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Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

There is a lot of content here for one sermon. If not for the lectionary, it could be broken down into a longer series over the dog days of summer. We could get into the nitty gritty of each commandment, why each is important to obey, and contextualize how each is to be lived out. If we keep to the lectionary, however, we have one week to either jam together ten sermonettes without saying a whole lot, or we could hang on to one theological idea and go with it. The beginning of the Decalogue is a theological statement: “And God spoke all these words.” (Ex 20:1)

In the introductory chapters of the book Preaching the Story that Shapes Us, Dan Boone recalls a funny interaction between an educated lawyer and his Sunday School class of kindergarteners:

My lawyer friend, Dan, teaches kindergarten kids every Sunday morning. One week he was all primed to unload the doctrine of creation on his eager five-year-old jury. He would bait them with the question, “How did God create the world?” They would answer wrongly. He would exhaust their guesses and then reveal the correct answer. So he began, “Hey, kids! How did God create the world?” Kaitlyn’s hand shot up and she blurted out, “By spoking it.”[1]

Spoking it. God creates the cosmos and God creates the law by spoking it. Whenever God speaks throughout Scripture, it is a creative act. The words that flow from the mouth of God create worlds; they give life and breath. The words separate light from darkness, waters from sky, land from waters. The words fill the space around us with stars, moons, fish of the sea and birds of the air. At the beginning of each day of creation in the first account, God’s words are, “Let there be.” And each day we see, “And there was.” Each time God looks at what has been created and deems it good.

In all my years of Sunday School, quizzing, and growing up in church, I don’t ever remember thinking about how the Ten Commandments were first spoken by God. I had just thought of the first copies as written by the finger of God, then promptly destroyed by Moses upon sight of the golden calf, re-chiseled out by Moses and later placed in the Ark of the Covenant.

Rereading this again makes me pause, especially when we read that the commandments were first spoken into being. When we come to the Ten Commandments, it might be helpful for us to begin to think of them (and the law and its entirety) as a creative act by God—words that are spoken into being as a gift for the people of God, for our good. They are an instruction, a boundary, a rule of life by which people will be able to live and flourish in the land that God has given to the people.

These creative words are also subversive words. For four hundred years the people of Israel had lived in a land where they were considered sub-human. They were less than the superior people called “Egyptians.” The Pharaoh had deemed their worth by how much bricks they could produce in a day. They were beaten and oppressed. The size of their population was controlled by infanticide. The Egyptians kept the girls alive to keep just enough alive for their slave labor, but threw the boys into the Nile to ensure they could not be overthrown.

God speaks the Decalogue to Moses at Sinai, after Israel has been delivered by God out of Egypt. The giving of the Ten Commandments is an act of re-creation by God. The people who were once slaves are now people of worth and dignity, the ones who bear the Imago Dei. As every creative act in the beginning was deemed “good” so too are these spoken words of God “good.” No longer are the people forced to pay homage to any god but Yahweh. No longer are they to help build the idols of foreign gods. No longer do they have to toil and labor seven days a week. They can have rest. No longer are they compelled to have competing interests, to kill, to covet and take what they want. No longer do they look to another person as an object to fulfill personal needs. The Decalogue subverts the way of living to which the people called Israel had been subjected. Not only this, but it stands as a decree that critiques the abuse of power and the subjugation of people like no other thing. Brueggemann states it better than anyone else can:

The Decalogue stands as a critical principle of protest against every kind of exploitive social relation (public and interpersonal, capitalist and socialist) and as a social vision of possibility that every social relation (public and interpersonal, economic and political) can be transformed and made into a liberating relation.[2]

Even as God speaks the Ten Commandments for the good of the people, they still fear God. They beg for a mediator. God’s creative words are holy, and in a way, they are dealing with a threat of re-creation as a people. They’re afraid it might kill them. And it very well could. They are in an ontological crisis. The old must die. They are being redefined as a people— no longer slaves but God’s chosen people to be a light to the world. Moses, the mediator, reminds them, “Don’t be afraid. This is for your good.”

May we abide this day by the law God has created for us as a gift— for our good and for our well-being— even when it threatens us.

[1] Dan Boone, Preaching the Story that Shapes Us (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008), 25.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in General & Old Testament Articles, Genesis Exodus, and Leviticus (NIB 1; Nashville: Abingdon, 1994),