By way of introduction to this series on the Ten Commandments, I've a video clip to show, then I have three questions to consider. The video clip is from an old late-night show called The Colbert Report – an interview of a congressman who has been out of office more than ten years. I'm not sharing his name or state – so if you know, please don't. My point isn't to poke fun at him, but rather to see in him a near-perfect example of how Empire and scripture so often intersect. Video Clip
Question One: What are the other seven commandments? Our trusty congressman gave us three. (Extra points if you know where they go in order.) You’ll notice I massaged the language a bit. Black preaching has a saying: If you ain’t heard something and you ain’t seen something, you ain’t got nothing. This massaged language is based on thirty years of seeing and hearing the Ten Words used abusively in church.
1. I AM the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery. Don't make other beings into gods.
2. Don’t make things into gods.
3. Don't use my name for anything but me – I AM.
4. Keep the Sabbath.
5. Respect the elders.
6. Don't murder.
7. Don't do adultery.
8. Don't steal.
9. Don't lie.
10. Don't covet your neighbor's house or spouse.
The Ten Commandments are also called Decalogue. Do you know the word “Decalogue”? Deca- means “ten”; logue means “words.” Ten words. For too many people – people like our friend the congressman and many of our brothers and sisters INSIDE church – Ten Commandments is a billboard. Something posted and large enough to hide behind, but never read. Never carved into our hearts and minds.
But not for the people of God. They are God’s gift for life as free people. Where they hang is irrelevant, if they do not hang on the walls of our life together; if they are not written on our hearts, as the Apostle Paul said. The Ten Words are the words of life for free people.
Question Two: If the Ten Words are not for decorating public buildings, what are they for? Spoiling your fun? In 1992 Mariah was 18 months old and about to poke her tiny fingers into an electric outlet. One of my campus ministry students – now a chemistry professor at Mississippi State – said, "Oh, it's fine. She'll get a little buzz and it will teach her not to do it again.”
"Or, she will die," I responded – and then bought lots of these outlet covers. Dr. Gwaltney has two sons, both of whom, thankfully, have lived to graduate high school. I suspect their mom bought these outlet covers for their house too. Because good parents don't bring babies home from the hospital, set them down, and turn them loose, do they? That isn't freedom. That's neglect.
The Lord our God did not bring the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of that houseful of horror and trauma and bondage of slavery, to leave them to fend for themselves in the wilderness of their own memories, terrors, cravings and imagination. What are the Ten Words for? For knowing how to live as free people. They are good news: from God, to the people of God and – even more so – to their neighbors.
I AM is starting over – AGAIN. The garden. The flood. Abraham. Now Moses. And these Hebrews. A new kingdom unlike any that the living or their ancestors have ever known. Unlike, that is, the empires of this world. Pharaoh embodies, in this section of scripture, the political and economic system built from an infrastructure of false scarcity.
The allegiance, the faith, demanded by empire and gladly kept by citizens and slaves is to the trinity of wisdom, wealth, and power. Empire wisdom, Empire wealth, Empire power – that elusive tease of some future trickle-down effect: trust the empire, enrich and empower the empire, and you too will prosper. The devil’s lie from Eden, to the desert, to here and now.
I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of THAT house, the scripture says. You belong to me and to my kingdom: a kingdom with an infrastructure of abundance; a kingdom that keeps faith in the faithfulness of I AM, faith that the One who set you free means to keep you free as well.
What does Pharaoh (Empire) value? Wisdom, Wealth, Power. What does God who brought us out to set and keep us free value? Faith. Justice. The common good. Again, the Ten Words are not just good news for us only. They are good news for our neighbors: I'll never steal your wife or husband; I don't want your house or land or goats; I won't steal your food or tell lies about you and your family. Those are empire ways, and we've had enough of empire to last ten thousand lifetimes.
We choose freedom. Freedom inside a very, very big fence built not to spoil our fun but to keep us ALL safe – us and our neighbors – whom God also loves like a good parent loves her children; where God is trustworthy – trustworthy to provide all we need to live. Manna, remember? Bread from heaven. Only that's not what the word manna means, do you remember? Manna means “what is it?”
Martin Luther wrote (this is Martin Luther the German Lutheran from 500 years ago, not Martin Luther King Jr. the Georgia Baptist from 50 years ago) that whoever has the Decalogue has the whole Bible. Everything else is the story of God raising the people of God to be free. They fail. Repeatedly. Empire is a tricky devil and so very, very, very seductive.
Which brings us to the third and final question: Why do we need the Ten Words at all? The answer is in your homework – all forty-seven chapters of it (Genesis 37 through Exodus 20) – which I know you have read, so I can blow through it quickly.
Once upon a time, long before the time of Moses, the Hebrews were free. But they were also few. There was Jacob, his four baby mamas and his thirteen kids, all living in Canaan. Of his twelve boys, Joseph was his favorite. So much so that Jacob dressed him in extra-expensive, fancy, tailor-made clothes, while the other boys worked out of a pile of Target t-shirts and shorts. As you would expect, Joseph was a terrible brat. He'd gather his brothers and tell them about his dreams in which he was a king and they were all his servants, bowing down to him and obeying his every command.
Naturally, being brothers – and this being the Bible – they decided to kill him. As they contemplated his means of death, a better offer came along. They sold him, naked, to slave traders. They pocketed the money, dipped his fancy pants in goat's blood and told their father his precious Joseph had been eaten by a beast. One tale says that Jacob went blind from weeping over Joseph all those years. After many adventures, Joseph ends up in Egypt – not as king, but almost. He's right-hand man to the Pharaoh, in charge of food security for the entire Egyptian Empire.
"Pharaoh" is the Bible's first archetype of Empire. All the wealth and power necessary to thrive, Pharaoh already has. Only he doesn't believe it. No matter how rich he gets, he dreams of starving to death; he dreams of scarcity. He needs more. Joseph helps him make a plan to get more. With Joseph's help, Pharaoh – Empire, remember – buys, stores, and hoards food over years and years until he possesses a food monopoly for the entire region, including Canaan. Food = power. Always. The Hebrews end up coming to Egypt to buy food.
Joseph is still a jerk to his brothers, like when you know you are going to start being good (go on a diet or stop drinking, etc.) on Monday – so what do you do all weekend? How do you act on the weekend? That's Joseph in Genesis chapters 42, 43, 44 and 45. He's horrible, because he knows that in chapter 50 he's going to forgive them for everything they did. But not yet. So in chapter 50, Joseph acts right to his brothers. The family is restored.
But politically, socially, economically, biblically, the deed is done, isn't it? The Hebrews are in Egypt now, under the thumb of the Pharaoh. And for the next 400 years, the Hebrews do what? They have babies. Thousands and thousands of babies. All the while, the Pharaoh’s dreams of scarcity also increase. He strangles the people by starving them, so that all the people are forced to use all their money to buy food.
When their money runs out, Pharaoh says, Okay. You can pay with your livestock. When the money and livestock are gone, they have only one asset left: their land. What choice do they have? They pay for food with their land. They sell themselves into slavery in order to eat.
Joseph is long dead – see Exodus, chapter 1. Memories are always short (for everyone in the scriptures, except the prophets), and the Pharaoh is richer than ever, but no less anxious; and he is no longer driven by greed, but rather by fear. By fear of the very people he owns. Why? Because there are too many of them.
The twenty members of Jacob's family have become a population of thousands. The age of anxiety, Dr. Brueggemann calls it. Where politics and economics no longer make sense because they aren't driven by policy or economics at all, but rather by anxiety and fear. Anxiety at the top of the Empire always means misery and suffering at the bottom.
The Hebrew workers are literally being tortured – treated as machines, disregarded as human beings, serving only to increase profits for the Pharaoh, to pacify the anxiety of the Empire. It's a circular, impossible strategy that inevitably explodes in violence. The workers cry out. The Empire cracks down harder. They cry to the heavens – and God hears. Finally. After so, so long.
It's tempting to think God wasn't listening. But eighty years earlier, what happened? You remember. A little girl put her baby brother in a basket in a river. God planted a Hebrew asset in the Pharaoh's own house. He was long gone from the Pharaoh's house when God sent him back.
God's purposes ALWAYS require human agency. And Moses gets them out. God leads him and he leads them from Egypt to the wilderness up to Mt. Sinai. They are not as happy as you might think – it is the Bible after all; someone's always fussing. Their bodies may be free from making bricks, but freedom of the heart and mind is a much longer journey. They sold themselves into Egypt, remember. And all they know is slavery.
Being free isn't the same as knowing how to live free. Free from anxiety; free from greed; free from the never-ending craving for certitude. And you don’t have to be the Pharaoh to crave certitude, to want to know for sure what tomorrow will bring. It's a long, long, long way from slavery to freedom. A long, long education, learning to live free.
Ten Words, the scriptures offer to the ones who believe we belong to God, beginning with I AM the God who brought you out of Empire, the God who will keep bringing you out day after day after day, out of a world that will enslave you to anxiety and fear and promises it can never keep. You belong to me, and if you will let yourself belong to me, let my words guide you, my words can be all the words you ever need – and more than you can ever fully know.
May this be a word of the Lord for today.