How do we save the 10 Commandments from those who want to worship pieces of broken stone? Is it possible to save the 10 commandments from some who want to violate the essence of the commandments they claim to love by shaping an idol out of prohibitions against idolatry? Are the 10 Commandments worth saving in 2017?
America hasn’t turned her back on the 10 Commandments. Despite last Sunday night’s carnage, those who helped save countless lives were honoring God’s commandments. If you’d pulled those people aside and asked them to quote, recite, or name any of the 10 Commandments (or other laws in the Old Testament) you might not have gotten a stellar result. But that doesn’t matter. They were living out the commandments. They were honoring their parents, God, and bearing true witness to their neighbors with their life saving actions. They didn’t need them etched in stone on a court house lawn. When it mattered, it was on their hearts.
If the 10 Commandments and the place of Judeo-Christian morality are threatened in our society, it’s from those who say they love the 10 Commandments most. How’s that for irony? What can we do? First, we can learn what gave rise to these “ten words” in Israel’s journey from Egypt. Secondly, we can hear these words as messages of hope instead of warnings of punishment and division. Lastly, we can see the free will and choice which governs each and every commandment. God has given us the ability to choose and live as free beings. We are not robots, automatons controlled by God’s puppet strings. We can make choices and posses moral autonomy. The answer to America’s spiritual and moral crisis isn’t forcing people to sign or obey the 10 Commandments. No one like religion, no matter how moral it may seem, pushed in their face and shoved down their throat. If they did, some churches would be bursting at their seams.
There’s some debate as to whether the first commandment really counts as a commandment. It’s more of a statement of purpose and clarity that tells us (the reader) about why the words that follow are important. Listen to this, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Is it a commandment? Is it a calling card? Is it merely a statement of fact? Why does God keep bringing up a) Egypt and b) out of the house of slavery?
Everything which follows will be about two things: creating contrast and perspective between Egypt (in the past) and your life now (in the present). Memory is a funny and fickle thing. How did we get here and what was it really like in the place we left? So much depends on your perspective. God calls Egypt “a house of bondage”. If you grew up in Egypt, weren’t one of Pharaoh’s slaves, middle class with a house down by the Nile, you probably disagree with God’s characterization of Egypt as a “house of bondage”. It might even offend you. You were never in bondage. You never owned any Hebrew slaves. Your family never owned slaves. That was Pharaoh’s business. Egypt was a house of prosperity, agriculture plenty, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps do it yourself can do attitude people. I totally disagree with God’s characterization of Egypt as a “house of bondage”. How you see a place, depends on your perspective. Now that the Israelites were removed from that place, he wanted them to remember their perspective. The further you travel from a crummy situation, the more likely you are to view the hardships of the past through rose tinted lenses. “It wasn’t all that bad. At least we had food on a regular basis.” This is exactly what they were doing. Imagine people walking up to Dr. Martin Luther King, mid march in Selma saying, “Dr King, you know slavery wasn’t all that bad, Jim Crow wasn’t all that bad, at least with segregation we weren’t getting beat with clubs.” God and Moses were worried about this. The same thing was happening to them.
These commandments will be centered on their perspective as former slaves in Egypt. What God wants to prevent is any situation that leads them to become like those who kept them in bondage. This is how we get the 10 Commandments. God says, “You were slaves. These are the major qualities and characteristics of the people who kept you bondage. I don’t want you to become like those who held you in slavery. Everything that comes next whether it’s about murder, adultery, or theft is a response to this initial impulse. The Egyptian system was corrupt. Death and deceit defined Egyptian dynasties. Children would poison their parents to sit on the throne. If you wanted your neighbor’s property or wife, kill them and take it. Israel was to be different.
These words are a condemnation of power, corruption, and human bondage. Egypt is what you become, those are the values your society reflects when you treat human beings like property. God is now saying, here on Sinai, there is an alternative to the brutality, corruption, murder, and devaluing of human life you’ve witnessed in Egypt.
You’ve seen the National Geographic Channel specials. Egypt was full of idols. Everything, including cat were worshiped. Families were torn apart by dynastic rivalries and as for taking a day off, slaves never got sick leave. The Egyptians made the Louis XIV’s court at Versailles look chaste when it comes to ideas of fidelity in marriage. Life, in the mud pits making bricks or on the battlefield fitting the Hittites, was worthless.
What if, instead of reading these commandments as negative statements, telling us what we cannot do or as direct orders, we see them as signs of hope? Again, imagine the darkness from which the Israelites emerged. The idols, the dysfunction, the death, and the constant devaluing of anything beyond the superficial moment called “now”. If there was a way to wipe the slate clean and live a simpler life, which focused on a life based ethic, wouldn’t you call that hope?
There are idols and there are idols. You know what you worship and love.
Would I talk about you that way?
God values what you do and your work, so much so that God also deems rest to be a sacred gift. That’s really what that commandment is saying.
Honor your father and your mother. Remember what connects you to your past, present, and future.
Life is precious.
You can steal so many things other than an ox or an ass. You can steal joy, happiness, and peace of mind.
You need your neighbors. Don’t alienate your friends.
Each of these commandment points to a relationship. The 10 Commandments create community. It pushes us to think about God, our community, and the people around us. We don’t observe the 10 Commandments as a solitary exercise. Once we begin to interact with these ideas we are inevitably brought into a larger community. We are compelled to take the risk of sharing with our neighbors, trusting our friends, looking after each other parents, and working together because we’ve accepted this idea: God offers us hope and hope comes with risk.
God creates perspective and then offers a choice for the Israelites. Israel should not be Egypt. And unlike their work in Pharaoh’s mud pits, they have a choice as to how they will engage with these commandments. They are not machines, robots, or computer programs run by an algorithm. They have free will. If God wanted us to be pieces on a divine chess board blindly following God’s will there would be no need for commandments or free will. These would be forced commandments. In a world of forced commandments, there is no free will. You do what you’re told. There are no options. That’s not God.
God gives the Israelites free will to choose to accept or ignore the 10 Commandments. This is a far cry from those in our own country who want to reinstall and remount the 10 Commandments in public squares. God placed these words on a single tablet and then gave humanity a choice. Nothing was forced on anyone. These words defined Israel’s relationship with God but more importantly they framed how they saw themselves in relationship to each other. These “ten words”, as the Rabbi’s refer them, reflected the choices they made and the people they hoped to become when they had a land of their own. If the 10 Commandments are going to mean anything to Christians in 21st century America, we’re going to need to step back and realize: they work best when we choose to follow them not when ordered to do so. They should be written on our hearts not in stone in front of buildings. And finally, do they draw us closer together and not further apart. If they’re not doing these things, you might as well not read them in first place.
Richard Lowell Bryant