Rules to Live By
Inspired by Exodus 20: 1-17 (NRSV)
After living in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years, the Israelites leave for the land God promised their ancestors. Six hundred thousand men, not including women and children, fleeing the stability of oppression for the fertility of land they have yet to locate. Among these hundreds of thousands of sojourners are many who are not Israelites, allies claiming their placement in a system of violence and responding by following God’s call to repentance and reconciliation.
Biblical scholar, Norman Gottwald, refers to the post-Egyptian events as a “revolutionary social experiment.” Gottwald explains that this journey into the wilderness, in search of the promised land, will test “whether non-exploitative modes of social relationship can be sustained in this world.” The location of this morning’s scripture highlights God’s involvement in this societal restructure in the presentation of the commandments. For these revolutionary seekers, the commandments will function as a framework for a new society. In practice, this framework marries the nature of God with the purpose of humans for the possibility of a right, loving relationship.
The commandments are more than a listing of things not to avoid or rules to enforce. Today’s biblical commentator explains that the commandments are a “critical principle of protest against every kind of exploitative social relation.” They exist as a social vision of the possibility that every social relation can be transformed and made into a liberating connection. The Israelites and their allies remove themselves from structures of desecration and arrive at replacement practices offered by a divine presence that sees their trauma and understands the need for both individual and collective healing if they are to embody the promise God has in store for them.
In the aftermath of the first Passover, we re-member reconciliation requires work beyond the risk of revolution. The real work begins after the escape, in labor needed to heal generational trauma, relearn healthy behaviors, and reorient cultural definitions of normal toward patterns of reciprocity and wholeness. The acceptance of the commandments represents much more than an adoption of policies and procedures. The people’s response dictates their willingness to resist their urges to avert the pain of their abuses through the abusing of other people. The commandments are a manifestation of God’s wisdom; the end of the cycle of domination occurs by surrendering the power found in their freedom back to the divinity, which granted it to them in the first place.
“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.”
This pairing of synopsis and statement summarizes what the people of God must do to stay on track in their resurrection of liberation and reminds the people who it is that they can depend on as they face the challenges of releasing power and reconciling relationships. In abandoning the structures of enslavement, the people must re-member their relationship to themselves, to one another, and to the natural world. This continual commitment of re-membering is essential to become a community different from the community they left. Each commandment is a rejection of what has been and a rejoining of oneself and one’s community to their Creator and created purpose. The commandments are not new restrictions with punitive measures for those who fail to fulfill them as the culture has defined. The commandments are fluid, spiritual practices best discerned by the outcomes of relationships and the fruits of the behaviors. The vision centers on relationships resulting in peace, love, and contentment. The markers for collective success being a transformation of all participants. Participants who show love past the edges of their understand and beyond the boundaries of their fear.
The necessity of receiving the commandments at this time, in this form, is made clear when we inventory the plethora of contemporary and historical examples where people recreate the same system that they just risked everything to rebel. In many revolutions, the only identifiable difference is the names of those now holding power. Leaving the abusive environment is a beginning, not an end. Without the understanding of this regenerative timeline, the abused likely destine themselves to become the abuser whether this abuse expresses itself internally or externally.
Behind the pragmatism of the commandments is a deeper purpose of reminding people that they are beloved creatures of God, created with an irreplaceable purpose of caring for all of God’s Creation. God witnesses the pain of Her people as a direct assault on the created order and the creatures that rest within the created order. The corporate sin of systems and situations of abuse is the replacement of internalized divinity with internalized defects and deficiencies.
The commandments are permission to re-member one’s divinity in a way that detaches the abuse from the individual’s identity. The commandments create a safety plan for preventing those abused from committing future abuse. “Thou shalt not murder,” is the most obvious example.
The reflex with the “Thou shalt, not murder” commandment is to question the need for the reminder. Murdering is bad. Not murdering is good. They don’t teach this in Kindergarten because we assume it’s something everyone knows. This commandment is an ideal example of the necessity to approach the commandments as a spiritual practice for healing and wholeness. People don’t murder people because they were confused about the rules. Murder doesn’t happen because someone missed that day in class. A murder occurs when trauma causes people to react to past traumatic situations instead of having the ability to respond to the current situation with rationality.
A murder occurs not just when abusive systems have stripped us of our internalized divinity, but when we see all people as abandoned by their deity. This perversion of identity is why liberation doesn’t immediately coincide with the shift of legislation. More often, equanimity occurs according to the level of intentionality put into healing and reaching toward wholeness with others. The Israelites may have escaped Egypt after four hundred and thirty years of trauma, but the four hundred and thirty years of trauma didn’t stay behind. The trauma travels with the Israelites. The commandments are tools to guide the Israelites in the healing work that is now required. Mechanisms that remain applicable today as we too flee from institutionalized violence and abusive economic systems.
Now God speaks these words:
- I am the Creator, your God, who brings you out of the despairs of global destruction and leads you toward wholeness; you will not experience any distractions from my forgiveness and love.
- There will not be to you any system or structure that claims your worth or distorts the worthiness of any created life, whether this distortion occurs by relentless consumerism, violent extraction, or mindless destruction.
- There will not be to you a power that owns you or obligates you; for I the Creator your God am a passionate God, interceding on behalf of the abused so that all generations will know my love and discover the peace in the practice of these commandments.
- There will not be to you perversion of my nature nor of my name, for the Creator will not be manipulated to embolden hate nor embrace exclusion.
- Remember the sabbath day, and resist productivity for the sake of my Creation. Work for six days but guard one day for rest so that the animals may experience silence, and the plants may strengthen their roots, and the children may taste the freedom of messy play.
Care for your elders that their lives may retain value, and their lessons maintain remembrance.
- Do not take a life, nor break covenants with those whom you have made commitments, nor steal from the land that belongs to me, nor practice classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or ageism.
- Finally, find contentment in that which you have and focus not on obtaining more but on ensuring that all of Creation has enough to thrive, to evolve, and to bless my holy name.
I imagine these to be the commandments translated for the exodus we find ourselves on today. A format for drafting a new vision of a community that no longer causes the most vulnerable great suffering, that no longer resists change that no longer denies privilege and pain.
Let the commandments guide us into a rich and fertile land of loving community defined by valuing the interior experience of every person. Let us create environments that embrace life in its fullness so that we may have the courage to confront abuse of power within the community and in the larger society.