Covenant and Commandments

It is easy, and perhaps tempting, for Christians to try to differentiate between rule-following and relationship in our Christian walk.

Moses receiving the law
Moses receiving the law, by Marc Chagall; from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

October 7, 2018

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Commentary on Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

It is easy, and perhaps tempting, for Christians to try to differentiate between rule-following and relationship in our Christian walk.

We would do well to remember that relationship is at the very heart of God’s gifts of covenant and commandments.

God brought Moses and the beloved community to Sinai to propose a dramatic intensification in their relationship.  God used classic, covenantal language to solemnize their bond:

  • Witness: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4).
  • Obligation: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant…” (Exodus 19:5)
  • Promise: “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Moses brought God’s words to the people, and they exclaimed, “Everything that the LORD has spoken, we will do!” (Exodus 19:7-8). Prior to the giving of any commandments, God sought to establish an informed, consensual relationship with the Israelite community. The people wholeheartedly agreed.

God’s invitation and the people’s response continued during the giving of the commandments. Ancient commenters took special note of the Hebrew infinitive form of the verb “to say” at the end of Exodus 20:1. They argued that the verse should be read, “And God spoke all these words [in order] to say/respond.” The people responded to every commandment that followed, saying “Yes” to all the affirmative commandments and “No” to all the negative commandments (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:1). Far from many Christians’ understandings of the revelation of law as a monologue by God, ancient rabbis envisioned the people speaking after every individual commandment, agreeing to it in turn.

The commandments themselves reflect God’s profound concern for relationship. God introduces Godself as the one who brought you [singular] out of the house of slavery. God reminded every individual that God had already rescued her and him and they already had a relationship.

The subsequent commandments all reflect that relationship. God ordered the people not to have other gods before God, literally in God’s face. Like any human entering into a committed relationship, God does not want to have flagrant violations of that commitment.

God ordered the people not to create engravings or other images or worship them. God’s reasoning for preventing idolatry is a self-revelation of the divine emotional life. God knows that God is frequently overwhelmed with emotion. The Hebrew word used here is from the root qanah, which means something like feeling an emotion so strongly that one’s face turns red. Elsewhere in scripture, God alludes to God’s overwhelming emotions (Isaiah 54:8, Isaiah 26:20, Psalms 90:7). In the midst of law-giving, the Lord paused to tell Moses about feelings. God told the Israelites not to worship idols because of how it affects God’s emotional life.

God shared that the divine emotions tend much more to love than wrath, however, and thousands of generations are blessed for loving God, whereas only four generations are cursed for hating God. The rabbis note that rewarding 2,000 generations and cursing 4 shows that God’s love is at least 500x stronger than God’s anger (Tosefta Sotah 4:1).

God then ordered that people should not misuse the divine name, particularly in swearing false oaths. God will not be used as a tool for people to deceive their neighbors.

God’s reasoning for commanding sabbath obedience in the Sinai revelation is that God also rested on the sabbath. This command is based in emulating the divine prerogative to rest at the end of the work week. These first, God-focused commandments are all grounded in the relationship between God and the beloved community. They demonstrate the relational openness that God desires.

The following commandments all serve to guide the Israelites in creating the kind of loving community that God desires. The social importance of honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery and not stealing should all be clear. Do good to your parents and do not hurt your neighbors.

God goes even further, however, to warn people not to even desire the goods, animals, and humans that have an exclusive relationship to someone else. God knows the danger that envy represents and warns the people not to envy someone or something that is not theirs.

These commandments are at their heart, all aimed to prevent a breakdown in relationship between humans on the one hand, and between God and the beloved community on the other hand. We can easily get bogged down in rules. But it can be helpful to remember that when God gave the commandments to the Israelites, it was in the context of establishing a consensual covenant that would honor divine and human emotional lives, and protect the newly established relationship between God and God’s people. 



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.


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