The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.
Chapter 4: I Am Yahweh
The first Commandment according to the Jewish numbering system is not a commandment at all. That is, we with our legalistic Western minds would never see a commandment in these words because they contain no injunction as to what we should or should not do. For this reason, Western Christians have tended to treat what the Jews considered as the first of the holy Ten Words as if it were a prologue rather than an integral part of the Decalogue. Yet if we would understand the impact of these laws, we must deal with what the Jews believed was the first and, therefore, the most important Commandment.
"I am Yahweh who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the House of Bondage." To the Jewish mind the statement about God’s being Constitutes a commandment to believe, which is nothing less than a command to acknowledge the reality of God’s total claim upon their lives. God is not an impersonal power, an "it" to the Jewish mind. Neither is God identified with nature, reason, fate, or with any philosophical concept. God is the source of life, the source of consciousness, the source of personality, moral purpose, and ethical action.
God is beyond time, beyond space, so the Jewish Psalmist could write, "If! go into heaven, you are there. If I go into hell, you are also there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall you find me." God is beyond all the human limits of time and space; God is in the heights and in the depths of life, but most uniquely to the Jewish people and the Jewish mentality, God is Yahweh, the Lord of history. Here at the heart of the Law, the affirmation about the God of the Covenant is not "I am Yahweh, the Creator of Heaven and Earth." It is not, "I am Yahweh, Lord of Nature." That would be distant, inimitable, impersonal, and that is not the Jewish focus. Rather it is, "I am Yahweh, who acts in history. I act to free slaves, to bring justice. I act to give life. I am Yahweh whose love embraces the lowly and the downtrodden, the powerless. My love calls them into life. I am seen in the destinies of human beings. I am revealed in historic deeds. I act and you respond. I love before you deserve. Because I act and because I love, you are called to respond in love."
Obedience is not a duty, not even in the Old Testament. Obedience is the response of a grateful recipient to the infinite love of Yahweh. The Covenant people are not called to keep the Commandments in order to win God’s love. They are called to keep the Commandments because God has already loved them. It is a eucharistic or thanksgiving effort and they keep the Commandments because they yearn in some way to respond to this infinite, loving, graceful God. The Old Testament is not law as opposed to the New Testament’s grace. That is a Christian corruption of the Old Testament, an attempt to denigrate our Jewish heritage. God does not change. The God of Jesus of Nazareth is still the God of Moses. The Jews took the Sinai Covenant and legalized it making a reformation and a challenge essential. Christians have likewise taken the Gospels and legalized them. That is the human corruption of the grace of God and it is both a Jewish and Christian distortion of the biblical meaning. The biblical injunction is clear and consistent: God is; God loves; God acts; God frees. We respond; we worship; we obey; we live in the glorious liberty of the children of God. We then join this God in the act of loving and freeing those who are in the chains and bonds and shackles of human corruption.
I am Yahweh. That is the first Commandment. I am the God who brought you out of Israel. History is my arena. Incarnation is my modus operandi. Revelation in the concrete events of life is my style. I call Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees to form a new historic people. I choose Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau. I work through the human family to accomplish my purposes. I can redeem the evil motives of my own human creation. The human jealousy of Joseph’s brothers causes them to sell him into slavery. I make even that evil serve my purposes. From birth I prepare those who will serve my will. Pharaoh, mighty by earthly standards, becomes a mere pawn in my plans for the destiny of my world. I lead my people out of slavery into freedom. I am involved in their lives. I raise up prophets to speak my word. I work even through those who do not know my name. Cyrus of the Persians is my agent in the drama of salvation. If you want to find me, you must look at life and history. I come calling my creation to respond, to live, to love, to be. The holiness of life, the fullness of being, the presence of God are always seen in the living Out of a perfect historic destiny in obedience to my will, which is seen in the midst of life in my creation. I am being. I am life. I am love. I am Yahweh. The great I AM is my name. My name reveals my nature. You are my people.
The first Commandment is simply a commandment to hear God’s being, to acknowledge God’s sovereignty, and to admit God’s total claim on all of life. Thus for the Hebrew, how we worship and how we live are indivisible. And for Jesus, loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving ourselves becomes the summary upon which hangs all the Law and the prophets.
I am Yahweh. Hear and respond.
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