The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt, captives under a nation whose wealth and force of arms were greater than any before seen in the world. But then, almost overnight, the people were free. They had a divine deliverer, who liberated them—but at what a cost! The nation of Egypt was ruined: crops utterly devoured by frogs and locusts and lightning, livestock devastated by disease and hail and killed by thirst because the Nile river ran with blood. And the people of Egypt? They fared worse. They were plagued by biting gnats and boils all over their bodies, terrified by days of darkness so deep it was like being blind—a world transformed by the terrible realization that all the light of the heavens was gone. And there in that unnatural night, the whole nation was slashed to the bone with grief. All the firstborn were slain by a hand that was as invisible as it was inescapable, as merciless as it was indiscriminate.
There had been a terrible cost in freeing the people of Israel from Egypt, and the time had come for the people of Israel to pay God back for the debt they had incurred. They were out in the wilderness now, utterly dependent upon the mercy of a God they had just witnessed cut down a nation. They stood before a great and high mountain—or at least it had seemed a great high mountain—but it had been utterly engulfed by a huge pillar of smoke as the very presence of God descended like a stone-melting fire.
Because God had freed them from slavery, the people were now subject to a contract, and God had come to inform them of the terms. God had freed them by destroying a nation with ten plagues; the contract had ten conditions. What kind of terms could be terrible enough to match what this God had done? Would they be required to give burnt offerings of year old calves, or thousands of rams or tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Or would this God, who had slain the firstborn, require no lesser sacrifice than what would be unthinkable for any parent?
The people waited to learn what the ten conditions of God’s contract with them would be. When God spoke, the people heard for the first time…The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are the contract, more specifically they are the covenant. The Ten Commandments are what was placed into the Ark of the Covenant, which is the part of the name to which the covenant refers. The Ten Commandments were the contract God placed upon the people after She had freed them from slavery.
They were so simple, so basic. Most of the commandments were things you would teach to your children about how to be a good person—do not steal, do not hurt people, listen your parents, do not tell lies about your friends, keep your promises, that kind of thing. And the rest of them? The ones about how the people of Israel were supposed to treat God? They included such harsh injunctions as “your day off is Saturday”. The Ten Commandments are the contract between God and the people and the terms are so….gentle. They are so mild; they are so helpful and wise. There is not even any punishments laid out for breaking the contract, as if to fail to live up to them would hold its own poverty of spirit. This God who could have demanded anything from the people demanded only that they live well. And what’s more, God gave them the foundation for a life lived well, the Ten Commandments.
They are such a gift, such a sign of God’s goodness and desire for our thriving. Each commandment, if followed, will enrich life. The first commandment: do not chase after any other deities. For it was only God, who heard the cry of Israel; it was only God, who broke their slave-chains. They are to worship God because no other force in heaven or earth could love and cherish them the way that God did.
The second commandment: do not bow down and worship anything that is just a pretender to being divine such as statues of gold or piles of gems or huge carved stone monoliths or towering skyscrapers or bull-markets or hedge funds—those are just dead things. If you pray to them, they cannot answer. If you trust them, they may or may not keep faith, so do not waste trust or worship on them.
The third commandment: do not misuse God’s name. God is alive and listens to prayers and whenever God’s name is called, she bends her attention and draws close. That is a gift of the living God, and it is possible to forget that gift if the name becomes an oath or a curse.
The fourth commandment: you must rest on the day of rest. God created the heavens and the earth, the world is vast and filled with beauty and elegant mathematics and innumerable fascinating beetles. Yet the treasures of creation pale in comparison to the gift God gave on the seventh day: the gift of rest. The Sabbath teaches us that it is enough to simply be. We are valuable beyond measure simply on account of our being; our value is not limited to the work we accomplish. To be still and know God is to give up the frantic search for something, anything, that we can create for ourselves, which is worthy of the immensity of having one and only one strange and lovely turn through the years. And so God commands that never should a week go by without a day to simply be. What a gift.
Even the fifth commandment is wonderful, though I confess it is the one I find hardest to believe is wise in all circumstances. Honor your parents. It would seem bitter poison to one whose parents were themselves poisonous to their children. How can it be right to honor the parenthood of one who has proven a curse to their own children? Yet the commandment is not to obey, or praise, or love parents, but to honor. That is, to treat them with the amount and kind of respect that they deserve. That’s what honor is; it is treatment based upon what a person deserves. To slight someone who is wonderful is to dishonor them because they deserve better. Conversely, to praise someone far beyond what they really deserve, that is dishonor as well. It is its own special kind of condescending shame to celebrate a person who does not deserve it. Honor your parents, that is, behave toward them in the way that is right given their parenting. That is freedom.
Do not kill, because human life is precious and another person’s life is not ours to take away. Do not commit adultery because though the bonds of human intimacy are deep, they are as fragile as eggshells and just as hard to repair when broken. Do not steal because people value the things that they possess and to take it from them sows seeds of violence. Do not tell hurtful lies about others because tearing down others with lies leaves both victim and accuser outside the embrace of community—no longer trusted. Do not covet what other people have for it will breed hateful envy within me, and my envy will tempt others to boastful pride.
This contract that God wrote for the people when she freed them from slavery, this covenant of how we should treat God and how we should treat one another—it is a blessing from God to make our lives better. The Ten Commandments are not laws to abide by out of fear of punishment; they are a gift of wisdom to be treasured and lived into for fullness of life. The Ten Commandments are not a straightjacket to be struggled out of; they are a cloak to shield us from life’s bitter winds. The Ten Commandments are not a rulebook; they are a dance card— a dance card that God has filled with all the best partners. We either dance God’s way, or we wind up with second rate steps and a partner who cannot help treading on our toes. If we all were just to abide by the contract God wrote, if we all were to live according to the Ten Commandments, imagine: everyone with a day of rest, money toppled from its high places and no longer an object of worship, the hoarding of wealth becoming a thing of the past because no one is impressed by rich men’s toys, war abandoned as a barbaric tool for resolving disputes, and the love of God, and the name of God alone held as holy in heaven above, with a brotherhood and sisterhood of equality on earth below. That is the world that the Ten Commandments imagines, that is the world God has bound Herself to building. You should memorize the Ten Commandments, and when life’s crossroads give you an opportunity to break one of them, make a different choice instead, the world will be a better place for it, and your life will be better for it.