The third week in Lent and our third story of God making a covenant. Week one we had the Noahic covenant which was really made with Noah and all living creatures, last week the Abrahamic covenant which was really a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and included all the nations being blessed. This week we have the Mosaic covenant also known as Sinai covenant because it was made when the Israelites, who had fled slavery in Egypt came into the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; in front of the mountain (Exodus 19:2). From there Moses heard God call to him saying;
“tell the Israelites You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6).
What God asks the people to obey comes in the next chapter, this week’s lectionary reading; Exodus 20:1-17. Commonly referred to as the “Ten Commandments”.
Here it seems, that unlike in the covenants with Noah and with Abraham, this covenant is a mutual covenant: Israel must follow God’s commands if they are to remain God’s people. The form of this covenant is like a suzerainty or empire treaty, in which a suzerain (king, lord, emperor or ruler) lists the good things that he has done for his vassal (subject or slave), lists stipulations the vassal must obey, and promises reward for that obedience. In this way God begins by identifying Godself as the one:
“who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” (Exodus 20:2)
displaying like a suzerain God’s beneficence toward the people.
But does God really work this way? Does God require obedience to these “commandments” for the people to remain in God’s care, to be God’s treasured possessions? Why would God add this requirement at this time?
What we know as the Ten Commands, could be better understood as using the Greek “The Decalogue” which literally means the “Ten Words,” not commandments and in the first verse we read:
“God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1)
Maybe we can understand God’s introduction to these words in a form separate from a suzerainty or treaty even if there are similarities because both are about relationships. Maybe we can see in the open statement as evidence of God’s faithfulness, of God’s keeping previous covenants or promises
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Genesis 20:2).
God’s salvation occurs before the giving of the law. Already in the first nineteen chapters of the Exodus narrative, God has seen the people’s suffering (Exodus 3:7-9), shared the divine name with Moses and by extension the Israelites (Exodus 3:13-16), confronted the Egyptian Pharaoh “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1), shown power stronger than the Pharaoh (Exodus 4-15), led the people across the Red Sea into freedom (Exodus 14-15), and provided food and water in the wilderness (Exodus 16-17). The words in Exodus 20 are spoken into this context in which God and the people have already been in relationship for generations. The LORD, after all, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
These commandments are given to an already elected, redeemed, believing, and worshiping community. The first word of God is to remind the people of this relationship. These are words given to you by your God. The law is a gift of a God who has redeemed you. The Ten Commandments, then, are a gracious word of God beginning with good news about what God has done. What’s more the Ten Commandments specify no judicial consequences for disobedience. Their being obligatory is not conditional on their being enforceable. Their appeal is to a deeper grounding and motivation: these are the commands of the Lord your God, who has created you and redeemed you. The commands, therefore, represent a response to actions God’s has already done.
Our response is to “have no other gods before me [God]” (Exodus 20:3). This command or word introduces and gives shape to all the others. Idolatry is the focus. But how will we define idolatry? It commonly has reference to material images; graven images or sculptures such as the golden calf but “other gods” could include any person, place, or thing that we hold to be more important or as important as God. Things such as money, property, fame, power … the list is long.
So God gives the law beginning with ways that God should be honoured or worshiped and then laws for treating other people:
“You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against anyone. You shall not desire your neighbour’s house, or your neighbour’s spouse, or slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” (Exodus 20: 13-17)
While it seems reasonable to legislate and enforce laws about murder etc it is impossible to enforce the last commandment or word:
“You shall not desire your neighbour’s house, or your neighbour’s spouse, or slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
It is one thing to say don’t steal stuff, but it is quite another to say don’t even desire it, don’t even wish you could have it. Why would God include a command impossible to enforce or keep?
To be human is to desire. We to compare ourselves to others and are left wanting. For example, we could be eating a perfectly good sandwich, and someone else laughs at our sandwich and pulls out a pie, and suddenly we are craving a pie. Or on the other hand, other person might say, “That sandwich looks good I wish I had a sandwich like yours,” and suddenly our sandwich tastes a whole lot better!
This is universal and unavoidable. Desire is contagious. We recognise the value of things when we see that other people desire them. We can’t change it, we can only manage it. We need to manage it because it creates competition or rivalry. Two people who are going for the same job do not usually end up supporting and affirming each other.
The call or command or word to be absolutely loyal to God is the grounding for all other. The first word lays a claim: how you think about God will deeply affect how you think about and act toward your neighbour. God is a God who saves, liberates, redeems and loves period. Then there are the words concerning proper worship of God so the people will be formed through that worship to be people who live in right relationship with God and live in justice and peace with each another. The words are given to God’s people
“that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long on the land that you are to possess.” (Deuteronomy 5:33)
God gives the Ten Commandments, the Ten Words in the service of life. The whole law can be summarised as “Love the Lord your God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself.” When we in and with Christ, and love God and one another in imitation of Christ’s love for us, desire will lead us only into love and no longer into rivalry. May the desire of Christ consume us, to the glory of God and for the salvation of the world. Amen.
Rev Tammy Hollands