24:12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”
March second is Transfiguration Sunday. But I would like to write about the Hebrew Bible texts for this Sunday. The Exodus text is about Moses going up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.
I think it important to remember to whom the Ten Commandments were given. They were given to a people. Their primary purpose was not to give individuals a code of behavior, but to give guidance to a people of how they could create a just, loving community in proper relationships to each other, the earth and to God. These were a people who had been slaves in Egypt. I have heard it said that at that time in history, 90% of human beings on the earth were slaves. That is how empires have always existed, with slave labor. The Hebrew people were a collection of tribal communities. The Ten Commandments gave this group a structure in which there would be no slaves. That was a radical concept
Next Thursday I will write a post about the economic assumptions and guidelines of the Ten Commandments, especially the commandment to keep the Sabbath. But for this post, I mainly want to make the point that the Ten Commandments that Moses received on Mt. Saini, were given to a people, as instructions on how to be a people. They were not meant as instructions for individuals who lived in a variety of social situations. We are so used to thinking of religion as a personal matter that is between God and individuals, that we forget that in the Hebrew Bible, God is speaking to the people of Israel: to the people as a whole.
In his book Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley talks about how contemporary Christians often skip two types of sections of the Bible: sections about miracles, and sections of judgment. If we think of Jesus only speaking to individuals, these judgment passages seem incredibly harsh, unlike the loving Jesus we usually imagnie. But if we understand the judgment to be upon those in the Jewish community, like the Priests who ruled Israel on behalf of the Romans, then we can understand more about who Jesus was, what his message was, and the judgment passages do not contradict the loving Christ we know.
I want to make the same point in the Hebrew Bible, with the Psalm texts in today’s lectionary.
Psalm 99:4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
This text refers to God as a “lover of Justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” This is the God who had given Moses the Ten Commandments.
But Psalm 2 talks about the kings who have not followed God’s laws.
2:1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
2:2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
2:3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
2:9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
2:10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
2:11 Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.
The judgment is not because the kings have done something wrong in their personal lives, but because, as rulers, they have led their people in a way that does not allow for justice: for living in right relationship with each other, the earth and with God. To these kings and peoples, God has harsh punishment indeed.
Several weeks ago I wrote about systemic sin. This week it is about systemic goodness, the Ten Commandments, and the rejection of this way of living as systemic sin worthy of the full wrath of God.
We who live in contemporary western society do not have kings who we can blame for rejecting God’s will. We must accept the responsibility for not following the ways of God in our collective lives. The first step for Christians, I believe, is to recognize that we do have a collective responsibility and not just a personal responsibility to God. Next, I believe, we should acknowledge, as a collective body of Christians, as churches, as denominations, that the way of God is not the way of our society, or the way of our national interest. That is a difficult step to take, but I believe it is one that we who are involved in organized Christianity should bring before our congregations and church denominations.