The Ten Commandments: what are they, and why do they matter? Apart from being a great excuse for Charlton Heston to grow a beard, they are the fundamental covenant between God and His people. Here’s an interesting thing about the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words, as they are called in Hebrew: they appear three times in the Hebrew Scriptures. They appear twice in Exodus, and once in Deuteronomy.
In Exodus, they are being given by God to the people and then to Moses. But when they are given in Deuteronomy, they are a reminder to the people about to cross the Jordan. After forty years of wandering in the desert, Moses does not reach the Promised Land with the people of Israel, but before they go, and before he dies, he gives them the Law, which is the majority of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is therefore about thirty chapters of speechifying from Moses.
The people were about to cross into a new land, into a new life and a new way of being. So as the people stand on this crucial threshold, on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses gives to them the Torah, the teaching, the gift that will ensure they remain in covenant with God.
The Commandments have been used to restrict and oppress, but actually they are a gift from God. They establish the boundaries of our behaviour. Interestingly, they are also wide open. In terms of our Sabbath commandment, God tells Her people that they shall honour the Sabbath and keep it holy, but does not elaborate on what that actually looks like. This means that the Commandments are ambiguous: they require interpretation.
But what’s important about the reading we heard today is the reason given for keeping the Sabbath. In Exodus, the Sabbath commandment is given because God rested on the seventh day at creation. But in this commandment, the people are to rest because they are to remember that they were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord their God brought them out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
Why? Why is that important? What is it about Egypt that is so important? What is it about God’s saving action that is so important?
Let’s start with Egypt.
In Egypt, the people of Israel were slaves. They were slaves in an exploitative, unjust, economic system that had no regard for their wellbeing or dignity. They were not people: they were means of production, and they suffered. And let’s remember the nature of work in the Ancient Near East: it was backbreaking, exhausting, and dangerous, and the most exhausting and dangerous work was performed by the most vulnerable. God wants God’s people to remember that, because that is not God’s vision for the world.
When God commands the people to keep Sabbath because they are to remember their time as slaves in Egypt, God is resisting the exploitative economy of Pharaoh in Egypt. God is proposing an alternative economy: an economy of neighbourly practice, an economy that does not demand endless productivity, an economy that recognizes human dignity.
And what does that tell us about God?
For the Jewish people, and this is a Jewish story, Exodus is the starting place for any discussion of the nature of God. God heard the cry of His people in Egypt, and knew their suffering. God did not stay distant, omniscient and omnipresent, but was close at hand.
Israel’s religion is told in stories, and the stories tell of a God who is gracious and loving, whose care and concern is always those for at the very bottom of the social order, and who acted in history to deliver Her people from oppression. It is that intimate God, that gracious God, that God who did not ask His people to earn deliverance, who did not ask His people to prove their worth. God acted out of love, just as in Jesus of Nazareth. That is the God who commands us to align ourselves with the poor and dispossessed one day out of seven.
In the original Hebrew, the commandments are given in the second person singular masculine. That means they are issued to male heads of households. This is not a commandment to individuals; this is a commandment to those in charge, to be clear about their responsibility to those whom they own: their families, their slaves, their animals. This is a commandment to the powerful to have a care for the wellbeing of the vulnerable.
These commandments would have an impact on the ordinary, everyday life of all people. Resting every seven days was a practice unique to the nation of Israel. No other culture or nation of the ancient Near East engaged in this practice: this is not something that Israel copied from its neighbours. In the ancient world, you worked every day, except probably festivals.
Sabbath was good news for the vulnerable and exploited, but not for the rich and powerful. It put a cog in the gears of production and moneymaking; it had serious political and social implications. This is an indication of how involved God is in the intimate details of our lives.
God is political: not in a way that makes any party able to claim God for their side or their candidate, but because the personal is political. If the economic system of the day means that subsistence farmers are in debt and are eventually forced to sell their land and become indentured slaves on their own farms, then the political becomes very personal. God cares about the personal and so God cares about the political.
So when God commands the people to keep Sabbath, He is enforcing a period of radical social equalization: for one day out of seven, slaves are equal with masters, women with men, and animals with people. Every creature gets a day off.
God’s desire throughout the Old Testament is a desire for a shalom community. This is not just a community of peace, but true peace that is achieved through right relations; an economy with an equitable power distribution, that has justice built into its very economic structure, that is not reliant on voluntary charitable acts.
The irony is that eventually Israel and Judah became the same economic system that had enslaved them back in Egypt. And we, however little we intend it, we participate in systems that oppress. I don’t know who made my clothes, in what conditions they worked. I don’t know who picked my food, or in what conditions they worked. I do know that the computer on which I wrote this sermon contains minerals that are mined by enslaved children in Africa, with no oversight or regulation. And so I know that no matter what my intentions, I am participating in a system that is not the shalom community desired by God.
I also know that I cannot, by myself, create that community.
And so I wonder: I wonder what would happen if we meditated upon this commandment? What would it look like to take this commandment seriously as a living invitation to an alternate way of live desired by God?
I don’t have answers. But having just come back from the last General Meeting of BC Conference, a meeting that was full of the coming changes to the United Church structure, I wonder whether the way forward through change is to look back. Not to return back: we cannot recreate the Israel or Judah of the Ancient Near East, just as we cannot recreate the days when there were lineups round the block for Sunday School. But in times of change, it strikes me that the worst thing we can do is go it alone.
What if we return to the roots of our faith? What if we return to the foundation of God’s covenant with Israel? What if we return to the promise of the resurrection? What if we trust the wisdom of our heritage, and ask: what do these commandments have to say to us today?
I don’t know what it looks like to keep Sabbath today; I don’t know what it looks like in this globalized economy to give everybody a day off. But I do know that God’s call for us to live faithfully is real and echoes through the ages.
So we end on an invitation today: an invitation to sit with this commandment, an invitation to hear the invitation of God across the millennia. Like the nation of Israel on the bank of the Jordan, we do not know what awaits. But as we journey into an uncertain future, let us take the witness of God’s people as our guide.