The preacher who takes up this unit has a lot to talk about. Too much, in fact.
All by itself, the section on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) could fund a series of sermons — or rather a series of series! One sermon just won’t be able to deal with all of this material; neither will one brief exegetical essay. Tough choices will have to be made, then, and this is equally true for the present treatment, which focuses on Exodus 19:3-7, given its importance for all that follows in the Sinai pericope, and then offers a few remarks on the Ten Commandments, which are important far beyond the Sinaitic unit (see, e.g., Matthew 5:21-30).1
The lectionary picks up in mid-thought with verse 3, after verses 1-2 set the stage. Exactly three months after departing Egypt, Israel arrives at the mountain of God (see Exodus 12:40-42; cf. 3:12). Verses 3-6 contain God’s introductory address to the Sinaitic covenant that follows.
Technically the Sinai pericope runs through Numbers 10:10, when the people finally depart from the mountain to resume their journey to Canaan. Israel is at Sinai, then, for most of the Pentateuch, and what they get at Sinai, mostly, is the law (Torah). The introduction to such a crucial and weighty section of Scripture is obviously fraught with significance.
The first verse of the lectionary text (Exodus 19:3) may seem something of a place holder — further “setting of the stage,” as it were — but it contains all of the subjects that will prove important in what follows: “Moses,” “God/the LORD,” “the mountain,” and “the house of Jacob/the Israelites” (note also “the covenant” in verse 5). God will speak to Israel, but has chosen to do so through Moses, up on a mountain.
God’s address begins, it seems, with a snatch of poetry:
You shall say the following to the house of Jacob,
and declare (it) to the children of Israel. (Exodus 19:3b; my trans.)
This snippet evidences all the hallmarks of good Hebrew parallelism. The covenant that will follow, not only in the Decalogue but throughout the Pentateuchal legislation, will not always be poetic — some feels quite pedantic! — but the covenant begins with artfulness, poetic balance, and high style. The law, too, is beautiful, and so is appropriately and artfully introduced.
The artfulness of verse 3 is continued in verse 4 which employs an image that has not been used heretofore to describe God’s exodus activity. The first part, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,” is standard, and an oft-repeated remark. The unusual image is found in the next bit:
“how I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.”
Both parts of this second clause are arresting and rather unique. The first likens God to an eagle that carries Israel — how exactly, is not specified, though the power and swiftness of the eagle’s flight are part and parcel of the image. There may also be connotations of care: a parent taking care of young (see Deuteronomy 32:11-12).
The eagle image is arresting in part because it is singular, not repeated. The closest parallel is Deut 32:11, but the tenor of the bird imagery there is at least somewhat different, having to do with guidance in the wilderness and the protection of a mother bird. The only other passage that may be related to Exodus 19’s image is Isaiah 40:31, which promises that those who wait will “rise up on wings like eagles.” Perhaps this alludes back to Exodus 19:4 to evoke a return from exile that is analogous to the exodus from Egypt.
The second part of verse 4 is also unique: “and brought you to myself.” The language of bringing (Hebrew b-w-?, esp. in the Hiphil [causative] stem) is stock for the exodus event, but the complements that it occurs with tend to be locative: bringing out from Egypt or bringing out and (bringing) into Canaan. But here God says that the exodus act is an act that brings Israel “to myself.” The deeply personal nature of the act is underscored (cf. Exodus 4:22-23). God is involved, deeply and profoundly, in the exodus — with Israel, yes, but also within the divine self.
In verse 5 we see the truth of G. K. Chesterton’s quip: “all morality hangs on an ‘if.’”2 The results on the other side of this “if”-clause are profound: Israel will be God’s treasured possession out of all peoples (verse 5a), a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation (verse 6). But there is a contingency, or, in truth, two contingencies: the first, most prominent one is that the “if” in question depends on obeying God’s voice and keeping God’s covenant. These are no easy things. The great irony of the Golden Calf debacle is that Israel finds itself in violation of God’s covenant at the very moment of its instantiation.
The subsequent history of Israel and of the church and, yes, of ourselves, shows how large and weighty this little “if”-clause truly is. We are — all of us — typically unable to meet its requirements. This “if” clause is thus our bane but also our great hope because it is not just all morality that hangs on this “if,” it is the opportunity to be God’s very own people (“a treasured possession”), as God so desires us to be (“priestly…holy”). The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.
The second contingency is found in verse 5b. It is so brief that it is easy to read right past it. Immediately after saying that Israel will be God’s treasured possession, God adds, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine.” The comment is almost an aside; it seems out of place.
But it is well worth dwelling on. Since (not if) “the whole earth is mine,” the people of God have a proper perspective on being a treasured possession, and this in two ways: first, while they may be a treasured possession, they are not the only possession. God is bigger than God’s people.
Second, if God’s people fail to be (or become) God’s treasured possession — if they fail in passing the “if”-clause — then God has other possessions that, perhaps, might just do the job. This is a trope already in the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 32:21) and plays a role in various New Testament passages — or at least in interpretations of the same — vis-à-vis the Old Testament.
The point that should not be missed, however, is that this is a cross-canonical dynamic. That means, in brief, that even if one would like to be supersessionistic about, say, the Gentile Church versus ancient Israelite religion, the canonical dynamic suggests that the former, no less than the latter, can be set aside if (there’s that word again!) it fails to be God’s treasured possession, which hangs on hearing and keeping. In point of fact, the history of the Christian church, no less than the people of God throughout Scripture, indicates that the best word to use is not “if” but “when.”
The Ten Commandments
Among the many things that could be said about the Ten Commandments is that they are a locus of our disobedience. One needs only to examine the Decalogue closely and then take a long hard look in the mirror to realize how often one fails to live up to the “if”-clause. If one is overconfident about that, then one may be in some sort of denial, may have become cavalier with the Ten Commandments,3 or is perhaps unacquainted with how Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount make several of the Commandments even harder to keep.
We must not hear these words casually, then,4 especially as they come as the first part of God’s direct address to Israel (the voice they are to hear in Exodus 19:5) and the most important part of the covenant (which they are to keep according to the same verse).
The importance of the Ten Commandments is underscored by three considerations:
1. their pole positioning in the legal material in which they appear (Exodus 20ff. and Deuteronomy 5ff.);
2. the fact that they are repeated (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and the way Deuteronomy 6-9 develops the First Commandment, and Deuteronomy 12-26 expands the Decalogue as a whole),5 and
3. the fact that they are the only words that Israel hears directly from God’s own mouth, the rest being mediated by Moses (see Exodus 20:18-21).
These three factors illustrate how the legislation itself is holy, how the Decalogue is an “ever expanding guide for making one’s life holy,” and how “[t]o hear law properly is like meeting God face-to-face.”6
The subsequent unfolding of the Ten Commandments shows that they are not a complete summary — “[i]f anything,” Anderson states, “they are a stenographer’s shorthand” such that “[t]o understand any one commandment properly, one must set the Ten Commandments in the developing trajectory of biblical thought.”7
And yet this very trajectory or development (“interpretation” may be the better word), shows that while the Decalogue is constantly being negotiated, it remains non-negotiable.8 Finally, the fact that Israel finds the Decalogue all that it can bear to hear directly is a reminder of just how difficult these words are, how easily transgressed, and how absolutely fundamental they are to living our lives as God’s people.9
1 See further Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
2 My memory bank locates this citation in Chesterton’s well-known book, Orthodoxy, but I have been unable to confirm the citation proper; it may be my paraphrase.
3 Cf. Gary A. Anderson, “Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; 20:1-17,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (ed. Roger E. Van Harn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 99, on “the danger of [the Ten] becoming tired old saws.”
4 Ibid., 100.
5 In addition to Miller, The Ten Commandments, see Dennis T. Olson, Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading (repr. ed.; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005).
6 Anderson, “Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; 20:1-17,” 101-102.
7 Ibid., 102.
8 I owe this formulation to Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (AOTC; Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).
9 See Miller, The Ten Commandments for a breathtaking and comprehensive study.
God of the commandments, you gave the Israelites laws so that they might live in harmony with one another. Show us how to live in peace, so that all may know of your love. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart ELW 800, UMH 500, NCH 290A On Eagle’s Wings ELW 787/various
Give us the wings of faith, Ernest Bullock