Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17
God creates and recreates us, God calls us and names us.
We seek to embody new creation and our new names, but almost invariably we falter. Something in life — some misplaced desire, some grief, some reckless act — takes over where our new selves ought to be, and we find ourselves lost afraid. For centuries preachers have spoken of losing sight of God as “wandering in the wilderness” precisely because the description is so apt.
So often we wander through life; we lose ourselves, our destination, God; we forget what we know, and we cling to our grief over what we’ve lost. And God seeks again to call us, to enfold us within a community of fellow travelers, to provide us with a place and a way of living, and to say, “This is what you were made for.”
When Exodus 20 opens, Israel has been liberated from slavery in Egypt and has set out into the wilderness. The people have encountered thirst and hunger, and God has provided sweet water and bread from heaven. They have been attacked and have been victorious, and they have finally reached Sinai. There, in chapter 19, God makes a covenant with Israel: Israel will be God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, if the people keep their end of the covenant. Here, unlike in the covenants with Noah and with Abraham in Genesis 17, a mutual covenant is established: Israel must follow God’s commands if they are to remain God’s people.
Chapter 20 begins to delineate those commands with the Ten Commandments, and in doing so continually points us back to Israel’s formative narratives, reminding the text’s hearers and readers that they are a part of the story of God’s intention for humanity that began so long ago. The covenant at Sinai is patterned after a suzerainty treaty, in which a suzerain (king or lord) lists the good things that he has done for his vassal, lists stipulations the vassal must obey, and promises reward for that obedience.1 So God begins by identifying Godself as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” (20:2) displaying like a suzerain God’s beneficence toward the people.
Theologically, however, this assertion also functions to remind the people of who they are: they are precisely the ones whom God delivered. The “steadfast love” (verse 6) that God shows to the thousandth generation recalls the same words in the song of Moses (15:13), again serving as a reminder of God’s identity as liberator and their own as divinely liberated. Reaching farther back, the commandment to “Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” recalls the mother and father of the multitudes to whom that land was first promised.
The God who appeared to Abraham and Sarah is the same God who appears to Moses now, and the people are those who bear Abraham and Sarah’s names. Exodus 20 even remembers the creation of the world. In verse 4, the language of “heaven above,” “earth beneath,” and “water under the earth” recalls that same language in the first creation narrative. The God who separated those waters at the creation is the only god who is worthy of worship. The commandment to remember the Sabbath overtly refers to the first creation narrative; in resting on the seventh day, the people are in fact doing what God did. In these ways, the text demonstrates that God is the creator and that the people are the created, and that the harmony and order that God established in creation is once again established through God’s law in the community of the Israelites.
Interpreters of the Ten Commandments often divide the passage into commands regarding worship (verses 1-11) and commands governing human relationships (verses 12-17). But the two emphases of the Ten Commandments are better understood as intertwined throughout. Laws concerning proper worship of God are also about how the people are formed through that worship to be a certain kind of people. Laws concerning how people are to relate to one another are also about living as God requires, even doing as God does. The Ten Commandments, and the books of law that follow, are meant to form Israel as a sacred community, a community rooted in right worship of God and living in justice and peace with one another. The Israelites are to live as neighbors to one another, the foundation of which is knowing the God to whom they belong.
It’s clear that, even though God never announces to Moses where he’s being led, Sinai is the destination in this part of the book of Exodus. The ultimate destination for the Israelites, of course, is Canaan, the land that God promised to Abraham. But leading up to the Israelites’ arrival at Sinai in chapter 19, the text keeps pointing us in that direction: they “came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai” (16:1); God stands on Horeb (Sinai) when Moses strikes water from the rock (17:6).
Sinai has been the place to which God has been leading all along, and not just from the escape from Egypt. The whole journey, from creation forward, has been leading to this place. It is at Sinai that God shows the Israelites the harmonious world in which they’re meant to live, and calls them to live in it. It’s as if God is saying, “This is what you were made for. You were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. You were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with your God. Stay true to these commandments, and this is where you will remain.”
Of course, we don’t stay true, so Sinai serves as a signpost, ever reminding us of the sacred community for which we were made, and calling us back to it.
1P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “Exodus,” in Harper’s Bible Commentary (ed. James L. Mays et al.; San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), 147.