Introducing Deuteronomy: Commandment and Remembrance: Deuteronomy 5.1-24, 6.1-9
These are probably the two best known parts of Deuteronomy -- the Ten Commandments and the 'Shema', the proclamation of Israel's devotion to their one God: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord the God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." And they occur together in rabbinic thought and even on the parchments written for prayer phylacteries, jointed together to form almost a defining creed for Israel's faith. Each begins with the same call to hear the words that Moses speaks.
It has been said that the book of Deuteronomy contains sacred story told in the context of sacred law, but I think that formula has got it backwards. This is a book in which the sacred law, even the Ten Commandments themselves, are embedded within a matrix of sacred history, the story of a people's deliverance by God, from which they draw their power. The Deuteronomist does not actually call the Ten Commandments, commandments, but rather the Ten Words. Here we have ten words from God to act as a ethical compass for our lives. This is not law in the modern sense of statutes and cases -- the Ten Commandments are not enforced by any court or police. Only God would ever know that you covet your neighbour's house or possessions, that you covet your neighbour's spouse. God alone knows if you take God's name in vain.
No, the Ten Commandments set out a way of living rather than a system of rules, and it is a way of living that has two focuses -- God, and one's neighbour. The first four commandments define our relationship with God, the last five define our relationship with one another. The fifth, honouring our parents, is the transition between the two, setting up a human relationship that can mirror the ideal relationship we should have with God. And this way of living creates the community that we are called to live into.
It is a community defined by reverence for God and respect for one another, regardless of status. We are to love God and make no idols of any kind to put in his place. We are not to swear falsely and call on God as our witness. We are to make time sacred by observing a day of rest for all, including slaves and strangers. Even draught animals are to rest on the Sabbath. It's curious that, at least in the Ten Commandments, no thought is given to making space sacred. Instead, the emphasis is on making relationships sacred and time sacred. The same holds true for the commandments that concern human relationships as for the ones that concern our relationships with God. We are to take care for one another: do no murder, do not take away what belongs to another, be honest with one another. And we are to conduct our sexual relationships in ways that honour and respect one another -- no adultery, not even any longing looks over the fence into "greener pastures." Of all the various aspects of these commandments, I think the one which modern society most neglects and ignores is the sacredness of time and relationship.
The Ten Words are repeated here by Moses within a context of sacred history -- they are part of a covenant but not just any covenant, the specific covenant that God made with the people at Horeb, the mountain of God. Furthermore, within the first four commandments themselves, reference is made back to the story of Israel's deliverance. They begin: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: you shall have no other gods beside Me." In striking contrast to the book of Exodus, the Deuteronomy version even alters the rationale for the commandment to keep the Sabbath. No longer is it because God rested on the seventh day from his creative work that we are called on to rest, as in Exodus 20.11. Instead Moses reminds the people of their slavery in Egypt: "the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work -- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day."
This brings up another point. Clearly, sacred history is essential to understanding the Ten Commandments. Without that on-going story of God's mighty acts, we could almost say that the commandments make no sense. And this history is experienced as present and personal, not as something that happened once for all in the past. In introducing the commandments, Moses says, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire". But in fact, he didn't! Moses is here addressing the people just on the other side of the Jordan, right before they are to cross over into the Promised Land. But these are not the same people that he led out of Egypt, that crossed the Red Sea and came to the Mountain and received the commandments. One of the most basic themes of the wilderness story is that is lasted a very long time, forty years, two generations, and about one year into the Exodus, the people had rebelled against God and Moses one too many times. And in Numbers 14.20-23, in response to yet another intercession on their behalf by Moses, God said, "I pardon, as you have asked. Nevertheless, as I live and as the Lord's Presence fills the whole world, none of the men who have seen my Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn me shall see it."
Surely the Deuteronomist was aware of this tradition that the generation who left from Egypt died out before the crossing of Jordan. The key lies with the nature of the covenant and the giving of the law at Horeb -- the law is being given anew and the people experience Horeb anew each time they accept the covenant as their own and recreate their relationship with God. It is the present nature of the experience that inspires the Passover liturgy to say that it should be for each participant as though they themselves had experienced the first Passover and the liberation from Egypt. In the same way, the Eucharistic liturgy, which itself recounts a Passover meal, speaks of anamnesis, the act of remembrance in which the community experiences the first Eucharist at each solemnization.
And it is this present experience and recollection that each generation is to pass down to their children along with the Shema and the commandments themselves. In teaching and writing, binding on gates and doorposts, and wearing on the hands and foreheads, the people are to make the experience of God and relationship with him and one another an ever present reality in the lives of their children. In this way the community of the people of God seeks to recreate itself in new circumstances and new challenges. Perhaps only a writer like the Deuteronomist who lived in a time in which the chain of present experience and recollection had been broken, seemingly beyond recovery, could speak with such fervour about the need to remember and pass on.
Continue to the next section.