Guardrails: The Ten Commandments

The following is an excerpt from The New Interpreter’s Bible on the Ten Commandments, written by renowned scholar Leander Keck.  I do not believe this violates any copyright issues, but if I learn otherwise, I will take it down immediately.  This is one of the commentaries I use regularly.  The exposition is longer than most people would care to read, but I would encourage you to read it anyway, because the Ten Commandments are the foundation of what it means to be faithful people.  Deeper learning and reflection are worth your time.  Enjoy!

EXODUS 20:1–17, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

Overview

The terrible, holy God of Sinai is always at the brink of “breaking out” against Israel and spilling over in self-aggrandizing destructiveness (19:22, 24). We are, in the light of that danger, hardly prepared for the proclamation of the Ten Commandments in this next unit. The God who threatens to break out in inexplicable rage instead breaks out in magisterial command. The relation of theophany to law is an odd one. The juxtaposition of the two genres, however, is definitional for what happens to Israel at Sinai. Command is rooted in theophany. The juxtaposition of theophany and command asserts that, for Israel, there is nothing more elemental or fundamental (even primordial) than the commands that intend to shape and order the world according to the radical and distinctive vision of the God of the exodus.

The Decalogue itself is likely a distinct literary entity that originally was not connected to this theophany. There is, moreover, serious critical question about the date and provenance of the decalogue and, therefore, about its Mosaic authorship. These commands may, like much of the legal material of the OT, have some linkages to already established legal materials of the ancient Near East. None of that, however, takes us very far in interpreting the commands as we have them.

We must, even with all of these critical uncertainties, try to take the corpus of commands as they are given. This means, first, that they are given in the context of the Sinai covenant. They constitute the substantive vision around which the God-Israel relation is ordered. Sinai binds Israel to this vision of social possibility and places Israel under this particular obedience. Second, the commands are given with the authority of Moses. They are in some sense an authentic articulation of what Mosaic faith in its core is all about. Third, even if these two traditions originated separately, the connection of exodus and command in 19:4–6 (and 20:1) binds the Sinai commands to the liberation passion of the exodus narrative. The commands are a decisive way in which Israel (and Yahweh) intend to sustain and institutionalize the revolutionary social possibility that is asserted and enacted in the exodus narrative.

The commands are commonly understood as divided into two “tablets”: one concerning relations to God (vv. 1–11), and one concerning the neighbor (vv. 12–17). The relation between the two tablets is of crucial importance to biblical faith. It is self-evident that the second tablet is the more readily available, practical, and pertinent to us. It is risky, however (especially among “theological liberals”), to take the second tablet by itself, as positive law concerning human relations. But such a view misses the primary covenantal point that these “neighbor demands” have their warrant, impetus, and urgency in the character of this particular God. The second tablet is not just a set of good moral ideas. It contains conditions of viable human life, non-negotiable conditions rooted in God’s own life and God’s ordering of the world. Thus it is important to “get it right” about Yahweh, in order to “get it right” about neighbor. Karl Marx has seen this most clearly and programmatically: “The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”

Marx means that “God talk” always implicitly asserts neighbor relations and that every mode of neighbor relations inevitably bootlegs some powerful (even if hidden) notion of God. Thus it is not the case simply that Israel must attend both to God and to neighbor, but that the way of attending to God determines our ways of attending to neighbor and vice versa. It is precisely the worship of the God of the exodus that provides the elemental insistence and passionate imagination to reshape human relations in healing (cf. 15:26), liberating ways.

Norman Gottwald is correct in saying that in its recital of liberation and especially in the actions at Sinai, Israel initiates a revolutionary social experiment in the world, to see whether non-exploitative modes of social relationship can be sustained in the world. In commenting upon the first commandment, Pixley comments:

“The problem is not, of course, whether to call the rain God Yahweh or Baal. Behind the conflict of these gods is the social reality of a class struggle.… The polemical formulation of the commandment to worship Yahweh, then, has its explanation in the long struggle of the peasantry to rid itself of the domination of a long series of kings … who resurrected the old forms of class domination.… An Israelite had no choice but to reject any form of loyalty to any god who had not saved the slaves of Egypt.

Thus the Decalogue stands as a critical principle of protest against every kind of exploitative social relation (public and interpersonal, capitalist and socialist) and as a social vision of possibility that every social relation (public and interpersonal, economic and political) can be transformed and made into a liberating relation.

Exodus 20:1–7, “No Other Gods Before Me”

Commentary

Israel’s destiny under command is rooted in the self-disclosure of God. These commands might be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be “practiced” by this community of liberated slaves. The speech of God itself is abrupt in its beginning. Except for vv. 5–6, which are quite general, chapter 19 gives no hint that commands are to follow from the theophany. In Israel, however, God’s self-giving is in the form of command. Thus the tradition holds closely together “a god so near” and “a torah so righteous” (Deut 4:7–8). God is known in torah; nearness is expressed as righteousness.

20:1–2. The self-disclosure of God begins with a succinct reference to and summary of the recital of liberation (v. 2). The first utterance is, “I am Yahweh.” Thus God speaks the same powerful formula that has been reiterated throughout the exodus narrative (cf. 7:5), in which the formula is designed to reassure Israel and to challenge Pharaoh. Here the formula serves to impose a claim upon Israel. The event of the exodus provides the authority for the commands as well as the material claim of those commands.

20:3. This verse (conventionally the first commandment) is programmatic for all Israelite reflection on obedience. Walther Zimmerli and Werner H. Schmidt have taken this command (together with the second command of vv. 4–6) as the essential command, for which all other law is exegesis, and as the leitmotif of OT theology. We may identify four related themes.

First, the command requires Israel to mobilize all of its life, in every sphere, around one single loyalty. In the contemporary world, as in the ancient world, we practice a kind of henotheism, which lets different gods have their play in different spheres. This command insists on the integrity, coherence, and unity of all of life. Israel is a community destined to “will one thing.”

Second, it is not likely that this command makes any claim about monotheism in any formal sense. That is, it does not insist that there are no other gods. It insists only that other gods must receive none of Israel’s loyalty or allegiance. This command thus is in keeping with Deut 6:4, which also allows for the existence of other gods, but denies them “air time.”

Third, the last phrase, “before me,” may also be read, “before my face.” Because face in reference to God often means “sanctuary” or “altar,” the command may mean “in my presence”—“in my shrine.” On this reading, the command pertains precisely to the practice of worship and asserts that the liturgic life of Israel must be under stringent discipline in order to avoid compromise.

Fourth, H. Graf Reventlow has offered an alternative reading of this command that has considerable merit. Reventlow observes that the formulation of this command is not “Thou shalt not,” but rather “there will not be to you.” He proposes that the statement is not an imperative command, but an indicative, whereby Yahweh in light of the exodus declares the banishment of all other gods (cf. Psalm 82 for the same motif). On this reading, the statement is a declaration of theological emancipation, whereby Israel can freely and gladly serve Yahweh, without any distracting compromise. One does not need to obey this command but only to hear and trust the good news of triumph and banishment.

20:4–6. The second command (vv. 4–6), often linked to the first, further asserts Yahweh’s distinctiveness, which is to be enacted in Israel. The command, in fact, is a series of three prohibitions followed by an extended motivational clause. The three prohibitions are: You shall not make.… You shall not bow down.… You shall not serve.… This threefold prohibition serves as a counterpart to the formula of banishment in v. 3.

Two understandings of the commandment are possible. In the NRSV and NIV renderings, the command precludes “idols,” the assignment of theological significance to any element of creation, the investment of ultimacy in what is not ultimate. Clearly, if “no other god” has any real power and, therefore, any real, substantive existence, it is grossly inappropriate that Israel should invest such an object with ultimacy.

The word פסל (pesel), however, need not be rendered “idol.” It is more properly rendered “image,” a visible representation of Yahweh. The temptation, then, is not the creation of a rival that detracts from Yahweh, but an attempt to locate and thereby domesticate Yahweh in a visible, controlled object. This latter reading, which is the more probable, is also more subtle. It does not fear a rival but a distortion of Yahweh’s free character by an attempt to locate Yahweh and so diminish something of Yahweh’s terrible freedom.

The motivational clause begins in v. 5b, introduced by כי (, “for”). The reason for the prohibition is Yahweh’s very own character; Yahweh is a “jealous God” who will operate in uncompromised and uncontested freedom. Yahweh’s jealousy is evidenced in two ways in a formula that is more fully stated in Exod 34:6–7. Negatively, this jealous God is one of deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commands, so that the cost of the affront endures over the generations (34:7b). Positively, this jealous God is one who practices massive fidelity (חסד ḥesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant (34:6–7a). The two motivational phrases are in fact more symmetrical than the NRSV suggests, for “reject me” is in fact “hate” (שׂנא śānēʾ), as the NIV translates, thus contrasting precisely those who “love” and those who “hate” Yahweh.

Thus the idol (as rival and alternative) or the image (as localization and domestication) is an attempt to tone down Yahweh’s jealousy. There are two reasons for toning down God’s jealousy: resistance to God’s deep moral seriousness or discomfort with God’s massive fidelity. Yahweh’s character, to which this command witnesses, holds to both moral seriousness and covenantal fidelity. The measure of both “punishment” and “showing steadfast love” is adherence to the command. The temptation of Israel, here precluded, is to tone down the primacy of command. Israel in covenant must trust itself to the terrible freedom of the God who will be obeyed.

20:7. The third command continues the line of the disclosure of God from the first two commands. This command is often misunderstood and misused, when it is taken to refer to “bad” or vulgar language. While “right speech” is indeed at issue, more is at stake than not cursing or using obscenities. What must be understood is that the “name” of Yahweh bespeaks God’s powerful presence and purpose. The utterance of the name is the mobilization of the presence and power of God, an assumption that is still evident in prayers offered “in the name of Jesus.” To make “wrongful use of the name,” or as Walter Harrelson suggests, the use of the name “for mischief,” means to invoke through utterance the power and purpose of Yahweh in the service of some purpose that is extraneous to Yahweh’s own person. That is, the violation is to make Yahweh (who is an ultimate end) into a means for some other end. Such a practice may be done in quite pious ways (without anything like “curse”) with an instrumental view of God. This command thus follows well from the first two, because all three concern seductive ways in which the God of the exodus is diminished or trivialized.

The sanction (threat) of this command is ominous indeed: Yahweh will not “acquit” those who seek to use God for their own purposes but will hold such persons guilty to perpetuity. The severity of this threat is congruent with the motivational clause of v. 5.

Reflections

These first three commandments are preoccupied with the awesome claims of God’s person. God insists, in the light of the exodus, upon being accepted, affirmed, and fully obeyed.

1. It is not always helpful in teaching and preaching the commandments to go through them one rule at a time, as though using a check list. To be sure, there is some need for specificity of interpretation. That, however, is only preliminary to the main interpretive task, which is to voice the large and demanding vision of God that defines biblical faith.

The truth of the matter is that the biblical God is not “user friendly.” The theological crisis present in all our modern situations of proclamation and interpretation is that we are all “children of Feuerbach.” In the nineteenth century, Ludwig Feuerbach fully articulated the hidden assumption of the Enlightenment, that God is in the end a projection of our best humanness. That Feuerbachian “betrayal” takes more than one form. The “liberal temptation” is to diminish the role of God, either to remove God from public spheres of life and leave God for interpersonal matters, or to make God an object of adoration rather than a subject who can do anything. One signal of such reductionism is the slogan that “God has no hands but ours.” The reactive “conservative temptation” is the projection of a settled, sovereign God who in fact is not operative as a political character (as in the drama of the exodus) but is only a set of fixed propositions that give certitude and stability. Either way, in our shared theological failure of nerve, we end with a God very unlike the one who makes a self-disclosure here.

2. Exposition of these commandments has as its topic the voicing of the holy, jealous God of the Bible who saves and commands; a God who is an active, decisive presence in our common public life, but who in holiness is beyond all our most pious efforts at control and manipulation.

There are no analogues, no parallels, no antecedents, no adequate replications or explanations for this God who confronts us in and through the narrative of liberation. It is the majestic act of “getting glory over Pharaoh” (14:4, 17) that bestows upon Yahweh the right to speak and to command. The exodus shows that Yahweh has now displaced every other loyalty, has driven from the field all rivals, and now claims full attention and full devotion from Israel. This people would not have entered history except for Yahweh’s demanding solidarity against Pharaoh. The question of this faith in the modern world is whether there is a people, a concrete community, that can embrace and practice this demanding loyalty. Most of the people with whom we preach and teach are (like us) both yearning and reluctant, both ready and hesitant, to embrace these commandments that bespeak a lifetime of ceding over authority.

How, indeed, can a “mystery” be demanding? We expect a mystery to be amorphous and transcendental; we expect a demand to be coercive, visible, and political. In these three utterances, however, Yahweh is indeed holy mystery who, in the very utterance of mystery, enunciates demand.

3. This uncompromising demand is properly voiced in a world of unacknowledged polytheism. We have always lived in a world of options, alternative choices, and gods who make powerful, competing appeals. It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy, and security. In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant.

In the Christian tradition, baptism is the dramatic form of making a God choice, in which receiving a new name and making promises is choosing this liberating-covenantal faith against any other shape of life. Thus in the Christian tradition, appropriating and living out baptism means living by a single loyalty among a mass of options.

4. The second commandment, in its prohibition, inventories the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth (v. 4; cf. Deut 4:17–18;). The triad, of course, refers to all of creation (cf. Gen 1:28). The command asserts that nothing in creation is usable in making God visible or available. God’s sovereign mystery is discontinuous from everything and anything in creation. The propensity to encapsulate God in creation leads to an attempt to retain for ourselves control over some piece of creation. The clearest, most extensive treatment of this confusion in the Bible is Rom 1:20–25. To imagine that anything in creation could possibly embody the creator God is a result of “futile thinking” and “senseless darkened minds” (Rom 1:21). The outcome is false worship based on a lie instead of the truth (v. 20).

In contemporary church discussions, this powerful, polemical, doxological statement has often been side-tracked and related only to issues of homosexuality. The confusion of creator-creation, however, is much more profound and ominous than an argument about sexuality. Attempts to “image God” by taking creation in our own hands are much more evident in technological abuse of creation and in military exploitation, by which “God as power” comes into play without any restraining awareness that “God as power” is also “God as Holy Mystery.” It may in the end be the case that the “shameless acts” men commit with men (cf. Rom 1:27–28) are not sexual as much as they are military and technological. The Mosaic prohibition against idols and images has profound sociopolitical implications, for the practice of worshiping idols is never simply a theological or liturgical matter but always spills over into social, ideological, and political practice, inevitably with the intent of partisan advantage. Carlos M. N. Eire has shown how the prohibition on idols became a driving power for Calvinism as a sociopolitical force. Where the church is soft on idols, it becomes muted on social criticism.

5. The third commandment asserts that God cannot be put to use and is never a means toward an end (v. 7). The notion that the ultimate human purpose is to “glorify and enjoy God” means that God is pure end and never means. Using God’s name mischievously however, is an enormous temptation, because the holy God is vulnerable to being made into an ideological tool.

Exodus 20:8–11, “You Shall Not Do Any Work”

Commentary

The fourth commandment is conventionally included in the first tablet. However, because the sabbath command occupies such a prominent and decisive position in the Decalogue, and because it enjoins rest for humanity as well as honoring God the creator, I take it as a command that stands between and connects to both tablets.

Unlike most of the other commands (see also v. 12), this one is not a prohibition; rather, it enjoins Israel to positive action. Israel is to remember (זכר zākar). The act of remembering here, as in the remembering of the Eucharist, means to appropriate actively as a present reality. The seventh day is to be marked as “holy time”—i.e., as time completely devoted to Yahweh.

The initial command of v. 8 is explicated in three parts. There is first an acknowledgment of six legitimate days of work. Then comes the command for a day of rest for the one addressed, ostensibly a land-owning man, who will provide rest for all creation under his dominion (vv. 9–10). Finally there is a motivational clause (v. 11).

The positive command itself indicates that sabbath remembrance is in fact a complete and comprehensive work stoppage. There is no mention of worship. The way in which this day is to be acknowledged as holy—i.e., different and special—is to separate it from all days of required activity, productivity, coercive performance, self-securing, or service to other human agents. Moreover, this covenantal work stoppage is not a special privilege of the male believer. The entire society that makes up the family, village, or clan is to share publicly in this act.

How is it that a covenantal work stoppage bears witness to this self-disclosing God? The answer is given in the motivational clause: Israel rests because God rests. This God is not a workaholic; Yahweh has no need to be more secure, more sufficient, more in control, or more noticed. It is ordained in the very fabric of creation that the world is not a place of endless productivity, ambition, or anxiety. Fretheim has made the case that exodus liberation is aimed at the full restoration of peaceable creation. There is no more powerful hint of that connection than in this commandment.

While the motivational clause links this teaching explicitly to creation, the preamble of v. 2 links the command to the exodus as well. Such a connection between the command and the preamble hints at a connection made much more explicit in Deut 5:12–15, where the motivation of creation has been subordinated to that of the exodus. In this text the purpose of the covenantal work stoppage is to remember and reenact the exodus. Moreover, Hans Walter Wolff has observed that the phrase “as you” in Deut 5:14 makes the sabbath a great day of equalization in which all social distinctions are overcome, and all rest alike. To be sure, that nice phrase is not present in our version of the command, but it is in any case implicit. The implicit act of equalization in sabbath witnesses to the intention of the creator that creation should be a community of well-being, in which all creatures stand together, equally and in shared rest.

Reflections

1. This sabbath commandment stands at mid-point between two other extended expositions of sabbath in the book of Exodus, both of which are important for explicating the command (16:5, 22–26; 31:12–17). The story of manna (16:5, 22–26) indicates that rest is possible because God gives enough food, and all who gather either little or much have equally enough. The command of 31:12–17 indicates that God needs to be “refreshed,” and therefore that those made in God’s image also need to have life (נפשׁ nepeš) restored (cf. Pss 19:7; 23:3). Sabbath is necessary because of God’s own vulnerability. Thus in sabbath, Israel relies on God’s generosity and participates in God’s vulnerability.

2. The sabbath command is given its foundation in the creation narrative of Gen 1:1–2:4a. That text, commonly taken to be exilic, is part of the development whereby Israel in exile comes to rely on sabbath as one of the two major distinguishing marks of Judaism. (The other is circumcision.) The cruciality of sabbath is further evident in Lev 26:1–2, where it is paired with making images as the preliminary to the great recital of blessings and curses. (Notice that these two verses have a double use of the formula “I am Yahweh.”) In Isa 56:4, 6, moreover, sabbath is reckoned as the key mark of keeping covenant in the community after the exile.

Sabbath looms so large in exilic and post-exilic Judaism because the Jews are now politically marginal and vulnerable. They are endlessly at the behest of someone else. Sabbath becomes a way, in the midst of such vulnerability, to assert the distinctiveness of this community by a theological announcement of loyalty to Yahweh. It is also a political assertion of disengagement from the economic system of productivity that never has enough. Thus Judaism in its covenantal work stoppage practices disengagement from the socioeconomic political enterprise that in its endless productivity offers safe, secure rest and well-being.

3. Contemporary practice of sabbath is not concerned to devise a system of restrictions and “blue laws.” Rather, sabbath concerns the periodic, disciplined, regular disengagement from the systems of productivity whereby the world uses people up to exhaustion. That disengagement refers also to culture-produced expectations for frantic leisure, frantic consumptions, or frantic exercise.

The pastoral issue for many persons is to develop habits and disciplines that break those patterns of behavior. Sabbath practice is not to be added on to everything else, but requires the intentional breaking of requirements that seem almost ordained in our busy life. Sabbath thus may entail the termination of routines, the disengagement from some social conventions, or even the lowering of one’s standard of living. The very concreteness of sabbath is a sacrament witnessing to the reality of exodus and to the governance of the creator who has broken the restless penchant for productive activity. The healing of creation, and of our lives as creatures of God, requires a disengagement from the dominant systems of power and wealth. Sabbath is the daring recognition that with the change of sovereigns wrought in the exodus, such unrewarding expenditure of labor is no longer required. It is only a bad habit we continue in our disbelieving foolishness (cf. Luke 12:16–20).

4. This fourth commandment is commonly placed in the first tablet, honoring the majesty of God. It belongs in the sequence concerning God’s sovereignty (first commandment), God’s freedom (second commandment), God’s holy name (third commandment), and now God’s holy time (fourth commandment). It is clear, however, that the neighbor concerns of the second tablet begin here to intrude upon the first tablet. The affirmation about God’s rest leads to a command about human rest. In this latter accent, sabbath serves to acknowledge and enact the peculiar worth and dignity of all creatures, and especially of human creatures. Consequently there are limits to the use of human persons, and of all creatures, as instrumental means to other ends. Sabbath is a day of special dignity, when God’s creatures can luxuriate in being honored ends and not mobilized means to anything beyond themselves. In the commandments that follow, we shall see that this limit to the “usefulness” of human creatures introduced in the fourth commandment now becomes a leitmotif for the second tablet.

Exodus 20:12–17, Neighbor Relations

Commentary

This set of six commands includes one positive command (v. 12), followed by five prohibitions. Calvin offers that charity “contains the sum of the second tablet.”

20:12. God enjoins Israel at the mountain to “honor” father and mother. The command consists in an imperative followed by a motivational clause. The command concerns the problematic relationships between one generation and the next. We have seen that the Exodus narrative is understood as a tale told to ensure that the children and the children’s children will know and embrace the memory of liberation (10:1–2). The book of Genesis is preoccupied with the safe transmission of blessing and promise from one generation to the next. Moreover, Michael Fishbane has suggested that the urgent command of Deut 6:4–9 evidences that the children were resistant and recalcitrant to the core teaching of Israel (cf. Ps 78:5–8). And Deut 21:15–17 attests to the fact that Israel struggled with the continuity of generations and the valuing of the life-world of the parents by the children. It may be that every society struggles with this issue, but the children’s loyalty is peculiarly urgent in a community whose faith works only by remembering unrepeatable events.

The command is to “honor.” The Hebrew term כבד (kābēd) includes among its meanings “be heavy,” suggesting the sense of “give weight to.” The negative warning of 21:17 forms a suggestive counterpoint to this command, because the term curse (קלל qll) may also be rendered “to treat lightly.” Such a nuance is important, because the command does not advocate obeying or being subordinate but treating parents with appropriate seriousness. Childs concludes that it was “a command which protected parents from being driven out of the home or abused after they could no longer work.” (Cf. Prov 19:26.) Calvin shrewdly notes that in Eph 6:1, the commandment is quantified, “in the Lord,” so that “the power of a father is so limited as that God, on whom all relationships depend, shall have the rule over fathers as well as children … Paul … indicates, that if a father enjoins anything unrighteous, obedience is freely to be denied him.”

The motivational clause concerns keeping the land, which is God’s gift. This is the only command of the Decalogue that includes land as a motivation. Several possible connections might be made concerning this command and its motivation. First, the connection may be a quite general one, that distorted relations between the generations lead to a forfeiture of shared well-being. Second, the connection may be a quasi-legal one, suggesting that the capacity to retain the inheritance (נחלה naḥălâ) of land depends on embracing the promises of father and mother. Third, if the land is understood as a result of withdrawing from the slave economy for the sake of a covenantal, egalitarian community, then the land will be held only as long as the covenantal vision is held with passion. In any case, socioeconomic security depends on the right ordering of interpersonal relations between the generations, perhaps between the generation of power and that of vulnerability.

20:13. The command against murder is terse and unadorned. While scholars continue to sort out the exact intent of the term murder (רצח rāṣaḥ), the main point is clear: Human life belongs to God and must be respected. Walter Harrelson (following Barth) takes a maximal view of the prohibition and interprets it broadly as “reverence for life”—i.e., all human life. H. Graf Reventlow suggests that the term murder originally referred to blood feuds and epidemics of killings that grew out of an insatiable thirst for vengeance between clans and families. Still other interpretations of this command suggest that murder is precluded within the community of covenant but that the prohibition does not apply outside of one’s own community of covenant. It is entirely possible that all such distinctions, in a kind of casuistry, make too fine a point. Appeal to Gen 9:6 suggests that biblical faith has drawn an uncompromising line against the taking of another life, period. Human life is intrinsically of value and may not be ultimately violated.

20:14. The prohibition against adultery concerns distorted sexual relations, or more broadly, distorted human relations. Again, the command is so terse as to invite and require interpretation. Most narrowly construed, “adultery” consists in the violation of the wife of another man. Such a patriarchal reading understands the woman to be the property and trust of a man. For ample reason, of course, the command has been much more broadly understood in Jewish and Christian communities. Most comprehensively, the prohibition points to the recognition that sexuality is enormously wondrous and enormously dangerous. The wonder of sexuality is available in a community only if it is practiced respectfully and under discipline. The danger of sexuality is that it is capable of evoking desires that are destructive of persons and of communal relations. It is inevitable that such a command will be subject to ongoing dispute, because around the subject of freedom and discipline in sexuality we deal with the most intense and elemental mystery of human existence. There is in this command neither license for permissiveness nor a puritanical restrictiveness. Everything else is left to the interpretive community.

20:15. The eighth command on stealing is characteristically terse. On the face of it, the commandment concerns respect for the property of another. It does not probe behind the social fact of “property” to notice, as Marx has done so poignantly, the probability that private property arises regularly from violence. It is enough that what is possessed by another must not be seized.

On the basis of Exod 21:16 and Deut 24:7, Albrecht Alt has proposed that the original form of the prohibition was “Thou shalt not steal a person.” The gain of such an interpretation is that it focuses on the cruciality of the human and is not drawn away toward lesser “objects.” It is, perhaps, neither necessary nor wise to choose between a more conventional focus on property and Alt’s focus. The materiality of Israel’s faith recognizes that selfhood includes the necessary “goods” to make a life of dignity possible. That, of course, leaves the vexed question of relation between the essential goods of the “have nots” and the extravagant goods of the “haves.” This command cannot be used as a defense of “private property” without reference to the kinds of sharing that are required for available human community. Harrelson concludes: “The commandment not to steal means, in effect, that persons are not to whittle down, eat away at, the selfhood of individuals or of families or of communities.”119

20:16. The ninth commandment (v. 16) is not a general command against “lying” but concerns courtroom practice. The prohibition understands that a free, independent, and healthy judiciary system is indispensable for a viable community. The courtroom must be a place where the truth is told and where social reality is not distorted through devious manipulation or ideological perversion. It is remarkable in this list of prohibitions that concern the sanctity of human life, the mystery of sexuality, and the maintenance of property, that courts should be so prominent. The prohibition, however, is a recognition that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.

The sphere of this command is narrowly circumscribed. Truth-telling concerns “your neighbor”—i.e., a fellow member of the covenant community. The neighbor is not to be “used” by lying in order to enhance one’s own interest. Community requires drawing a line against private interest in order to make social relations workable.

20:17. The tenth commandment, on coveting, is somewhat different from the other elements of the second tablet. It concerns the destructive power of desire. It is not helpful, however, to interpret “desire” as a vague, undifferentiated attitude. Rather, it here concerns desire acted upon publicly, whereby one reaches for that which is not properly one’s own. Such reaching inevitably destroys community. The text knows that humans are indeed driven by desire. The commandment regards desire in and of itself as no good or bad thing; its quality depends on its object. The tale of Genesis 3 is the tale of desire misdirected (cf. v. 3).

Notice that desire in ancient Israel is characteristically not directed toward sexual objects (as we might expect) but pertains primarily to economics. Its concern is to curb the drive to acquisitiveness. Thus the object of desire may be silver and gold (Deut 7:25; Josh 7:21) or land (Exod 34:24; Mic 2:2).

The supreme and legitimate “desire” of Israel is to do the will and purpose of Yahweh.

In this prohibition, the primary object of desire is the neighbor’s house. That “house,” however, includex wife (reckoned in a patriarchal society as property), slaves, and working animals. The command expects that within a community of genuine covenanting, the drive of desire will be displaced by the honoring of neighbor, by the sharing of goods, and by the acceptance of one’s own possessions as adequate. This commandment, placed in final position in the Decalogue, is perhaps intended as the climactic statement of the whole, referring to Yahweh’s claims at the beginning (v. 1). Yahweh’s victory over the Egyptian gods in the same action defeated the spiritual power of coveting.

Reflections

This second tablet, anticipated in the fourth commandment, indicates that the holiness of God puts God beyond the reach of Israel, and mutatis mutandis, the intrinsic worth of human persons as creatures of God puts humans beyond the reach of abuse and exploitation.

The second tablet is a magisterial assertion that human life is situated in a community of rights and responsibilities that is willed by God. Within that community, human life in all its ambiguity and inscrutability is endlessly precious and must not be violated. This affirmation seems so obvious that we are reluctant to voice it. It is now clear that in the obduracy of totalitarian society and in the rapaciousness of market economy, a humane life of shared rights and responsibilities is exceedingly fragile. The interpretive task is to show that this fragile bonding in covenant that guarantees dignity and well-being is a live possibility among us. The second tablet is indeed an articulation of a more excellent way; it is a way in which human life is intrinsically worthy of respect, in which human persons are honored ends rather than abused means, and in which rapacious desire is properly curbed for the sake of viable community.

1. The fifth commandment concerns the struggle between the generations, a struggle that is inherently filled with tension (v. 12). On the one hand, there can be a kind of traditionalism that submits excessively to “the way we were.” On the other hand, there can be a one-generation narcissism that imagines nothing important happened until “us.” That intergenerational tension requires a seriousness that does not simply capitulate but that honors in freedom and response. In the angel’s announcement to Zechariah, a remarkable transposition of the relation of the generations is anticipated: “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17 NRSV).

Here it is not the children who submit to the parents, but the parents who are “turned” to the children. This assertion of the angel does not override Moses’ command. Rather, the two statements are in tension, and adjudication requires that both parties, parents and children, must be engaged in the process. The commandment precludes a new generation that disregards the parents and does not give them due weight. The angel’s poem precludes a blind, mechanical submissiveness of children to parents. “Honor” is a more delicate, transactive maneuver, whereby both parties grow in dignity through the process.

2. The prohibition on killing asserts that human life is valuable to God, and under God’s protective custody (v. 13). No doubt distinctions and differentiations are to be made in enacting this command. The most obvious of these now before us concern capital punishment, war, euthanasia, and abortion. The interpretive community is of no single mind on these great questions, and no consensus is in prospect. The commandment itself states a non-negotiable principle and nothing more. That, however, is a great deal in a society where life is cheap, where technology is impersonal, where economic greed is unbridled, where bombs are “smart,” and where ideology is powerful. The murder that makes the newspapers signifies a breakdown of the human infrastructure, which legitimates brutality. The murder behind the headlines—i.e., the killing that happens a little at a time, mostly unnoticed and unacknowledged—is kept ideologically obscure. Such slow, unnoticed destruction diminishes human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves. The interpretive issue may be this: If human life is precious, what public policies are required in order to enhance and protect it? The old-fashioned responses of employment, housing, and health care are not remote from this command. Calvin counts on the positive application of this command, “that we should not only live at peace with men … but also should aid, as far as we can, the miserable who are unjustly oppressed, and should endeavor to resist the wicked, lest they should injure men.”

Jesus intensified the command to include anger (Matt 5:21–26; cf. 1 John 3:15). One wonders whether in our society Jesus might have focused not on anger but on cynical indifference that is sanctified by a greedy, uncaring individualism that is in its own way killing.

3. The prohibition against adultery concerns the primal mystery of human existence and viable human relationships (v. 14). Our interpretive concern, of course, moves beyond the patriarchal assumption that operates with a double standard. Fidelity should be the guiding theme of interpretation of this command, as distinct from legal arrangements that bespeak old property practices and rights. Formal, legal relations of marriage provide the most durable context and basis for such fidelity. They do not, however, in and of themselves amount to fidelity. Our social context has few models or norms for fidelity of a genuine conventional kind. (It is for that reason that the relation of Yahweh-Israel or Christ-church have become such powerful models and metaphors, though these metaphors are beset with enormous problems in their patriarchal articulation.)

Continuing reflection on this commandment, which concerns genuine fidelity, may go in two directions. On the one hand, there is a struggle with legally constituted relations (marriage), which are not always relations of fidelity because of abusive behavior and a lack of authentic mutuality. On the other hand, there is a struggle concerning the possibility of a genuine relation of fidelity that is outside the conventional sanctions of legal marriage. It is clear on both counts that interpretive issues are not simple and one-dimensional.

In its fullest interpretation, the command against adultery envisions covenantal relations of mutuality that are genuinely life-giving, nurturing, enhancing, and respectful. Such a notion of long-term trust is treated as almost passé in a narcissistic society, preoccupied with individual freedom and satisfaction.

4. There are many ways to “steal a self” (v. 15). Such a focus in the eighth commandment raises important issues regarding what it takes to make a self socially viable. We are, of course, aware of theft and household burglary. We are increasingly aware of white-collar crime whereby large sums of money and property are seized in seemingly “victimless” crimes. Serious covenantal relations preclude such activity.

We must take care, however, that our interpretation of this commandment is not a mere defense of private property and the status quo as a justification for the unjust distribution of goods. Faithful interpretation requires us to probe even the subtle forms of “theft” that rob persons of their future. Here are three facets of theft to which the commandment may point.

First, the terrible inequity of haves and have nots in our society (as in many others) means that babies born into acute poverty are at the outset denied any realistic chance of surviving in a market economy. Because we believe in the goodness of God’s creation, we believe such children are intended by God to have what is necessary for an abundant life. Very often, however, they do not—because they have been robbed of their future. They are not robbed by “bad people”; they are robbed by power arrangements and structures that have long since relegated them to the permanent underclass. Over such arrangements and structures, the command speaks out: “Thou shalt not steal!”

Second, a like theft continues to occur between developed and developing nations, whereby a long-term pattern of deathly dependence is fostered. For a long time Third World countries have been treated only as colonies, natural resources, or markets, kept in a dependency relation, so that nearly all benefits of the relation go to the developed economy and its colonial agents. Patterns of military control and credit arrangements guarantee not only long-term dependency but a predictable cycle of poverty, hunger, and endless destabilization. There is no doubt that we in the West are the primary beneficiaries of such practice.

Third, in interpersonal relations that lack mutuality, characteristically there is an aggressor and a victim. In that unequal relation, which is carried on by invisible but brutal power, the “self” of the victim is endlessly stolen and diminished. The radical vision of Moses is that covenantal practice does not permit these modes of destructive power in relations, public or interpersonal.

5. The three commands on killing, adultery, and stealing together constitute something of a special group. Not only are they the most tersely expressed commands, but also they all address the ways in which vulnerable persons in community are assaulted, diminished, and destroyed. Such actions, condemned in these commands, are all acts of uncurbed power, which fails to recognize that the perpetrator and the victim share a commonality and a solidarity that preclude destructiveness. Contemporary interpretation need not get bogged down in casuistry about this or that command, but can focus on the shared solidarity that precludes destructiveness, either in the transactions of public (economic) power or in the intimacy of interpersonal relations.

6. Viable human community depends on truth telling (v. 16). This commandment is not concerned with “white lies,” but the public portrayal of reality that is not excessively skewed by self-interest or party ideology. The primary point of reference is the court, where witnesses speak and testimony is given. The commandment insists that courts must resist every distortion of reality, every collusion with vested interest (cf. 18:21; Pss 15:2; 24:4), which makes such truth telling prerequisite to worship.

More broadly construed, the commandment enjoins members of the covenant community not to distort reality to each other. The major pertinence of the prohibition in our society is the collapse of truth into propaganda in the service of ideology. That is, public versions of truth are not committed to a portrayal of reality, but to a rendering that serves a partisan interest. Such a practice may take many forms. Among the more blatant practices of “false witness” in recent times has been the use of propaganda through which defeat has been described as military victory or reporting has simply been silenced, so that no truth need be told at all. Such a public tendency is not new. Isaiah 5:20 already addresses those who distorted reality (self-)deception.

Moreover, Jeremiah understood that religious leadership is equally tempted to deception, which both advances institutional interests and seeks to give credence to theological claims (see Jer 6:13–14; 8:10–11). The commandment continues to expect that there is a viable alternative to this deceptiveness in public life.

7. The final commandment on coveting does not address general envy (v. 17), but concerns a kind of acquisitiveness that destabilizes the property and, therefore, the life of another. Marvin Chaney has shown that the oracle of Mic 2:1–5 is, in fact, an exposition of the command. That is, the command concerns primarily land and the development of large estates at the expense of vulnerable neighbors.

The propensity to covet in our society is enacted through an unbridled consumerism that believes that the main activity of human life is to accumulate, use, and enjoy more and more of the available resources of the earth. An undisciplined individualism has taught us that we are entitled to whatever we may want no matter who else may be hurt. Such individualism, however, is driven by a market ideology based on an elemental assumption of scarcity. If there is a scarcity of goods needed for life, then energy and passion are generated to gather and accumulate all that one can (cf. 16:19–21). M. Douglas Meeks has shown that the ideology of scarcity, which drives our economy, is, in the end, an act of theological doubt that does not believe that God’s providential generosity is finally reliable. This commandment summons the faithful to break with the practice of acquisitive individualism and to reject the ideology of scarcity upon which it is based. Thus the commandment requires a massive repentance that is theological in substance, but that is manifested economically.

This commandment functions as a crucial conclusion to the entire Decalogue. We may note two important connections to the preceding commands. First, this command is related to the command on sabbath. Whereas coveting is an activity of untrusting restlessness, sabbath resists such anxious activity.

Second, the decision to cease coveting relates to the first commandment. Giving up such a fearful ideological pursuit cannot be accomplished by an act of will. Rather, it may grow out of an affirmation that the powers of coveting and greedy consumption have been defeated. Such powers, then, need have no control over us. In Col 3:5 (NRSV), the first and tenth commandments are nicely joined: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly … greed (which is idolatry).” Violating the tenth command derives from a violation of the first.

8. In interpreting any of the commandments, it is important to discern clearly the position they occupy in biblical faith. It is possible to conclude simply that these are the most foundational absolutes of God’s purpose in the world. That is, the commandments occupy a peculiar and decisive claim, articulated in the categories of revelation. They disclose the non-negotiable will of God.

Alongside that claim, George Mendenhall’s political understanding of the Decalogue may be useful. Mendenhall has proposed that these ten commands are “policy” statements. They are not in themselves guidelines for specific action, but provide the ground and framework from which specifics may be drawn. Taking them as policies links the commands quite clearly to the concrete community Moses formed. This means that, rather than contextless absolutes, they are proposals that counter other kinds of policies. Such an understanding invites adherents to this covenant to recognize that they have made, and are making, peculiar and distinctive ethical decisions related to a core decision about covenantal existence.

There are important ecclesiological implications in such a recognition. In fact, in some older Christian liturgies, the commandments are recited at baptism. In baptism, the believer pledges allegiance to a vision of social reality that is rooted in God’s wonders and deeply at odds with the dominant assumptions of an acquisitive, individualistic society. The community of faith in our time urgently needs to recover the programmatic intentionality of these commands.

9. In Matt 19:16–22, Mark 10:17–22, and Luke 18:18–30, Jesus alludes to the commandments, though he does not cite them all. Two matters strike us in reading those narratives. First, the reference to specific commandments is kept selective. Harrelson observes that Jesus uses only those commands that pertain to the rich—i.e., the one to whom he speaks. Second, the commandments are, for Jesus, a first-level demand, preparatory to the more rigorous demand, “Go, sell, give, come follow.” In these narratives, the commands are not considered unattainable modes of conduct; they are, rather, the threshold to more serious discipleship and a step on the demanding way to “eternal life”!

 

 

 

(re)Learning to Believe

This week, we’re taking a look at another story from the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land (Exodus 17:1-7).  In the middle of a desert, the Israelites complained about the lack of water, wondering if God was with them or not, calling for Moses’ head, and wishing they were back in Egypt.  Unlike the previous story where God was empathetic toward their plight, in this passage, God was not pleased with their attitude and behavior.  What’s the difference?

When I was home for Thanksgiving break during my sophomore year of college, I had an intense heart to heart with my parents.  In short, I asked them if they really loved me.  While the question was born from a desire for a better, more expressive relationship, and was painful for me to bring up (and surely painful for them to hear), there are aspects of the conversation that now make me cringe.  Here I was, at home, having flown from Kansas to Michigan to be with the family at my parents’ expense.  I stayed in my own bedroom which my parents provided.  I was wearing clothes purchased mostly from money they earned.  I was on break from college that they essentially made financially possible.  My belly was full of food I did not pay for.  All of these were indicators that my parents loved me.  Yet I had the audacity to ask if they loved me!  They showed me one more way that they loved me.  They didn’t kick me out of the house!  In fact, they listened quietly, shared their sorrow over my feeling the way I did, and were entirely graceful.  They recognized on some level that my passion was matched by my immaturity.  I couldn’t see what was in front of me.

The evening before the Israelites complained about their lack of water, they ate quail that miraculously showed up at camp every evening.  They fell asleep under the glow of the glory of God displayed in a pillar of fire, and arose to a pillar of cloud to signal that God was there with them.  The morning of the day they complained, they collected manna from heaven, baking it into enough sweet bread to get them through the day – another miracle they experienced daily.  After all this they asked if God was still with them!  This is why Moses named the place Massah (test) and Meribah (arguing) - their immature arrogance got the best of them, and they would be remembered for it.

We still do this, don’t we?  The way we do this has changed over time, but we still cry out wondering if God exists at the top of our lungs at times, not aware that we have breath in our lungs that enable us to cry out, let alone hearts to pump our blood, brains to process everything we’re constantly doing to stay alive, including raising our fists to God.  All of these things declare the reality of a very much alive creation that is fearfully and wonderfully made.  Like me at 19, we react recklessly instead of responding after reflection.  This behavior may shed light on our despair, but it also illumines our ignorant, immature arrogance.  We are Israel in this regard.  This is a specific take home that this narrative provides.  Yet there is a more global application as well.  It turns out Israel had a lot to relearn about faith. So do we.

What we see happening here will be an ongoing struggle for Israel’s entire journey, which happens to be humanity’s journey as well: choosing to embrace a very new and different paradigm of faith than had been previously employed.  Paradigms don’t change easily or quickly.

Ignaz Semmelweis advised doctors and surgeons to wash their hands to avoid spreading bacteria.  He was largely ridiculed and dismissed because everybody at that time thought that bathing in general was harmful to one’s health.  Elizabeth I was considered a clean freak because she bothered to bathe once a month! Louis XIII was reportedly not bathed at all until he was seven years old!  Civilized Europeans didn’t do such things.  Only toward the end of the 19th century was basic hygiene considered appropriate for good Americans to do.  It took generations to unlearn the false way of thinking about cleanliness.  Generations!  People were truly convinced that bathing would cause irreparable harm!  Research and observation helped recognize the issue, and eventually full-on marketing campaigns were used to convince Americans that being clean was the right thing to do.  But it took a long time.

The people of Israel had a paradigm of belief largely borrowed from the culture around them which they would need to unlearn.  They understood faith to look a certain way, and expected God to act in ways thatfit their belief construct.  God, however, was trying to create something entirely new.  Their view of God was a merit badge theology where we do our part, and then God does God’s part.  It’s sort of a contract.  We can read words that seem to allude to this way of thinking throughout the Bible. So long as we’re good believers, God will come through.  For all who are not good believers, God will come through as well, we think, by rewarding them with nothing at all or worse – judgment.  “They’ll get theirs” we tell ourselves.  One day, they’ll face the Judge and get the punishment they deserve.  This rhetoric is all over the Bible.  It is ancient, it is easily embraced because that’s how we’ve made sense of everything in our world.  We do our part of the deal and God does God’s part.  Simple math.  Uncomplicated.  Seemingly fair.  We feel at home with this theology.

What happens when we stay with that old story? Train wreck in every possible way as we evaluate and judge our situation and others’ according to our reference point.  We will continue to view the world through a narrow lens that always colors reality in hues that favor ourselves while spotlighting the problems of others.  When we give into this easy old story, we become increasingly binary, categorizing everything as simply right or wrong, people as friends or foes, and believers as “in” while unbelievers as “out”. Fortunately, this is not the story that defines God.

The people of Israel were being invited into a new story, a better story that was and is being written by God that is not merit based but rather founded in a grace that is at the very heart of creation itself.  From the very first chapter of the Bible we read the creation poem reflecting God’s desire to create, and every step of the way declaring it good, culminating with human beings made in the likeness of God who are very good.  Very good.  Reflections of the divine.  This is our foundation: that we are inherently good and loved by God – even when we act out of selfish ambition that hurts ourselves, others, and our connection to God.  This also means we are inherently valued and loved by God unconditionally.  The idea of earning God’s favor simply doesn’t fit because we already have it, and always have.

When we embrace this idea we find our steps ordered very differently.  Our motives come from different places.  Our eyes are focused differently.  We are not afforded a view that separates simply into binary categories where we are usually right and those unlike us are wrong.  This broader, unitive way of being is clearly evident in the Prophets, Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter, yet often gets overlooked because the language they used to communicate to their audience necessarily had to be familiar.  The constructs familiar to their audience were more akin to the Israelites’ at the “water rock”.  The Way of Jesus will always sound like a contrast, I guess, because we human beings will always feel drawn toward regressive paradigms that allow us to remain in control.

Knowing our tendency, we must therefore ever keep before us words like those from the Apostle John, who seemed very in touch with the Spirit: God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them (1 John 4:16 NLT).  Pretty simple.  Pretty obvious.  Like washing your hands.

Manna and Quail and Loaves and Fishes and Rice and Beans and...

Let’s take a slow walk through an incredibly important event as the people of Israel were making their way from Egypt toward their homeland (Exodus 16:1-34 – NLT).

Then the whole community of Israel set out from Elim and journeyed into the wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Mount Sinai. They arrived there on the fifteenth day of the second month, one month after leaving the land of Egypt. 2 There, too, the whole community of Israel complained about Moses and Aaron.

3 “If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.”

Note: Anxiousness messes with us.

Question: How does it mess with hungry travelers?

Pete’s thoughts…  When we are anxious, we’re not our healthy selves.  We act out in a number of ways.  We get angry quicker, or we withdraw, or we get hyper and restless.  Sometimes we unintentionally get ourselves into messes because we do not recognize that we are in an anxious space.  We behave in ways we otherwise would not, and things go south.  Perhaps if we remind ourselves that when we are under excessive stress we are not at our best, we will be more mindful of our behavior.

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Look, I’m going to rain down food from heaven for you. Each day the people can go out and pick up as much food as they need for that day. I will test them in this to see whether or not they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they will gather food, and when they prepare it, there will be twice as much as usual.”

Note: God didn’t scold people for their anxiety-induced behavior.

Question: How should we treat people who are living with anxiety?

Pete’s thoughts…  Related to the previous thoughts on anxiousness, I wonder what might happen if, when seeing a person acting out in ways not typical for them, we would choose to wonder if they may be under undue stress.  How would things be different if we open up an umbrella of grace with people instead of reacting back with equal and opposite force?  It says so much about the character and nature of God – so surprising for many, I bet – that God acts with grace after taking context into consideration.  Let’s follow suit.

6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “By evening you will realize it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt.7 In the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaints, which are against him, not against us. What have we done that you should complain about us?” 8 Then Moses added, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and bread to satisfy you in the morning, for he has heard all your complaints against him. What have we done? Yes, your complaints are against the Lord, not against us.”

9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Announce this to the entire community of Israel: ‘Present yourselves before the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole community of Israel, they looked out toward the wilderness. There they could see the awesome glory of the Lord in the cloud.

11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the Israelites’ complaints. Now tell them, ‘In the evening you will have meat to eat, and in the morning you will have all the bread you want. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

Note: Being heard matters.  Being heard matters.  Being heard matters.  Being heard matters.

Question: When we deal with stressed people, how well do we communicate that we hear them?

Pete’s thoughts…  Recently a friend was sharing an insight he had learned after being married many years and also being a father to daughters.  “Women don’t want the men in their life to fix their problems – they really want us to listen.  My wife tells me that from time to time.”  Which means on occasion my friend shifted from listening mode to fixing mode.  God is quoted as saying “I heard you” four times within a brief amount of time.  How hard do we try to listen for understanding – to the point where those we talk with would say they felt heard?

13 That evening vast numbers of quail flew in and covered the camp. And the next morning the area around the camp was wet with dew. 14 When the dew evaporated, a flaky substance as fine as frost blanketed the ground. 15 The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. “What is it?” they asked each other. They had no idea what it was.

And Moses told them, “It is the food the Lord has given you to eat.16 These are the Lord’s instructions: Each household should gather as much as it needs. Pick up two quarts for each person in your tent.”

17 So the people of Israel did as they were told. Some gathered a lot, some only a little. 18 But when they measured it out, everyone had just enough. Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed.

19 Then Moses told them, “Do not keep any of it until morning.” 20 But some of them didn’t listen and kept some of it until morning. But by then it was full of maggots and had a terrible smell. Moses was very angry with them.

Note: The bread of God cannot be hoarded.

Question: Which faith system orders your steps, Egypt’s or Israel’s?

Pete’s thoughts…  Bible scholar Leander Keck offered a keen observation worth sharing on this: “They want to establish a surplus, to develop a zone of self-sufficiency. The people in the wilderness immediately try to replicate the ways of Egypt by storing up and hoarding out of anxiety and greed. However, this bread (bread of another kind given by God) cannot be stored up. The narrator takes pains to underscore that stored-up, surplus bread is useless. Bread that reflects self-sufficient anxiety and greed will have no food value for Israel, so that the bread of disobedience breeds worms, turns sour, and melts.”  Of course, it’s not just literal bread to which this applies.  When we hoard love and grace, a similar results occurs.  I once told a highly knowledgeable Christian that he was spiritually constipated.  He knew all about love and grace, but hadn’t shared it with anybody.  Instead of being marked by beauty, he was bitter.  Even with love and grace, it rots if we don’t share it.

21 After this the people gathered the food morning by morning, each family according to its need. And as the sun became hot, the flakes they had not picked up melted and disappeared. 22 On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much as usual—four quarts for each person instead of two. Then all the leaders of the community came and asked Moses for an explanation. 23 He told them, “This is what the Lord commanded: Tomorrow will be a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath day set apart for the Lord. So bake or boil as much as you want today, and set aside what is left for tomorrow.”

24 So they put some aside until morning, just as Moses had commanded. And in the morning the leftover food was wholesome and good, without maggots or odor. 25 Moses said, “Eat this food today, for today is a Sabbath day dedicated to the Lord. There will be no food on the ground today. 26 You may gather the food for six days, but the seventh day is the Sabbath. There will be no food on the ground that day.”

27 Some of the people went out anyway on the seventh day, but they found no food. 28 The Lord asked Moses, “How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions? 29 They must realize that the Sabbath is the Lord’s gift to you. That is why he gives you a two-day supply on the sixth day, so there will be enough for two days. On the Sabbath day you must each stay in your place. Do not go out to pick up food on the seventh day.” 30 So the people did not gather any food on the seventh day.

Note: Sabbath is a gift to protect, not a law that enslaves.

Question: How are you protecting Sabbath in your life?

Pete’s thoughts…  We need space and time to just rest with people who matter to us.  To build relationship.  To reconnect.  To be loved and to love.  But we live as if that was a lie.  We over extend ourselves, using up every second with whatever urgent issue arises.  We are left with fragmented lives filled with not-quite-whole relationships with the people we love the most.  To enjoy the gift of Sabbath requires time and intent to make it happen.  It is a gift – let’s unwrap it.

31 The Israelites called the food manna. It was white like coriander seed, and it tasted like honey wafers.

32 Then Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Fill a two-quart container with manna to preserve it for your descendants. Then later generations will be able to see the food I gave you in the wilderness when I set you free from Egypt.”

33 Moses said to Aaron, “Get a jar and fill it with two quarts of manna. Then put it in a sacred place before the Lord to preserve it for all future generations.” 34 Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded Moses. He eventually placed it in the Ark of the Covenant—in front of the stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. 35 So the people of Israel ate manna for forty years until they arrived at the land where they would settle. They ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.

Note: Passing on the story matters.

Question: How are you sharing the story with those in your sphere?

Pete’s thoughts… This chapter of the Exodus came with and object lesson, a physical reminder of all that the manna represented.  What reminders to you have before you to keep things fresh, and to point to so that others might learn of your hope as well?

 

Bonus themes:

Note: God transformed the wilderness… and still does.

Question: Are we stuck in our certainty that or wilderness is devoid of life?

Pete’s thoughts… It is very easy to be so consumed by our difficult seasons that all we can see is darkness.  If we will be mindful, however, our wilderness times can become the richest times of our lives.  If you are in a wilderness period right now, mine it for all it’s worth, because there are gemstones under your feet.  I will help you if you need help to see them.  (Mining is work – but it’s worth it).

Note: Jesus fed 5,000+ from next to nothing.

Question: What dots would people connect between these two feeding stories?

Pete’s thoughts… When Jesus fed the 5,000+ from next to nothing, people would have immediately associated it with this manna story.  The biggest take-home was that what Jesus was bringing was from God, given to the listeners in a literal wilderness of space and time.  God showed up, and there was enough for everyone.

Note: The Apostle Paul referenced this manna passage in 2 Corinthians 8:8-15.

Question: How does Paul’s charge to the first century faithful speak to us today?

Pete’sthoughts… It is alittle embarrassing that we’re 20 centuries removed from Paul’s instruction, yet we still struggle with it as if we were the first audience.  We live in a wealthy part of the world.  We need to share as we are able.  The culture will call us to spend our money on tomorrow’s garage sale items or to hoard our money “just in case”, but we can all be better stewards.  There is enough in the world for everyone’s need; there is never enough for everyone’s greed.

And a final thought from Leander Keck:

It is not accidental that at the end of the miracle of the bread, Mark reports that they “did not understand about the loaves” (6:52 NRSV). They did not understand because “their hearts were hardened.” It is a high irony that in an allusion to the manna story, it is now the disciples, not the people of Pharaoh, who have “hard hearts.” Hard hearts make us rely on our own capacity and our own bread. In the end, they render all of these stories of alternative bread too dangerous and too outrageous for consideration. As a result, the bread practices of Pharaoh continue to prevail among us. In the presence of those practices, this community continues to watch the jar, tell the story, and imagine another bread that is taken and given, blessed and broken.

There is a lot in this passage to chew on.  What will you incorporate from it going forward?

The Oldest Song We Can Sing

The first line I read in my research on this particular passage went something like this: this is one of the most profound poems from the Jewish faith in the entire Bible.  That got my attention.

The reason it is so significant is because it restates the Jewish understanding of God so clearly, harkening back to the creation poem in Genesis chapter one, where out of the waters of chaos God brought forth life.  Now, in this poem (Exodus 15:1-21), God used the water of chaos to defeat Pharaoh’s army in order to save the people of Israel.  In the poem, Moses makes one thing abundantly clear: this was all God’s doing, born out of God’s love for the oppressed Israelites.  Pharaoh, the self-identified demigod who ruled the world’s super power of that time was no match for God.  Ant, meet shoe.

There are times in life when it seems the presence and power of God are undeniable, when we stand in awe of God.  Sometimes being immersed in creation draws our attention to the Creator.  Or when a baby is born.  Or when deep love is abundantly displayed in some profound way.  Or when it feels like God has intervened in some special way.  There are many stories from WWII where it seems like God’s hand showed up and caused a gun to jamb, or a leader to not advance troops, which allowed for life to go on.

I’ve experienced physical healing, what I claim was divine intervention.  I prayed, and the pain left and soon after my ailment healed after years of failed treatment.  I experienced divine intervention after a car wreck.  After such experiences, I sang pretty loud songs of praise to God.

Sometimes we experience God intervening in other ways, seemingly aligning stars for a particular reason.  My family experienced this in July at a camping trip which brought us into deeper relationship with a couple we’d met weeks before.  All of us were wondering if God somehow orchestrated this coincidence, and wondered why God might bother.  Note: I don’t generally play this card, and wouldn’t except that the likelihood of all of this happening was so small we simply couldn’t shake the thought that somehow God was in it.  When these types of things happen, it feels natural to be grateful to God.

At other times it is not so easy to sing, because we sense God’s lack of intervention.  Our prayers don’t get answered the way we hoped.  The gun didn’t jamb when it was pointed at a loved one.  The wreck took life.  Sometimes “it” hits the fan and spreads it everywhere.  We look for someone to blame.  Sometimes it’s us. Sometimes it’s someone else.  Sometimes it’s a destructive system.  Sometimes it’s Mother Nature.  Sometimes it sure feels like God could have intervened.  I bet there were some Jews on the victory side of the sea who, while they were delighted at God’s defeat of Pharaoh’s army, wept, wishing God had acted sooner, before their sons were thrown into the Nile, or their loved one died from beatings because they didn’t meet their quota of bricks.

I bet everyone has been impacted by the pain cancer has caused.  I know I have grieved the loss of many lives taken by this indiscriminate foe.  And how many millions of Jews died because the war ended too late?  How many tens of thousands of Japanese were immediately incinerated or slowly, excruciatingly painfully killed from radiation because the threat of a nuclear bomb wasn’t taken seriously, and because we dropped it.  How many people today are stuck in human trafficking, being exploited for their work or their sexuality?  Love to stream porn?  Do you really think all those different women are hoping to be porn stars?  Wake up!  The greatest likelihood is that they are on camera under threat. 

In these times, it’s hard to sing a song about God’s immense power to deliver us from evil.  So we turn to other songs in the Bible.  Like Psalm 42 and Psalm 44.  These are good songs for excrement-filled days.  If my coarse language here offends you, perhaps you haven’t actually had one yet.  Sometimes vulgarity allows for appropriate expression.  Isn’t it good to know the Bible itself gives us permission to vent?

So, where are we then?  Seems a little wanting to sing praise to God for being omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent when it feels like God didn’t quite have enough in the tank, or made a poor choice, or just plain didn’t show up where needed.

The Jewish people were no strangers to oppression.  Most of their existence as a people has been on the receiving end of someone’s hatred.  In all of history, they haven’t truly ruled their own land for much longer than the United States has hers.  Think about that.  In 4,000 years of history, they’ve had their hands on their own steering wheel (speaking in geopolitical terms) for a few hundred years.  Their glory days were during the reign of David and Solomon.  That was around 1,000 BCE.  Not long after Solomon reigned, everything fell apart.  They have faced one challenge after another forever.  Why do they still sing praise to God?

The Jewish faith (which is the foundation for Christian faith) believedGod to be constantly good, constantly active, and constantly loving.  God cannot be otherwise.  God’s choice to redeem Israel in the exodus from Egypt had nothing to do with Israel’s holiness or DNA.  The move had everything to do with God’s unchangeable character of love.  For ancient Jews, reading the story of Adam and Eve reminded them that life is sometimes “excrementy”.  Sometimes it feels like a snake in the grass is the source.  Sometimes it’s people we love and are supposed to love us back -  they defecate on it.  And sometimes we’re the ones who do the defecating.  That’s a whole lot of excrement!  Maybe that’s why the Garden grew so much fruit!  The Garden story reminds us that life is sometimes awful for a wide range of reasons, not the least of which is our own individual arrogance and quest for greater power, even equality with God.  We’re told from the get-go to expect life to be like that.  But this Jewish story also tells of their generation-after-generation experience of God as One who is loving despite our shortcomings and outright defiant rejection; One who comes to heal, restore, instruct, and help move forward.  This is the nature of God, our Ground of Being, Ultimate Reality: Love.

This great, eternal truth is very good news – the same Good News Jesus proclaimed as a corrective to a too-narrowly defined legalistic interpretation of the Jewish faith at that time by the Sadducees who were in charge.  The Good News is this: no matter how excrementy things get, the end of the story is the goodness of God.   I’m not talking about some wimpy, cop-out, denial of and checking out of reality while we wait for heaven.  I’m talking about living through the grit and shit knowing that it does not mean the absence of God, but in fact simply is an expression of the reality of life.  But a reality that need not and should not define us.  Our ultimateidentity is in the person of God, who is with us through and through, supporting and sustaining us even as we wade through the cesspools of life.  When we choose to praise God for this hope which rings eternal, it is an act of honest, strong defiance against that which would have us think less of ourselves, the cosmos, and God.  Praising God even in the midst of the shitstorm is an act of giving the finger to cancer, to evil, to tyranny, to all that tries to go against what is eternally good.  It is a statement declaring that we choose to be defined by our identity in God and nothing less.  This allows us to move forward not with strength instead of fear, joy instead of mourning, because that which gives us life is eternal and cannot be compromised by the light and momentary troubles we may experience here and now.

While such a metaphor may offend our modern sensibilities, the whole claim of rescue, deliverance, and salvation depends on the reality that God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It is as though the utterance of Yahweh’s name is a defiant challenge to any power that might try to undo the liberation and force the singer back into bondage. The singer anticipates the Pauline assertion: “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16 NRSV). This singer is not embarrassed to take a strong stand for the future in this affirmation. The singer is buoyant and delighted at the new possibilities the reality of this God makes possible. The remainder of the poem explicates this passionate faith and sure confidence… It is the liturgic remembering and hoping of every community of the oppressed that catches a glimpse of freedom and authorizes liturgical (and eschatological) exaggeration to say, “Free at last!” When the song is sung, clearly this is not yet “at last.” The community at worship, however, can dare such exaggeration, because its hope is more powerful and more compelling than any present circumstance. – New Interpreter’s Bible

May we choose to recognize the majesty of God not only when it is so obvious, but especially when it is not, that we may be beacons of hope as we sing the song that cannot be silenced and must be sung: Where, o death, is your victory?  Where, o death, is your sting?

Why are we doing this faith stuff, again?

Joseph was long gone.  So was the Pharaoh who made him second in command over Egypt.  Time changes everything.  At the end of Joseph’s days, the people of Israel (his dad’s extended family) were welcomed into the foreign country with open arms.  A few generations later, the Israelites (who worked hard and no doubt contributed to the country’s bottom line) were viewed as a threat to Egypt’s national stability.  The king treated them harshly with slave labor, but they kept on reproducing.  Giving in to the fear, Pharaoh gave an unthinkable order.

The king of Egypt had a talk with the two Hebrew midwives; one was named Shiphrah and the other Puah. He said, "When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the sex of the baby. If it's a boy, kill him; if it's a girl, let her live."
     But the midwives had far too much respect for God and didn't do what the king of Egypt ordered; they let the boy babies live. The king of Egypt called in the midwives. "Why didn't you obey my orders? You've let those babies live!"
     The midwives answered Pharaoh, "The Hebrew women aren't like the Egyptian women; they're vigorous. Before the midwife can get there, they've already had the baby."
     God was pleased with the midwives. The people continued to increase in number—a very strong people. And because the midwives honored God, God gave them families of their own.
     So Pharaoh issued a general order to all his people: "Every boy that is born, drown him in the Nile. But let the girls live." – Exodus 1:15-22 (The Message)

A couple of questions come to mind for me at this point.  The Pharaoh did not remember, did not know, or did not care about the history of the Jewish people.  I wonder if anyone told him about Joseph’s influence, or if the Pharaoh Joseph worked for simply got the credit for saving Egypt from famine?  So, one question that comes to mind is this: what are some historical moments we do not want our children and grandchildren to forget, lest they forget history and therefore become more inclined to repeat it?

On another note, we are introduced to Shiphrah and Puah, two Hebrew women who were as courageous as Pharaoh was horrific.  They put their lives at risk to ensure that Jewish boys lived.  When held accountable, they played into Pharaoh’s ignorance that fueled his fear.  “Hebrew women are champions when it comes to pushing out babies…”  Reminds me of tales of Brer Rabbit from American slavery days.  Brer Rabbit was a fictitious folklore hero who outwitted those who tried to trap and kill him.  African slaves, knowing that their masters thought them to be lazy and dimwitted, used the prejudice to their advantage at times.  Ingenious creativity in the face of terror that protected life as best as possible.  A question that comes to mind for me at a time in our country that is so divided is this: how are we creatively doing our part to insure that endangered people are allowed to truly live?

The story builds…

A man from the family of Levi married a Levite woman. The woman became pregnant and had a son. She saw there was something special about him and hid him. She hid him for three months. When she couldn't hide him any longer she got a little basket-boat made of papyrus, waterproofed it with tar and pitch, and placed the child in it. Then she set it afloat in the reeds at the edge of the Nile.
     The baby's older sister found herself a vantage point a little way off and watched to see what would happen to him. Pharaoh's daughter came down to the Nile to bathe; her maidens strolled on the bank. She saw the basket-boat floating in the reeds and sent her maid to get it. She opened it and saw the child—a baby crying! Her heart went out to him. She said, "This must be one of the Hebrew babies."
     Then his sister was before her: "Do you want me to go and get a nursing mother from the Hebrews so she can nurse the baby for you?"
     Pharaoh's daughter said, "Yes. Go." The girl went and called the child's mother.
     Pharaoh's daughter told her, "Take this baby and nurse him for me. I'll pay you." The woman took the child and nursed him.
     After the child was weaned, she presented him to Pharaoh's daughter who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses (Pulled-Out), saying, "I pulled him out of the water." – Exodus 2:1-10 (The Message)

A story that was generally awful just got very personal for a particular Jewish woman.  This wasn’t just some child, this was her child, and she was not about to let her baby drown.  So, she did what people do when they realize they are up against the wall – she did whatever it took to save her son.  A calculated risk all the way around.  If she got caught, she could be killed.  If the baby got discovered by the wrong person, he could be drowned.  If the baby was found by a crocodile, well…  Serious risk. 

Of course, the story went well.  The baby was discovered by a sympathetic princess who wanted a pet, I guess?  Or was this willful disobedience against her Pharaoh-brother born out of compassion?  Very curious.  All of this was witnessed by the boy’s sister, who arranged for her own mother to be the nurse maid.  Clever.  But risky.

I wonder if we would be so creative and courageous if we knew the stakes were so high.  Of course, for most of us in these parts of the world, such a threat seems incomprehensible and extremely unlikely.  But if we were faced with such a foe, if our own flesh and blood were on the line or our kin or our country, I think most of us would act with great bravery and sacrifice willingly.  What would you be willing to do if you knew there existed a real threat that endangered your life and the life of those most important to you?

There is a Pharaoh that threatens.  I don’t think it’s Kim Jong-un, although I think he’s nuts and might just do something incredibly stupid that will hurt many people (he has already ruled in ways that hurt North Koreans – why stop there?).  I don’t think it’s ISIS, either.  They are nuts for sure, so deeply committed to their version of radical, fundamentalist Islam.  I don’t think it’s Trump, or our Congress, even though I think they are each pathetic in their own way and continue to underwhelm us all.

There is a threat that I think seeks to undermine our lifeline, our capacity to really live life as it was meant to be lived.  The Bible actually speaks into it from cover to cover.  The name of our foe may change over time – Pharaoh one day, Nebuchadnezzar the next – but their game plan is essentially unchanged.  Our Jewish ancestors knew that their way of engaging life as people of God was being threatened.  Their culture was built around the belief that God was with them wherever they went, and that basing life on the faithfulness and goodness of God was what would lead toward a truly blessed life corporately and individually.  That is the message of Jesus, too.  He spoke of competing kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world – as being in sharp contrast to one another.  He said bold things about the need to decide which one we would follow, and that only one would lead to life.  Not many find it.  When we try to grasp our individual lives with clenched, white-knuckled fists, Jesus says we will lose it.  Yet when we release our lives, entrusting our ethos to the way of Jesus (the Kingdom of God), we find the life we are looking for.

The Church in the United States is in decline.  An increasing number of people don’t care, and may in fact want to see the Church’s demise accelerate.  I think for many, however, the Church as a whole seems unnecessary for people who are spiritual but not religious.  Why do we even need the Church, anyway?  We can get whatever spiritual input we want from a wide range of websites, podcasts, books, etc., many of which offer excellent content?

Believe me, I think a significant reason the Church has lost so much favor over the years is the Church’s fault.  The Church has been arrogant, unbending on the wrong things, failures at standing for the best things, and has become a political pawn on both the left and right side of the aisle.  This is a terrible tragedy, because the purpose of the Church is to proclaim the teachings of Jesus which called us to see the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world and decide which one would receive our pledge of allegiance.

The kingdom of this world we are intimately familiar with today proclaims from all sectors that the pursuit of personal happiness and success is ours to pursue.  It’s even written into our country’s founding documents.  Go after the life you want, on your terms, defined by you – the American dream.  Our entertainment celebrates it, our capitalistic economy counts on it, our politicians craft speeches that tap into it, our military protects it on a global level.  God is an accessory in our plot to enjoy life.  So long as we feel inner peace when we need it, we’re good.  But this is not the Way Jesus lived or taught.  And while it may give us moments of serenity, it is not the real deal.  It is a false way, and given the multitude who are on it, a highway.  Jesus said that the way is wide and many are on it – that way that leads to destruction.  Not life.

The Way of Jesus, however, is narrow, and few find it.  Why? Because it’s not the norm.  It walks to the beat of a different drummer who doesn’t play familiar rhythms.  The Way of Jesus is foreign and uncomfortable and even unwelcome because it challenges us to think beyond ourselves, to rely on and center ourselves on our identity as entwined and animated by God, which leads us to see others as equally valued and therefore worthy of our respect and inclusion.  This way is radically different than one focused almost solely on our personal, private pursuits to satisfy and build our own puny kingdoms.  It feels like death.  Yet Jesus says it is the way to life.

Influenced by the false kingdom, we think of church as an accessory item that we may or may not adorn, depending on any number of factors.  Instead of being a place where we are reminded of the Kingdom of God and what it means to live under it’s influence, it’s value is measured with the criteria of the culture – if it’s not doing anything for me, I have no patience for it.

If we really believe that this faith thing is legitimate, then we must behave as if were so.  We must muster the courage that the four women in the first chapter and a half of Exodus displayed.  It will need to be creative, it will be different, it will feel risky because it isn’t mainstream, and it just might save a lot of people from literal and figurative death.

What kinds of behaviors need to change?  We live in a spiritually attuned culture that treats God as an on-call therapist – that’s the kingdom of our world.  This Kingdom of God, however, demands that our connection to the Divine be the central, driving, animating force in our lives. We live in a radically individualized culture – that’s the way of this kingdom of our world.  The Kingdom of God calls for community.  The kingdom of our world seeks self-preservation at all costs.  The Kingdom of God, however, is service-of-others oriented, proclaiming that true greatness comes from being a servant, even a slave to the needs of others. Somehow we find our deepest needs met as we base our lives on God’s love and learn to love others well.

How are you creatively countering the culture of this world with the culture of the Kingdom of God? 

How are you fostering a life that is truly centered on a vibrant relationship with God?

How are you engaging others on the Way in genuine community?

How are you serving others in your midst because they are inherently valuable as brothers and sisters created by the same God?

Your Family: Define or Inform You?

In this teaching offered by Sam Altis, we engage the story of Joseph at the end of the Bible's book of Genesis.  Joseph had lots of reasons to perpetuate a nasty family system.  Instead, he chose to break the cycle.  Instead of being defined by the family that deeply influenced him, he chose how his future decisions would be informed.  Are you defined or simply informed by the family system that formed  you?

Striving Toward Heneni

Please enjoy the following weird story from our Bible...

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. – Genesis 32:22-32 (NRSV)

After many years of keeping his distance, Jacob was about to meet his brother Esau again.  As you may recall, Jacob swindled Esau out of his birthright by preying on his vulnerability as well as their father’s blindness in order to get that more-than-twice-as-powerful position as the blessed first born.  Jacob was used to running.  He ran away from his equally slick father.  Now Jacob was all alone.  Everything that mattered to him was on the other side of the river.  The next morning would be a new day (which could have very well been his last).  It was a terrible night.  Jacob experienced a wrestling match that took him from dusk until dawn.  It was the most pivotal night in his life to that point.  Who would Jacob choose to be in the morning?  Would he cross the river, or take his exit as he had so often in his past?

This is a story about striving.

The Hebrew word in question here can sometimes be translated as struggle, or even wrestle, but the most accurate seems to be “striving”, which is defined as: “make great efforts to achieve or obtain something” (Oxford English Dictionary).  This is not a casual exercise.  This is where you leave everything on the mat, as if your life depended on it.

In the story, this isn’t a dream.  The story is passed down that an actual incarnation of God in human form showed up, unannounced.  Furthermore, this person took the initiative – Jacob did not invite him to his campsite.  This seems to be a recurring theme about this God the Jewish people are talking about – this God doesn’t stay in the heavens, but comes down among us.  And this God doesn’t come down to ruin our lives or sleep with our brothers and sisters – this God comes to bring something good to us.

There were likely a range of reasons Jacob chose to sleep alone on the other side of the river that night.  One handy reality was that if he chose to slip away into the night, never to be seen again, he could.  I think a big part of this strife in darkness was that this was to become one of his defining moments.  He did not know what the next day would bring.  Death, perhaps.  Surely a part of him had to consider giving up on the dream, of God’s dream, for his life.  I think that, more than anything else, is what the striving was about.  Would he become the man he was meant to become, or cower once more, tricking his way out this mess and begin yet again as the trickster who knew how to make a deal and work the system.

If you cannot relate to this, I wonder if you’ve ever had a deep, reflective thought in your life.  Perhaps you’ve skated throughout life never wondering about who you are or who you are becoming.  Sometimes we don’t want to wonder because it can be a painful experience.  Denial feels easier, and is easier, for a time.  We can binge on Netflix and avoid personal reflection for a long time.

But shallow living catches up to us eventually.  We were made for love and depth.  When we avoid those things, we will struggle – strive – with despair.  We will face the mirror at some point (even if for a brief moment) and realize that we may have missed Life.  In those moments, I believe the presence of God enters the room to strive with us.  Not to beat us down for being idiots, but to strive with us in the sense of helping us overcome that which keeps us from Life itself.

Sometimes what keeps us from life itself is shame. 

ü  Or guilt. 

ü  Or fear. 

ü  Or anger.

ü  Or sorrow.

ü  Or the company we keep.

ü  Or our depression.

ü  Or… 

Lots of things can keep us from life.  Lots of things distract us from seeing and seeking Life itself.  Surely Jacob could check all these boxes.  Especially when we are alone and are quiet (his campground didn’t have Wi-Fi), we can be flooded with these “adversaries”.  Sometimes it may even feel like it is God who is bringing the battle.  But I don’t think that’s the case.

It seems to me that God is much more interested in blessing than cursing.  Accountability comes for all of us, of course, but only when the Life of God is held high to give us something to contrast our lives with.  God has no need to judge – we’ve got that down to a science.

What God does do really well, however, is come alongside and whisper (or sometimes shout) words of hope and blessing to us.  Words of love and encouragement about who we are and who we can become.  I think Jacob faced his demons that night and was tempted to retreat.  But God was there in the flesh to strive with Jacob through the night, calling him forward, calling him into the morning light, a new day, a new chapter in which he would see the promises come to fruition.

When morning came, there was no clear winner.  Jacob got a new name – one which would become the name for an entire nation of people – the Hebrew people – the cross over people – the people who strive with God in order to cross over rivers into myriad Promised Lands. 

And Jacob also got a limp.  An injury that would remind him of the striving.  Don’t mistake this as some form of punishment to turn God into a jerk and Jacob a needless victim.  On the contrary, I am confident Jacob was grateful for the limp, because as far as everybody thought at that time, to see God face to face meant certain death.  Jacob was alive and moving forward toward promise.  His limp would forever cause him to be grateful, not bitter.  He saw God in a new way by the dawn and put a word to it.  That’s how these things usually go: we strive with God by our side, and we discover a new level of beauty that perhaps we didn’t see before, and it adds to our language about this incredible One we seek and serve.  Of course, the paradox is that we are sought and served more than we seek and serve…

Where are you camping in your life right now?  What does it mean for you to cross the river?  What are you striving against?  Do you realize that God strives with you toward your best, most true self?  You have a teammate with you to help you along the way.  God is not your foe as it sometimes may seem.  God is your champion. 

Another interesting tidbit...  The story ends without the Stranger leaving.  Some scholars think this is a hint that God never left Jacob’s side, especially as he faced his brother in the very next scene.  Perhaps God has never left you, either.

But wait, there’s more!  This was the second of three visions experienced by Jacob.  When the third vision comes, Jacob’s response is different than the first two.  In the first vision, Jacob’s reaction was “Wow!”, and in the second was a wrestling match.  The third time around, when Jacob realizes he is experiencing the Divine, his response is, “Heneni!”  Heneni is a Hebrew word that shows up only a handful of times in the Hebrew Bible.  It translates, “Here am I.”  Jacob, toward the end of his life, finally matured into a person who trusted the nature and character of God so much that his response was simply, “I’m in.” 

Don’t wait until the end of your life to get to Heneni.  Strive toward Heneni now, because life is short and Life awaits.