Week seventeen: Exodus 18–20
When my father began teaching economics in the 1950’s he was befriended by a humanities professor named Sterling Wheelwright. Professor Wheelwright and his wife Edna adopted our family. We called them Uncle Sterling and Auntie Edna and treasured the idea that we had an uncle and auntie because, in fact, we had no living relatives nearby due to the Holocaust.
When my sister was born, they helped my parents find a new home, just a few blocks from their own. We spent a lot of time on their bouganvillia framed patio playing near the fountain Uncle Sterling had installed; it featured a mischievous Italian cherub. The Wheelwrights shared stories and slides of their trips around the world and were loving, present surrogates for family we didn’t have.
Uncle Sterling and Auntie Edna were musical, there was a huge organ and a piano in their living/dining room and also an elaborate system for the reel to reel recording which Uncle Sterling liked to do. When she was in her 80s and 90s, Auntie Edna transferred many of these recordings onto audio cassette tapes. Years ago, I received one in the mail.
When finally I had time to listen to the tape, it was astonishing. My own five-year-old voice was responding to Uncle Sterling’s warm, gracious questions. He asked how old I was, what my thoughts were on kindergarten and whether I wanted to recite the ten commandments, noting that he’d found out (presumably like Santa Claus found out stuff,) I’d learned them by heart. Next, one hears me reciting the ten commandments with a little lisp but a lot of confidence.
The Ten Commandments: Simple enough that a child can recite them from memory, but strong enough to last millennia and decisively influence our world. Cecil B. De Mille, director of the eponymous Academy Award winning film, is credited with observing, “We cannot break the ten commandments; we can only break ourselves against them.”
Exodus, Chapter 20 begins, “And God spoke all these words”….it doesn’t say specifically TEN commandments but the words have traditionally been parsed into ten commandments and “scholars (infer) the wordier versions are explanatory glosses or elaborations of the original succinct formulations.” according to Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter. In other words, the original words, carved onto those original stone tablets, were very few. Numbers 6,7, and 8 were two words each.
As I reread the ten commandments in Exodus 20, I wondered at the divine editor who’d distilled these words; How COULD so few words be needed to explain THE most important rules governing our relationship to God, to our family, and to others in the world. There are 613 rules that ennumerate how to be a good observant jew; fewer, but still many, to be a culturally acceptable member of the Church; but only 10 clear commandments articulate how to be a faithful follower of Jehovah. What are they? :
- I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images or idols of any sort; thou shalt not bow down to them or serve them.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
- Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
- Honor thy father and thy mother.
- Thou shalt not murder.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
- Thou shalt not covet.
These are the real RULES. Learn them. Teach them to your children. Memorize them. Repeat them. They are commandments. They are not suggestions. Ignore them at your peril. Follow them to places of peace.
I am grateful my mother took the time to help me memorize, when I was very young, these 10 short lessons for living a happy, healthy, faithful and faithfilled life. We didn’t go to church when I was young, but with these commandments committed to my heart by memory…I was blessed to carry the armour of God with me wherever I went.
These rules are tools that would change the world if engraven upon the hearts of women and men everywhere. How much more readily we would understand our blessings and live unselfishly if we loved the Lord with all our hearts and has no other gods before him.
How much more focused on the main things of our earthly experience we’d be if we did not bow down to graven images of wealth, physical fitness, power, prestige, popularity or any sort of personal idol.
How much more civil and meaningful our discourse would be if it was not cluttered by profanity, vulgarity or falsehood. How much more good would come to pass if we didn’t talk so much about God but rather lived in harmony with our Lord’s example of kindness, forgiveness, non judgement and selfless sacrifice.
What a peace would come if we all observed a sabbath day each week….a day apart from the crush and rush of the world; a day set apart for rest, refreshment, receiving inspiration and offering service rather than labor, commerce and entertainment.
The world would be transformed if we all honored the parents that gave us life and raised us; if there was no murder or theft or lying about others; if husbands and wives could completely trust one another to be faithful and if we learned to rejoice in what we had rather than lust after what others have.
The ten commandments can still remake the world. Viva la revolution! Long live that revolution!