Do you know The Ten Commandments?
I mean the movie. I’ll get to the actual Ten Commandments in the Bible in a minute, but what about the classic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film that made Charlton Heston a star? If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look as a classic epic of its day. You’ll need three hours and forty minutes, though. That’s about 22 minutes a commandment.
Except it isn’t. Moses receiving the commandments and bringing them to the people takes up less than 10 minutes. Makes you wonder why the movie’s called The Ten Commandments. Maybe it should be “The Life of Moses” or “Exodus” or “the journey of people who only knew slavery gaining their freedom and then having to learn how to be a community, a people and a nation.” Yeah, I think that’s the one.
Which is also what the “Ten Commandments” are about. I’m using quotes there because we only started calling them that – commandments – in the 16th century thanks to the Geneva Bible and then the massively influential King James Version. Hebrew people knew them as the the ten words or sayings. Because that’s what they are.
On their journey to finding themselves, growing and learning as people to be a people together, they needed more than the “wilderness experience.” They needed guidance. They needed some fundamental principles for relationships, with each other and with God, that would create and build community. They needed some building blocks for a society that would not just live, but thrive. That’s the purpose of the ten sayings. They’re not “commands” to control behaviour or laws to be taken literally, they’re a universal framework for loving ourselves and our neighbours.
They’re an essential part of the Exodus narrative, but they need that narrative context – that story of “the journey of people who only knew slavery gaining their freedom and then having to learn how to be a community, a people and a nation” – for us to understand their purpose. They need to be written on our hearts and lived out in our daily lives, not chiselled in stone like some long forgotten monument. They need to be part of our narrative.
I also think that we have a particular way of understanding laws and rules that we impose on the ten sayings. As a society, most laws and rules tend to be designed to tell you what you can’t do or what you must do – or else. There’s a consequence to not following the law and it’s punishment.
But this is a covenant, not a contract, a covenant with God and each other. In a covenant, each party offers its part to build a new thing, in this case a mutually supportive community of love, grace and compassion in which everyone can belong and have an equitable place.
Suppose we were to look at all laws and rules differently. Suppose we could look at them like people who believed in a God of hope and promise, who’s story included being a God who heard the cries of people in bondage, broken and hurting, and then sought to do more than just free them. A God who sought to bring them to a new life and create a new world in which relationships were honoured, lives were respected and compassion, honesty and truth were commonplace, not exceptional. We could sure use that right now.