Do Something Different with the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)

If you want to do/use this, you’ll need a lunch box with a sandwich, a bag of chips, and Little Debbie cake (or variation).  You might try putting the notes in the lunch box on a brown paper bag.  

Laws similar to the Ten Commandments pop up all over what we now call the Middle East, in some recognizable form, 2000 to 1600 years before the birth of Jesus.  The cultures of the Fertile Crescent came to a collective understanding at about the same time and place that family matters, murder was wrong, theft a crime, and adultery destroys the moral fabric of communities.  After four thousand years, those ideas are still true.

When the version of those rules we’re most familiar with arrives in the English speaking world, it transcends its original audience and becomes something more akin to a founding document of the western Enlightenment.  For this we can thank King James I of England and the proliferation of his translation.

The words, like Jefferson’s in the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, became ours.  They were engraved, sometimes in stone but more often in the collective psyche of the American unconscious.  Each “thou shalt” beckon us to come forward.  The corresponding “thou shalt nots” slow down our bent to self-destruction.

In our quest to make Moses’ laws stick and become part of the fabric our nation and the English speaking world, we made them something they were never intended to be:  commandments.  The Bible calls them the “ten sayings” or “ten statements”.  You might even translate as the “ten words”.  The phrase “Ten Commandments” appears nowhere in Hebrew.  We made that up.  We took a harsh word and applied it to something in the Bible that God never said. Imagine, if people did that to the 10 commandments what if they’ve tried to do with things Jesus said?  That’s a discussion for another day.

They made something up, it stuck, and that’s determined for years how Christians have looked at this most important piece of scripture.  It’s possible, no, it’s not just possible, it’s a certainty this one editorial decision has warped more relationships with God any other thing in human history.  They are not commandments.  They’re sayings, words, parts of a conversation God is having with humanity.  If you start there it changes everything.

I want the 10 commandments to speak to us, like a note, placed in a lunchbox packed by a parent.  Yes, this is what they’re like: a note in a lunchbox written by a loving parent.  You’ll never forget that note.  You’ll remember that note long after you forgotten any stone monument outside a courthouse.

The first thing that jumps out at me is this:  We make God more formal and distant than God wants to be. God’s not as cold and stone like as we make God out to be.  God’s talking and eager for dialogue.  God is speaking, saying, and talking. God is speaking living words not standing still in dead stone.

What are those living words?  What is God saying?  What has God written?  I think we’ll find it is inspiration marked by brevity.

Let’s open our lunchbox.  Let’s see what God packed:

1) Don’t forget who made your lunch with love and care. No one else will do this for you.  God does this.  I do this, says God.  I’m God and I love you.  This is basis for everything.

2) Don’t trade your sandwich for something better. We will come back to this one over and over again.  You’ve got all you need for lunch (and life) right here and front you.  We have love and trust.  It’s our thing.  In fact, we’ve got love and trust in ALL things.  Why substitute anything else for what God does?  Who or what can make a sandwich like God does?

3) Do you know how hard it is to get up early in the morning and make a tasty sandwich? All of the work, effort, and time?  Please don’t take my love or the work I do for granted.  Your lunch, this sandwich, the bag of chips, the cake, and the soda is the embodiment of my love given in love.

4) Don’t forget to take a moment to side and eat your lunch/sandwich in peace. Don’t rush, eat in the go, or forget to eat.  You need a moment.  It is important to you and your health (spiritually, physically, and mentally).  The pause (let’s call it sacred time), what we’re doing right now, helps you remember the first three things we talked about.  So pause and take a deep breath.  Enjoy your sandwich.  Look around and notice life going on around you.  This time is about renewing our relationship with each other.

5) Relationships are important. I know you probably get tired of me writing and talking about that but it’s true.  I this is why a priority on our relationship with who made this particular sandwich comes after a reminder about remembering the Sabbath.  (The rabbis were always debating with each other, after the 10 commandments were written, why they were in this particular order.  What was the meaning of the order?  They’ve been talking about these questions for 2000 years?  Welcome to the club!)  Sabbath, weekends, Saturdays, Sundays, vacations, holidays; that’s when we get to know our Moms and Dads.  When spend more time with our parents on Sabbath time than at any other time.  Sabbath is important to honoring our relationship with who makes the sandwich and packs the lunch.  Sabbath creates the framework to really enjoy and appreciate how you dad uses mayonnaise and your mom’s selection of ham. Honor is a deep word with many ways in can be expressed, even with something as simple as a ham sandwich.

The second big thing that jumps out at me is this:  Life is about engaging with the present, honoring the past, and loving what’s in front of you while not taking anything for granted. 

Now, the sayings seem to get a little sterner.  These are the ones people know if you ask them to name one or more of the 10 commandments.  For some reasons, these are the ones that come to mind.

6) Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we need to be reminded that no sandwich is worth dying over. Life is too precious to die over trivial things like sandwiches.  Give away your sandwich before you take someone else’s.  Other’s sandwiches aren’t yours to take.  Whether you translate this as “do not kill” or “do not murder”, there’s too much death in our world.

7) We’re back to the placement issue? Why is adultery right after murder?  We always think somebody has better sandwich that’s tastier and going to fill us in ways God’s well packed lunch never will.  I don’t know.  Sandwich sharing, like this, divides communities, families, in ways that take the life right out otherwise vibrant people and situations.

8) You’ve got a sandwich, chips, and a little Debbie Cake. Why would you consider taking someone else’s?

The last thing which  jumps out at me is this:  The last four commandments are about looking at someone else’s relationship with God and seemingly forgetting that yours exists at all.

9) Focus on the goodness of your lunch, not the irrationality of the world around you. Speak words of truth and gratitude.

10) There’s stealing, adultery, and finally jealousy. Your sandwich is yours.  Don’t envy someone else’s Hot Pocket.  If you want something else, get up earlier, go to the store, cook it, and pack your own lunch.



Saving The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)

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.

Boundaries matter.

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

Food for Thought-The 10 Commandments, Sadism, and the Death of God


There are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. Of those 613, the Judeo-Christian tradition has decided 10 of these are of greater merit and value. While the Bible doesn’t use the term “The Ten Commandments” their chronological prominence and content gives them pride of place in the history of law giving among God’s people. However, when push comes to shove, a Biblical law is a law when it is handed to man from God. One would think that all God’s directives carry the same weight, shouldn’t they? Just as I honor my mother and father and love my neighbor, I should stone adulterers and bar lepers from my village (or nearest equivalent in 2015)? Of course not. We pick and choose what to follow when it comes to the 10 commandments and the other out of date and out of place laws throughout the Bible. This is especially true for Christians who wrestle with an understanding of Jesus; a man who came to redefine the law in terms of love, compassion, and neighbor. The remaining 603 laws are up for debate if you follow the Messiah from Nazareth named Jesus. So are the silly and culturally irrelevant laws you want to forget you’ve ever read. Others, like the Ten Commandments linger in the background, demanding we come to terms with them.

To be honest, some of the 10 Commandments have never set well with me. I’m fully aware they carry a great deal of weight and tradition; if only for standards we usually fail to meet. The prohibitive commandments are not a problem. We are told not to steal or commit murder. A proscriptive commandment, such as the reminder to honor our mother and father, are simply sound ideas, regardless of their divine origin. What does bother me stems from Exodus 20: 5. In verse 5, we are told, “Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (CEB) He punishes children for their parent’s sin to the third and fourth generation. Are you kidding me? Is that right, fair, or just? That makes me physically sick. I want no part of worshipping a God who punishes innocent children for things done three and four generation prior to their birth.  It’s not only unfair, it is sadistic. If this is the God I am supposed to believe in, then I’m sorry, I want out. This is not the God I was raised to believe in. I didn’t sign up for the responsibility of asking people to believe in a deity who hates children he’s never met.

I’m also uncomfortable with the image of God in Exodus 20:7. The traditional interpretation is to “not take the Lord’s name in vain” or as the CEB says “Do not use the Lord’s name as if it were of no significance”. The Bible says the Lord will not forgive those who use his name that way. I’m sorry, I thought there was nothing the blood of Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t forgive. Have I been lied to all these years? Have I been lying to my congregations for the past 16 years? Do these time-tested and well-worn elements of the 10 Commandments fly in the face of everything we know about Jesus Christ? Instead, do they point to a God who is already dead?