Monday, August 5, 2013

In Search Of Truth, Exodus 20:1-6

Now that we've taken some time to figure out how we ought to view the Old Testament Law in general, we're coming back to Exodus to look at the foundation for all of the law God gave the Israelites: The Ten Commandments.

v. 1-2
Yahweh is using a format here based on the common Suzerain-vassal treaties of this time period, in which a ruler formally establishes his reign over a lesser king or a people. The High King identifies himself ("I am the Lord your God"), establishes his previous gracious behavior toward the vassal ("who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery") and then presents the stipulations of his rule (commands given in verses 3-17).

Sometimes we think of God as worthy of our worship (which we narrowly define with common spiritual activities like praying, singing worship songs, going to church, etc.), but he is also our king. Or if that concept seems a bit removed still, he's our boss. In fact if God were to make a similar arrangement today, with numerous people on an individual basis, he might use a job interview format, establishing expectations between employer and employee, culminating in the signing of paperwork and a handshake.

Okay, that's wild and sloppy speculation. But I believe, by using this format, God indicates here that he wants us to give him respect that is just as real and practical as the respect we give to human authorities in our lives. Not just lip service, but respect that has a real effect on our day to day lives.

Yahweh demanded exclusivity in worship. Israel was not to worship any other gods or fixate on created objects, making them the focus of priorities. Yahweh describes himself as a "jealous" God. He refused to let the Israelites share their devotion to him with any competitors.

I once saw a video online of Oprah Winfrey (wow, that name will start dating me soon!) explaining that she abandoned her Christian faith when she heard a minister read from the Bible that God is a "jealous" God. She concluded that the God of the Bible was petty, and so began looking elsewhere. Considering her background in journalism prior to talk show fame, I wish she would have applied herself a little more in looking for understanding of this characteristic of God.

The Hebrew word used here and elsewhere to describe Yahweh as jealous means "to be jealous, envious or zealous for". There are two reasons, I think, that we can be grateful Yahweh is a "jealous" God.

The first is because it is right for him to demand worship and be angered when it is focused elsewhere. If that makes God seem petty, then we're forgetting about God's perfection and indescribable goodness and "otherness". This is where we geeks can use that "outside the box" way of thinking to envision the existence of a being like this, who is totally different from any other being we've encountered. Anyone else demanding exclusive worship we could criticize, saying "Well, you're not THAT great." But in Yahweh's case, he IS that great and far more.

On top of that, God doesn't demand worship because he is insecure and needs encouragement or praise to feel good about himself. God doesn't need anything or anyone at all, in fact. But he knows, as even we do, that good things should be valued and treasured.

To neglect valuing what it good is to waste the gift of life we've been given. Things like love, charity, compassion, and justice should be valued. And we all recognize that someone who neglects every opportunity to show these virtues is falling short of what they should be doing. And since God himself is the very SOURCE of all love, charity, compassion and justice, it follows that he should be given the highest honor of all.

As a point of modern relevance, when we begin to giggle and geek out over some of the hobbies we're most passionate about, we should aim to remember that those feelings of excitement, wonder and satisfaction we experience were ultimately engineered by God. (Those who create our entertainment have simply figured out what levers to pull in order to trigger those feelings.) When we enjoy anything in life, we should bring God into that enjoyment. Both during and after experiencing something great, we should "pray without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances"(1st Thessalonians 5:17-18) thanking Yahweh for the gifts of imagination and fun.

Secondly, we can be thankful for Yahweh's jealousy because it results from his intention to be unified with us. Humanity was made to become intimately unified with God. So in something of the same way that I would become understandably "jealous" if I walked in on my wife sleeping with another man (and I'd say the word "jealous" is putting it lightly), Yahweh becomes "jealous" when we reject him in favor of something else.

Then we have this curious part of verse four, describing God as "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, "

A similar idea is found elsewhere in Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9. What's this about? Is it just and right for God to do this? Is this even consistent with God's own word elsewhere, such as:

(Deuteronomy 24:16)"Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin."

The Hebrew word used for "iniquity" in Exodus 20:5 can refer to iniquity (meaning "gross injustice or wickedness") or the "consequences of iniquity". It seems more logical to apply the second definition here.

This means that, although God is patient, merciful and loving, sin still has consequences. And often for more than just ourselves. You can probably bring to mind a pattern of destructive behavior that seems to be passed down from parents to children over multiple generations. Maybe in a family you know, or even in your own family. This command for the Israelites reveals something of the nature of sin. It is never victimless. In fact even sins we believe are only a part of our own private battle, inevitably affect others as well.

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