Moses goes off on the rescue mission and is able to bring the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The people who remember Egypt are starting to die off. The Hebrew people are getting close to the end of their time in the wilderness.
Deuteronomy is the last book in the Torah—the law books. The Ten Commandments appear in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy. You might think of Deuteronomy as the second edition. Deuteronomy expands and improves upon the laws found in Exodus and Numbers.
The passage begins by reminding the people that the covenant – the promise between God and the people was made not with the ancestors but with the current gathered community. As people of faith we reaffirm the covenant regularly. We reaffirm our commitment to the God of our ancestors in faith through worship, through the sacraments of baptism and communion. We reaffirm our commitments to God when we participate is covenants between people. We reaffirm our commitment to God when we share our faith with others.
At first glance we might see the Ten Commandments and our world and think that no one pays any attention to them anymore and perhaps that’s why the world is falling apart. I think it is helpful to note that some of the Ten Commandments have made it in to our law—the obvious ones about murder and stealing. I think that the commandments continue to speak to us but they need to be reinterpreted for a different time.
The commandments remind us about the importance of relationships: spouse and family, community, God. They give us direction about how to live in community with others. They encourage us in all our relationships to treat each other with respect and compassion.
Honouring father and mother has to do with the importance of family relationships. In the ancient world, survival depended on children looking after their parents in old age. So the commandment has to do with ensuring that parents are looked after. In our own culture, families come in many shapes and sizes. One of the interesting things about this commandment is that mother and father are written as equals. In ancient Hebrew culture the social order was organized with men at the top, followed by children and then women so to place women on an equal footing with a man was radical. This commandment would seem to lift up relationships where partners work together in all aspects of family life. This commandment also contains an instruction that could be troubling. Taken at face value this commandment seems to lift up the idea that children should unconditionally obey and defer to their parents. This commandment has been used to justify abuse and maintain control of children rather than encouraging children to become who they are called to be. We want family structures to be healthy, to be places of nurture, love and encouragement for all their members. Re-written for our time the commandment might be something like: “Respect and care for all members of your family throughout their lives.”
The commandment speaks of not committing adultery. We live in a world where there are many different kinds of relationships. Some people choose heterosexual marriage, some choose same sex marriage, some people choose to be in relationship but unmarried and some people—by choice or circumstance—remain unattached. Some people change relationships several times through their adult life. Relationships are much more fluid in our time than they have been in the past. When we enter relationships—regardless of the form they take—there is value in committing fully to those relationships. The commitment builds trust and allows those involved to become more fully themselves and deepen their relationship with the holy through knowing the other.
In our community, the commandments give a prohibition on murder, stealing, lying. They also remind us not to covet or desire our neighbour’s wife, slave, house, donkey, new car… There are several challenges to this commandment. We no longer live in a world where women are property or where slavery is supposed to occur. People choose their relationships freely. This commandment allows those with wealth to live contentedly. Those with less wealth are also encouraged to be content with their lot in life. This commandment encourages inequality. The intent might originally have been to discourage disagreements over property among a group of people who were relatively equal in their wealth. In our own culture there are huge discrepancies in wealth. What might be more helpful is for us to talk about and work for a good quality of life for all people. These are the commandments that help us create healthy families and communities.
Central to creating healthy community is another commandment which we hear Jesus quote later in scripture: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The Hebrew people are reminded—as we are—to “keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The idea is that the commandments become central to our lives. By placing the commandments at the center of our lives God also becomes central.
We hear Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke remind people to love God with heart, with soul, with strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. One of the ways we love ourselves is through sabbath. There is a difference between how Exodus and Deuteronomy give the commandment about sabbath. Sabbath is the concept of rest from work. In the ancient Hebrew tradition there was no work done on the Sabbath – no cooking, no travel, no laundry, no farming – only minimal care for livestock. In the home I grew up in there was no homework on a Sunday, Dad never farmed on a Sunday – except to care for the livestock. There was no house work or laundry. The concept of Sabbath reminds us how important it is to rest. The difference between Exodus and Deuteronomy is in why we rest. Exodus ties sabbath to the first creation story which tells us that God created the earth in seven days and then rested. Deuteronomy ties Sabbath to remembering what it was like to be a slave in Egypt. It reminds the people that, collectively, they know what it is like not to rest. Everyone should be entitled to sabbath including slaves and livestock. This shift from focusing on God’s rest to the human need for rest is important because it tells us that the sabbath is not for God but for us. The sabbath is for the creation. Often we associate sabbath with a time of worship but in this instance the connection isn’t there. The focus is on the stoppage of work—on rest.
The first commandment begins by requiring that there be no other Gods. The second commandment is connected and has to do with prohibiting idols. In this instance the idols are concrete images from nature. In our own context the idols might be wealth, power, a new car, a perfect house, the great vacation. Idols are anything that take our focus away from God. These two commandments combine to remind us about the centrality of God in our lives. We sometimes want to separate God from certain aspects of our life. We might try to separate God from politics. We might try to separate God of money. We place money and politics off to one side and God to the other. When we do this the choices we make about money and our politics may or may not reflect God. By separating certain parts of our lives from our faith we are more likely to create idols. By reconnecting our money and politics to our faith, God becomes more central in all our decision making.
One of the troubling thing about both the Deuteronomy and Exodus versions of the Ten Commandments is the image of God punishing children for their parent’s sins. Perhaps punishment isn’t the right word. I think the Biblical authors understood that behavior and attitudes of parents are passed to the next generation but perhaps in language and translation the word punishment doesn’t quite fit what is meant. In ancient it times, as a way of making sense of the world, people understood that God rewarded good behavior and punished bad behavior. I wonder if what the passage is trying to get at is the idea that a parent’s life influences their child’s life. For example, a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome lives with very real consequences of a parent’s behavior. Is it punishment? I wouldn’t say so, but it is a real consequence. In the ancient world this might have been seen as punishment. Other places in scripture push back against the idea that God punishes children. Both Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18 quote a proverb: “parents have eaten sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted” and go on to say that only the one who sins will be punished. These later authors also seem to be struggling with the concept that God would punish multiple generations and they speak out against the text.
Perhaps part of our work as a church is to reconnect ourselves with how the Ten Commandments might be speaking to us. They aren’t intended as a list of rules to be obeyed but as framework to shape community that places God at the centre, cares for others and allows us to care for ourselves. The Ten Commandments re-orient us and reshape us. We might see what looks like a world falling apart but when we are able to center ourselves in God, in relationship, in compassion for ourselves and others the world can be healed.