To soften the hard edge of these sacred commandments that are presented in Exodus 20, the Rabbis’ would often tell a joke – such as ‘when Moses came down the mountain, he began by telling the people: well, there is good news and bad news; the good news is that I managed to talk the Lord down from 20 commandments to ten; the bad news is that adultery is still on the list.’ Or, when Moses had a headache, what did he do? He took two tablets. Or, when the Lord asked Moses if he wanted a tablet of the law, Moses asked him how much they were. When the Lord replied that they were free, Moses said, ‘okay, I’ll take two.’
All jokes aside – and especially those jokes aside – what we encounter in this text, which simply presents God speaking ‘these words’ – it is not until Exodus 34 that the title of the Decalogue, literally, the ten words is given – is a sacred covenant that is deeply founded in grace and freedom. Scholars tell us that the covenant is an example of a Suzerain treaty, and it is God who first identifies the parties: ‘I am the LORD your God’ and we are ‘you’ who he brought out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
I capitalise the word Lord to emphasise the point that in the book of Exodus, the Lord only uses the special name that he reveals to Moses in their encounter at the burning bush in the wilderness a total of three times. In Exodus 3:14, when the Lord tells Moses that ‘I am who I am’, and again in Exodus 6. The Jews called this name, the Sacred Tetragrammaton – the four holy letters of Y-H-W-H. This is the last time that this name is used in Exodus (and never in Numbers) – although it is often used in other books, including anachronistically in the book of Genesis. It is as if the writer wants to preserve the sacred name to these key moments to highlight the covenant that is being entered into.
When we look carefully at the structure of the text, we can see that the three positive statements that punctuate the unnumbered list, provide an ordering of the commandments into three groups of commandments – the first three that deal with the right ordering of our relationship with the Lord; the second that orders our lives or worship (‘keep holy the Sabbath’), and then the last group, that in the Hebrew text begins the fifth commandment with ‘Honouring your father and your mother’ leading into the last five commandments. [In the church, we are used to numbering the commandments according to the structure, not of the Hebrew bible, but of the Greek Septuagint text, which combines the first two commandments into one and separates the final commandment into two. The Hebrew numbering is to be preferred, but it may provide cause for confusion when a penitent confesses to a sin against the sixth commandment, leaving the priest to discern whether they likely mean murder or adultery!]
It is also worth noting that the final commandment is entirely internal; no one can ever truly judge how much another person is guilty of coveting – and so it provides a necessary corrective to the rest of the list.
Sunday 3B in Lent. 9’31”