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Saturday 19 June 2021


Last year we explored this reading a bit as it was set for the first Sunday in October. It’s interesting that it comes up again in Lent, and perhaps that might frame the way we explore it slightly differently. So please don’t stop reading because you think we’ve done this one before! This will be a different Bible study and hopefully will complement what went before if you want to look back on it.


Exodus  20:1-17

Last year we explored this reading a bit as it was set for the first Sunday in October. It’s interesting that it comes up again in Lent, and perhaps that might frame the way we explore it slightly differently. So please don’t stop reading because you think we’ve done this one before! This will be a different Bible study and hopefully will complement what went before if you want to look back on it.

The Old Testament readings so far in Lent have focused on covenant. Firstly there was God’s promise to Noah after the flood, then last week we looked at the covenant promise with Abraham and Sarah. Today we turn to the Ten Commandments. These are not simply a series of rules that the Israelite people are expected to follow. The Commandments provide a strategy for God to set out the terms for an enduring relationship between God’s self and Israel. So the Commandments very clearly belong in a covenant context.

Just before this reading, we can see that Moses and the people of Israel have come near to the holy mountain of Sinai with great trepidation. They’ve entered the danger zone of God, which is characterised by trembling, fire, thunder, smoke and lightning. Just read from Exodus 19:16-25 to get a sense of that. Then, just after the end of the commands, in the few verses after our reading finishes today, because the people are frightened, Moses is asked to speak the commands of God to Israel (20:18-21). So for the rest of the Old Testament, Moses is the speaker of God’s law, and after this moment, the moment we read about in our passage today, God never speaks the commands directly again. In these verses then it seems that this is the only time in which God gives commands directly in order to specify the terms of the covenant. So these words are particularly important.

In the first 2 verses we get the assertion of God’s name. This might seem familiar if you think back to last week’s reading, in which God declares to Abraham, “I am God Almighty”. God’s name is inextricably linked with the exodus event, and God’s identity and purpose are forever located in the context of this saving event and narrative. This covenant relationship with God is opposed to every exploitation or oppression. The God who gives these commands is the one who intends freedom and well-being in relationship with God.

Verses 3-7 show how Israel is to relate to God; how Israel is to regard God. God is the subject and not an object - a “you” and not an “it”. God is a personal agent who should be honoured, taken seriously and responded to. Life is interpersonal, and these Torah commands are the guarantees that keep this relationship honest, healthy and functional. God insists on exclusive and total loyalty. This early declaration eventually ends up as monotheism - the belief that there is only one God. But here that is not yet the case. This passage doesn’t argue that there is only one God - in fact it’s exactly the opposite! There are other competing, rival, conflicting gods, but Israel is to have nothing at all to do with them. In modern guise we can suggest what these other gods might be - they include all the destructive “isms” that are all around us - racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, consumerism, militarism. All attempts to arrange life separately from the revolutionary purposes of God’s freedom are the other gods referred to here.

Verses 4-7 are an affirmation that God is not “useful”. We cannot try to harness or exploit God for our own purposes. And to reduce God to the form of an idol or other object is an attempt to package God, to domesticate God - to make God into a utilitarian means rather than an end in God’s self.

The command in verse 7 on the wrongful use of God’s name is not about vulgar or obscene language. It is rather a command against making the name of God into a slogan or formula or something useful to support our own agenda. It’s a command against putting limitations on who or what God blesses. Any time we’re tempted to claim God’s endorsement for all sorts of moral, charitable or institutional purposes we’re making wrongful use of God’s name. God is not to be manipulated into being a patron for our own pet projects, or a support for our own hatreds and prejudices. This is a sobering thought.

The command in verses 8-11 stands at the centre of the Ten, promising rest both to God and the human community. The Sabbath is a dominant concern in the book of Exodus. It’s a concrete act in which the former slaves distance themselves from the abusive production schedules of the Egyptian empire. Walter Brueggemann puts it like this: “In a consumer economy like ours, moreover, covenant with Yahweh requires the breaking with the vicious cycles of consumption as well as of production. In this ‘rest’, which is ordained into the very fabric of creation, we recover our sense of creatureliness and resist the pressure to be frantic consumers who find our joy and destiny in commodities.”

Verses 12-17 address social relations - the practices of the human community with regard to people and property. They arise out of the first commands, because Moses teaches that when life with God is properly ordered, then life in the human community can be healthy. Just as God refuses to be useful, so we are not to treat our human counterparts as objects and commodities to be used. We are all full partners in God’s covenant and deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and justice. God has in mind a human covenantal community quite different from every conventional community that is based on power, abuse, leverage and exploitation.

 

For further reflection…

  • Read through the passage again slowly. Take notice of the things that stand out for you. Pay attention to each of the commands and spend some time reflecting on each, thinking about how they might have meaning beyond the literal. For example, in verse 13 the command is “You shall not murder”, and it’s easy to say that we haven’t done that, but ask yourself if there is a different way in which you could think about it - have you ever snuffed out someone else’s ideas without giving them due attention and consideration perhaps?
  • How do you respond to the idea that when we try to use God to support our own agenda we are making wrongful use of God’s name? Can you think of any occasions or situations in which you do or have done this?
  • How do you respond to the idea of rest being central to God’s agenda and God’s desire of well- being for the human community? Do you manage to take a day of rest? How do you go about this?
  • How do you feel about the challenge that rest also requires breaking the cycle of consumption as well as production? The idea of rest perhaps seems radical and revolutionary in a country where shops are open 7 days a week and we can buy online for 24 hours a day. Would it be easy to conceive of a rest day in which you didn’t do any shopping for example?
  • It’s easy to think of the Ten Commandments as a list of “don’ts” - people often have this idea of them. Think of ways in which you might be able to positively model living in this covenantal way with God, and ask God to help you do that in the week ahead.