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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Liberation—Exodus 20:1-17 (John Allen)

The first commandment—that Israel should have no other gods beside YHWH—is the foundation for our liberation, as it was for Israel. It delivers us from all other ideas or powers that might claim our absolute loyalty and obedience.

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You 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. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You 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.

Pharaoh seems to know what it takes to keep a people down. In response to Moses’ organizing, he tells his overseers, “Let heavier work be laid on [the Israelites]; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words” (Exodus 5:9). And it works. Next time Moses goes to speak with his people they cannot listen to him, “because of their broken spirit.” They could not bear to imagine God’s promise because they were simply out of breath. This is the core of Israel’s predicament in slavery. They cannot be free without enough spirit to hear and speak of God’s new vision, but they cannot speak or hear while they are out of breath. God must act so dramatically, and so decisively, that Egypt will drive God’s people out into the wilderness. Then, in the wilderness, God sets to work molding a people who are truly free from slavery and able to undertake the responsibilities of life in community with God and one another.

The journey through the wilderness and toward Sinai is the process of God’s persistent effort to interrupt the habits of slavery. God institutes a day of rest when giving the instructions about gathering manna: never again will Israel become so breathless in their work that the spirit of new life cannot blow among them. God encourages Moses to share leadership, so that no one human leader will ever be regarded to be as indispensable as God. Then at Sinai, when God begins to utter the law, God reminds the people, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” and instructs them: “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). Far from being a demand of fidelity on the part of a jealous and insecure deity, this first commandment lays the foundation for the freedom that God desires for humanity. That is the freedom to live out their lives as ones formed in God’s image. This is the critical re-orientation required in recovering from the psychological state of enslavement. It frees the people to regard only the authority of God as absolute.

The foundation of the divine law is that it liberates humanity from the responsibility to revere anything other than God. It is not hard to know the other gods that demand the reverence and allegiance of people today. Our global capitalist system claims itself to be the ‘invisible hand’ which can right all social woes and advance human flourishing. The governments of nation-states demand the allegiance and obedience of their citizens. There is nothing in God’s commandment that, on its own, would prevent people from participating in these systems. It is not God’s desire that we never act as consumers or citizens. Rather, it is God’s insistence that our responsibility to God’s authority is the only responsibility that we regard as absolute. Our identity as children of God, our responsibility to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, take priority over any of the demands made on us by the state. This is the meaning of this prologue to God’s law. If we pledge our allegiance to a false God—or to some worldly notion that parades as a cosmic absolute—we risk becoming like the breathless Israelites, unable to hear God’s call toward liberation and redemption. I have found faithful people have little difficulty living out their convictions in miraculous and beautiful ways, so long as it comports generally with the expectations of civil society and prevailing economic behaviors.

Today’s Christians readily lend a hand to clean out the home of a beloved member, they offer their homes to provide hospitality, they give rides, cook meals, they even give away their money. I wonder, though, what would happen if they were asked to live out their conviction in opposition to the state. I wonder what would happen if—as I believe it does—God’s demand for justice requires us to behave in ways that are beyond the boundaries of what the state will tolerate. Here I worry that most of us fail to honor this primary commandment. The gods of our everyday life hold more sway over our conscience than the God who gave us the freedom to make such a choice. The foundation of the first commandment is liberation. God’s desire for our undivided devotion sets us free from the burden of evaluating between the sources in our world that claim to be absolute. We simply know that they are not. Only God is absolute. God whose vision outpaces even our most forward-thinking leaders. God whose love encompasses more of the world than we can even hold in our heart. We are set free from breathlessly seeking to make our own future. We are liberated into devotion to that God alone.

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