Covenant Rules - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecoste 18A (Exodus 20)

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Common English Bible (CEB)20 Then God spoke all these words: 
2 I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 
3 You must have no other gods before me.
4 Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.
7 Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.
8 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks,
12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 Do not kill.
14 Do not commit adultery.
15 Do not steal.
16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking, the people shook with fear and stood at a distance. 19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die.” 
20 Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t sin.”
                God is not my buddy. We need not be afraid of God, but we should stand in awe. Maybe it would be better to kneel or lay prostrate before God, our Creator. Be in awe of God, Moses declares, so that you don’t sin. What does this mean?  How does this call for us not to sin relate to God’s covenant with Israel? How does it relate to me, a Christian? In this reading from Exodus, designated for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, the covenant-making God sets forth some rules that should define the relationship between God and God’s covenant partners.

                We read this passage in the context of ongoing debates over whether it is appropriate to place copies of the Ten Commandments in school rooms and courthouses across the American nation. We’re told that this is permissible because these commandments form one of the bases of the American legal system, along with documents such as the Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence. It may be true that these rules have influenced the development of legal systems in the Western World, but too often the defense of their presence secularizes them. It removes the covenant nature of the rules. In doing this we essentially excise the first tablet of the Law, the part that speaks to our relationship with God, a relationship that should define our relationships with one another.

Be in awe of God, so that you might not sin.  What is sin? This is a question that many theologians have delved into and have offered many answers. Recently I had the opportunity to share in a conversation with Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., the author of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. This was a preaching colloquium, and were talking about sin and how to preach about sin. I hadn’t read Plantinga’s book, though I knew of it. As I learned from the conversation, Plantinga defines sin as the “vandalism of shalom.” He writes that “sin is a religious concept, not just a moral one” (p. 12). That is a crucial point as we consider the purpose of these commandments. He writes that “sin is not only the breaking of law but also the breaking of covenant with one’s savior. Sin is the smearing of a relationship, the grieving of one’s divine parent and benefactor, a betrayal of the partner to whom one is joined by a holy bond” (p. 12). So, when we engage in behavior that vandalizes God’s shalom in our relationships with one another, we betray our holy bond with God.

                Ten words that speak to the bond that exists between God and God’s covenant people starts with the divine-human relationship. The first four commands are focused on our relationship with God. The first is simple: if you want to be in relationship with the covenant-making God, you will not have any other god (if this read in a henotheistic way, the author isn’t denying the existence of other gods, only that one cannot be in covenant relationship with Yahweh and have relationships with other gods—to put this in marital terms, this is a monogamous relationship). The second rule follows upon the first. Don’t make any idols or images. This would include images of anything in the sky, on the earth, or below the earth. From a Christian understanding, God reveals God’s self in the incarnation, through the person of Jesus. So, we need not create images.  

The third rule is an intriguing one. This is a ban on using God’s name inappropriately (while I don’t recommend cussing, that’s not what this is about). I do wonder, however, if this might rule out the use of the words “one nation under God. Might it ban the use of God’s name in support of nationalistic endeavors? The final word having to do with the divine-human relationship concerns sabbath-keeping. I wonder how many people calling for the institutionalization of the Ten Commandments follow this rule. I know that I fail miserably. We are to rest, because God rested on the third day. By keeping Sabbath, we honor the rhythm set by God.

What should we make of these words relating to our relationship to the covenant-making God? Is it possible that we might worship other gods? Could it be that we have made images of these gods whom we serve and perhaps seek to manipulate for our own use? Do we treat God’s name in a loose way? Remember that Jesus said something about refraining from taking oaths, especially ones that use the name of God or anything related to God (Matt. 5:33-37). Then there’s the rule about sabbath-keeping. I know the Puritans were once strict about its observance, but I don’t see too many Christians practicing it, myself included. Besides, it would put a major dent in the American economy if Christians really practiced sabbath-keeping. Remember that according to the rules, no one is to work, including one’s servants or slaves. That would include the employees of said Christians. That’s the first table. It has fewer rules than the second table, but this is very much a religious code. It defines a relationship with God. We might summarize it this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength” (Deut. 6:5).

                Moving on to the second table, the set of rules that focus on our relationships within the human community. I would presume that this list is rooted in the prior list. We honor the creator by honoring God’s creation. The list begins with a call to honor father and mother. If you honor your parents then you will experience a lengthy tenure in the land. The sixth rule, and the second rule on the second table, speaks of murder or killing. People have differing opinions about how this should be interpreted. As I write this reflection, I am mindful of a mass shooting in Las Vegas that took the lives of more than fifty people. Surely this is an act of vandalism against God’s shalom. We can argue about whether this is a call for pacifism (contextually I don’t believe it is), but most assuredly the wanton murder of innocents is a breaking of covenant. The words continue with bans on adultery and stealing. In an ancient context, both laws speak to disrespecting the property of others. Adultery would involve distorted sexual relationships. We have broadened that definition over time, since in modern cultures it is not appropriate to view a wife as property. So, in a modern context, we should understand this word in terms of sexuality being “practiced respectfully and under discipline.” As Walter Brueggemann notes, “the danger of sexuality is that it is capable of evoking desires that are destructive of persons and of communal relations” [“Exodus,” NIB, 1:848]. As for stealing, this is again an act of violence against the community. It’s destructive of persons. It is a vandalism of shalom.

                The second to last rule is a tricky one. It declares: Don’t bear false witness. The focus is on one’s word in a court of law. As Brueggemann puts it, “the courtroom must be a place where the truth is told and where social reality is not distorted through devious manipulation or ideological perversion” [NIB 1:848]. While I believe that Brueggemann is correct in his interpretation, I wonder if we might want to expand this a bit. If we understand that this rule exists in the context of living in a covenant community, and that sin is vandalism of shalom, of peace and harmony within God’s community, then I wonder if we might apply this to the way we speak at large. I think for a moment about how one might use Facebook. Could it be that when we “share” news that is destructive but untrue, so-called “fake news” we are vandalizing shalom and thus breaking this command?  

                While the previous five rules speak to the way we treat one another within the covenant community, the final rule speaks to the heart. Don’t covet, were told, the house, wife, or animals of one’s neighbor. In other words, don’t harbor thoughts of violating one’s neighbor’s property. This rule speaks to the motivation for actions like adultery, stealing, murder, and bearing false witness. It speaks to how I view my neighbor. But here’s the thing, breaking this rule sets up breaking all the rest of the rules. People steal because they envy or covet what belongs to another. One speaks falsely about another because one covets that person’s reputation. We murder for much the same reason. This is understandable. We understand that all acts of aggression are rooted in some form of prior thought. Now, we also need to remember that this code has an original context. The word about coveting the neighbor’s wife reflects a patriarchal understanding that views women as property of men. This is not appropriate, and we need to recognize this fact if we are to truly implement these covenant rules that reflect the call to love one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self (Lev. 19:18).

                What does it mean to live in covenant relationship with God? How does that get reflected in the way we live in the world? I have long believed that these commands simply expand upon the call to love God, as expressed in the Shema, and to love one’s neighbor. Jesus understood this to be true. Do we need the expansion? I expect we do. Perhaps there is a reason why the Hebrew Bible contains over six hundred rules and regulations. Even ten words need further expansion if we are to truly inhabit the covenant!

Picture Attribution: Ten Commandments, illustrative wood relief carving, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved October 2, 2017]. Original source:


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