1 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. …
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. …
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. 18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”Exodus 20:1–4, 7–9, 12–20 (NRSV)
American Christians’ two most common approaches to biblical law are contradictory and have blunted its transformative political power. On one hand, the biblical law is taken to represent the legalism that Christians are freed from in Christ. On the other hand, the Ten Commandments (as the epitome of biblical law) are put on public display to proclaim and reinforce America’s purported Christian foundations. Sadly, the lectionary pairings and elisions for this day encourage both these problematic approaches. I propose an alternative reading of the Decalogue (“ten words”) in Exodus 20:1-20 that draws out the political radicalism of sabbath keeping in a late capitalist economy.
The lectionary pairings of Exodus 20 with Philippians 3 and Matthew 21 encourage the unreflective preacher or Bible reader to fall into an interpretive dichotomy between Jewish law and Christian gospel. Christians shaped by long traditions of supersessionism and Christian triumphalism find it is natural to equate Paul’s Pharisaic credentials, “righteousness under the law” (Philippians 3:6), with Jewish faithfulness to biblical law. Like Paul, they conclude, Christians should repudiate this “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4) and seek instead the righteousness “that comes through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:9).
Similarly, the lectionary juxtaposition of Exodus 20 with Matthew 21 encourages Christian readers to identify themselves with those who “produce the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43), in contrast to “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (Matthew 21:45) who have God’s kingdom taken away from them because of their failure to love. Both lectionary pairings invite Christian readers to set the New Testament passages over against the “ten words” of Exodus 20, rather than in continuity with them. This discourages Christian exploration of the contemporary political implications of the Decalogue and its call to neighbor love.
Conversely, the lectionary decision to omit certain verses from the Exodus 20 passage plays into an alternative, politically charged approach to the Ten Commandments among some American Christians: exalting them as an iconic text that should be displayed in schools, courthouses, and other public places. The public display of the Ten Commandments has become emblematic of Evangelical Protestant political goals.
In these displays, there is no acknowledgment of the two biblical versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), nor of the differing numberings developed by Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities. There is no context-setting prologue (Exodus 20:1-2) identifying the giver of the law as the liberating God “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Like the lectionary version, the public displays omit any elaboration of the commandments regarding idolatry and sabbath keeping. In fact, in public displays of the Ten Commandments there is sometimes no text at all, only two tablets with Roman numerals from one to ten! The Decalogue becomes a symbol of Christian hegemony, not a text to be pondered and lived out.
My approach rejects both legalistic and hegemonic readings of the “ten words,” and puts at the center the commandment to keep the sabbath in Exodus 20:8-11. This may seem an unlikely place to focus, given that the discipline of sabbath keeping has often been linked to religious legalism, and that in the context of American pluralism the commandment to observe the sabbath seems especially susceptible to public religious coercion. Yet I argue that for Christians and Jews living in a capitalist “24/7” economy, this portion of the biblical law has deep political traction. It is an invitation to freedom.
Poised in the middle of the “ten words,” the instruction about sabbath keeping looks both backward and forward. The sabbath commandment looks back to the commandments about God. It reminds readers that God hears the cries and responds to the suffering of the vulnerable (Exodus 20:2) and warns against giving ultimate allegiance to any other power or authority (Exodus 20:3-6). In the literary context of Exodus 20, that would be the power and authority of Pharaoh, whose exploitative labor practices permitted no sabbath rest for anyone (see Exodus 5:4-19). The sabbath commandment itself insists that the God who commands sabbath keeping is a God of rest, not of frenetic, unceasing activity (Exodus 20:11). If God can rest, then so can creatures. God builds sabbath into the rhythm of creation, in recognition of creaturely finitude and frailty.
The Sabbath commandment also looks forward, setting the tone for the commandments about love of neighbor that follow. Sabbath observance is particularly important for the poor and powerless: children, slaves, livestock, and strangers (Exodus 20:10). Those in Israel who are relatively rich and powerful must beware of replicating the Pharaonic exploitation from which God has delivered them. This sabbath emphasis on providing rest for the vulnerable is spelled out more explicitly in Exodus 23:12: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and resident alien may be refreshed.” Sabbath keeping is not a fastidious religious ritual, set apart from daily life. It is not an attempt to impose a Christian calendar on others. It is rather a practical expression of care for the neighbor. Other parts of the biblical law expand this principle to the sabbath year and the jubilee year (a sabbath of sabbath years; see Leviticus 25:1-55). All of God’s creatures and the earth itself deserve freedom from ceaseless toil.
Just as the Decalogue cannot be understood outside the context of God’s revelation to a particular community of people, so it is always read into a particular social context. Contemporary American Christians come to the text as those living in the Anthropocene Epoch, in which human economic activity has become the leading geological force, bringing pollution, climate change, species extinction, and biodiversity loss in its wake. They come as participants in an economic system premised on continuous economic growth. They come as consumers whose purchases often rely on the availability of cheap goods produced and delivered by underpaid and exploited workers in their own country and abroad. A commitment to sabbath keeping under these economic conditions should take public form in demands for freedom and rest for the most vulnerable, including child laborers, immigrants, and undocumented workers.
A commitment to sabbath keeping also calls us to reject our own enslavement to the idol of the market. As Kathryn Tanner notes, the work ethic of contemporary global capitalism is also a time ethic: “One should manage time as one would any financial asset, to make the most of it, to put it to profitable use in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible, losing no time, wasting no time, leaving no time undercapitalized, as it were” (168). The Sabbath commandment is a word of freedom and of resistance to an economic system that is destructive to ourselves and our planet. Christians and Jews should join together to press for secular laws that protect their religious insight into God’s gracious intentions for creaturely life.
To those caught up in the idolatry of the current capitalist system, it may seem tempting to justify sabbath rest as a means of refueling for the work that lies ahead. But as Abraham Heschel insists, sabbath keeping is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of human work. Instead, it is to celebrate “a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord” (3).
Those who try to keep the sabbath are not catapulted to some superior spiritual status. Rather, they see themselves as people who have been given the time and the fellow travelers they need to live into the freedom God desires for all. The Ten Commandments are not simply a set of ancient laws from another time and place. Nor are they a set of transparent and universally applicable moral guidelines to be imposed on others. They are instead an invitation to practice a deeper love of God and neighbor.