I was just out of high school when the American Evangelical obsession with having the Ten Commandments up in classrooms and courthouses reached full peak. And I was in my early thirties when Stephen Colbert deftly exposed that obsession as the fraud it was. But only this week, as I’ve read through the Big Ten several times, have I realized that few of us can really get past the first two.
I’m aware that the first 3-4 commandments are about how we approach God and the last 6-7 are about our relationship with our fellow humans. (The 4th, keeping the Sabbath Holy, seems to be about our relationship to God, our fellow humans, and ourselves.) But another distinction that jumped out to me is this: Some of the commandments, like prohibitions against murder, adultery, and theft, seem like common sense rules for maintaining a healthy society, while others, like keeping the sabbath holy and prohibitions against idols, seem more to serve the purpose of establishing a distinct identity as followers of Yahweh. In other words, people can’t live together safely in community if stealing and covetousness are allowed to go unchecked. But I can envision worlds where the worship of multiple gods could be, more or less, ok to live in, as long as the other commandments are followed. Those early commandments seem to be special because they set the people of Yahweh apart, not because they are necessarily “rules for good living.”
It’s a rare occasion when I think something specific I learned in seminary should be shared, but I think this is one of those times, so here goes: The idea that there is only one God will eventually be revealed in Scripture. But here in Exodus 20, that theology doesn’t seem to be a big deal. The people of Yahweh at this time could be seen as henotheistic, meaning that they worshiped one of the many gods that they acknowledged to exist. Yahweh, to them, was likely the “best god”, but not necessarily the only one. “You shall have no other gods before me” doesn’t require adherence to monotheism.
But over time, in future readings, God reveals God’s self as One. The only one.
This should give us a little humility in our insistence that the Ten Commandments be the cornerstone of our classrooms and courtrooms, and also in our reading of most of Scripture. As we progressed in our life with God, we also progressed in our understanding of God and what God requires. Why do we assume we who are still trying to live life with God shouldn’t progress in our understanding of God and all that God requires?
But back to my original point about how few of us being able to get past the first two commandments. In my readings of Exodus over the past few weeks, I’ve leaned heavily into reading the text through lens of power. Who has it, who wants it, and what is gained from picking it up and letting it go. Good guys vs. bad guys type stuff. But in looking at the world around and within me, I can’t peg a good guy or bad guy out of “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not worship idols.” I know people who can’t lie and who are faithful to their spouses and who honor the sabbath and are the “salt of the earth.” But these first two seem to be the most difficult to maintain.
The conservatives have created idols out of country, flags, power, wealth, and privilege. But we liberals do the same out of peace, equity, inclusion, justice, and mercy. Of course I (a liberal) believe all those latter things are part of the heart of God. But I rarely begin with God in my consideration of them. They usually come before God in my devotion.
But there are some. Not many, but I know a few. They begin with God. They fall on all places of theological, social, and political spectrums. They are all marked by humility. Few of them say much. When they do the room grows quiet, less anxious.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be one of them, but I’m trying.