- Theological Education
Exodus 20:1-17, A Reflection By Kimberly D. Russaw
On any given Saturday, people join Habitat for Humanity teams and commit to work to help eradicate poverty housing. The individual volunteers give of their time, energy and physical ability because they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Similarly, in the HBO TV drama “Game of Thrones,” individuals from the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos volunteer to serve as The Night’s Watch. Members of The Night’s Watch live as a self-sufficient military order that defends the Wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms and patrols the Haunted Forest. The Night’s Watch oath details the sacrifice of its members:
"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."
Although the members of The Night’s Watch are fictitious, they exist in a recognizable bond — a commitment that theologians call a covenant relationship.
In the Book of Exodus, readers find the beginnings of the formalized covenant relationship between the Israelites and their god. After crossing the Red Sea in their escape from Egypt, the Israelites find themselves lost in the wilderness for 40 years. Eventually the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai where they live for nearly a year. Upon their arrival, Moses makes his first of several trips up the mountain. On one of those trips, God announces the elements of a covenant with the Israelites: The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. The Israelites are to be God’s “special possession,” and “a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). In these Ten Commandments, God outlines the aspects of covenant relationship with the Israelites. The Hebrew word for covenant, berit, means something like the English term, contract. In the Bible therefore, covenant is used for various legal agreements, including marriage, slavery, solemn friendship, and especially a treaty. In the societies of the ancient Near East (of which ancient Israel is one), there are two widely attested types of treaties: The parity treaty, in which the two parties are presumed equals, and the suzerainty treaty, in which one party (the suzerain) is superior to the other (the vassal). Suzerainty treaties usually have the following elements:
Identification of the suzerain
History of the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal
Stipulations or obligations imposed upon the vassal, generally detailing the requirements of loyalty to the suzerain
Provision for deposit of copies of the treaty in the temples of the principal gods of the two parties
Divine witness to the treaty
Blessings for observance of the treaty and curses for violations of it
Volunteers channel faith, compassion and muscle into new homes for the poor.
The Ten Commandments begin with an identification of the suzerain (“I am the Lord your God”) and a brief history of God and the Israelites (“brought you out of the land of Egypt”). The commandments that follow correspond to the stipulations of the treaty, with the first four concerning the relationship of Israel to the Lord, as vassal to suzerain. The stipulations demand absolute loyalty (“You shall have no other gods before me”) and specify the way the Lord is to be worshiped. The remaining six commandments are comparable to the stipulations that concern relationships among the vassals. Each Israelite is to respect his neighbor’s life, person, marriage, legal reputation, and property, as well as to care for members of the community when they age.
There are prohibitions for those in covenant relationship with God. Unlike others, the Israelites could not fabricate likenesses of their gods. While others cared for their animals, tilled their land or marketed their wares throughout the week, the Israelites were expected to set aside one day to rest - because of their covenant relationship.
Even in modern society, when we enter into committed, covenant relationships, we agree to do and be a certain way. A relevant example is the Christian community during the 40-day season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, church leaders mark the foreheads of Christians and remind them, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Many spend the next 40 days reflecting upon their own mortality and participate in acts that point to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Many fast and pray. With a shared focus, Christian communities grow spiritually during the Lenten season. They grow as a group because, as a committed – or covenanted – community, they have agreed to live differently in the world.
Yet, it is not always easy to honor covenant commitments in modern society. Despite the fact that, as part of their marriage covenant, many loving couples agree to love each other unto death, 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the US divorce. Despite the employer’s promise to provide an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work, many laborers are on or over the brink of poverty. In Chicago, for example, an adult with two children may be paid a minimum wage of $8.00/hour, which falls below the living wage of $25.51/hour. It seems, despite America’s commitment to ensure liberty and justice for all as expressed in the Pledge of Allegiance, we struggle to grant freedoms and equitable treatment to everybody.
Perhaps we fall short of the many promises of covenant because covenant requires sacrifice. But, how might the world be different if those of us in covenant relationship with God treated time as a gift from God that we were to steward (Exodus 20:8-11)? How might the world be different if, as members of the Christian community, we treated everyone as social equals such that we did not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet that which another has (Exodus 20:13-17)? What sorts of sacrifices would we need to make in order to live into these sorts of covenant commitments?
As we reflect during the season of Lent, I encourage us to consider what it means to commit to living in covenant relationship.
Bible Study Questions
Had you been an Israelite at the base of Mount Sinai, how would you have reacted to God’s commandments?
What do you sacrifice because you are in covenant relationship?
In which spiritual disciplines do you participate the Lenten season?
For Further Reading
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
McCarthy, Dennis J. Old Testament Covenant: A Survey of Current Opinion; Richmond: John Knox Press, 1972.
Shriver, Maria, ed. The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink; New York: Palgrave, 2014.
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