Not long ago, I came across a piece of paper with words using a different alphabet, the first homework assignment in new language. I had already begun throwing away letters and diplomas and photos, remnants of something long vanished, when I read Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. A theoretical physicist, Lightman is well-positioned to comment on the slippery nature of time, and I got serious about reconciling the past with the present.
I remember the day I stared at those sentences in Hebrew. I recognized a proper noun, Israel, and a lexicon told me that the first word was a form of the verb, “To hear.” It struck me that the professor had given us a break; he knew that we would recognize this verse from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Maybe you know the sensation of reading something in its original language. But I was unprepared for the sudden encounter with this ancient passage, a voice from antiquity, coming from the chaos of a foreign grammar. That day, my mind shifted to the first of the ten commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me.”
What’s the context? Do you have a memory of Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham? Joseph, with his special coat; Joseph, whose brothers push him into a pit and sell him for twenty shekels of silver to a caravan, who then sell him in Egypt; Joseph, who interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and rises to be second-in-command. The timeline is eighteen hundred years before Jesus, and Joseph, his brothers, and their descendants stay in Egypt, and, at the end, make bricks and dig canals, like slaves.
Fast forward four centuries to Moses, a major player in Old Testament. Nobody except Jesus gets more attention than Moses. Four versions of a story converge and weave themselves together: Exodus, the covenant at Mt. Sinai, and wandering in the desert. I remember sitting in a small, blue chair in a Sunday school room of Hoyt Memorial Presbyterian Church, as I colored a picture of a baby in a basket floating down a river, with a young woman leaning over him. There was talk about bulrushes, a word I didn’t understand, but mostly I remember that after the baby grew up, he carried a stick that turned into a snake when he threw it to the ground. That got my seven-year-old attention.
Moses: adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter; Moses: who flees Egypt after he erupts in anger and kills somebody; Moses, who is tending sheep, when a bush bursts into flame and a voice says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have come down to deliver them.” The voice says, “You, Moses, are going to help me.”
Moses tells Pharaoh to let the people go, and he refuses. Negotiations, and confrontations, plagues with frogs, and blood, gnats, locusts, and the killing of every first-born of every species.
Israelites mark the doors of their homes with the blood of a lamb, so the angel of death will pass over their households. Pharaoh only relents after his first-born child dies: “Take your flocks and your herds, and be gone,” and the Israelites go east, headlong into the desert, free at last. Yet people have forgotten Yahweh. Moses is summoned to the mountain top: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me. No idols. No killing. No theft. No cursing the name of the deity.
This is a pathway: “If you keep my covenant, you will be for me a holy nation,” a nation set apart: resident aliens, people with green cards.
This is the pathway between the commandments and this Gospel, when Jesus loses his temper and rages against moneychangers, using a whip to drive animals from the temple. Righteous and indignant, he’s clear about the message: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The oldest compete copy of the Commandments is a Dead Sea scroll from 2,0000 years ago. It lives in a pitch-black storeroom in a Jerusalem museum, so fragile that it’s locked away in darkness. And I have to ask you: is that document relevant to us? Too old-fashioned? Too low tech? Are we stuck in the past?
The commandments set forth a counter-cultural way of life, that we have not been left to our own devices, the volatility and deviousness. The Decalogue is an abrasive reminder of the ethos, of who we, as a community, can become, and in that, there is hope.
There’s plenty to do, because wherever we stand is an altar, and Exodus keeps on happening. The source of creation keeps coming to us, and we are invited to head in that direction. If I don’t see the link between the commandments and myself, there’s something wrong with my worldview. These ancient laws may seem archaic or primitive, but they are precious and real and have authenticity and authority.
There is a crisis of conscience when our stories no longer protect the things we hold sacred. We have to figure out how to choose life and still navigate the law inside this chaos. What are the dark threads that have woven themselves into our lives, what calamities we can avoid, and where does the heart lie?
But this is not simply a history lesson. It’s not even a story about Moses, and it’s not about a particular group. This is universal, archetypal. Maybe my memory of the coloring book of a baby in a basket is so clear to me because I have wandered in my own wilderness in bondage to one thing or another, making bricks for somebody else’s house, stuck with other sorts of pestilence, and hungry for something I could not name.
But there’s holy ground out there. It’s where the roads converge, where you are struck by truth and carried away by beauty, poised at the edge of promise, like an act of grace, one foot standing on the bedrock of an ancient foundation, the other foot standing here, in the present.
We pay attention to something written centuries ago because once upon a time, we had a close encounter with the divine, and the collective memory binds us together. That bush is still burning, shimmering with light. This is where we are in time, where we stay focused on the fire, where we can throw down the dead sticks that we carry around and watch ourselves come back to life.