|The Ten Commandments on display at the Texas State Capitol in Austin|
Scripture can be found here...
In the beginning was the Word.
In 1956 Paramount Pictures released the dazzling religious epic, “The Ten Commandments,” starring Yul Brynner as the Pharaoah and Charlton Heston as both Moses and the voice of God. As part of the publicity for the film, director Cecil B. DeMille placed monuments containing the Ten Commandments throughout the United States. To accomplish this, DeMille joined forces with a Minnesota juvenile court judge named E. J. Ruegemer, who had been erecting displays of the commandments since the 1940’s. He did this based on his conviction that the troubled youth of America needed a moral foundation. Between them, DeMille and Ruegemer are believed to have been responsible for anywhere between 100 and 2000 monuments, made of granite, shaped like the traditional tablets of the law, and inscribed with the words we are about to study and ponder for the next four weeks. And despite efforts to remove many of these displays based on an argument in favor of the separation of church and state, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that the monuments could stay, and that they were historical, and not merely religious. The case, Van Orden v. Perry, was decided by a vote of 5-4.
And here we are, studying these words together. Scholars have a hard time pinpointing exactly how old they are—according to my reading, they may be anywhere from 3,000-16,000 years old. And yet their significance continues to be hotly debated. Are they general rules for living, applicable to all? Are they commands to be upheld only by those who were part of God’s covenant people, newly escaped from slavery, or do they include those brought into the covenant by Jesus Christ? And why is it so hard for us to memorize them? (More on that last one next week. There is a very good reason.)
Let’s start at the beginning—which is to say, in the days and months leading up to God’s and Moses conversation on Mount Sinai. The Hebrews approach Sinai freshly released from captivity… newly freed from their four hundred years as slaves in Egypt. God has led them out, across the Sea of Reeds (formerly known and wrongly translated as the Red Sea), simultaneously freeing them and destroying their enemies.
The months in the wilderness have had their challenges—as you can imagine, issues of food and water came up right away, and in both cases, God provided for the people. Now, three months later, they have entered the wilderness of Sinai, the area surrounding the mountain. Modern day scholars are not sure exactly where the biblical Mount Sinai is located, though the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula (part of modern day Egypt) is as good a location as any. It is notoriously hard to say exactly where astonishing, holy things happen. Suffice to say, the people camped out here, and Moses went up the mountain to meet with God.
In the beginning was the Word.
God begins with a reminder. Tell the people, God says, remind them—who I am. You know what I did—I rescued you, I “bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
And implicit in all that is: I changed the laws of nature for you. A sea parted. When you were hungry, I sent you bread from heaven. When you were thirsty I provided water from a rock. I was there for you. I was there for you.
I swear, the Lord God sounds like an anxious suitor, ready to propose. And, in a sense, that is exactly what is happening. God is saying, “You are already mine. You are my people. Let’s take this to the next level. This is a covenant relationship”—which, by the way, is one way we understand marriage. First comes love, then comes marriage. Or, in this case, first comes love—divine love as enacted in God’s works of rescue and sustenance. Then come God’s claims upon our behavior. Then comes the spelling out of the terms of the covenant.
Unlike what we would consider ideal in a modern day marriage, one party is entirely empowered to spell out the terms of this covenant. Because this is the relationship God is spelling out between deity and humans, God gets to do that. “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant,” God says, “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Ex. 19:5-6).
In the beginning was the Word.
Have you noticed something funny about this passage? Have you noticed the complete absence of the word “command” or “commandment”? Instead, God tells Moses, “These are the words you shall speak.” And that is a faithful translation of what we find in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “word” is debar, or, plural, debarim. These are the debarim I want you to speak. This is why sometimes you’ll hear people refer to the Ten Commandments as the “Decalogue,” which means, literally, the ten words.
Here’s something fascinating. The word “word” is also translated from the Hebrew, throughout the psalms, as “promise.” God’s command to us, God’s word to us, is also God’s promise to us. God gives us God’s word.
“Then God spoke all these words. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” God’s claims on us are based on God’s claim of already having rescued us. It all goes back to who God is, how we understand God.
But, you know, we who are Christians, in Endicott, NY, in 2014, could reasonably ask, “How does this apply to me? I wasn’t a slave in ancient Egypt.” And, depending upon how your life has gone up to this point, the idea of God having rescued you may or may not resonate, may or may not feel accurate. Are we included in the covenant?
One answer to this question has to do with how we view the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, or what Jews call “The Bible.” Do we take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously as God’s word to us? For the past two years I’ve been using a preaching tool called the Narrative Lectionary, whose answer to this question is, emphatically, Yes. The Bible that Jesus knew is our Bible too. The story of Jesus makes no sense whatsoever without the context of the Bible he and his ancestors clung to, the story of God and God’s people. And, though it is pretty common to think of the God of Old Testament as being about law and the God of New Testament as being about love, there is only one God, a God of both law and love, though the stories we tell of God change over time. As we hear in familiar refrains such as, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” the God of the First Testament is, indeed, a God of love. And as we see in this prelude to the Ten Commandments, first comes love.
Another answer to that question—does this apply to us?—can be found in your bulletin, Question 90 from the Presbyterian catechism, Why did God give this law? The answer is this:
[The law] was the great charter of liberty for Israel, a people chosen to live in covenant with God and to serve as a light to the nations. It remains the charter of liberty for all who would love, know and serve the Lord today.
The Ten Commandments are God’s word, not only to the ancient Hebrews, but to all who would love, know, and serve God through our faith in Jesus Christ today. And the nature of these words is that they contain both commands and promise. God makes a claim on our behavior, both towards God and towards one another. And God promises that our living into, and living up to God’s claim, will be a sign to the world that we are, in fact, God’s chosen, precious, beloved children.
Those who are chosen and precious are always exposed to standards of behavior, from teaching a toddler not to hit when they are mad, to teaching a teenager to speak to others, including their parents, with respect. To love another, even another who is not a child—a parent, a partner, a friend—to love another is to enter into an agreement with them about our behavior. In marriage we take vows—to love, honor, cherish, to be faithful, in all circumstances. First comes love, then come our claims upon one another. We expect the best of each other, and we promise to give the best to each other, because we love.
In the beginning was the Word. It was a word of covenant, which means it was a word of love, and a word of command, and a word of promise. It was given in love, to further love. And whatever your view on DeMille’s and Ruegemer’s displays (or of Charlton Heston’s acting or activism), it is a word, and these are words, that are still living and moving and having their being in us today. Thanks be to God. Amen.