This week, in the narrative lectionary, we journey into Exodus. In the early chapters of the book, through Moses, God liberates Israel from slavery in Egypt, leading them out of captivity and on to Mount Sinai in a pillar of fire. In today’s scripture passage, from Exodus 19 and 20, God establishes a covenant with Israel.
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” God says, “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
There are two things of note at this point in this story, about who God is and about God’s relationship to Israel: First, God is a liberating God. And second, this liberation is tied up with covenant, and that covenant comes with expectations.
In liberating Israel, leading them out from the land of slavery, God also calls them to something, gives them meaning, an identity. This identity requires giving certain things up – the security that life in Egypt provided, for one thing.
Freedom, as it turns out, is risky and difficult, and the book of Exodus elsewhere makes clear how reluctant the people sometimes are to embrace their own liberation. Leaving the familiar limits, for something as of yet unknown, isn’t without its dangers.
And so in chapter 20, Moses relays God’s commands to the people, setting up the expectations of the covenant. If you grew up in certain church communities, you probably associate these commands as much with Charlton Heston’s depiction of Moses in the film from the 50s, as you do with the bible. I rewatched a couple of scenes this weekend on YouTube, and I was struck by a surprising accuracy in the scene in which Moses comes down from the mountain to find the people worshipping a golden calf. These events are detailed in Exodus 32, after Moses had withdrawn to the mountain to listen to God speak, due to the people fearing for their lives after hearing God in the midst of thunder, lighting, trumpet blasts and smoke. He has been gone so long, the people fear he won’t return. Already they wish to forsake Yahweh for other gods. And then, down from the mountain Moses strides.
“You are not worthy to receive these ten commandments!” he bellows.
“We will not live by your commandments, we’re free!” someone says.
“There is no freedom without the law!” Moses points to the stone tablets in his hands.
From there the scene descends into chaos, but both the accusation and the question therein seem fitting. We’re free; why these laws?
Here I find theologian Herbert McCabe’s reading of this text useful. McCabe says that all ten commandments in some way reiterate the first, “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.” You shall have no God but Yahweh, the liberating God.
The second commandment says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” The choice to worship some other god, to put some other person, place, or thing in the place of God, to honor or show allegiance to anyone or thing but God, is a rejection of the freedom God wrought, a submission and a degradation.
These gods make you feel comfortable, at home; instead, God calls you out to a desert lacking familiar landmarks, where you must wait for what God brings. Familiar comforts, however tenuous they have been in captivity, are gone. And even our comfort in our own communities can become a kind of idolatry; we become more interested in christianity, in the church, than we are in the world and the things God might call us to out there in an unknown future, in unknown places.
The fourth commandment reproaches yet another kind of idolatry: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” Here, aside from temple or church or any particular worship or ritual, the point is this: don’t work.
The practice of sabbath rejects the idolatry of labor or achievement, one particular modern temptation in an society and economy that prizes hustle over human life, whether your job is a high paying one or whether you’re mired in debt, struggling to make it with cobbled together incomes in a gig economy. Sabbath is the opposite of a culture obsessed with productivity and profit; not to mention, productivity for someone else’s profit, the boss as god.
Even the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” is a call to this same whole hearted covenant with God. It is a reminder to respect people, especially elders, because they are images of God, irrespective of whether they are any longer of “use.”
In many ways, the remaining commandments can be read as a kind of contrast, an admonition against a society that rejects God – a society of violence. And so,
You shall not kill means also, “You must not be indifferent to blood.” It’s not enough that you yourself do not kill; you must care that people are killed. You must not accept that as part of society, part of life. Victims of police shootings, of domestic and sexual violence, endless war, border policing – the examples abound. You must care that people bleed, lest that blood be on your hands.
You shall not commit adultery means rejecting the lie that because you are wealthy, or succesful, or good looking, or able bodied, or in any other way powerful, that you are entitled to anything, that you can ignore the humanity of others to take what you want.
You shall not steal is not so much about property rights as it is about stealing human lives, that is, taking away others freedom – enslaving them. Modern slavery in the form of mass incarceration, for example, is one of many instances of idolatry in our society, rejecting God’s call to liberation, instead becoming judges and jailers.
The point of the ten commandments is that God frees Israel and commands them not to impede upon the freedom of others. Dominion over people and possessions – these are forms of idolatry, all ways humans set themselves up as gods. The ten commandments are about power and control and violence – and about a God who calls us away from all of these, who calls us to herself.
Given the events leading up to Brett Kavanagh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, you needn’t have looked far this week to find men making gods of themselves – white men, specifically, and too many white women capitulating to the scam of the patriarchy, grasping at the crumbs of power these men offer to women who will do their dirty work, a fitting warning not to allow whatever proximity to power we have to make us subject to these other gods. Because that’s the thing about idolatry – it looks like freedom, but it’s not.
Among many things that struck me this week is not only the utter cruelty of our political leaders, but the apparent joy it brings them. They enjoy this. They enjoy mocking survivors. They enjoyed making a display of taking assault allegations seriously, with no intention of actually doing so, upending a woman’s life merely to gawk at her pain, to humiliate her, and continue as planned, painting Kavanagh as the “real” victim. It’s the definition of sadistic. So many women have poured out their stories, that we might not be indifferent to their blood. And what I’ve seen is not merely the indifference but the pleasure powerful men derive from the wounds they inflict.
Not for the first time from this pulpit, I’ll remind you about the illusion of progress. Surely now, of all times, we can see all too clearly that human history is a series of failures, albeit with a little progress here and there. If the Old Testament shows us anything, it is the inevitability of such failures – Israel breaks the covenant, God reestablishes it. God remains faithful.
Today I look around and the long, slow, unknown path of liberation is difficult to see. I am tired. I know many of you are tired. So tired, and angry, and broken. And the only answer I have for us is to listen to God’s liberating call, to trust that God is leading us, to something, even if today is is only as far as the communion table, where in the bread and the cup we might find strength for the journey, Christ present in our midst, no other gods but God.
 “The worship of any other god is a form of slavery; to pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place, to a nation or race or to anything that is too powerful for you to understand or control is to submit to slavery and degradation.” Herbert McCabe, Law, Love, Language, p. 118.
 “The sabbath is not a day for going to the temple, for sacrifice or prayers. Primarily ‘you shall do no work on that day.’ This commandment is aimed against the idolatry of work. Just as all idols are ‘the work of men’s hands’ so this work may always become an idol, a means of alienation.” McCabe 119.
 McCabe 121.