Shaped by generations of Egyptian bondage, Israel had lost the ability to organize their own lives and society. With no provision for self-rule, they essentially knew two things: God had called them to be a blessed and great nation[1] and they were Egyptian slaves. Subject to the laws and beliefs of Egypt, for Israel to maintain their identity and worship of God in the midst of alien rule and poly-demonistic beliefs was an exercise in futility, an ongoing struggle.

Paradox? Enigma? Surely. Can this ever be resolved? Surel it can, by God alone … but after these many years, where is he?

It is the time of Moses. His story is well known, familiar. Moses lives the first forty years of his life in Pharoah’s court, flees Egypt and then lives as a Midianite shepherd for another forty years. He encounters God who speaks. “Moses, you are to return to Egypt and confront Pharoah. Six times Moses tells Pharoah, “Let my people go!” He warns of how, if Pharoah does not release the Israelites, God will bring a succession of plagues upon Egypt. Six times Pharaoh refuses. Six plagues follow. Pharaoh stubbornly refuses, remains unconvinced. Once more Moses demands Israel’s freedom. This time, should Pharoah refuse, the penalty will be a different kind of plague, one that will bring death to all Egypt’s first-born sons. Pharoah refuses, catastrophic death reigns.

Broken, Pharoah relents. Moses leads the people out of Egypt and into the desert.

Days later, they arrive at Elim where a dozen springs are shaded by an abundance of palm trees. “Nice place, but don’t get used to it,” Moses says. “We’ll be moving to the Desert of Sin before long.[2] Meanwhile, set up your tents, take it easy. Enjoy your freedom.”

Charmed by the hopeful images of the milk-and-honey Promised Land,[3] the Israelites are puzzled. What’s this? We escaped from slavery just to go camping in the desert?[4] All we’ve got to eat is the manna-stuff and quail.[5] And by the way, has anyone seen Moses?

Moses has climbed Mount Sinai. “Meet with me,” says God. “There are things I want you to tell my people, things I want them to know.” God says, “If Israel, my chosen people, obey me and keep my covenant,[6] then out of all other nations Israel will all be my treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.[7] Tell them these things, Moses. Make sure they understand.”

Surely the Israelites were indeed God’s precious people, but it was never God’s intention to forsake the rest of the world just to pour out his favor of the Jews. Rather, God’s plan was an inclusive one. The Prophet Isaiah clarifies: “I will make you, Israel, a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”[8]

Moses descends the mountain and presents God’s command to the Israelites. Their response is unanimous, enthusiastic: “Yes! We will do everything the Lord has said!”[9]

So far, so good. There’s more to do. Back up the mountain, Moses receives more instructions from God. “Tell Israel I will make my appearance three days hence. Assure them there is nothing to fear. They must consecrate themselves, bathe, put on clean clothes, keep your thoughts and actions clean and clear. “The holy of holies is coming,” God says. “This is how I will test my people, to ensure that Israel maintains their awe of me.”[10]

God appears. Thunder roars. Lightning flashes. Trumpets sound. The mountain is covered with smoke. The people tremble and cower. Israel get the message: God’s holiness is awesome to behold![11]

God delivers the Ten Commandments.[12] Israel will have one God only. Don’t worship images of God or any other gods, don’t even make them. Don’t profane God’s name. Set aside the Sabbath as holy. Honor your parents. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal. Don’t defame your fellow Israelites. Don’t covet anything other people have, most especially their marriage partners.

When he is done, God instructs Moses to come back up Mount Sinai. There is more to learn. Moses attends. God renders the Law, a lengthy catalog of instructions. Worship on the sabbath in this way. Construct a tabernacle, here’s how to do it. These are the details of adjudicating my Law. And by the way, set aside the sons of Levi as my priests. Details, details.

God closes his instructions with a command. “Pay attention, Moses. This is important. Observe my Sabbath. This is how you will remember and that I alone am the Lord who has set you apart, who has made you holy. Know this in your hearts”[13]

It’s been a long time that Moses has been gone. The Israelites know he ascended Mount Sinai to confer with God. Is he still there? When’s he coming back? Nobody knows. What about this Caanan-land we’ve been promised, where is it? When are we going to get there? How about some leadership here! Aaron, you’re his brother! We need to get a move on! Do something!

Aaron still retains some fuzzy thoughts about Egypt’s old beliefs. He appraises the situation: Egypt had their bull-god Apis … seemed to work for them … hmm, might just work for us, too. Yes, I know what God said, but…but…but…  Suppose we make us a golden calf, sort of an Apis-thing. Sure, we’ll worship that, it’ll see us to the Promised Land.

On the mountain, God tells Moses it is time to take the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. Moses descends the mountain, a tablet in each hand – one listing obligations toward God, the other a recital of obligations for living in a community. Moses is excited, the people will be eager to hear this good news God has pronounced!

Eagerly, he arrives at camp. His joyful anticipation crumbles when he sees the people bowing and dancing and burning pathetic offerings to a deaf, mute, powerless calf fashioned from scraps of gold. What! God commanded no worshiping of false idols but there they are, worshiping a golden whatever! Apostasy! In righteous anger, Moses hurls the tablets to the ground. They shatter into pieces.

Astounded, beyond upset, Moses confers with God. Surely punishment is called for. What is the penalty for apostasy? God tells him. It is terrible. No, it is beyond terrible.

Moses cries out to the camp, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!”[14]

Only the sons of Levi respond.

Moses says to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘Each of you Levites strap on a sword. Then go through the camp, seek out your brothers and your friends and your neighbors. Kill them!’”[15]

The sons of Levi step out.

Three thousand Israelites are slain.

Now that this portion of the Desert of Sinai has become defiled, it is time to move on. God tightens his grip on his Israelites, commands an angel to lead them. God knows they are devastated by their shame yet comforts them with an assurance: “My presence will be with you. I will give you rest.”[16] They are still his chosen people.

God instructs Moses to chisel out fresh set of tablets. The Ten Commandments are reestablished, God’s Covenant is confirmed. Together this Covenant-Charter binds an enduring loyalty from God to Israel. He wants reciprocity, perhaps even expects it, but knows what he will get. Nonetheless, God seals the union with proclamation of grace: “I am the Lord, your compassionate God, abounding in love and faithfulness to thousands. I am your gracious God, forgiving of wickedness, rebellion and sin. I am slow to anger yet do not leave the guilty unpunished. I, the Lord, am making a covenant with you.”[17]

Let’s hear that again: “I am making a covenant with you.”

As Israel continues for two generations in their desert wandering, the old beliefs are purged, the new are embraced. Israel’s religion is re-defined as a monotheism. One God? What a foreign idea! Don’t all the nations of the land worship a panoply of gods?’ No, not all. One nation serves One God: Israel. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[18]

It takes time, years, for Israel to fully comprehend that it was the One God who delivers them from slavery, redeems them, and designates them as his own people … his special people. His beloved one. Such favor, such blessing? Unheard of. Has any other gods done such a thing? No, not ever. Not once. Yahweh, the God of Israel, the One-God, he is real, true, he is present with us. Time and again, he blesses his people with protection and provision and peace.

A stellar act of grace such as this covenant now requires a response that can never be found in a litany of superstitious anthems and rituals. No, there is but one response suitable to the One-God, a God who honors this peculiar people with undeserved grace: faith. Faith in Him expressed in love and obedience to his instructions on how to live: his Law.

Israel understood: God chose them not because they would toe the line of the Ten Commandments and its many codicils. No, God blessed Israel with his love and grace because he had chosen them, the ones he treasured beyond all others, to become his light-bearers. In his covenant, God made Israel a light for all other nations, that his salvation would reach to the ends of the earth.

The Ten Commandments were the device God used to set forth the terms of this new monotheistic covenantal relationship. Observe the things of God, he declared, because they are sacred and holy. Honor one another as you honor me. Live righteously, keep your spirits clear. Observe my Law and you will be blessed. Ignore my Law and forsake the blessings.[19]

The Ten Commandments was a preface to the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Law – the first five books of the Bible. The overall function of the Law was to serve as a personal and national guide to God’s standards of ethics and morals, to establish what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. It was to serve as a corrective to Adam and Eve’s failure of obedience in Eden where ‘…the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.[20] Hear, O Israel and all other nations as well: God alone is capable of determining good from evil;[21] all human effort of usurping God’s authority and disregarding his standards in favor of your own opinions of what constitutes good and evil without attending to God’s standards is mockery.[22] There’s another name for this: sin.[23]

God set the terms for this God-Israel covenant relationship to bless and protect and prosper his beloved children. Honor me with faithfulness, said the Lord, and I will be your Protector-Provider. Israel’s proper response to a gracious God who loved them beyond all others was to show their gratitude by obeying the Law – to honor God’s standards of good vs. evil. Violate the terms of the Covenant? An act, a sin that immediately separated the transgressor from God deserving of a curse.[24]

Throughout the Mesopotamian region and the time of Abraham and Jacob and Joseph, a covenant[25] was understood to be a binding oath-agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both promised to perform or refrain from certain actions as stipulated in the agreement. These covenant agreements were always ratified by the blood sacrifice of animals indicating life-and-death significance to all concerned.

God’s Covenant and Ten Commandments are of a piece, hand-in-hand partners, one serving the other. The Covenant establishes the relationship, the Commandments set the terms. The Covenant, because it was established by God, is sacrosanct, inviolable, a holy thing wherein its mandate is held intact: “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”[26] No matter how badly Israel behaves, God will not break his side of the agreement. Israel will remain his chosen people – but as God demonstrated at the foot of Mount Sinai, there is a penalty: yes, the Israelites will cross the Jordan but for those who do evil unto successive generations, destruction and exile await.’[27]

Two thousand years pass. In the years following the reigns of David and Solomon came a succession of kings, most of them evil, who disavowed the Covenant, repudiated the Ten Commandments and forsook the temple favor of worship on mountain tops and valleys. Innocent blood of Israel’s infants was spilled on Asherah poles; adulation and praise addressed to Molek and Baal and Dagon fell on the deaf ears of stone idols. [28] In Israel, a remnant remained steadfast in their faith to God.[29]

God grieves for Israel’s apostasy. He responds with a penalty of exile[30] reaching from 720 to 320 B.C.. Israel is given over to Assyria under Tiglath-Pileser, Shalmaneser and Sennacherib. Under Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, Babylon takes over where Assyria leaves off. Cyrus’ army envelops what’s left of Israel and carts them off to Persia. Alexander the Great arrives, overwhelms the land and Persia falls to the floodwaters of Hellenism engulfs the cities and towns throughout the Mediterranean basin, reaching into what’s left of Mesopotamia.

For four hundred years, the prophets are silent. God’s mighty acts of deliverance are thin and faded memories. The Ten Commandments, although unchanged, lie fallow in Israel’s heart. The Covenant? It yet stands, but under the centuries of oppression and exile, it has become a dusty and brittle thing, a feather in the wind. “Return to the Lord,” cries the Prophet Joel, “and I will restore the years the locusts have eaten.”[31]

For a moment, the Maccabean rebellion brought a glimmer of hope to Israel only to have it snuffed out as Julius Caesar swarmed the land and enforced the Pax Romana. Now, two thousand years after Moses, Israel burns with resentment at the Roman occupation, waiting, hoping for the deliverance by Daniel’s Anointed One,[32] Isaiah’s Prince of Peace,[33] Jeremiah’s Righteous Branch,[34] and Malachi’s Messenger of the Covenant.[35] The Messiah.

So where is he? When is he coming? Lord, what is taking so long?

A few remember the song of Zechariah, his words of hope ringing once again, how the Messiah would come from the House of David … he would remember the Holy Covenant … rescue us from our enemies … give us knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins.[36] Others, a meager few, recalled the witness of the shepherds who had seen and heard the flight of angels announcing the birth of a child, and then, walked to Bethlehem to see the babe named Jesus. A thing of glory, they had said. The Messiah.[37]

Wait! This Jesus, this worker of miracles who has appeared among us? This man who teaches the things of God with new words, words that shine of truth and deliverance and hope?

Wait. Isn’t he from Nazareth? Really? Such a poor and lowly place, can anything good come from there?[38]

But could it be …?

It is the last week of Passover in Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples gather to celebrate.

Jesus, his cup of wine held high, speaks: “Drink from it, all of you. This cup is my blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[39]

Hear, O Israel, say the Disciples: Isn’t this the same thing Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, sang?

In the Disciple’s minds, visions of the first Passover again paint doorposts with the blood of lambs, signs for the Angel of Death to pass over those houses which were of Israel, those that were not … who would live … who would die.[40] A second ritual, deep in the cloak of history is embedded here, too, of the time Moses sprinkled the blood of bulls on the tabernacle and upon the Israelites, ratifying the Lord’s Covenant.[41]

The very next day, Jesus – Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God – ratified this New Covenant with the shedding of his own blood,[42] paying the ransom for his Father’s beloved and helpless children, who, from all historical indications, seem to be irredeemable because they cannot do other than sin.[43]

Indeed, God’s love, his mercy for the world of irredeemable sinners is so great, is vast, is all-encompassing that he gave his one and only Son. “Whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have eternal life” is his Covenant promise.[44]

The Ten Commandments yet stand. We know this from Jesus’ own statement, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”[45]

But something has changed: the Ten Commandments are no longer embedded on stone tablets; now they are written on the hearts of the faithful ones, those who affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The Messiah.[46] By faith in Christ Jesus, all are children of God. [47] No longer do his children have hearts of stone but now have ‘hearts of flesh,’ able to receive and to give God’s love.[48] Each and every child now receives the assurance of the Covenant. Each one has the Law written on their hearts, now with a new fullness. A completion.

In the first commandment, God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In this, he speaks to each of his children to ‘love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul and mind.’[49] In other words, love God with your entire being.

The second commandment reinforces the first: “You shall not create or establish any image of God for yourself.” Worshipping – paying homage to, giving hope or idolatrous allegiance to any being, entity or concept other than God himself will violate this commandment.

The third commandment can be translated more literally, and thus understood as, “You will not speak the name of Yahweh (God’s own name), your God, with falseness, for Yahweh will not impart righteousness to such an act.” God’s name is sacred, holy, and must be given ultimate respect. Never should the name of God be used to reinforce an oath or agreement.

The fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy,” tells his children to set apart a seventh day for rest, for reflection, for worship. God removed Israel from Egyptian servitude just as he removes his faithful children from servitude to striving and from the Law. [50] That alone is worthy of a sabbath day.

With the fifth commandment, the focus shifts. Where the first four commandments concern relationship with God and sacrament, commandment five, “Honor your father and mother,” now speaks to the community of humankind. Here, God says his children are to give respect and reverence, allegiance and support to one’s mother and father, grandmother and grandfather. The manner in which God’s children are to love God sets the tone: love your parents with the same kind of reverence.

Commandments six, seven and eight continue the advisories on respecting human interactions – you are not to commit murder, adultery or theft. Murder, says Jesus, is not limited to the taking of another life but includes the emotional precursors to murder: fantasizing, insult, anger, rage and revenge. [51] Wanton looks, fantasies of lust whether given to a magazine page, a video, a website or an actual person are just as adulterous that the sexual act itself. Any sexual act outside the male-female marriage bond compromises one’s spirit, violates the Law.[52] The eighth commandment, do not steal, is more direct: don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you.

‘Do not bear false witness against your neighbor,’ states the eighth commandment. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, speak only what is true, let your yes be yes, your no be no.[53]

Each of these human-interaction commandments have this in common: respect. Respect for God, for Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, for all other persons and for self.

The tenth commandment, about not coveting, is to think about wanting, having something someone else has. It is of the mind and the soul. It is coming to the erroneous conclusion that this ‘object,’ be it a wife or husband, be it an automobile or home or wardrobe, be it wealth or anything wealth can buy, will somehow make you feel better about yourself, will elevate you in the eyes of others … perhaps even the eyes of God. Somehow, by having this ‘thing’ you will somehow alleviate your doubt, erase your anxiety, cleanse your dissatisfaction, heal your shame. Somehow, to have this thing you will be forgiven not only for your sins but for being you. You will be improved. You will be made whole.

Yet in the depth of your spirit, you know that this kind of transformation is not possible, never was, never will be. You know this because you’ve already tried it – more than once – and found that it doesn’t work. You know this because Jesus has shown a better way: “Love one another in the same way I love you.”[54]

In the depth of your spirit you know that the healing you yearn for is a healing of the scattered wounds to your spirit, some small, some so large they cannot be measured – a healing only the Spirit of God can achieve. Our hope, couched in an unbreakable faith, a gift from the Lord’s own heart, reigns supreme.

Jesus’ promise is this: “All of you who are weary of carrying the burden of life by trying to follow empty laws that do not, cannot give relief …you, who seek rest for your souls, come, walk with me for I am the way and truth and life. Come, let us walk together and I will bless you and teach you, and I will make you whole.”[55]

[1] Genesis 12:2

[2]   Exodus 16:1

[3]   Genesis 12:1, 7

[4]   Exodus 16:2-3

[5]   Exodus 16:13, 15

[6]   Deuteronomy 4:13

[7]   Exodus 19:3-6

[8]   Isaiah 49:6

[9]   Exodus 3:8

[10]   Exodus 19:10-12; 20:20

[11]  Exodus 20-23

[12]  Exodus 20:1-17

[13]  Exodus 31:13

[14]  Exodus 32:26

[15]  Exodus 32:27-29

[16]  Exodus 33:14

[17]  Exodus 34:6-7

[18] Deuteronomy 6:4

[19] a.k.a. curse: Deuteronomy 28:1-68; Genesis 3:17.

[20] Genesis 2:15; 3:22-23

[21] Mark 10:18

[22] Psalm 1:1-2

[23] Genesis 4:7

[24] John 7:7; 15:18

[25] Understood as ‘suzerain-vassal treaties’

[26] Isaiah 42:6-7

[27] Deuteronomy 4:25-29; 28:64-66

[28] Jeremiah 32:32-35

[29] Isaiah 4:3; 37:31; Jeremiah 7:30; 23:3; Ezekiel 11:17: Micah 2:12

[30] Isaiah 65:1-11

[31] Joel 2:12, 28

[32] Daniel 9:25

[33] Isaiah 9:6

[34] Jeremiah 23:5

[35] Malachi 3:1

[36] Luke 1:69

[37] Luke 2:8, 15, 18

[38] Luke 1:46

[39] Matthew 26:27-29; Luke 22:20

[40] Exodus 12:12-13

[41] Exodus 24:3-8

[42] Hebrews 9:13-15

[43] Matthew 20:28

[44] John 3:16

[45] Matthew 5:17-18

[46] Romans 2:15

[47] Romans 8:14-16; Acts 3:25; 1 John 5:1

[48] Ezekiel 11:19-20

[49] Matthew 22:37-40; John 4:24

[50] Deuteronomy 5:15

[51] Matthew 5:21-22

[52] Matthew 5:27-28

[53] Matthew 5:37

[54] John 13:34

[55] Matthew 11:28; John 14:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24