Old Testament Part 4: Social Order
Last week we talked about God’s communication strategy of how to bring the good news of reconciliation to the world. God chose a people through whom to communicate. We are an extension of that choice.
What we recognize as we look backward through history is that those chosen people were very human like we are. They had their high points as a people, the Golden Years of success. They had their moments of failure and the captivity that came because of them. In between the highs and the lows were the common years of existing, living day in and day out, nothing very exciting, just making a living and hoping to make a life.
One of the significant events in the life of these people God had chosen directly impacts us today. Last week we talked about God calling them to be a nation of priests, people who would stand in the middle representing God who desires a reconciled relationship with people and people who desperately need that reconciliation. However, these people were a fledgling people as a nation. They themselves had been broken and had lived under the bondage of a more powerful nation, Egypt. They had been set free and were on their way toward the land God had promised them.
The question arose on this journey from bondage to freedom as to how they should live, what should be the structure (boundaries) of a successful society? What organization would allow them to continue to experience and grow in the freedom they had been given? What would keep them from sliding back into the oppression and bondage from which they came? There was more to living than simply having the godly purpose of being priests. There had to be structure as to how they were to exist together.
The Ten Commandments provides the structure needed to maintain freedom and not slide back into captivity of society and soul. Sometimes in reviewing the commandments we forget the preamble of Exodus 20:2.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
In essence what God is saying is, “I am the God who led you into freedom.” Implied within this preamble is a “Therefore…” As a result, the first commandments might read like this:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Therefore, have no other gods before me.”
When we understand God’s intent in this fashion we leave behind the idea of God being a grumpy, old parent who wants to rob his children (and all others) of fun. Rather what we see is a God who sees the damage of bondage, understands the means by which it arises, and desires to save people from the pain so they might have lives filled with the joy of true freedom. The 10 commandments are God’s loving way in the Old Testament of defining the boundaries between freedom and bondage. When we live within these commands we are free. When we break them we begin the return to bondage.
The Ten Commandments are divided into two halves: the theological and the sociological. Most societies agree on the sociological commands although they state them in a slightly different ways. C.S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man provides a comparison of the commands amongst some religions. As we look at social order most people can concede the reality of bondage of the individual and the negative impact on the broader society when these commands are broken.
The first half of the Ten Commandments, the theological commands, are a different story. On the one level, spiritually, the commands are a great guide to a reconciled relationship with God. Walk through the statements with me.
Have no other gods before me…”There are other gods in the spiritual market place, lots of them. However, I initiated the steps of reconciliation when you were a broken people. I am the one who set you on the path to freedom. The other gods will return you to some form of bondage. If you want to be free, place all your bets on me.”
Don’t make for yourself an idol…” When you make an idol it reveals your attempt to control who I am. You are attempting to solidify your understanding of me at one moment in time, in one image. I am bigger than that. I am alive not a snapshot from a moment in the past. You can’t capture me in a moment. Love me with all you are.”
Don’t misuse my name…”but learn to use it rightly. How can you damn other people in my name when I have already claimed them and love them? My son said it right, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’”
Keep the Sabbath Day holy…”If you can’t do it well in six days what makes you think you can do it better in 7…without ultimately burning yourself out? I set an example for you by resting on the seventh day of my work. What makes you think you can do life better than me? Do you think you are god? Have no other gods….”
These commands are a great foundation for spiritual life.
However, the first command seems to be the zone for endless conflicts throughout history. It doesn’t seem that gods like God and therein will do everything they can to knock the Big “G” God off the throne so they can rise to sit on it. Countless lives have been sacrificed over commandment #1. Of course those actions, those wars, have often been conducted by people who were simply greedy for power, for property, for possessions of others. They used God as a motivational tool for their selfish ends. At this point in history one thing seems obvious to me: wars have not proven who the ‘one true God’ is. What wars have accomplished at the cost of much bloodshed is to establish one religion as the dominant faith for a period of time until the next uprising and mass destruction of lives.
So, what is a person to do? Let me suggest that to live in freedom as God designed and desires it:
First, commit to following the commands yourself.
Second, group yourself with others who are committed to following the commands. You will need their support, encouragement, and challenge.
Third, respect others who are seeking to follow the commands in their way, through their religious practices. Many are more devout than you hoping their devotion will win the love of their god.
Fourth, believe that God will woo those with true hearts into a right relationship with him. Peter discovered this with Cornelius, the Roman centurion (Acts 10:34ff). Remember, God is the God who initiates reconciliation, God is the God who leads people out of bondage, God is the God who at the right time sent his son on our behalf (Galatians 4:4), God is the God who draws people to Jesus (John 6:44).
Much more could be said on this topic. Volumes have been written. This is a blog not a treatise. That having been said, remember these summarizing words from the Apostle Paul in the other half of the Bible:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1