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Exodus 20:1-21: Part 1

Lesson Focus:  God gives us laws as a way to help us live in faithful relationship with him and with others.  All too often we fail to fulfill these commands. 

Lesson Outcomes:  Through this lesson students should: 

  1. Understand that the nature of these commands are relational and not legalistic.

  2. Identify how these laws are applicable to us in our current context.

  3. Confess their failure to keep these commandments and subsequently seeking forgiveness and strength to remain faithful.

Catch up on the story:  As this passage begins, Israel is encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  Israel arrived there after being liberated by God from over 430 years of slavery in Egypt.  When Israel arrived in Egypt, she was only a small family.  Now, however, she is a numerous people whom God has chosen to be his special and called out people.    

Israel’s departure from Egypt was nothing short of miraculous. God, in power and might, provided a safe way for Israel through sea and wilderness. By day and by night, God led them in the way they should travel. Shortly after arriving at Sinai, Moses went up onto the mountain to have a conversation with God. Moses is told that soon God will descend and speak so that Israel might hear him. God is going to make a covenant with the people. Moses is instructed to gather the people, inform them what is going to take place and ensure that they are consecrated as a holy assembly. First, however, God wants to know if Israel will do what God will command them to do. Israel responds in the affirmative, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (19:8). The stage is set for God to begin instructing the people concerning what it means to be the people of God.

The events that are about to take place are classified as a theophany, or a breaking in of God into the normal world and lives of the created order. God is about to come close enough for Israel to hear his voice. This is a special event, and in the rest of the Old Testament, a unique event. God will not be directly visible to the people, but will be shrouded in clouds, fire and smoke.

Moses’ role in this event is important, not just for the event itself, but for his continued role as leader of God’s people. To this point it has been Moses who has been the direct mediator between God and the people. For Israel’s part, they would still be back in Egypt if God had not chosen Moses to be his mouth to both Israel and to Pharaoh. Moses’ leadership, however, has already been questioned. The way in which God chooses to reveal himself and his wishes to Israel at this point is partly to validate Moses’ leadership role. God speaks to Moses in the direct hearing of the people so that they will be able to believe that the direction that Moses gives is not just his own personal whim, but the command of God. Moses is standing among the people when God gives the law.

The Text:  The First Word: I Am the Lord Your God  When all the players are in place God begins to speak.  The very first words out of God’s mouth are extremely important for all that follows.  “I am the Lord your God…”  The “your” here is not plural as you might suspect; it’s singular.  God begins his speech by addressing the individual in the congregation.  While these commands have in mind the health and vitality of the community that is Israel, the health and vitality of the community begins with individual and interpersonal relationships.  

Not only is God addressing the group and the individual, but God is also presenting these commands in terms of relationship. It is not some impersonal, distant and unknown God who is capriciously laying down commands. No, it is a God that is known to Israel, known to Israel through mighty deeds that secured their salvation. This relationship is one with a history. Not only is God Israel’s God, he is the one “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” These laws are given in the context of relationship. Israel is called not to obey the law for the law’s sake. Israel is called to obey the one who gives the law. Further, it’s important to note that God’s grace comes before the commands. God graciously redeemed his people out of slavery in Egypt, and now they will be called to respond to that grace through obedient living.

It’s important to keep in mind here that Israel’s faithfulness to these commands is not conditionally based. God is not saying that if Israel keeps these commands, they will be God’s chosen people. They are already, by virtue of their deliverance from Egypt, God’s people. Keeping these commands does not make them the people of God. Rather, these commands allow God’s people to grow up into and flourish as God’s covenant people.

One more thing is important to note before we look at each of the commandments in turn. Eight of the commands are negative in nature, “You shall not…”, while two of them are positive. One commentator points out that at this point the commands are not intended to create life but to protect it from behaviors, private and cooperate, that might destroy it. Yet, he notes, that the commands implicitly move us toward considering their positive side. “For example, not bearing false witness invites speaking well of one’s neighbor, not killing suggests efforts to preserve life, and not wrongfully using the name of God commends the praise of God. It is not enough for a community’s life and health simply to avoid crimes” (Fretheim, 221). With every “shall not” is a “shall.” I believe that this is part of what Jesus means when he says in Matthew that he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

Our study of each command will focus on the prohibition of the negative commands as well as the positive intention inherent in it. We will ask: what does it look like to fulfill this negative command in positive way? We will examine the first five commands this week and the final five next week.

The First Command: No Other Gods!  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

The prohibition against having any other gods other than Yahweh is tied tightly to God’s previous action. As we have already said, these commands, especially this one, is given in the context of a previous history and relationship. This history of God as one who delivers from slavery and bondage will be foundational for Israel. A phrase similar to “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is found in over 130 places in 30 of the 39 books of the Old Testament. 91 times we are explicitly told that it was Yahweh who brought Israel out of Egypt (Holbert, 17).

There is to be no doubt left in Israel’s mind that the one who freed them from slavery is the one who is in control. God is being clearly defined as the one who has acted, in sheer grace, on behalf of Israel. God is committed to Israel and now God wishes that Israel be committed to him. This is made explicit in the command to have no other gods. The phrase may confuse some, making them think that the “before me” is a matter of order. As in, God being the first god in what might be a small pantheon. This might give the sense that Israel (we) might serve other gods too as long as our first allegiance goes to God. This is not the case. The literal translation of the phrase is “before/beside/in addition/together with my face.” God desires a solitary commitment. This includes, to be sure, placing ourselves as god alongside the one who has freed us from slavery. A good and long discussion could be had concerning the things or people lifted up as gods. They are legion and we do so, at times, without ever realizing it.

In a positive way, what does it look like to not have any other gods besides the one who brought us up out of slavery? Constantly, through the pages of scripture, we are being called to become like this very God who desires our allegiance. Keeping this command means that we seek to be like God in that we are active in bringing people from bondage to freedom. This may be very literal, as in seeking to bring people to freedom from addiction, human trafficking, and many other things. Or, it could be more spiritual in nature.

The Second Command: No Idols!  “You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” 

Idols were prevalent throughout the countries that would surround Israel. Indeed, even the house of slavery from which they have just been liberated liberally used idols and images to represent what was of ultimate concern for them. In short, idols were everywhere and presented a grave danger to Israel. In other places in Israel’s sacred literature, God would warn Israel that worship of idols would bring about consequences of the gravest sort.

The problem with idols is that they are static. They represent an image of a thing, a person or an animal in an unchangeable form. To cast an image and call it God, as Israel will do in just a few short chapters, is to represent God as something he is not, static and unresponsive. Rather, the God that is depicted in the pages of our bible is one that is immanent; he is among us responding to us as we live our daily lives. To cast God in an image is to deny that God acts in relationship to the world he created (Fretheim, 227).

The prohibition against idols goes beyond their mere existence. The tendency with all idols is that one will bow down in worship to them. Bowing down might seem innocent enough, but it’s the posture that is important. To bow down, or to prostrate oneself before someone or something, places oneself in a position of complete subservience. In a bowed down position one is totally vulnerable. “To prostrate oneself is to announce that the person in whose presence one is in is vastly superior and worthy of complete deference” (Holbert, 29). For Israel and for us, as ones who have been created in the image of God, this kind of posture should only be reserved for the one who has brought us up out of Egypt, out of slavery.

To fulfill this command in a positive way is to find rest in the God who has pursued us, who has sought us and graciously promises to remain steadfastly loyal to us. It is a constant burden to seek after something or someone who might bring us safety, security, and love. We need not waste our energy on that search. God is with us. God has come to us in Jesus Christ, the form of the invisible God. So, let us leave off the work of constructing something to worship. Let us, instead, turn to the God who is constantly calling to us and who is easy to find.

The Third Command: Don’t Give God a Bad Reputation!           “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…”

We often use this commandant to help our children learn how not to talk. We teach them not to use God’s name as a swear word, and then we teach them not to use swear words at all. Somewhere along the line we make the connection between this commandment and all forms of speech we deem as unbefitting our status as Christians.

This commandment concerning the right use of God’s name goes much deeper than swearing. It has everything to do with God’s reputation here on earth. Names are important markers of identity. The modern world of marketing knows this. That is why those involved in marketing products or services do their best to ensure that the name of a product matches what it does and becomes synonymous with quality and excellence in that area. Companies and marketing firms are so effective at this that people build up great loyalties to these products. Names conjure up all kinds of ideas about the nature of the product. Just think of some of the conversations you may have had about companies such as Apple and Microsoft or Ford and Chevy. Names matter. They point back to something larger.

The God of Israel is constantly concerned with his name and the larger reality to which it points. Moses, in a few chapters, will convince God not to destroy Israel because of the damage it would cause to God’s good name. In this command, God wants Israel to represent God, not only in how it handles itself in truthfulness, but in how it characterizes God. God is the God of truth. Therefore, Israel should not lie. God is the God who frees people from slavery; therefore Israel should free others from slavery. God is the God who is steadfastly loyal in love; therefore Israel should be steadfastly loyal in love. The question for us is, when we invoke the name of God do we do so for things that are of great importance? In other words, are the things we proclaim God being for really the things that God is for? Do we carry God’s name in the world well, or do we bring it into disrepute through our words and actions?

Positively, making right use of God’s name is done in praise and recounting the great deeds of God. “We can and do raise up God’s name for praise and adoration and for support of the things God calls us to: actions for justice, lively and true worship, support for our weakness, challenges to our sloth, hope in our hopelessness” (Holbert, 48).

The Fourth Commandment: The Sabbath!  Keep it! “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy…”

The first word of this command, remember, is an important word for Israel. So often in the Old Testament Israel is commanded to remember. Most of those commands demand that what is to be remembered is God or what God has done. What are we to remember? We are to remember the Sabbath. The call is not so much to remember a certain day, but to remember the way in which God created all that is. Six days God worked to bring the world to order. On the seventh day he rested. God did not rest because he needed to; he did not rest because he was tired. God did not even rest from his completion of creation; God rested as a way to complete creation. By doing so God establishes within creation a rhythm of work and rest. This is the way it is supposed to be: work then rest. It is only when creation honors this work-rest rhythm that creation can be what it was intended to be. In a counter intuitive way, not working keeps the forces of chaos away (Fretheim, 230).

This is certainly contrary to how we think and talk about the world. We scurry around, working constantly (at our jobs or at other things as well) so that we can live our lives in the way that we want to live them. Our constant working is an attempt to ensure that we are in control. The opposite happens. The more we frantically work the more things unwind. Our marriages unwind, our relationship with our children disintegrates, and so does our heath. When we do not stop to rest we declare that God is not really in charge.

Ironically, our call to remember the Sabbath is more than a call to cognitively remember. Remembrance in the bible is almost never passive. We are called to remember the Sabbath by keeping it. In our world today, keeping the Sabbath requires planning and commitment. It requires the work of discipline to set it apart as holy.

So What…?  As we journey towards the cross, we are confronted with the numerous ways in which we fail to keep God’s commands, not just in not doing wrong, but failing to fulfill these commands in their positive aspects as well.  Our failure to keep these commands damages our relationship with God and with others.  

When we stress keeping the law by stressing the importance of the law itself rather than the relationship behind the law, we miss the point. It’s a sin because it characterizes God and the law as caring more about what we do and do not do over the law as a way to help us become the people God wants us to become by way of our redemption from slavery.

When we build idols for ourselves we fail to represent God as a personal God who is in a responsive relationship with us. We end up creating a god we can control, one we’ve made in our own image instead of serving the God who created us in his image.

When we wrongfully use God’s name we do damage to his reputation. The ways we talk about God, the things we pray for, and the ways we live—those things show others what we think is the nature of the God whom we serve.

Finally, when we fail to keep the Sabbath holy we sin by failing to allow God to be God. We work and believe that if we were to cease our toil that the world would come crashing down on us. We fail to trust that the God who created and sustains the universe will now take care of us as we seek to follow the rhythm of creation: work then rest.

As we confess our sin and our unfaithfulness we need to remember that our confession is just the first step toward our collective repentance, our walking in a different direction. If we are to be faithful it will be because we have allowed the Holy Spirit to work in us as individuals and as a community.

Critical Discussion Questions:

  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?  

  2. God has created us as his holy people.  He has liberated us from slavery and is helping us as we journey toward the Promised Land.  God is giving us the guidance and rules we need to fully become what he has intended us to become.  

  3. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? 

  4. Holiness looks like following these commands because they come from the God who has brought us up out of slavery.  Holiness looks like faithful obedience as a grateful response for the saving actions of God.  

  5. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become? 

  6. We often gloss over these commands thinking we know what they mean and what they demand of us.  We must confess that we have read them too simply and have often missed the point and then move toward being more faithfully obedient.  

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why does God begin the Ten Commandments by speaking these words, “I am the Lord your God.”

  2. Regarding the first commandment, why doesn’t God want us to have any other gods beside him?

  3. Why does God specifically remind Israel of what he has just done for them?

  4. What is an idol? What are our idols today?

  5. The prohibition against bowing down to an idol had in mind the complete vulnerable state that bowing down created. We may not physically bow down before our idols today, but what are some of the ways in which we make ourselves completely vulnerable to our idols?

  6. What does it mean to make wrongful use of God’s name? Is it mainly about using God’s name as a swear word? How else might we make wrongful use of God’s name?

  7. A name represents the nature and character of the thing it represents. For Israel, God’s name represented a whole set of beliefs about who God is and how God interacts with creation. For instance, for Israel the name “God” comes to mean “the one who sets the captive free.” When you talk about God, what beliefs about who God is come immediately to mind?

  8. The commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is rooted in the creation story. God works six days and then rests on the seventh. God intended this to be the normal rhythm of creation: work th