Exodus 20:1 Then God spoke all these words:
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 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and 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; 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. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so 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 male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
18 When 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, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses 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.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
Did you know that in the state of Arizona, it is illegal for a donkey to sleep in a bathtub? This is an actual law that is on the books there! And all over the country, there are bizarre laws like this. In Nevada, it is illegal to ride a camel on the highway. In Ohio, it is illegal to get a fish intoxicated. In Alabama, you may not wear a fake mustache that causes laughter in church. And in North Carolina, we have a law that states you may not plow your cotton field with the help of your elephant.
These laws are silly but you just know that they exist because someone must’ve actually done all of these things. Many laws are inane, but they don’t just come from a judge sitting in a room by himself thinking stuff up. They’re not written in the stars, eternal and unchanging. Laws make sense (or don’t make sense) within the stories of particular communities in particular times.
Laws have their authority and are useful or helpful within stories. When the LORD wants to teach the people of Israel how to live together, how to become a kingdom of priests, God does not give them a constitution or an abstract, legal code that can be separated from their story as a people. The Torah, the “law” or the “teaching,” isn’t just made up of abstract rules, but also the story in which those rules find their origin.
So in our passage this morning—which records what we call “the 10 commandments,” what many consider the cornerstone of western morality—God embeds the legal code within the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is how God begins to give the commandments. We don’t just get the laws by themselves; we get the laws as a part of the story of Exodus, the story of how God is making this people free from Egypt and for their neighbors, and specific laws really only make sense inside that larger story. You could slip them inside a different story, but then they would take on a different meaning.
In the Bible, giving laws, rules for how the people will live together, is not a separate project from getting the people out of Egypt. These commands are how God continues parting the Red Sea. The commands structure the people’s freedom. People are not really free when bloodshed is the go-to way to solve conflict, when it’s OK just to pull a trigger instead of doing the harder work of de-escalating the situation; and so a command not to murder is liberating, not just as a limit on what I can do but as a reminder of my obligation to my neighbor and their obligation to me. We are not really free if some people are allowed to accumulate property at the expense of others so that some people have far more than they need while others barely get by. And so the commands not to steal and not to covet free the rich from their addiction to their stuff and free the poor from the shackles of poverty. These commands all come from God, who freed the people from Egypt and who wants to free them for each other and their neighbors. This is how the commands make sense in the Bible, as providing structure that helps God’s people live as free people.
I think this is important to recognize because laws can provide the opposite of freedom. Laws bind us. It seems like one of the worst things you can be is “legalistic.” But the problem with “legalism” isn’t really laws, but stupidity and meanness and inflexibility. It would probably be OK if Christians were a little more legalistic about the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, the command to turn the other cheek, to give whatever is asked to those who beg. Laws can be good and freeing if they bind us to what is good and freeing when we would by our own wills fall back into patterns that are oppressive.
The world is not balanced and equal and stable. It’s slanted and changing. Left to our own devices, the strongest and the loudest and the luckiest always end up dominating the conversation and setting things up to benefit themselves. So if you want to be free, if you want everyone to be free, then that is something you constantly have to work towards and we need rules and structures that say, “We’re going to make sure everyone really gets a chance to talk,” and we’re going to have to be a bit legalistic about sticking to them. For example, our Jewish cousins practice the Sabbath. And practicing Jews are quite rigid, even “legalistic” about setting aside the Sabbath for rest. But that “structure” not only draws them closer to God, but gives a measure of freedom from the toil of modern life.
So the commandments that God gives are supposed to make room for freedom. This is important to think about in our families and our workplaces and even here at church. What are the structures we have in place that make sure everyone has a say, not just the loudest or the luckiest? What are our laws we are going to stick to so that we’ll be the kind of place God is calling us to be?
Another way to say all of this is that the point of the law is not the law itself. If the law only makes sense within the story of God making Israel free, then the law is only helpful in that it teaches the Israelites to live that story. The minute the law gets used for any other purpose, it becomes a dead letter. This is where the fear of legalism comes from, the possibility, even the likelihood that our obligations will beat us down rather than free us.
This is part of why the very first commandment is against idolatry. We are so good at deceiving ourselves, at slipping the law inside other stories without even noticing what we’re doing. We can obsess over particular laws and bend them to our own ways of thinking if we forget that the law is always supposed to point to the story of God’s liberating work.
Even commands as simple as “do not steal” or “do not murder” require interpretation. No sooner do we say “Do not murder” than do we have to negotiate what we mean by “murder.” Is elective abortion murder? Is a drone strike on a wedding in Yemen? How we answer will depend on the larger story we believe we are a part of. Same with stealing. Is taxation theft? Or is private property? Or charging interest? The minute we say “murder” or “theft,” we already call to mind stories that give those words meaning, and if we are to take the first commandment seriously, we have to be willing to ask if the story we have in mind is the story of God freeing us from Egypt and for the love of our neighbors, or is it some other story?
We always read the Bible inside of our circumstances, as much as we might try not to. If our church is in conflict, that affects the way we read passages about unity. If our baptist church is conscious of the big megachurch church across the street, that’s going to affect they way we read the Bible. If we’re sick, if we’re tired, if some great national or global event has happened, all of these things affect the way we read the Bible. And this isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just inevitable, but if we’re going to read the Bible well, we have to interrogate the circumstances, the stories that are our background for reading it, or we will always be at risk of making idols of our interpretations.
So for example, in the 19th Century American South, liquor consumption per capita was several times what it is today. And many rural communities in the south had problems with men spending days in the saloon instead of doing the work that needed to be done on the farm. And so preachers started exhorting their congregations to stop drinking, stop dancing, stop gambling…or basically “stop spending all day at the saloon and do your work.” But in subsequent generations, tee-totaling and not dancing or playing poker became messages all on their own, apart from that context, and those activities became indexes of who was a good Christian and who was a sinner (which was not the original point). What was one generation trying to wrestle with the Gospel for the good of their community became unquestioned, eternal Gospel truth for the next. [The equivalent might be if I preached on the opioid epidemic, and then some kid in 50 years concluding that Christians shouldn’t ever use painkillers.] Our response to the Law is never objective or unbiased, but always already informed by the world in which we find ourselves.
I wonder what stories we have in mind when we read the Bible that we might not even be aware of? Maybe you read God’s laws against the backdrop of a world that is going to hell in a hand basket and you just want to hold on to something that seems solid amidst all the change? Maybe you read the Scripture inside the story of a society that is basically already good, where the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice and it will get there eventually if we just stay the course? What are the stories that we have told about ourselves as a congregation? How are those stories told not just in our minds but in our church covenant, our constitution and bylaws, our rules of order? Do even these kind of boring ways we organize ourselves tell the story of God’s liberation or people trying to hold themselves together? Do we read with the Spirit of the God who freed Israel from Egypt, or by the dead letter of our own unexamined habits?
This is not a question that we ask once and for all and then we’re done. The Bible itself invites us to ask again and again and again. You see, the people of Israel don’t just receive these commands one time. Almost immediately after they’ve received them, the whole incident with the Golden Calf happens. And so God gives the commands again. And then in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ last speech before he dies and the Israelites go without him into the Promised Land, he repeats the whole Law Code again, with some adjustments. And then again during the reign of King Josiah, the Law has been lost for a time, when some priests are cleaning the Temple and they find it, and they receive it again. The Law is not something God’s people receive one time, but something that must be repeated and received again and again and again and worked with for the time in which God’s people find themselves.
The Law is not abstract and eternal, but an invitation to ask how God has worked for our freedom in the past so that we can work for it now, too. And at the same time it requires us to ask “what have really been the shackles that have bound us and how must we break those chains now?” The temptation is always there to make an idol of God’s Word by reading it inside our own stories, and so the only way to be faithful to the first commandment, not to commit idolatry, is to ask again and again, “What is the story that makes sense of these laws? What are the stories in the background of our community? What are the stories that lie behind our Bible studies and our Sunday school conversation, that animate our constitution and our covenant?” And are we willing to begin again together, to hear anew what structures God would put in place that make for freedom now? That can be a scary question, because it means we have to put some of our most dearly held assumptions to the test; but it can also be freeing because God is always able to do something new beyond what we could ever ask or imagine.
I hope that we will not be the type of place that has to have rules about donkeys in bathtubs or fake mustaches in church, that we will not cling to narrow visions of the past but that we will be open to the story of what God wants to do with us next. I hope that we will make commitments and obligations to one another for this moment, so that we can receive God’s commands again, and work with them as God works with us now. Amen.
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