I invite you to read and reflect on Exodus 20:1-17.
Before you read the reflection below, I encourage you to do your own wrestling with the text.
Paradoxically this is sometimes more difficult to do with those passages of scripture that are best known to us. In this instance, the 10 Commandments.
If we wrestle faithfully we must not be surprised if we are wounded by the text and left with a Divinely defined limp as it was with Jacob of old. The hope is that we too will be able to re-see our enemy-Esau as family.
Remember the context is a people freshly freed from slavery. And context gives meaning.
Reflection: Exodus 20: 1-17
Think slavery: The cruel continuous brutality. The shackles and sjamboks. The beatings and killings. The constant hunger and everlasting exhaustion. The trauma of daily terror. Everything that is done is done to break your spirit and to erase your human dignity. Every effort is made to whip the dream of freedom out of you. Any attitude other than submission is smacked down to teach you a lesson, to set an example and to send a message: “I own you”. “Don’t ever think of rebellion.”
Think escape: The calculations. The planning. The praying. The risk. The courage. The tenacity. The stealth. The strength. The water rationing. The breath-holding. The knowing that death is certain if captured, and the knowing that to accept slavery is to die. Freedom or death!
Think freedom: The amazement. The wonder. The miracle. As miraculous as an ocean splitting in two forming a path of dry ground to walk through. The tears of joy. The speechless gratitude. The musical celebration. The deep breath of relief. The rest. The resolve: “Never, never and never again shall it be that we will be anyone’s slave”.
It is through this lens of slavery, escape and freedom that I invite you to reflect on the Ten Commandments, for it is within this context that they were originally carved. In other words their aim is specific rather than general.
Just as the South African Constitution of 1996 was written with the specific aim to prevent a return to Apartheid and discrimination of any kind, so the Ten Commandments were written with the specific aim to prevent a return to slavery and oppression of any kind. A freedom charter to be gratefully celebrated rather than a moralistic code to be fearfully obeyed.
I will now share a few thoughts on the first five Commandments using the lens of slavery, escape and freedom for you to consider:
The preamble [Exodus 20:2] is wondrously simple and profound, not unlike the incredible preamble to the South African Constitution that is a poetical summary of the Constitution’s purpose. In the case of the Ten Commandments it is all about freedom and the protection of human dignity – the exact opposite of dehumanising slavery. God listens to the cries of the oppressed [Exodus 3:7] and works liberation with them to end their oppression.
- You shall have no other gods before me. This is not a general statement of belief that there is a God. It is specific to freedom from slavery. Nothing is to be put before the freedom and dignity of people. No system of domination of one over another is ever to be accepted. If our God (our ultimate belief or value system) is not first and foremost a listener and liberator of the oppressed then our worship of this god will lead us back into slavery. This calls us to check our God! Who does our God listen to? The oppressed or the powerful? The poor or the rich? The landless or the propertied? The marginalised or the privileged? Who do we pay most attention to? Who do we listen to? Who do we work with and to what end? Whose interest do we take to heart? Answering these questions will enlighten us to whether we have given our heart to the listening and liberating God, or not.
- Make no idol. This is not a general statement about statues and the like, made out of wood or stone, etc. but the specific instruction to make sure that everything we make or create serves the purpose of freedom. This is especially true of the systems we create. Economic systems. Health systems. Education systems. Religious systems. Legal systems. These systems take on a life of their own. And they are very powerful. They are meant to be at the service of human dignity and freedom but too often they are used to oppress some while securing privilege for others.
- Make no wrongful use of the name of God. This is not a general statement about swearing when we hit our thumb with a hammer. It is the specific instruction that we dare not name God incorrectly. By calling something godly when it is not. The old South African Constitution is an example of this. To suggest God is anything other than liberative is a wrongful use of God’s name.
- Keep Sabbath (Day, Year and Jubilee). The practice of Sabbath is to be grounded within every human system to ensure that every system contributes towards human dignity and freedom and ultimately safe-guard against returning to a form of slavery. Rest on the 7th Day and remember the Listening and Liberating God alone is to be honoured. Furthermore, a slave can never rest and therefore weekly rest is an act of resistance to slavery, especially if it is built into all human systems. It places limits on work and therefore exploitation. Let the soil rest every seven years. This too is an act of resistance to exploitative practices – for the exploitation of the soil goes hand in hand with the exploitation of people. The one inevitably leads to the other. Finally, practice Jubilee – in other words place a limit on inequality. Every 50 years push the reset button of the whole economy. Cancel debt, for debt is the first step in the direction of slavery. Redistribute wealth – so that those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little. The more equal a society is, the less likely slavery will take hold within that society.
- Honour your parents. Sadly, this instruction is predominantly understood in exactly the opposite way it was intended. In so doing the 3rd instruction about the wrongful use of God’s name is often broken. For instead of protecting the vulnerable it is used to silence, dominate and marginalise the vulnerable. Children, especially young children, are vulnerable. Abuse from some parents and elders is sadly a reality. Looking at this through the lens of slavery, escape and freedom, this is almost certainly not referring to the relationship between parents and their young children. If it were it would surely have been written the other way round: Parents honour your children, i.e. the powerful honour the vulnerable. Therefore, this instruction is directed at the middle aged child to honour her/his now vulnerable parents who are mature in age. In this reading the powerful are instructed to honour the vulnerable as opposed to forget and forsake.
I invite you to continue through commandments 6-10 employing the same lens of slavery, escape and freedom.
- No killing
- No adultery
- No stealing
- No false witnessing
- No coveting.
This week and next week’s lectionary reflections will form the content of our CMM Chat.
Our next CMM Chat will be on 7th October at 20h00.
Please email email@example.com closer to the time for the link.