Reflections on Torah-5 (Deuteronomy 5)

Gifts, Expectations (Deuteronomy 5:1-9, 11-13, 16-21)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (June 22, 2009)

The Ten Commandments follow from God’s initiative to bring salvation. They are not the requirement before God will save. Moses speaks to all Israel, outlining God’s expectations. These expectations, when boiled down, have at their heart that God’s people will always put God first.

These commandments help make clear what is involved in “putting God first.” This God has a particular character, a particular set of priorities. This is not an utterly transcendent “unmoved mover” cloaked in absolute mystery. This is a God who liberates slaves, who engages directly in overthrowing oppressive empires and who makes a covenant with human beings who agree to share in the liberating work.Placing the priority on God is reasonable and possible because of what God does for humanity. “God made a covenant” (Deut. 5:2); “The Lord spoke with you face to face” (verse 4); “The Lord your God … brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (verse 6). All of this before giving the commandments. This establishes the basic biblical dynamic: God gives life as a gift; humanity responds with obedience to God’s commands as a way to sustain this gifted life.

When God insists “you shall have no other gods before me,” God refuses utterly to share power with Pharaoh. God’s people have ever since struggled with this command, all too easily giving loyalty to Pharaohs, Caesars and more recent political “gods.”

Centrality of Sabbath

At the heart of Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments we find the command to observe the Sabbath (Deut. 5:12-15). The centrality of this command helps us discern the central vision of these Commandments when read as a whole.

God has brought Israel into being to be a distinctive people, a counterculture that resists the dehumanizing ways of empire in order to bless all the families of the Earth. This calling involves thinking differently, in light of Yahweh’s values of love and re- storative justice. And it involves practicing a different way of life. The final five commands (Deut. 5:17-21) center on care for the neighbor.

Israel is called to live in the presence of God. This will be done when the community practices compassion and respect for all its members.

Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

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