Stories We Should Know: 10 Commandments

These thoughts were offered at Franklin United Methodist Church on Sunday, July 14, 2019. This message was based upon a reading from The Beginner’s Bible: “10 Commandments” (based upon Exodus 20:1-20)
     I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here.

Some Context

The people of Israel are continuing their journey out of the bonds of slavery in Egypt.  They have already been led, delivered through the Red Sea.  The people have rejoiced as Pharaoh’s army was swallowed up in its wake. 

The people of Israel are continuing their journey to a promised land.  “It has not been easy since they left the celebration on the banks of the Red Sea.  The people have been quarrelling with Moses and “testing” God, God has been working to keep up with the people’s basic needs for food and water, and Moses has about had it with being the leader of this not-so-merry band.”[1]

“On exactly the third-month anniversary of the Israelites’ leaving the land of Egypt, they came into the Sinai desert” (Exodus 19:1, Common English Bible).  They setup camp at the foot of the mountain.  Moses went up to talk with God.

God called out to Moses, alone on the mountainside, tell the people this: “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me.  So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole world belongs to me.  You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.  These are the words you should say to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:4-6).  Moses went down and told the people the words God had spoken.

Moses made several trips up and down the mountain delivering messages between God and the people of Israel: a covenant was being forged, an agreement of what it means to love God and to be loved by God.  “Although God has brought them out of Egypt and performed a number of miracles, it is not until this point in the story that God tells the people about God’s intentions for them.”[2]

In a voice that terrifies the people, God speaks directly to them.  The 10 Commandments as we’ve come to know them, are not at this point written in stone, they are declared by the very voice of God to God’s people.  They are “the substance of the covenant that God has spoken previously in abstract terms… [They] mean to sketch out a space where human beings can live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and with one another.”[3]

God Spoke These Words

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me.

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. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

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.

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

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 and try to take 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.

Exodus 20:1-17, Common English Bible

God’s voice boomed.  The people were afraid.  Their fear made them unable to hear.  So instead of hearing the substance of what it means to live as a nation of priests and as a holy nation, all they heard and saw was thunder and lightning, the sound of a horn, and the mountain smoking (cf. Genesis 20:18).  I wonder how often our fear of hearing God has kept us from actually listening and coming to understand what it means to live as a child of God.

How often does our fear keep us from hearing, in a way that we can understand, the voice of God calling us to live as God’s children?

The people were afraid, so they asked Moses to continue being the mediator.  What follows in the next four chapters (21-24) of the book of Exodus is a series of case laws meant to give practical application to the words spoken, but not understood by the people.  “Moses…told the people all the Lord’s words and all the case laws.  All the people answered in unison, ‘Everything that the Lord has said we will do’” (Exodus 24:3).

In case you are wondering, it is not until the 31st chapter of the book of Exodus, after Moses has spent 40 days and nights on the mountain, after God has explained to Moses how to build the arc of the covenant, the tabernacle, after God has explained to Moses who will be priests and a bunch of other information that “God gave [Moses] the two covenant tablets, the stone tablets written by God’s finger” (Exodus 31:18).

A slight diversion here—I was reminded of Mel Brooks’ retelling of that scene—Moses receiving the tablets—in his film, History of the World, last week after worship.  It’s hilarious.  So, for a humorous diversion, check it out.

No doubt many, if not most of us, think of the 10 commandments being delivered to Moses on stone tablets.  We recall Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses, with gleaming white hair blowing in the breeze.  But, that’s not exactly how it happened.  These words, often called the decalogue or 10 Commandments, were spoken first to God’s people long before they were ever written in stone by God’s finger.

These words, not commandments, are not simply a set of rules meant to tame a wild and rebellious people; instead, they are the words God speaks

to form and nurture an alternative community, bound not by common goals of wealth and prestige, but rather by loyalty to a god who has chosen to redeem a group of slaves from a life of bondage. The commandments mean to sketch out a space where human beings can live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and with one another. [4]

Some 1,000 years later, Jesus would call the people of his time to live into that same alternative community when he argued that all the law and the prophets can be summed up, indeed hang upon these two commands: love God and love neighbor as yourself.  And, its that same community God calls us to today—some 2000 years after Jesus walked this earth and some 3000 years after God’s voice boomed from the mountain.  It is this alternative community rooted in the love of God and rooted in the respect and care for the other that we are continually called to.

May we learn to be loyal to the covenant—to place the love of God and care for our neighbors at the center of our lives.  And may we not let fear keep us from understanding or doing just that.  Amen? and amen.


[1] Amy Erickson, “Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20,” WorkingPreacher.org (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1068), accessed July 13, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.