This is an except from a sermon I preached last week on Exodus 20:1-17 God is serious about freeing us. He’s far more serious about it than we could ever be. Take the narrative of Exodus, for example. God’s got a plan of freeing Israel, but in their mind, the freeing act ends as soon as they’re out of Egypt. However, that was only the beginning. God uses everything in the wilderness to bring deeper and deeper freedom. He doesn’t just want his people to change clothes. He wants them clean.
When YHWH makes the self-identifying statement at the beginning of Exodus 20 “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”, he is reminding Israel of context. He is speaking to what they know. He is identifying himself as the only God to have delivered them from slavery, but he is also saying, “And now for part two. You will be my people and here’s how it’s going to look.”
The Ten Commandments are built on the physical deliverance of Israel, the lessons on dependence and the ever-present pillar of fire and cloud. So, by the time Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai, they are smack in the middle of a story of redemption, whether they like it or not. God was deepening the freedom of his people and it is against this backdrop that the Ten Words were delivered.
To me, the Ten Commandments appear as an interruption in the Israelites’ story of freedom. but context shows that these words continue the message of liberation. These laws represent all of the ways Israel tried to take care of themselves. Walter Bruggemann speaks of Israel’s currency in Egypt—anxiety, hoarding and physical labor were what the Hebrews used in order to get their needs met. In Egypt, if you wanted bread, you had to take it. Your only value was in your ability to work. You were only as good as your ability to make bricks.
In contrast, the Ten Commandments have nothing to do with production. It must have been a huge shift to come into the wilderness with a God who says “You want bread? It comes through dependence.” Your needs are met not through grabbing whatever isn’t bolted down, moving through the world taking attention and approval wherever you can find it. Now, your needs are met as you rely on the Provider.
How long have we relied on our own giftedness, our own talents in order to take care of ourselves? How long have we tried to arm-wrestle the rest of the world to the ground in order to prove that we are lovable and worthy?
When I read the Ten Commandments, I wonder why God has to forbid these things. What is their appeal? Why would I murder or worship false gods or cheat? But I know why. We are driven toward what we believe satisfies. We want desperately to take care of ourselves and get our needs met. And, if our needs are central, there’s nothing we won’t do in the name of self-protection. Our needs aren’t the problem. Sin is just seeking to get legitimate needs met in illegitimate ways. We worship false gods out of insecurity and panic. We steal when we don’t trust we’ll be taken care of. We hurt, manipulate, undermine and kill others out of a desire to self-protect and self-promote.
We betray out of our own insecurity or our own drive for pleasure. We refuse Sabbath practice because we’re convinced we’re only as valuable as our production level. All of these things are the default—typical human responses to our own struggle against insignificance. And God comes in through thunder and lightning with grave warning. The reckless consumption and pursuit of pleasure will produce paltry satisfaction at best. He is not pulling the YHWH trump card, he is bringing us into reality—It won’t work. It wasn’t made to work. Real life comes when you live in the reality that I am God and you are mine.
With each commandment, God is shattering the inaccurate perceptions of what Israel needs to survive. God’s words call us to lay down our self-reliance and desperate attempts at self-care. Each one of these commandments speaks to our instant-gratification instincts. In love, God guides us back from the old ways of taking care of ourselves to the new route of dependence. Life is found in the freedom-inducing words of God.
The Ten Commandments are not ethical guidelines; they are invitation to life. We know it is an invitation to life because ultimately we know the one who is delivering these words. Israel had seen the redemptive work. They had seen a God who had heard their cries, taken notice, and come down to rescue his people. Israel had seen God physically put himself between their own bodies and their enemies. They had seen what God did to the Egyptians. They had seen the Reed Sea part and had felt dry land where there should have been water. They had received bread that they didn’t work for. They drank water that God had made sweet. The Ten Commandments then naturally flow out of a correct understanding of the ever present God concerned with communion, the God who won’t leave, the God who hasn’t killed us all despite our complaining, misunderstanding and attempts to replace his role. God’s words are provision because God is provider. God’s words are deliverance because God is deliverer.