Two weeks ago, I stressed the importance of covenants in the faith life of the ancient Israelites, Jesus and ourselves. Most of us recognize that today’s Exodus passage narrates the beginning of the third major covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures; the one Yahweh and the Chosen People enter into on Mt. Sinai around 1200 BCE.
Over the last few years public displays of the first ten responsibilities of that covenant have often been in the news and courts. I recently asked a rabbi friend for his read on this controversy. I wasn’t surprised that we basically share the same evaluation. “Well,” he replied, “we Jews certainly don’t mind all the publicity we’re getting from those 10 Commandment monuments. But we can’t understand why so many non-Jews are so fiercely determined to display the terms of a Jewish covenant.”
Many Christians have no idea that the first ten of Israel’s 613 laws of Moses aren’t an essential part of “our” covenant. It’s clear from the first words of this Exodus passage that the terms of this particular agreement don’t apply to most of you who are reading this commentary - which is probably why they’re left out of the vast majority of our 10 Commandment displays. “I, Yahweh, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” This classic “historical covenant prologue” names the two parties who are “cutting” this agreement: Yahweh and those whom Yahweh liberated from Egyptian slavery. Since neither I nor any of my ancestors were physically among those freed slaves who crossed the sea dry-shod on their way to the Sinai, this must be someone else’s contract. Nothing necessarily wrong with publicly posting its terms. But it would be a little like my asking friends and relatives to display copies of my signed college contracts in their living rooms. Those contracts are mine, not theirs. Perhaps that’s why early Christians had no qualms about switching their Sinai Sabbath obligations from Saturday to everyday, and eventually to Sunday. Or why “Christian” nations had no problem sanctioning the slave trade - a practice which ran counter to the original intention of “You shall not steal.”
It’s possible that Christians who make a big thing of the 10 Commandments simply want to remind us that the historical Jesus, as a good Jew, observed them (as he also did the other 603 Sinai laws). But that still doesn’t help us appreciate the terms of our own covenant with God - the unique, deeper covenant to which Jesus not only committed himself, but also his followers. As we hear in our oft-quoted 1 Corinthians pericope, it’s this covenant which originally was opposed by both Jews and Gentiles. Paul tells us it was a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” Why? Because it presumed that, just as the ancient Jews achieved life by keeping their covenants, we attain life by dying and rising with Jesus. Nothing weakens us more than death; especially the kind of death Jesus expects us to daily experience. That’s why Paul ends this paragraph with the statement,”.., the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
This insistence on Jesus’ dying/rising covenant is also behind John’s Jesus quote, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Early Christian morality was always rooted in the death of totally giving oneself to others, and then discovering life in that very instant of death.
We Christians certainly don’t want to get rid of (our interpretation of) the 10 Commandments. It’s just that by following Jesus we’ve committed ourselves to at least 6 billion more laws - revolving around all the people on earth to whom we’re obligated to give ourselves. I’d trade 6 billion regulations for 10 laws any day; far less demanding and much simpler. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the terms of our covenant are rarely posted even in our own churches