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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

'10 Commandments" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

Exodus 19:1-6 & 20: 1-2

I. Introduction

- HBO drama "Game of Thrones," men from the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos volunteer to serve as The Night's Watch.

- The Night's Watch lives as a self-sufficient military order that defends “The Wall” which protects the Seven Kingdoms and patrols the Haunted Forest.

- Like any good military organization joining The Night's Watch requires taking an oath of sacrifice that goes as follows:

"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."

-Though fictional, The Night's Watch exists in a recognizable bond.

-What theologians call a covenant relationship which is also what we find in the 10 Commandments.

II. Context

- As a quick refresher, we find ourselves in Exodus this morning hearing for the first time about “the beginnings of the formalized covenant relationship between the Israelites and their god.”

- But notice I said, “formalized covenant relationship,” because in the chapters before this morning’s reading God has seen the people’s suffering…shared the divine name with Moses and by extension the Israelites…shown power stronger than the Egyptian Pharaoh…led the people across the Red Sea into freedom…and provided food and water in the wilderness…”

- Though nothing has been written down, The 10 Commandments “are spoken into this context in which God and the people have already been in relationship for generations. The Lord, after all, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people have already obeyed some of the Lord’s commands, and God has already acted on their behalf.”

More specifically about 10 Commandments:

- Israelites eventually arriving at Mt. Sinai where they set up camp for nearly a year. When they arrive at Mt. Sinai Moses makes his first of several trips up the mountain.

- On one of those trips, God announces the elements of a covenant with the Israelites: these verses sometimes referred to as The Decalogue, meaning “ten words” or Ten Commandments.

- We’ll get into specifics in the next couple of weeks, but for now the element of the Commandments to understand is that in them, “...God outlines the aspects of covenant relationship with the Israelites.”

- The Hebrew word for covenant is berit. You’re likely aware that it means something like the English term, “contract.”

- In the Bible covenants/berits are used for “various legal agreements…marriage, slavery…and especially [treaties].”

-What you might not know is something I learned this week: In ancient near Eastern societies scholars have discovered 2 “widely attested types of treaties…”

1. Parity treaty - the two parties are presumed equals,

2. Suzerainty treaty - one party (the suzerain) is superior to the other (the vassal). Suzerainty treaties usually have the following elements:

“1. Identification of the suzerain

2. History of the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal

3. Stipulations or obligations imposed upon the vassal, generally detailing the requirements of loyalty to the suzerain

4. Provision for deposit of copies of the treaty in the temples of the principal gods of the two parties

5. Divine witness to the treaty

6. Blessings for observance of the treaty and curses for violations of it”

III. Exegesis and Transition

-Why am I mentioning legalese? Most of us aren’t political scientists

-This is important because the 10 Commandments is a Suzerainty Treaty

-Begins with an identification of the suzerain ("I am the Lord your God") and a brief history of God and the Israelites ("brought you out of the land of Egypt").

-Then moves to stipulations of the treaty: first four Commandments detailing the peoples’ relationship to the Lord - vassal to suzerain. This includes absolute loyalty ("You shall have no other gods before me") and specifies the way the Lord is to be worshiped.

-Six remaining commandments are “stipulations that concern relationships among the vassals. Each Israelite is to respect his neighbor's life, person, marriage, legal reputation, and property, as well as to care for members of the community when they age.”

- There are things that aren’t allowed in this covenant relationship with God:

-Israelites cannot fabricate likenesses of their gods.

-They are expected to set aside one day to rest - because of their covenant relationship.

-Another way to think about these commands, this formalizing of the relationship between God and the Israelites is, as Walter Bureggeman says, “an announcement that the world is under new governance” which is detailed in this list of ten.

-These aren’t just rules for rules sake, they are a means of finding “freedom and justice that contrast with the bondage and injustice” of Egypt and Pharaoh.

-So, in addition to being a formalization, this Sinai covenant is an emancipation strategy.

-Follow these commands and you don’t have to go back to the “insatiable demands” of Pharaoh. You don’t have to go back to “having to produce on demand” You don’t have to go back to “rat-race of production and consumption…fear and anxiety and alienation…hostility toward the neighbor.

-Again, as Walter Brueggeman notes, “Moses at Mt. Sinai declares that there are new possibilities for life beyond the pressures of anxiety and fearfulness and greed.”

-After a fearful, anxious week that is very good news.

IV. Our Response

-But how do we respond to this Good News?

-What do we do with this reminder that God’s been providing Her people with a new way to live, and identify, and treat each other and strangers for a long, long time?

1. Recognize what Bruggeman calls “the ways in which we have accepted Pharaoh's domain as normal.” What he means is that we have “normalized scarcity and we have normalized exhaustion.” We are anxious and fearful, quick to judge and even quicker to point the finger of blame rather than making a generous assumption or having a conversation. In this way we “have normalized a way of living that is in violation of the Ten Commandments.”

2. Recognize deep alternative Moses and the Israelites model for us, however imperfectly. The covenant relationship we see taking formal shape in these verses isn’t “preoccupied with fear…or…scarcity…[or]exhaustion.” Rather it’s about becoming a new creation, being God’s people, choosing to live differently.

3. Therefore, final way for us to respond to the possibilities God presents us for living differently is to be intentional and disciplined. To work on “giving up the expectations of Pharaoh for greed and ideology and anti-neighborliness and exhaustion.”

-And instead embrace and extend generosity to ourselves and others, even if they might exploit it.

-To take a sabbath day, understanding doing so honors God.

-To deepen our relationships with God both personally and communally for we worship and serve a relational God.

V. Conclusion

-Will we get this right every time? Did the Israelites?

-Of course not!

-But I’m convinced God appreciates our effort. Sees how we’re trying even when we fail. Is generous with second and fourth and thousandth chances because this life isn’t so much about being right as it’s about trying to be like God - loving, inclusive, participatory.

-And after all, if the Israelites teach us nothing else may they stand as a remind that God is patient, always waiting with a hand outstretched for us to be with Her.

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