Monday, October 16, 2006

The Law of the Lord (Exodus 20-24)

Now that the Lord has the people's terrified attention, his booming voice shouts his law down to them. By the time he's done with the Ten Commandments, the poor wretches have had all they can take. They beg Moses to mediate for them, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die." Moses replies that this is for their own good. The terror of God will help you to remember to behave.

Some people have said that the Ten Commandments are the best summary of the universal moral law than has ever been devised. However, in reading them, and the following several chapters of case laws, I do not primarily encounter a global ideal guiding human behavior. On the contrary, this is perhaps the most narrowly focused and contextual legal system in all of human history.

Why should we have no other gods before the Lord? Because he is the one who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Why should we remember the Sabbath day? Because in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.

Why should we honor our fathers and mothers? So that our days may be long in the land. Joseph himself took Jacob's bones back to Canaan and buried him with his fathers - a sign that his children would possess the land.

Why should we not oppress a sojourner? Because we were sojourners in the land of Egypt, as was Abraham in all the lands God showed him.

Why are we to offer the firstborn of our animals in sacrifice to the Lord, and pay a redemption for our firstborn sons? Because we are to be faithful as Abraham was, not sparing his own son in obedience to the Lord. We must express faith that the one who has made these promises is capable of following through on them. We must recognize that all of these blessings have come from his hand.

The first five books of the Bible are the torah - the law. That includes everything we've read so far in Genesis and Exodus. The story of creation, fall, judgment, promise, calling, covenant, alienation, wrestling, reconciliation, bondage, salvation, and rebellion - this is all part of the law. Despite the iconic pictures of Moses bringing down tablets from the mountain, there is nothing coming down from heaven that had not already been written on the pages of Israel's experience. The commandment is rooted in the story of the people of God.

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