this passage is commonly known) is a text often treated as if it exists in a vacuum. There seem to be so many, persistent attempts to treat this passage (these commandments) as an abstracted and neat set of teachings that can be lifted up and moved around without sacrificing any of its utility (not unlike how we might move a standing fan between rooms on a hot summer day - the nature, purpose, and effect of the fan is not impacted by its changed placement). It’s gotten to the point that one might even expect to see the commands listed in dot points when we open our Bibles.
However, like just about everything in Scripture (and entirely unlike a standing fan) this passage, these commandments, are only truly legible when held within the narrative of God’s dealing with the world. They only make sense within their place in the story that began (at least) with God meeting Moses on the mountain, (but really, honestly, they only make sense when read in sequence with everything from the beginning of the creation in Genesis 1 up until the end of the Deuteronomy - or, one might argue… the end of all history)… What I’m getting at is that while we might argue about how long the loaf of bread is, we would all agree that one slice does not a loaf make.
These teachings, commonly known as the 10 Commandments, do not invade the story from without but emerge from within (the reading begins with the word “then”). Their very existence depends upon God’s already demonstrated fidelity to Israel, the promise that God will be Israel’s God and Israel will be God’s people, a promise fulfilled through the plagues, parting of seas, and provision of manna that mark the story of the Exodus.
There’s a pertinent question that is often raised around considering the nature of the first five books of the Bible – sometimes named the Pentateuch, sometimes the books of Moses, sometimes Torah, sometimes “The Law” – are these books a narrative interspersed with laws, or are they primary a law code with occasional narrative interludes? There are valid reasons to lean one way or another on this, what both sides would stress, however, is that the laws and the narratives are in conversation with one another, rely on one another, interpret one another. For what is the story of Jacob, stealing his brother birthright from his ailing father Isaac if not a commentary on the 4th commandment to honour one’s mother and father? What is the commandment not to murder if not an interpretive summary on the story of Cain and Able, or a condemnation of the actions of Pharaoh who sought to massacre the sons of Israel? What is the story of the building of the golden calf if not a nuanced acknowledgment of how difficult it can be to keep commandments 1 and 2, even in the shadow of the mountain of God? You could go on and on with this, and if anyone is looking for a devotional practice it could be to read the early books of the Bible and reflect on which stories might be interpretations or commentaries on which laws (and vice verse).
The point is, these laws, far from being stand alone, abstracted, or ambivalent emerge from and shape the life of a community struggling to remain just, holy, and open in light of their encounter with the God who blessed them with freedom. The commandments are a gift, sprouts of life from the soil watered by God’s love, given so that this new and fragile people, flung out of oppression and marching toward a promised land might develop a way of life together that does not resemble the exploitative politics of Egypt but witnesses to the vision of flourishing, freedom, and life that God yearns for all of us.
This is why it is problematic when these commandments are picked up from one page within the Bible and plunked down, for instance, on a stone outside a courthouse. Why it is a problem to mute their particular relationship with the God who sets the slaves free in order to make them some kind of generalised set of good behaviour codes. This movement rends the commandments from the God who gifts them in love, and the community that receives them in thanksgiving; it enforces a vacuum, an abstraction, that hides the full and much more wonderful nature of their giving. Today, let standing fans be standing fans and return the slice to the loaf, and remember that the laws God has given have no life beyond the loving power of God to liberate slaves and make of them a people.
From here begins our serious duty of attending to the laws of Scripture and the movement of the Spirit through discernment, prayer, worship, and service, so that we too may come – in our own way and in our own place – to shape the life of our community so as to be found fruitful within the unfolding story of God and the world.
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