Chapter 2: The Covenant and the Context—A Call in Awe and Wonder

The Living Commandments
by John Shelby Spong

Chapter 2: The Covenant and the Context—A Call in Awe and Wonder

The Ten Commandments did not drop from heaven fully written. They did not interrupt, they rather grew out of the common life of the people of Israel. In this opening chapter we seek to create the original written context. Exodus Nineteen describes that context, portraying it as a mysterious, mystical experience of God. It is a chapter that defies rationality. Only when we enter this chapter can we properly approach what the Hebrew people called the "Ten Words" and what Christians have come to call the "Ten Commandments."

Both the early cultic use of the Ten Commandments and their present-day meaning will be sought in this volume. In this process many of the great ethical questions of this age can be confronted. In addition to that confrontation there will come the discovery that the Ten Commandments, literally understood, do not always apply. Some readers may be anxious about that. They need not be. For the moment anything is literalized, it is doomed to extinction. Only the eternal truth behind the literal word will ever endure the test of time. For example, can one really talk about the Commandment "You shall do no murder" and not raise such issues as war, capital punishment, euthanasia, or abortion? And in each of these discussions the literal position has to be compromised. That is only one of the Commandments, and it is not the most controversial Commandment of all. To enter the meaning of the Commandments, it is essential that we become less academic and more existential. On many of the contemporary, moral issues formal expertise does not dictate rightness or wrongness, for everyone has opinions and convictions and subjective attitudes, involvement, and fears. I do not write as an expert or from some ex cathedra position as if I possessed the final truth. I do write to share the gropings of my life in the field of ethics as I seek to be true to the integrity of the Christian revelation and to the integrity of the twentieth century.

In Israel’s sacred history before the law which begins with the Ten Words is given, an unusual and mysterious episode described in Exodus Nineteen is recounted. This chapter is filled with interpretive problems. It is obviously a collage of more than one tradition. To separate these traditions, however, and to get back to whatever the original was, is almost as difficult as trying to reconstruct a pig from a piece of sausage. To enter Chapter Nineteen is to enter a world of images, intimate details, and mysterious words. For the children of Israel this is a momentous event in the history of nation-building. Here the Covenant is born and the national vocation as the people of God is established.

In the present text of this narrative, Moses goes up and down Mount Sinai no less than three times, and for a man reputed in the biblical tradition to be in his eighties, that is no small chore. So first we attempt to enter and understand the story as the Book of Exodus relates it, at the stage when it achieved a written form.

It is the "third moon," says the Exodus account, some ninety days after the deliverance from Egypt. This wandering Semitic band has entered the wilderness of Sinai, where they have set up their camp in front of the mountain which is forever after to be a part of their life and of their tradition. Intuitively, they seem to know that God and that mountain are connected; perhaps they even assume in a primitive way that God dwells on that mountain. Moses leaves the people, journeying up the mountain to commune with God, whereupon God directs him to speak to the Israelites. God’s message is "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. I bore you on eagle wings, and I brought you to myself. Hearken to my voice. Keep my Covenant. You shall be my people, my special possession, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Exodus 19:3—6). Moses takes those words returning down the mountain. He summons the elders of the people, telling them all of the Lord’s words. The people respond, "All that Yahweh has spoken, we will do."

As yet, there is no specific content. That is, no one has yet said concretely just what the mark of the Covenant people is. No one has yet asked, How does a holy nation of priests live? Everything is vague, and there appears to be a certain comfort in keeping it that way. It is like a group of people being told that they are to love everyone. They respond to that generalization, "Of course we will! There is no one we hate. We can easily say that we love everyone." They live happily with that resolution until they discover that when love asks "Who is my neighbor?" the answer is "Everyone," including those people regarded as social, physical, or mental inferiors. Then people say strange things reaching the absurdity of a layman who once told me: "The Commandment to go love everybody is part of a communist plot to integrate my private club or to effect open housing."

Platitudes are easy. We are comfortable with platitudes. Moses, in his first encounter with God on the mountain, comes down with nothing but a platitude: "You are to be a holy people." And Israel responds: "Lord, we will do it." Israel is still in the platitudinous stage of the Covenant: "All that the Lord has spoken, we will do."

Moses goes up the mountain again reporting this reply to God. This is an interesting image of God. He appears not to know everything that is going on. Moses must run back and forth just to keep God informed. But let us not get lost in literal details until we embrace the feeling of the drama that is unfolding before us.

God responds by saying, "Moses, I will come to you in a thick cloud in public view, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, so that they will trust you forever. You return and tell the people to prepare for that happening. Prepare today and tomorrow; be ready on the third day, for on that day God will appear on Mount Sinai. This is how you are to prepare: Wash your clothes. Set boundaries for the people; forbid them to touch this holy mountain." Refrain from sex— "Don’t go near a woman" is the way the command is given— making us aware that this context is clearly a patriarchal, rather sexually chauvinistic world (Exodus 9:10—13).

It was not that these things were bad; there is no such thing as Hebrew puritanism. Yet what was about to transpire in the life of this nation was deemed to be so different and so life-changing that the normal processes of life could and must be suspended so that there might be total concentration upon this holy event.

The third day came. When that day arrived, there were peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. A dense cloud hovered upon the mountain. There was a long blast on the ceremonial horn, the shofar. It reached a relentless and ear-splitting crescendo, and Moses began to lead the people to the foot of Mount Sinai. Then Sinai was enveloped in smoke. The Lord was seen to come down in fire. The mountain trembled, Moses spoke, and God answered, inviting Moses alone up into the mountain. Moses entered that cloud and smoke. The people stood in wonder.

In that meeting, God ordered Moses one more time to warn the people that they were not to come nearer, that they were not to touch that holy mountain lest they die. Not even the priests, who were considered holy people, could approach that mountain unless they had gone through a special service of sanctification.

Moses argued with God, saying, "Lord, you have already commanded them not to come near the mountain. They are going to obey." Yet God ordered him to go back down and repeat that warning. Then he was to return with Aaron. Moses obeyed.

The people, seeing these wonders, far from approaching the holy place were falling back in fear. They said to Moses, "Speak to us, and we will obey, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die."

"Do not be afraid," Moses replied. "God has come to test you, so that the fear of God may keep you from sinning." The people stood at a distance, and Moses once more climbed the mountain and entered the thick cloud where God was. When Moses reappeared the third time, he would read to them the laws of God.

This is the setting. This is the context in which Israel’s sacred history asserts that the Ten Commandments are given. It is a context that most of us are not aware of, and, consequently, we have never placed the Ten Commandments in their proper setting with the proper sense of power. Once that setting is seen, the task of probing, exploring, searching begins.

First, we look at the sources behind this episode for some insights. Scholars have identified at least four documents that lie beneath our finished Old Testament. They have named these narrative strands the Yahwist document, the Elohist document, the Deuteronomic document, and the Priestly document. In terms of each document’s writing, the range in age is from the tenth century B.C. for the oldest to the fourth century B.C. for the youngest. Behind the written documents is both an ancient, oral tradition and some very particular historical circumstances and cultural phenomena which have clearly shaped the narratives. Yet even admitting all this, I suspect that there is no part of the Old Testament about which scholars are in less agreement than this present passage, for none of the ordinary rules by which the scholars separate the Yahwist document, the Elohist document, and the Priestly document, for example, seem to pertain to this passage. Nothing helps in separating the various strands of data here, yet there is no Old Testament scholar I know of who believes that the present text as our bibles have it in Exodus Nineteen is from a single source. Most of the scholars wind up saying that it is a blend of the Yahwist and Elohist documents with some editorial comments from other sources, and that the Elohist seems to prevail in certain places. Certainly we know that the Elohist document’s version of the Ten Commandments is found in Exodus Twenty. The Yahwist version of the Ten Commandments is very different, rather strange and far more cultic (Exodus 34).

Most scholars think that chapters 19 and 20 are a blended text, with the Yahwist and Elohist documents being the prevailing sources. However, merger seems to have taken place while both the Yahwist and Elohist documents were in their oral tradition, which perhaps constitutes the heart of the scholar’s difficult textual problem.

Inside the narrative, scholars can identify two forms, two ritual ceremonies, that seem to dominate the shape of the narrative. One of those forms comes out of the desert tradition of Israel and is called the Tent of Meeting tradition. It was something celebrated in the later history of the Hebrew people, a ceremony through which ancient nomadic folk from the wilderness believed that God was coming to them in the form of a cloud. That image can be seen clearly in this Sinai experience.

The other narrative form is from the settled tradition of Israel that developed after the people took root in Canaan. It is called the Covenant Renewal ceremony, the means whereby the people of Israel gathered annually in worship on a particular day to renew their Covenant. It was this ceremony of renewal, about which the people of Israel knew a great deal, that provides the context or the form which they read back into their account of the original Covenant experience.

Interwoven in this text is the Yahwist document’s emphasis on royalty, which competes with the Elohist antiroyalist emphasis. For example, the Yahwist version seems to be present in the story where Moses is elected, chosen, and authenticated by God himself, where Moses is appointed by God as the intercessor on behalf of the people. Moses is the voice through which God speaks.

The Elohist version, which is much more democratic, is heard where the people elect Moses to be their representative. The power continues to reside in the people’s selection, not in God’s special election of Moses. One must remember that the Yahwist document comes to us out of the southern kingdom, which had the royal line of David as its dominant institution, while the Elohist version comes out of the north, where there never was an established royal line, and where the people were constantly rebelling against the southern tradition that wanted to impose the southern king upon the northern region. The Yahwist document reveals what might be called a catholic emphasis: God acted through the hierarchy to reach the peopIe. The Elohist document reveals a much more Protestant one: God spoke directly to the people, who then elected their representatives.

There are some other differences. The Yahwist version pictures God as descending upon the mountain, causing it to smoke and shake like a volcano. The Elohist version assumes that God lives on this mountain, concealed in the thunderclouds that are always present there. In the Yahwist version, the Covenant is made with Moses, who mediates it to the people. In the Elohist version, the Covenant is made with the people, who elect Moses to represent them for purposes of negotiation.

We need also to note that in many ways Sinai is where the history of Israel begins. A case could be made that the first real chapter of the Old Testament, in terms of history, is Exodus Nineteen. Before Sinai, before Exodus Nineteen, the Hebrew people were an escaping band of slaves; but after Sinai they were a holy nation, a people of destiny, a nation of priests ordained to serve the world. They were chosen to be a people who were identifiable in history by their Covenant.

Only after Sinai did the people of Israel look back at Egypt and see the hand of God bringing them out of captivity and into this moment of Covenant. More specifically, only after Sinai did they develop the folklore of their ancient heroes— Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—legends of whom contain a germ of history but are mostly self-serving folklore designed to prove that this slave people’s ancestry was in fact not slavery but nobility and also to prove that this nomadic nation had a legitimate claim to that land which they were in fact dedicated to taking by military might.

In a sense, the whole history of Israel thus begins at Sinai, and whatever occurred before is the remembered folklore that brings the Hebrew people to this moment. After Sinai they begin the self-conscious history of seeking to live out what it means to be the Covenant people.

It is also at this point that one of the tensions that marks the historic life of Israel and later marks the life of the Christian Church, which claims to be the new Israel, first becomes obvious. It is a wrenching tension upon which the whole story of the Bible might be told. It is best articulated in questions— how do you have a sense of being chosen by God and at the same time avoid the sense of feeling that to be the chosen people somehow makes you superior to all other people? Is Israel’s call or the Christian Church’s call a call to a privileged status, or is it a call to a life of service? Is it a possession to be made exclusive, or is it to be inclusive? Is the Covenant to be open to all people, or is it to be closed to all but the privileged few?

Throughout biblical history this tension is ever present. First one side is dominant and then the other, until finally the image of exclusivity and privilege manages to prevail, setting the stage for a rending apart of Jew from Christian. I think the crucial time comes in the period of the Exile when the people of Israel have a chance to go back to th~eir homeland. Under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra they begin to build an exclusive, externally righteous group, with which no one can be identified unless he or she conforms to certain external standards. It is this attitude that is challenged deeply within Israel by the prophetic writings of Second Isaiah. He says the role of the holy people of God is to bring life and love into the world through even their own suffering. "A light to lighten the Gentiles" is the way glory is brought to Israel, he proclaims as a lonely voice in the wilderness. However, the Nehemiah-Ezra attitude meets the status needs of an insecure nation, and soon it is legitimized in organized religion, finally resulting in the people mentioned in the New Testament, who have turned the worship of Yahweh into a rigid moralistic and ecclesiastical system. The Pharisees we see in the Gospels were good men; they were morally righteous people. They were the pillars of society. They were the keepers of the Law, but they acted as though to be a Pharisaic Jew was to possess status that gave them importance beyond anyone else. They called upon that status as a way of proving their superiority and consequently everyone else’s inferiority. Many times they were blinded by their own sense of external righteousness to the human need in everyone for love, acceptance, forgiveness, and community. In many senses, it is this attitude that was challenged and confronted by Jesus of Nazareth acting very much in the tradition of the lonely and unknown voice we have named Second Isaiah. The battle still goes on from generation to generation in both Judaism and Christianity.

Jesus challenged the prevailing vision of the Covenant as exclusive, self-fulfilling, ego building. He challenged it in the name of a call to service, openness, love, and to the vocation of giving life and love away, which becomes the Christian vocation. He challenged its exclusivity in the name of all humankind, by seeing that the love, power, forgiveness, and acceptance of God literally melts all of the barriers of exclusiveness. The Covenant, he maintained, is finally beyond all external judgments of race, sex, and ethnic origin.

Christianity is born in this moment and out of this attitude. Yet the same thing has happened to the Christian Church through the ages that happened in the Jewish tradition. We Christians who claim to serve this inclusive power of love that we see in Jesus the Christ have corrupted that Christian calling into a position serving our own sense of superiority, our life of status. We have developed in our tradition a privileged priesthood. We have institutionalized our Gospel, and as soon as we institutionalize it, we discover that we have corrupted it. Institutionalization is essential for any movement to live in history, but all institutions become corrupt. The only way an institutionalized Gospel can live is to have constant reformation. Whenever it gets socked into concrete, it becomes distorted. As soon as Christianity became institutionalized, we Christians began to require acquiescence to creeds and conformity in worship before people could be members. The result has been that in the name of creeds and conformity Christians have battered one another in religious wars, in inquisitions, in heresy trials. The God of love is never served by a rejecting community dedicated to the proposition that they, and they alone, are the only true believers, the only pure worshipers, the only proper Christians. Yet our history is full of that attitude. The Jews saw themselves as the chosen people. So do the Christians. But we Christians, like the Jews, are chosen to be the agents of the God of life and love. We are not chosen so that we can stand in judgment upon those we regard to be less enlightened, less insightful, or less faithful to a specific understanding of the revelation of God. Sinai is the place where this tension between privilege and service first comes into focus for the Hebrew people.

The last point in Exodus Nineteen that casts light upon our understanding of the Ten Commandments is the biblical concept of the otherness of God. When God, in the Bible, is perceived to be present on a mountain, he is an awesome, fearful, holy presence. The Hebrews have chosen their images from the analogy of a volcano. Thus, they portray God in terms of unrestrained power, smoke, thunder, lightning, and the shaking of the ground underneath their feet. The sound of the ram’s horn rises to an ear-splitting intensity. Those are the words they use, the feelings, the thoughts, and the concepts which they employ when they begin to talk or write about the presence of God. There is connected with this imagery a kind of compelling terror. The Hebrews are caught in this experience. In their fear they want to flee, but in their yearning to be brought into the life of this God, they cannot turn their eyes away; they are mesmerized.

When Moses walks from the people into the cloud, he is legitimized as God’s special instrument. When he comes back to the people, he is covered with God’s transforming glory, so that the brightness of Moses’ face literally must be shielded unless the people be blinded.

It is in this setting, with this sense of the otherness, the holiness of God, that the Law is given. The Law is clothed with solemnity, with divinity, and with a self-authenticating power. That is the context in which the duty of a human being toward his God and the duty of a human being toward his neighbor is spelled out.

Forget for a moment the literal symbols. Forget whether they come from volcanoes or desert thunderstorms or whatever. It is not where the Hebrew people got their symbols that matters, but why they chose those particular symbols. Get underneath the symbols and capture the feelings. God, to the Hebrews, is not a permissive pop, a sweet daddy up in the sky. To the Hebrews, to the whole biblical mind, God is a Holy Other who binds his people into Covenant, a Covenant that makes demands and brings judgment, calling them into responsible freedom and setting guidelines. Election by this holy God brings no special status, no privileged position. It certainly does not promise wealth and success; indeed it may bring pain and persecution. As one rabbi said to me one time, "I’d love for somebody else to be the chosen people for just a generation." The election by this holy God to this Covenant status is, rather, a call of this people to share God’s work of redemption, to bear up under the righteous demands of God, and to accept the abuse of the world. One does not enter that experience lightly.

The Bible is quite emphatic about fear being a necessary part of the human covenant relationship with God. God and fear are never separated biblically. That separation is a modern, twentieth-century idea. But biblical fear is not the fear that a child might have quaking before an angry parent. It is, rather, the fear that comes in the sense of recognizing that there is a holy claim being made upon our lives, a demand being made upon our behavior, a mystical power present that we can never control, tame, or manipulate. Until we grasp this sense of God, so vividly portrayed in the preclude to the Ten Commandments, I do not believe that we can say we have ever experienced the biblical God. No element of God’s nature is more foreign to our generation than these elements of power.—otherness, holiness, wonder, awe, and fear.

The glory and the holiness of the God of Mount Sinai calls forth in the Covenant people awe, wonder, and fear, which is expressed, finally, in their obedience to those principles through which God’s presence is seen in human life, those principles through which life, love, and the fullness of God’s creation are finally achieved.

This is not a pleasure ethic. This is not the kind of ethic that says we can do what we want so long as we can get away with it. It is a holy demand that should not be lightly ignored. It has to do with our deepest commitment, with our character and with our standards of behavior. One can live a righteous life externally without worshiping God, but one cannot worship God without having that worship express itself in the righteousness of one’s behavior.

The biblical Covenant is God’s invitation to a people to come and live in the fullness of life. It is an expression of the love of God seen as God’s election. It is grace. As soon as the grace of election is experienced, then the biblical law which defines the holiness that is demanded of the Covenant people is immediately given. If you have law without the graceful covenant, you are caught in an empty legalism; but if you have the graceful covenant, the sense of election, without the content of the law, you will never endure, for that would be cheap grace, and the Bible does not know cheap grace. It only knows the costliness of discipleship.

The New Testament does not substitute a friendly God, a permissive or sweet doting daddy in the sky, for the awe, wonder, holiness, and terror of Mount Sinai. What the New Testament does do is to portray the gracious message of an open access to that same God whose depth of accepting love is seen on a cross and whose presence in the life of that crucified one is designed to call forth from us the same awe, reverence, and obedience to those rules of life through which we find the fullness of life, the depth of love, and the meaning of our own humanity.

We now turn to examine the content of the demands of the Holy God who spoke from the mysterious Mount Sinai.