On God and Images

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TEXT: Exodus 20:1-6
 

Smack dab in the center of the book of Exodus is the event at Mt. Sinai. This is not an accident. The covenant at Sinai is the formative event for Israel. This is the event that takes a bunch of runaway Egyptian slaves and gives them a new master...the one who liberated them from Egypt... Yahweh...the God who is. Many of us know this chapter...some can recite passages by heart. We call it the Ten Commandments, the giving of the law, and we bemoan the loss of these principles from society and debate hanging them in classrooms and courtrooms.
 

In the weeks to come we're going to look at these commandments and what they mean for us in this day. For this morning, I invite you to the foot of the mountain...to join this ragtag bunch of slaves as God calls.
 

It is now fifty days since the grim and fearful night of Passover...it was midnight. All around you could hear the wailing from Egyptian homes where children had died. You had to go and go quickly. A big meal, a hurried meal, and then you were out. You were slaves on the run. Never had you been outside of Egypt...you had no idea what lay beyond the borders. But God said "Go" and you ran for your life and the lives of your children.
 

You've been running for 50 days, and it has been tough. The Egyptians pursued you. You could see the dust in the distance as their army approached and the Red Sea blocking your passage forward. Even without the sea you knew you could not outrun a mounted army. They had you. The miracle at the sea seems almost like a dream. It opened before you and you walked and ran and stumbled across on dry land, only to see the sea close over the Egyptians who followed behind. Part of you wanted to stand and cheer for God had saved you again...you sang a great song of God's victory. And yet the words often stuck in your throat as bodies washed up to the shore. God saved you with a heavy hand and a heavy heart. Your freedom was bought with a price.
 

You had known the heat of Egypt, but the harshness of the wilderness was new to you. Here there was no water for your driving thirst and no roadside crops to sustain your travels. You began to forget the miseries of slavery as you remembered cool water and the smell of cooking fires. Who was this God anyway, who told you to leave all you knew and run to this harsh place? Perhaps this God intended no better for you than the Egyptians in the sea. Maybe this new master was even harsher than Pharoah. You cried out to return.

 

But your fears were groundless. This God provided water from a rock and rained food down from heaven...not just once, but day after weary day until finally a mountain loomed in the distance. Moses, your leader, seemed anxious to get there and hurried the pace. This part of the wilderness he seemed to know. At the foot of the mountain Moses went off by himself, looking at all the bushes and shrubs until he found one in particular where he took off his shoes and stood for a long time...remembering.

 

You were at the base of the mountain two days, preparing for something special it seemed. And then, on the third day, it got dark. You remembered the plagues of darkness in Egypt and huddled together. Moses would later record it this way: "On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mt. Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him."

 

It seemed you could actually see the voice of God in the tongues of flame as God spoke what you would later call the Ten Words. Listen...what would the voice of God say? Who was this God? Was this a new god of the new land...was this the god of this mountain, angry because you had brought no gifts? The first word came...

 

"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." There was a bit of relief...this was not a new God...this was the God who protected us in the plagues, the God who made a way through the Red Sea, the God who gave us water and food in the desert. The God who had only addressed Moses now had a message for everybody. What else would God say?

 

Can you put yourself there where the people of Israel are? We come to this chapter and say to ourselves... "Oh, the Ten Commandments." That is not what the Jews call it, and that is not what Israel was listening for. Jews call this the Decalogue...the Ten Words. This was not the great legislator in the sky handing out rules. This was a God trying to establish a covenant relationship with Israel...this was God's desire put into words, 1200 years before God made that word flesh.

 

This is the foundation event for the Jewish festival of Pentecost...which means 50 days...the festival that established Israel as one nation under God. Just as 1200 years later God transformed the first of those 50 days when he transformed Passover at the Last Supper; so, at the end of those 50 days as the disciples gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, God came again in fire and wind and established the church as one Body in Christ.

 

I think we have done a disservice to the faith by labeling these words as the Ten Commandments rather than leaving them as the Ten Words. If you are looking for Ten Commandments, then you start paying attention when you hear the first "Thou shalt," which is down in verse 3. But if they are the Ten Words, you don't limit your looking to commands. In Jewish tradition of Ten Words, the first word is not the first commandment. The first word is, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."

 

The commandments that follow all flow from the grace of the God who freed them from Egypt...the God who rescued them not because of anything they had done, but simply because they needed rescuing. This is not really a list of commandments, this is the offer of continued relationship...the offer of covenant.

 

God begins with self-identification. Here where God gave His name to Moses, God gives the name again to all Israel...I am the Lord your God...I am. When you read the word "Lord" in your Bible and it appears in all caps, that means the word is not the word for Lord...which is adonai...but is the name of God...Yahweh. Since the Jews would not pronounce the sacred name, they substituted adonai whenever God's name appeared in the text. Modern translations usually indicate this by putting Lord in all caps.

 

The first of the Ten Words is the name of God. I am the Lord. I am the God who is. The real one. The one who exists. More than that, I am the one who got you to this point. I freed you from Egypt, brought you across the Red Sea, gave you water from a rock and manna in the wilderness. I called to Moses in fire from this mountain and now I come in fire again to call all of you. Will you be a nation of priests for me? That is, will you live in such a different way from the rest of the world that all the other nations will stand in wonder and realize that I am the true God? These Ten Words are the description of what it means to be holy...set apart...different from the rest; and when God finishes with the Ten Words, Israel gets a chance to say yea or nay. They are not commandments that God intends to enforce no matter how the people respond. This is not just a new tyrant who is telling them to live this way or God will turn them to ashes. This is the God who has just freed a people because of a promise to an old friend named Abraham and would like to continue in relationship. God needs a people to spread the Gospel...the good news that the God of the universe is a God who opposes tyranny and slavery, a God who delivers us from our enemies, a God who provides our daily bread. The Ten Words are an offer of covenant and are not written on stone until AFTER Israel agrees to them.

 

A wonderful book I have been reading called Bound For Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Tradition puts it this way, "The problem with our speaking of ten 'commandments' and tablets of the 'law' and with the usual counting beginning with verse 3 is that it easily overlooks the graceful foundation of the commandments. By doing this we easily plant the false notion that God in the Old Testament above all gives commandments...What to the Jews primarily is the wedding contract and the wedding ring, is to Christians therefore often reduced to laws and statutes and hard tablets of stone that serve only to uphold law and order."

 

From that foundation flow the words that spell out the task to which Israel is being called. Remember that the calling of God is never to special privilege but always to gracious service. God promised Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Now God has freed Abraham's descendants in order to accomplish just that...the blessing of all the nations of the earth. The selection of Israel is for the blessing of the nations...not merely the blessing of Israel. As God says back in chapter 19, verse 5-6, "Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Just as the Levites, who were the priests of Israel, held up the worship of God before the people and interpreted the will of God for the people, so Israel was to hold up the worship of God to the rest of the world and disclose the revelation of God.

 

From that, there could be no other possible first commandment than "You shall have no other gods before me." That is the command from which all the others flow and is the key to keeping all of the others. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the others are all commentary and exposition of this first command. Think about it. The message Israel is to convey to the rest of the world is that there is only one God...just one God really exists, and that God is a God of freedom and blessing and abundance.

 

There's no way to proclaim that message to anybody else, if it isn't something you are practicing yourself. The minute they put another god before Yahweh, they have blown the whole project. That's not to say God won't be merciful to them in their failure, but God will have to find somebody else to be the servant who will carry the light to the nations.

 

I hope you can hear what I'm saying here. This is the calling of Israel...this is the job God has for them to do. From the beginning, God has planned for all of the earth, for all nations to be in relationship with Him. Here at the first Pentecost, Israel was given the job of getting the word out. All the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures are the story of how that played out...the way they stumbled and failed and how God intervened time and time again to get them back on track.

 

When we remember these as the Ten Words rather than the Ten Commandments, we can better make the connection to God's grandest intervention, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus comes as the new Moses, once again liberating God's people and bringing them...50 days after the feast of the passover where Jesus, the lamb of God, was slain...to Pentecost, where the calling came again to God's faithful...go...tell others...be a light to the nations...be a holy nation, a royal priesthood...help the world know that I am God.

 

Now the name of God is plainer...Jesus, which means the one who saves. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. We have often considered the commandment not to make graven images as a separate commandment, but in Jewish tradition and also in Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, it is combined with the one before it...You shall have no other gods before me.

 

That combination makes sense to me. It is the same thing. No other gods...not hand carved ones or things that represent part of creation...nothing that is more important than Yahweh, the real God. We may have graduated beyond bowing down to wooden images, but that doesn't mean we are done with idolatry. We have merely made it more sophisticated. Now we tend to bow to "preconceived ideas and humanly created dogmas, traditions and authorities." In many corners we have turned the Bible itself into an idol, sometimes shaking it before God to hold God accountable to what we believe it says.

 

You shall not take an image of God and carve it into stone. God is dynamic and alive...God's face is first here and now there...man, woman, child, eagle, rock, vine, wind, fire, silence. The one true God cannot be contained in a box...not the box of the created order, not the box of Holy Scripture, not the box of human endeavor and imagination. God may be visible in all of those things, but we see only through a glass, darkly. To think that God can be fully contained and located in one place is to move into idolatry. The minute we feel sure we know what God will or won't do in any given situation...the minute we can say with certainty who are the saved and who are the damned...the minute we begin to demand that God act according to a single verse of Scripture that we have removed from its context...in those moments we have made an idol.

 

Thus begin the ten words that offer the terms of relationship with God. We are free to reject that offer of covenant. We are not free to negotiate the terms. God has provided a way out of slavery...that was done for us regardless and the way will always be there for us regardless of whether we accept God's calling or not. Now, rather than commands, we have a choice.

 

Has the quest for money made you free? Has the search for eternal youth set you free? Have all the promises of the enlightenment and the industrial age brought you fewer cares and worries? Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." That truth is not a dogma but a being...I am the Lord your God. Yahweh is the truth. The God who is...the real God, the true God. And the amazing news of Old and New Testaments alike is that the one true God wants to be known by us...wants relationship with us...intimate, personal relationship. It is so personal that God even gets jealous. That's what Jesus means by knowing the truth...knowing God like you would know a person, not like you would know a mathematical formula. When you know THAT truth, you will be free.

 

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. Are you interested?

 

Amen.

 

© 2000, Anne Robertson

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