Exodus 20: 1-17
by Rev. Kathy Itzin
The Ten Commandments aren’t so much about commandments, as about relationship. There are two versions of them; one in Exodus, and one in Deuteronomy, and they both start out with
God saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…(you shall have no other gods before me.” The commandments aren’t coming out of thin air. They come out of a very intimate relationship.
We know the story of how the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, but escaped in the Exodus, with Moses leading the way. In the years before the escape, Pharaoh had abused them by taking away the straw that they used to make bricks, but telling them that they still needed to make the same amount each day. When he worried that they were becoming too many, and they might overthrow him, he ordered that the baby boys would be killed. The Egyptians whipped or killed them for any offenses, and they suffered horribly for years before they escaped. Those kinds of memories don’t go away. They become part of who you are and where you’ve been. That’s why God was telling them.
Remember, I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the hose of slavery… God could say the same thing to us today.
Remember, when you were young, and your dad wasn’t there, or when a parent was alcoholic or abusive? When you were a teenager, and you had a horrible secret you couldn’t tell? When you were gay, or pregnant, or addicted. When you were terrible in school, when you weren’t popular. Remember, when you were hurt or abused, when you didn’t know where the grocery or rent money would come from, when your loved one died, or when you divorced? Remember, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of that…have no other gods before me.
Because God was with us, because God has brought us to another place, because God has worked with us and we have grown through those experiences, ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ It’s built on relationship.
God can’t be put in a box. We can’t define God, and think we have it nailed down. God is real, and just like I can’t define a person, I can’t define God. When I think, if I pray just right, if I do this and this, my luck will hold out, that’s trying to define God. A lot of superstitions are built on this. If I do this just right, this will happen. God is God, and my actions, good or bad, don’t determine what God will do. That could be idolatry.
When Moses saw the burning bush, and asked God God’s name, what did God reply? “I am who I am.” I am the One who Is. I am reality. You can’t define me. The Jewish people won’t write the name of God. They leave out the middle vowels. When you read it, you know who they mean, but they won’t define it on paper. God is too holy, and you can’t define Reality.
Don’t talk about God casually. When we say, “OMG,” or “God damn it to hell anyway,” we may not mean anything by it. We probably don’t, but God is reality, and when we say stupid stuff, it kind of cheapens God’s name. It makes it sound like it’s no big deal, and God is God.
When I see the Commandments written on tablets outside a courthouse, or in someone’s front yard, it rubs me the wrong way. I assume that they think that it’s written in stone. A God who never changes, and who accepts no excuses. That’s not true either.
There are two versions of the Commandments, one written earlier in Exodus and one written a little later in Deuteronomy. Although they are almost the same, Deuteronomy adds a little more detail. Exodus mentions not working on the Sabbath as including “your male and female servants, nor your animals…” and Deut. specifies not just ‘animals’, but ‘your ox, your donkey, and any of your animals.” Exodus says we must rest on the Sabbath because “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but God rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Deuteronomy has an entirely different reason. “ …so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefor the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath.
You were slaves yourselves in Egypt. You know what it’s like to work all the time. You know what it’s like to be under someone else’s thumb. That’s what it’s like for your slaves. For your animals. For your sons and daughters. Now, you rest, and so does everyone else. On the day set aside to remember God, and because of God, and your holiness too, it is a day of absolute freedom for everyone. Because you know what it’s like to be under someone’s thumb.
Who you were, and all the things that have happened that made you, you, are still part of you, and now we use those experiences to call up compassion for others. Because God has worked with us intimately, called us to healing and growth, we are responsible for others. We use that to answer to God for the gifts that we have been given. God helps us on our journeys, and we turn around and help others. And God is within us when we play it forward.
The commandments changed. They allowed for spiritual and intellectual growth and maturity, as well as changing times. In the first set, Exodus, a wife is listed as one of the possessions of a man that shouldn’t be coveted by other men. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet his wife or his servant, or his ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to him.” Incidentally, covet here doesn’t mean ‘lust’ or ‘fantasize,’ The word they used for covet means ‘wanting, and actually taking some steps to get it.’ Plotting and scheming to get something that’s not yours.
In Deuteronomy, the commandment changed a little. A wife is still a man’s possession, but she isn’t stuck in the middle between his house and his servants and animals. It’s almost like she has a place of honor (among his possessions). “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. Then, You shall set your desire on his house, and land…etc.” It sounds like even the Ten Commandments are open to God still speaking.
The commandments are ‘t meant as something God is giving us to bind us in, another heavier load to carry. They start with relationship, and ask us to trust in God. When our tv’s and advertising and everything we see tells us to want more, and buy more, and spend our money, God’s Reality says, “Don’t covet. Don’t go there. That’s not the way to happiness and fulfillment.” If your marriage is getting stale and taken for granted, God’s reality says, “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.” Think about what’s important. When our whole culture says your value is based upon your work, and what difference does it make if you keep working when you’re supposed to be taking time off? God says, “Trust me. There’s more to life.”
God, the giver of all life, can be trusted to know what is good for us. That’s what the Commandments are all about.