Exodus 20:1-5a, 7-10, 12-20 The Ten Commandments
1God spoke all these words:
2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses His name.
8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
12Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13You shall not murder.
14You shall not commit adultery.
15You shall not steal.
16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
17You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ 20Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Those who are attentive will realise that I had included the first part of verse 5 and the whole of verse 10, both of which are excluded from the set reading for the day.
Let’s start with what this passage is generally known as: The Ten Commandments. They aren’t! A better translation of the Hebrew would be “Ten Commitments”. The traditional Jewish breakdown of the list even has, as the first on that list, only verse 2, which is a statement, not an edict or agreement. This passage is deeply affected by the Deuteronomist, whose philosophy was “do the right thing by God and you will be blessed; do the wrong thing and you will be cursed.” The second part of verse 5, and all of verse 6 have been excluded because of this. These verses from Exodus were a setting in stone – pun intended – of the already existing covenant between the Hebrew people and God, as are those in Deuteronomy 5:6-17. A comparison of the two versions is quite instructive. When we commit ourselves to what we consider a just cause we will automatically choose to take certain actions and avoid others, so here are the conditions which the Israelites needed to respect in order to get back to a fruitful relationship with God. Though they have been worded, especially in English, as “thou shalt do …” or “thou shalt not do …” they are not dictatorial instructions from God. When we were created we were given free choice, so we can choose to honour the commitments, or we can choose not to do so. The consequences, of course, can be detrimental to our own existence, or that of the people around us. English is a funny language. Our grammar is based on that of Latin and Greek, which used inflections to tell us vital information in a verb. For some reason we have lost those inflections, so, unlike in most other languages, we use the same word “you” to represent a single person and a group of people. Consequently, we lose sight of the true meaning of a passage like verse 2. Here the Hebrew word is singular. God is talking to each person, one on one, engaging each person and establishing a personal relationship. He is not talking to everyone as a group.
At this stage of their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land the Israelites would remember their time in slavery, so when they are reminded of that very personal experience, and the escape from the Egyptian forces which sought to take them back into slavery, it is quite reasonable that God should expect them to stop looking for other gods. Of course, other gods would not get a mention if there weren’t any being worshipped in the camp, so who had already slipped up thanks to the tempter? That bit’s easy.
One scholar whose comments on this passage I have read warned about preaching a single sermon on all ten commandments. Fortunately, this isn’t a sermon.
If you have a respectful, loving relationship with God you will not make, for yourself, an idol and worship it, but what is an idol? In the context of the Exodus we are likely to think of the golden calf which Aaron built from the jewellery in the camp, but idols can be something far more subtle than that. What about money? What about sport? What about other activities in which we might engage. There’s nothing wrong with them if our personal relationship with God is more important to us: the issue is focus. The Armadale City Council organises The Perth Kilt Run each year. It starts at 8.30 on a Sunday morning, when I am, and many others are, in church, so I wrote to the Council asking if it could be organised for later in the day occasionally. Thanks to my approach the prospect of having the event later in the day is being considered. Without that approach people like me would be faced with a choice of church or the event. How often do we fail to voice our concerns when we should? Until Covid-19 struck, the current Australian government was focussed on money, not on the needs of the less well-off in our society. It’s still learning that helping everyone will result in better conditions and a healthy economy. One day the penny might drop.
When I see pictures supposedly representing the devil with a pitch-fork, horns, and red eyes I know the artist is presenting something for the audience, but can you really imagine letting ourselves be distracted by someone with that appearance? The good looking, intelligent, and attractive person who uses Christ’s name inappropriately after getting our confidence is far more likely to pull us astray. Why don’t we say to such people “please do not take Christ’s name in vain”? Is it because we fear the repercussions of standing up for our faith?
Christians, in general, keep Sundays as the day for regular worship of God. Jews and Seventh Day Adventists keep Saturday for the purpose. Muslims keep Friday as their holy day. In each case, depending on when you start your count for the week, each one is worshipping God on the seventh day. Roman Catholics also pick up on the Jewish custom of the day starting at sundown, not midnight, to have Mass on Saturday evening. We could all keep to the seventh day plan, and some do by worshipping on other days.
Have a look at verse 10, which I deliberately included here. It talks about the man of the house – remember this is a patriarchal society so the ‘you’ (singular) will be interpreted as the man – not working. It also determines that neither son nor daughter, nor male or female slave, not even the livestock and aliens, should work, but what about the man’s wife? There’s no mention of her. When a choirmaster arrived at the Pearly Gates he was asked what he did during his earthly life, and having told St Peter was greeted with “come in and choose your harp, you’ve had your share of hell.” I wonder if the same might have happened to the women who didn’t get to have the Sabbath off.
Some years ago I ran a ten week study on the Commandments. The notes for the one which preachers almost always avoid, the seventh, are being re-written in the context of changing attitudes, but the rest are still worth reading.
As to the other commitments, “watch this space”. Next time this passage appears in the lectionary I’ll complete the sequence.