Commentary on Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17
Intersectional Salvation: Covenants and Commandments
Biblical writers make an explicit link between covenants and commandments in the book of Exodus, as Yahweh’s covenant with Israel (referred to in Exodus 19:3-7) is presented as a prerequisite for the giving of the commandments recorded in 20:1-17. A covenant is a legalistic term meaning contract or mutual agreement. As a contract, covenants are agreements between two parties with conditions or obligations (in other words, commandments) to which both parties agree. Throughout the book of Genesis, Yahweh cuts covenants with Israel’s patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that are inclusive of rules/laws/commandments (for example, stipulations about circumcision in Genesis 17). Perhaps one of the most significant agreements: Yahweh commits to serve as their god and benefactor while Abraham and the patriarchs commit to worship Yahweh exclusively.
Immediately after bringing Israel out of Egypt, Yahweh expresses to the Israelites:
“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” (Exodus 15:26)
In this speech, Yahweh explains that covenant, commandments, and salvation are inextricably linked. Salvation manifests at the intersection of covenants and commandments. Stated differently, only Yahweh’s covenantal partners gain access to Yahweh’s salvation through obedience to Yahweh’s laws. Moreover, obedience is inclusive of listening to, doing, and observing (attending to) the ordinances. This verse functions to remind Israel of their obligations to Yahweh because of Yahweh’s acts to liberate them from Egypt (a land that, for them, represents alienation and oppression). If they comply, Yahweh commits to spare them from the diseases inflicted upon their oppressors. Freedom from disease here is a manifestation of salvation that is contingent upon Israel’s obedience to Yahweh’s commandments and statutes. (Notice: this statement illustrates use of threats within covenantal arrangements.)
The covenant(s) outlined in Genesis details how Yahweh relates to the (recognized) descendants of Abraham (Isaac). They disclose the benefits of having Yahweh as their god. Yahweh will:
- make them a great nation
- make their name great
- bless those that bless them
- curse those that curse them
- bless all families in the earth through them
- make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven
- bring them out of an alien land with great possessions, and
- make them kings of peoples (Genesis 12, 15, 17).
As we see above, the benefits of being in a covenantal relationship with Yahweh are emphasized in the covenants. The Decalogue outlines how Israel must relate to Yahweh (1-4) and to one another (5-10): with fidelity and honor to Yahweh and respect and regard for one’s neighbors. This legal code (20:1-17) is inclusive of benefits of obedience, rationales for some laws, and consequences of not obeying Yahweh’s stipulations. Some penalties for breaching the covenant include:
- punishment of children for the iniquity of parents (to third and fourth generations) and
- refusal to acquit those who misuse the Lord’s name.
Readers should not gloss over the context for the Abrahamic covenant. The first eleven chapters of Genesis include stories with patterns of human actions that displease Yahweh, to which Yahweh responds with judgment, then some act of kindness. It is in this context of patterns of human rebellion against/estrangement from Yahweh and divine graciousness that Yahweh enters covenantal relationship with Abram. No textual clues are given why Yahweh chooses Abram out of Shem’s descendants in chapter 11. The narrator points out, however, that Abram’s wife Sarai is barren (11:30). These points reiterate an earlier claim: the intersection of salvation, covenants, and commandments. Abram’s ancestors’ histories were riddled with lawlessness and disorder, which led to punishment (most notably the floodal genocide of all humanity except Noah and his immediate family). Yet, Yahweh provides salvation for Noah and his family and cuts a covenant with one of Noah’s progeny (an act of divine graciousness).
In both focal scriptures for this week, Yahweh cites the exodus experience as constitutive of Israel’s social/religious/cultural identity. Yahweh reminds Israel of:
- collective experiences of oppression and enslavement which inform their individual and collective identities
- Yahweh’s power and provision and
- Yahweh’s compliance with the covenant (act of salvation).
These reminders function to articulate a distinct identity as Yahweh’s chosen people and to encourage the Israelites to act in accordance with the covenant and commandments given to them.
When we are attentive to the audience and social setting as implied in the context of the ten commandments, we notice that the laws are not addressed to ALL Israelites. This set of laws has a specific audience: middle to upper-class males who are home/property owners, married, and have human, animal, and other material possessions. We also observe that these laws are not concerned with liberty and/or justice, but with protecting the assets of the addressees.
As we study the covenant and commandments this week, let’s consider the following:
- Who is being spoken to and who is not?
- Whose interests and rights are protected?
- What assumptions and values are incorporated?
- What do these answers reveal about the group/society?
- Can we incorporate these laws into contemporary societies?
- Should contemporary believers abide by codes of ethics and legal codes that are exclusionary?
- In our current contexts, have we created legal structures that mirror biblical ones?
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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
October 9, 2022