Contained in this pericope (to use posh langauge for 'chunk') is the familiar listing of the Decalgoue/Ten Commandments, familar material and more of the stuff I had to learn by rote for 'O' level RE back in the day. It's useful having a bit of context around it.
I'll not bore readers with stuff around stylistic hints at melded sources, which I haven't bothered to check and which, by now, everyone is aware are plentiful. I'll just pick out a few themes and comment on them.
We are now three new moons - or three months - into the adventure, and the people are now camping in Sinai.
Sanctity of the Earth
Early in chapter 19 we read these words attributed to God:
"the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation"
Nothing radically new here, we all know that the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, but it is striking that precisely at the moment Israel is emerging as, or discerning itself to be, something special, chosen to be lifted out of slavery and established in a plentiful land, this reminder is given. The whole earth is God's, and therefore all creation is precious... in Genesis it was all declared 'good' now we begin to see that not only is it good, it is in some way holy, sanctified.
At the end of chapter 20, in a rarely read paragraph, God says this:
You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.
Following straight after the decalogue, perhaps this is the weaving in of material from another tradition, since some of what it says has already been implied. And yet it also offers something extra... well a few extra things actually.
The command to have no silver or gold gods alongside the LORD suggests very clearly that the people were polytheistic... you could worship this YHWH God but it didn't mean you couldn't have other gods too, at least until now. This is subtly different, I think, from the prohibition of idols, which I have always been led to believe referred to images meant to represent YHWH.
Central to this command is the instructions about altars... sacrifices made by the people are to made on altars ideally of earth or otherwise of unhewn stone. In other words, the altars are to be totally natural, part of the earth, which belongs to the LORD, and is good. If altars are somehow sanctified, then by implication the earth or stone is inherently sacred. This seems somehow to express a real rootedness in the natural order, and a respect for the earth that does not seek to plunder or exploit. God doesn't need fancy altars with ornate decoration or carefully hewn stone, the earth IS the Lord's, and all of it is, in some measure, holy ground.
If we believe this to be so, then it has to affect our thinking about envirommental and ecological matters not in a simplistic way, but in one that recognises both God's sovereignty and the intrinisic sanctity of the earth.
Oh, and on a lighter note, is the prohibition of steps up to altars to avoid anyone discovering what is worn under the "kilt" - as amusing as it is serious!!
The Priestly Nation
As Christians we are more used to hearing this idea in the words of the Apostle Paul than spoken directly from the mouth of God. From very early on we are told that Israel is not given favoured-nation status in order to enjoy the privilege and bounty that offers, rather as a nation it is to be holy (set apart for God) and priestly (acting as a 'bridge' or go-between to God for others).
I think it is fair to say that neither Israel nor the Church have ever grasped this. Partly because it is probably counter-intuitive, and partly because it is so incredibly difficult to begin to live out.
If Israel is to be a priestly nation than, based on how we understand priesthood, her role is to act on behalf of all nations, all peoples... which isn't how the story seems to unfold. In the Temple cult, the priest made sacrifices on behalf of those who were ritually prohibited from doing so, they carried our rites of initiation, penitence, consecration and so forth. Quite how this can be paralleled at a national level is not so clear. But surely it must include some sense of praying for othe rnations, seeking their good and, yes, sharing the story of the God who is worshipped with them
As Baptists we talk about the Priesthood of All Believers, and rightly so, recognising our interconectedness and interdependence, at least at a congregational level. But what if we saw ouselves also as some kind of Priestly Entity, called to serve the whole world? I expect we think we do, I'm just not so sure it's quite so easy to live it out in a really meaningful way.
Details in the Decalogue
The list of commandments includes some that are stark statements, such as 'thou shalt not kill', and others that are are quite detailed, such as the prohibition of idols or of covetousness. Why some have been amplified and others not is maybe worth some thought, but it's a couple of details that struck me today.
The NRSV which I have been using says "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".
This is helpful, I think, and moves us beyond the simplistic understanding that renders phrases such as 'OMG' blasphemy. I have to say I really dislike the use of such phrases and expressions, and find them at best disrespectful to the faith tradition I follow. Years ago I trained a colleague out of saying "Oh my God" by pointing out he wouldn't like it if I said "Oh my His-name" as a lightweight expletive.
It is both helpful and challenging because it speaks to any context where something is enacted in the name of God, of Christ, of Allah, of any deity at all... it could be epxressed as 'do not go around claiming divine warrant for everything you do...' complete with the 'not being found blameless if you do so inappropriately' consequence.
The second thing that struck me, again not new, but more notably, was that the sabbath rest is for everyone... the Israelites were not to exploit slaves or foreigners or even livestock on the sabbath. This idea of rest for all is one we have long since lost, and one that seems nigh on impossible to achieve... many depend on buses to get to church, we nip into coffee shops or cafes, we buy papers or petrol... To achieve one perfect Sabbath, which according to some Jewish tradition will bring in the Messianic Era, seems an impossible dream... but the intent of this command, to ensure that our leisure is not enjoyed by denying that of others, including animals, is worth pondering some more.