It’s hard to know where to begin today, as this passage is so familiar to people, even if they’ve never ever read the Bible or been to church! But perhaps it’s a good time to think about it, especially as we’ve spent the last few weeks in the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites. Perhaps having journeyed with the Israelites for a little while we’ll find some new perspectives on something that has been the basis of many legal systems across the world.
It’s hard to know where to begin today, as this passage is so familiar to people, even if they’ve never ever read the Bible or been to church! But perhaps it’s a good time to think about it, especially as we’ve spent the last few weeks in the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites. Perhaps having journeyed with the Israelites for a little while we’ll find some new perspectives on something that has been the basis of many legal systems across the world. If we read this passage out of context it’s easy to see it as a list of rules or some kind of test of religious purity and devotion. But if we remember how it fits into the story of Moses, and even more broadly into the experience of the people of Israel, we can see it is a declaration from God that lies right at the heart of God’s covenant relationship with God’s people. This is the way in which the people show their acceptance of God’s love and provision. This is the way in which the people say yes to God’s liberation and salvation.
The Ten Commandments are crucial in seeing how Israel understood its relationship with God. They are also vital in showing us that peace with God and peace with our neighbours are inextricably linked. It’s impossible to have the former without the latter. In essence, it’s the consummation of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, and yet it’s also something completely new. To get a sense of this newness we need to take a step backwards and look at the end of chapter 19, from Exodus 19:16. We get an awe-inspiring, terrifying description of God’s physical presence. The people are brought, trembling, out of their encampment in order to meet God who has appeared amid fire and smoke and the shaking of the earth, and who speaks to Moses in a voice of thunder. How hard must it have been to stand there and watch and listen without running away in fear and terror? The build-up to the moment in which God gives the people the law emphasises just how significant and important this will be.
It’s a new thing, but it’s also more than that. We can see the giving of the Ten Commandments as a continuation of all that has gone before. Where we are today in this reading is at a point in the path that began at the burning bush way back in Exodus 3. There God called Moses to be the instrument of God’s great liberation within Israel’s life. And even then, God was drawing on points of continuity. God told Moses that, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” Exodus 3:6 and shortly after Moses has to announce this to the people. The covenant God forges on Mount Sinai is not a new venture in that it perpetuates and deepens the relationship that goes all the way back to Abraham. It affirms that God’s redeeming activity is indeed ongoing.
Covenant is the key word here. These commands don’t appear from nowhere with no attention to context. God’s instructions are not the orders of a master to slaves, but rather they are God’s gracious gift to the people. Through this gift of love and grace the people have a means to respond to God’s love. The people can use these commands to show God their love and their acceptance of all that God is and all that God does. Brian McLaren describes the ten plagues as the way God got the people out of slavery, and the Ten Commandments as the way God got slavery out of the people. By signing up to these commands, Israel could acknowledge God’s love and faithfulness, could affirm their status as special in God’s eyes, and could express their love and commitment to the God who proved that they were no longer captive and oppressed slaves, but were now God’s own liberated people.
A lot has been said about the negative language of the Ten Commandments, and a lot can be read into this. But it’s important to realise that this was the traditional form of legal documentation in the ancient world at the time that the book of Exodus was written. If we focus too much on the negative phrasing then we might be tempted to think that our faithfulness to our relationship with God, our love and commitment to God, is proved simply by what we don’t do. Yet most important is the fact Jesus gives us quite the opposite impression. Jesus shows us that when the legal language is removed there is a much more positive slant on these commands: love God unreservedly, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. It’s been pointed out that the very fact that Jesus relies on the Old Testament texts to make his point shows that the Torah as a positive force was well understood in ancient Israel.
Paul talks about the law in his letters and highlights the problems that even the most faithful people experience in responding fully to God’s love. Idolatry in many forms distracts us from devotion to God, and a concern for ourselves over others has a detrimental effect on our social and personal
relationships. Only if we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit can we begin to approach the purpose for which the commandments were originally given. Only with the help of the Holy Spirit can the commandments help us give a faithful response of love to God. The Holy Spirit helps us to see that even our response to God’s loving presence if only made possible because of God’s gracious activity in our lives.
The dependence on the Spirit is important to acknowledge. It illustrates our own weakness and need for God, but it also opens us up to even bigger gestures of love that go far beyond the letter of the law. When we are inspired to live out the spirit of the law rather than the letter we are truly set free.
Brian McLaren paraphrased the Ten Commandments with an emphasis on them as a way for us to respond to the liberating love and activity of God:
For further reflection…