By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 8, 2023
Exodus 20:1–20 (ESV)
1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. 8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 “You shall not murder. 14 “You shall not commit adultery. 15 “You shall not steal. 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” 18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”
The Ten Commandments, what goes through your mind when you hear those words? What do we think of when we hear things like, “You shall have no, or you shall not have?” For most of us we would say these are negative statements. They are restrictive, they are demands, or maybe they are rules. We tend to view rules in a negative sense, but the writers of the Old Testament praise these commandments as being life giving not restricting. I think this is largely because of language.
What we see as commandments, they saw as words or teachings. We see rules, they see guidance. We see law, they see conversation.
I want us to reflect on this for a moment. Are these words law dictated from the very mouth of God, or is it God teaching us what it means to be fully human? How we view this determines how we approach God, and our understanding of the Christian lifestyle.
In Carmen Joy Imes’ book “Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters“, she states, “The English word ‘law’ is both too narrow and too misleading to accurately translate the Hebrew word torah. It is better translated as ‘instruction.’” She goes on to say, “Scholars studying ancient cultures are beginning to recognize that ancient laws were often hypothetical, rather than legislative.” Imes is telling us that these lists of ancient laws were often seen by the ancient cultures, as statements of wisdom, they were given as guidance to the interactions between various parties Torah, or the books of the Law, are written to direct our thinking in a situation, instead of legislative law as we see in western cultures.
When we look at these commands, these instructions, or teachings, the first thing I want us to reflect on is not the law itself, but the first couple of verses. “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’”
God is reminding them of who they are, who he is, and their life together. And he reminds them all with his own voice. The wording here is such that as the people camped along the base of the mountain, dark clouds gathered around the peak, and these words were spoken not just to Moses, but all of Israel. God spoke these words directly to them all. We sometimes overlook this because we are used to God speaking through people like the prophets. When this is the case, the writing usually says something to the effect, “Thus saith the Lord.” This is not the case here, it simply says, “And God spoke all these words.” He said them not through Moses, or even Aaron but through his own voice. “I am the Lord your God, who brough you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
God begins by reminding the tribes of Israel of who he is. “I am.” He reminds them of who they were, slaves in Egypt. And who they are now because of him, freed slaves. They are free people because of God, and because God brought them out of the house of slavery he gives you guidance, ten words of wisdom that will provide instruction as you move into this new life of liberty.
God begins with grace; he always begins with grace. He reminds them that they were once slaves but because of his intervention they are now free people. The problem is they had been slaves for four hundred years, they do not know how to live as free people.
We saw this a couple of weeks ago, when Israel complained that they were hungry. They longed to go back to Egypt because in Egypt they had food, they ate bread to their full and sat by meat pots. But here in the desert they are starving. They did not see what freedom was. They only knew bondage. Everything in their life was determined by an outside force. What and when they ate was determined by their taskmasters. Now they are free, and they did not know what to do. Before they are given food, they do not know where to look and they do not have the knowledge as to where to find the food in this wilderness. They complain, they demand, and God responds. He provides manna from heaven. But there is something about this that we do not always remember. They were given bread, but the bread was cooperative. They had to go out to gather, they could only gather enough for a day, and they could not store up for later.
God was teaching them what life with him was like. God does provide but often what he provides requires our participation. God does not just drop a loaf of bread in front of each tent, instead the people of Israel must go out and gather. They had to collect enough manna to feed their family for a day. But there is a second part, they could only gather enough for the day. The hording of food is common among impoverished people. They will hide food in places to keep for later, because they do not know when they will have it again. God knew that this would likely be the case, so he needed to train them to live in the present. Live on what you have now, and do not worry about the future. It is a tough lesson to learn. It is a lesson we all should still be open to learning.
God was providing for them, but God was also encouraging them to work for their own good and for the good of their community. This is important for us to remember, and it is important to be reminded of this relationship as we begin to look at the ten lessons.
God begins his lessons by reminding them of how they got to this place. I am the one that brought you out of Egypt. I am. So often in our culture, we forget that we are part of a community. We often think, “I have been able to bring myself to this place.” You are important yes, but you are rarely alone. We all live within communities. Some of our communities are large, while others are small. The nuclear family of parents and children is a community, our extended family is a community. The church is a community, and our nation is a community. If a parent lives only for themselves, the family community suffers. If we raise our children to think they have no responsibility within the community, the community suffers. Each of us must do our part within the community for the community to function properly.
This extends outside the family as well. You might say I built a business. You might have, but there is still community, a business serves their customers and their employees. When we neglect to recognize the community within our businesses, we might make money, but the community will suffer. Employees will stop working if they do not feel valued. Customers will seek services elsewhere if they do not sense value. The opposite is also true. If you as an employee do not value the business, your employers will devalue you. And if customers begin to think they are always right, they will often be met with resistance. I know this to be true because I have seen it in action. A few months ago, I was getting my vehicle serviced. It took a long time, and as I waited several customers demanded discounts for their wait. They did get discounts, but the cost of those discounts created a rift between the employees and the customers. I calmly sat in the waiting room, making conversation with the other customers and with the employees as they walked through the room. When it came time for the bill, they willingly gave discounts that were triple the amount that the irate customers demanded, and they did this without even asking.
We live in community, and the ten lessons that God is teaching the people of Israel focus on this. We live in community with Him, and with those around us. The ten words, or commandments are often seen as Laws dealing with God and Laws dealing with humans. This is not wrong, but we often place a hard line between the two. This causes us to compartmentalize or our lives into sacred and secular. This is what drove the early Friends to speak out. The reality is that there are aspects of life that should be devoted to God, but that devotions should lead to a holistic lifestyle. The first commandment is to recognize and honor God’s position within our lives, “I am the Lord your God, brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
This first lesson reminds us of the grace of God. He is the one that has brought us to be where we are. We should remember this first. Israel did not leave Egypt on their own. They were brought where they are because of God. It can be easy to forget where we came from and how we got to where we are. And because of this we can forget where we stand within the community. This first lesson is to remind us not only to remember God but remember where we are within our community. There are always going to be people over us, people we serve and report to. This first commandment reminds the highest and lowest within a society of this fact.
We live within a community. We have responsibilities within that community. We are not the one that others serve, but we are to be serve others because God is God, not us. That is the first lesson. The second and what is commonly regarded as the third, play into this as well.
The second command we often regard is a prohibition of making images to worship. We connect this with not bowing down to other gods, but there is more to it than this. In ancient cultures they would build a temple to worship their deity, and in the center of attention within this temple there would often be a statue that would represent some aspect of that deity. There is a common misconception that people believed that these statues were their gods, this is not the case. They built statues that represented the characteristics of that deity, and if the characteristics pleased the deity, then the spirit of that god would enter the statue and reside there. Even ancient culture knew what the statue was.
This second lesson goes deeper. When we build an image, we are saying that we understand and know a deity to its fullest. When we build an image, we begin to think that we can contain and manipulate the power of God. To build an image for a god to reside, is to control that god. God is telling Israel through this lesson that he is greater than they can imagine, his essence cannot be contained within our human understanding. But even that only scratches the surface.
The second lesson alludes to something even greater. We are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And in this place, He created, He made a garden. Eden is God’s temple. God created his own temple. And he took Adam and Eve, our first parents, and placed them in the garden, he placed them into his temple. This is important because who are Adam and Eve? Prior to the making of the garden, God announced to this council, “Let us make man in our image.” And out of the clay God created humanity. God made the image he wanted to place in the temple dedicated to himself. The image of God that God wants us to look at is each of us. I am not saying that we should bow down and worship humanity. I am saying that to know God is to know the person next to you because they were created in God’s image.
We are the image that dwells in the temple of God. We are the representation of God’s character and power. When people cast their gaze upon us, God is what they should see. Scary. What do we see when we look at the news? What do we see when we look at our spouse, our children, the person that has just backed into our vehicle, or the person that started a war? What do we see?
We were created to be the image of God. To construct a different image is to deny what God has already done. But that brings us to what we often regard as the third teaching. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
I want us to consider this third lesson in connection with the first and second. Most of us, including me, were taught that this third commandment was to not speak flippantly about God, or to use his name as a curse word. This is not completely wrong, but it is also not complete. To take or to bear we do not often use with a noun like a name. This has caused difficulty through the years about what bearing the name of God really means. How do we use a name? We speak a name, we write names. We do not usually carry a name unless our mother has written our name on our clothing. This is why we have been taught for so many years that this commandment is associated with our speech. But that is not complete. If someone speaks our name, each person in this room will construct an image in their mind of our face. Because our name is not a word but a person. To take the name of God, is to embody what that name represents. This lesson is not a lesson on how we speak, but a lesson in how we act, how we live.
We were created in the image of God; we were placed in the Garden that was built by God to be his temple as the image bearers of God. We carry or bear God’s name because that is who we are. I ask again, what do we see when we look at the news? What do we see when we look at our spouse, our children, the person that has just backed into our vehicle, or the person that started a war? What do we see? Are we as image bearers of God, living our lives reflecting what we know God to be?
These first lessons of God remind us of who we are in community with him and with each other. The first is that no matter who we think we are, there is someone we must answer to, we are not God, God is God. The second is we should not even begin to think we understand the fullness of God and begin to worship what we think God is in our own mind. We should not do this because each person that lives on the face of this earth is created in the image of God. Each of us is unique. Each of us is important and can provide some different perspectives because we all have different experiences. One person cannot fully create an image of God, we need everyone else. And the third is we should not bear the image of God in vain.
We are communal beings. We live within relationships. Without these relationships we do not exist. Our community is our family, our place of employment, our neighborhoods, our church, our state and nation, our world. This includes the very dirt we stand on as well as every animal and person within. Every aspect of creation lives and breathes with and for each other. Know who we are within that relationship and know God. This is the beginning of wisdom; scripture teaches us, this is the lesson we must learn.
Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we have and all that we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He said that all the law and the prophets hinge on this. All the lessons of life revolve around this. All our relationships, and our community. When we turn on the news this evening and watch reports of war in Ukraine, and in Israel are we able to see these lessons? When we watch the coverage of the trial of a former president are we able to see these lessons? When we interact with those within our community are these lessons in mind? We each have opinions and we all have ideologies. We all have in our mind how things should be, but I ask where is God in that and where are our neighbors who are image bearers of God? Have we learned God’s lessons?
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