With just a bit of tweaking the Ten Commandments could be quite relevant to our lives today. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, or wife, or ox or donkey or iphone, or BMW, or really nice house in Shaughnessy. They would also require some revision to account for the sexist and heterosexist tone, a bit of editing to remove the idea that wives are property. It would likely be helpful to add in something that extends these rules beyond their anthropocentric perspective, maybe a law that considers our relationship to the rest of the natural world. Actually, they might need quite a few revisions. These are only ten of the six hundred thirteen laws in the first five books of the Bible. Which suggests that laws come and go, and though some might be timeless many are contextual.
There are a couple that are particularly difficult to keep, yet increasingly necessary. Coveting other people’s stuff and Sabbath keeping seem to have little place in our world today. With our twenty four hour news cycle, our high value on productivity, the way we align people’s worth with what they do and how well they do it, the value we place on doing over being, all make it hard to keep a time set aside each week for rest.
Coveting is so woven into the fabric of our capitalistic culture that it’s hard to even see when we’re doing it. Our whole system is based on having more and getting the latest version. Things start to unravel in the market when people step back from coveting more stuff. I covet the material stuff that the ten percent of people who are richer than me have, instead of getting real about the fact that ninety percent of people in Canada have less than me. Familiar patterns are so difficult to change.
It’s been said that at the Red Sea God brought Israel out of Egypt but at Mount Sinai God brought Egypt out of Israel. At the Red Sea God brought Israel out of their material experience of slavery but with the Ten Commandments delivered at Sinai, God set in motion a path to finally shake the slavery out of the people; to free them from the hold of the only ways they knew to be in the world.
Remember the parting of the Red Sea and Moses leading the people away from generations of slavery under the thumb of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Remember those images from the Charlton Heston movie with the waters parting before crashing down around the Egyptians, washing out the bad guys as the Israelites escape to freedom. It was the great moment of liberation for Israel. Leaving the land of captivity is one thing; freeing your soul from captivity is another.
As the Israelites begin their journey into liberation on dry land, they end up in the wilderness for three days without water. When we meet them today at Mount Sinai the people are pining for the days in Egypt when life seemed so much more secure and predictable. It was so difficult for them to leave Egypt behind. The ‘work harder, produce more’ ethic of Pharaoh seemed to have worked its way into their DNA.
Research in the emerging study of consciousness called epigenetics suggests that we pass on much more than eye colour and overbites through our DNA. A recent study on mice revealed that fear can be passed on in the genetic code for at least two generations. One researcher of descendants of the Holocaust claims that “Instead of numbers tattooed on their forearms (children of Holocaust survivors) may have been marked epigenetically with a chemical coating upon their chromosomes, which would represent a kind of biological memory of what the parents experienced.”  This emerging field of study is “raising such mind-bending questions as: Can we inherit fear? Can drug addiction pass down genetic effects to an addict’s children? Can extreme stress or trauma, on the scale of war of famine, re-shape an entire community, down through one or more generations.”
Think of the generational trauma passed on from residential school survivors. Think addiction, think of how hard it is to put that phone down and be fully present to the person in front of you; we are not easily changed. It’s no wonder that God stepped in and said, it looks like liberation from slavery didn’t lead to freedom.
To a people who had been abused and oppressed, a people who were taught to work harder at all cost, a people taught that the most important thing was producing more bricks, the ten commandments were intended as a re-set, a pause, a taking stock and getting real about the fact that there are actually other ways to live our lives. There are other values that can inform the choices we make.
Pharaoh said: make more bricks
God said: take a Sabbath
Pharaoh said: I am Lord
God said: No person, no market economy, no ‘work til you’re dead’ ethic can take the place of God.
Pharaoh said: you are lazy
God said: your worth isn’t measured by how many bricks you make.
If you look closely at this text and other key biblical stories, it comes down to relationship; the relationship between God and people and the relationships amongst people. God doesn’t come in and say buck up, instead it is this ongoing dance of relationship. Throughout the entire bible God is in a living, evolving, faithful relationship with the people. The way of this God is not setting down laws but engaging in relationship. If we have a hope of changing old destructive patterns we must be engaged in relationship with self, God and one another.
Chinese philosophy speaks about the dao, the way. Essentially your dao is your way, your path, your method. It is “your way of living in the world, your way of interacting with others, your way of understanding yourself, your way of understanding the mystery from which the galaxies emerge. Everyone is seeking her dao.” In that moment with Moses and the people, it’s as if they needed to pause, to look really critically at things so that they might find their course, their way, their dao. Every so often we seem to require a re-set, a pause in the wilderness to help us find our way.
Later this month protestant churches around the world will mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation; the anniversary of what has been casually called the Wittenberg door event. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 criticisms of the Catholic Church on the door on the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany. He intended to challenge and change the Catholic Church but instead he set in motion a split in the Catholic Church that would lead to birth of the Protestant movement.
Jesus himself came to be a reformation on the way. He didn’t intend to start a new religion but from within his own Jewish tradition to invite a renewed vision. The Ten Commandments are a reformation moment. The thread that is woven through each of these reformations is that of relationship with God and one another; a returning to, an evaluation of, a reorientation to that relationship and commitment to put it at the centre of our lives.
I wonder if we need a Reformation every five hundred years or do we need it daily? The world is going to tell you that the dao, the way, is about building more bricks, accumulating more stuff, and not taking a break in the process. The world will tell you this until you are knee deep in crumbling bricks. Sooner or later you realize you can’t move forward without hurting yourself or tossing bricks in the way of others on the path, or you begin to see that the food you need to live can’t grow through the cracks when the bricks keep mounting on the good earth. Are we at a moment when our desire for growth and more and better and the latest, is beginning to kill us?
It seems sometimes that we think we can just buy our way out of a reformation. The financial settlement announced this week for survivors of the sixties scoop, though a nice gesture, won’t erase the wounds inflicted on the DNA of those thousands of people. The money used to quiet women who experienced sexual assault from a Hollywood elite clearly didn’t take their trauma away.
Whether we are talking about systemic injustice or the personal choices we make each day, which are absolutely connected, whether we look on the macro or minute scale, ours is a God who longs to be in relationship with us. The stories of this book serve to remind us that God is faithful, present, a partner in a vision of an alternative reality.
The wilderness is not our enemy, the moments we fall back into destructive, unhealthy habits, old patterns that lead to the same old outcomes, these are not moments of failure but instead opportunities to get back on track.
I wonder what needs a re-set if your life?