Over the season of Lent, we are using the older form of the Anglican liturgy, which begins with either the whole list of the Ten Commandments, or at least “The Summary of the Law.” Lost in the modern liturgy, the Decalogue (deka, 10 + logoi, words) has been part of the old rite since 1552. To what end? A reminder of how to conduct our lives -- if so, why not conclude the service with it, as we go out into the world? An invitation to consider the ways in which we failed to do so -- in which case, would it not make more sense to have it precede the confession?
As it turns out, the Decalogue became important in the Christian tradition in the 13th century, when it began to be used in preparation for confession, and as a tool for religious formation. I think most of us had once tried to memorize it, as my daughter is currently doing as part of her Religious Education class. So its use in teaching is well established and still alive, but how did it get incorporated into the BCP liturgy? Well, it came from an even older liturgical tradition practiced in the Salisbury area of England, called the Sarum Rite. What happened is that the Sarum Rite included all 4 scripture readings (as we chose to do today), but the BCP rite technically omits the Old Testament reading, and uses the Decalogue as a stand-in for the whole OT. By the 17th century, the Decalogue became perceived as overly legalistic and was replaced by the “Summary of the Law”, which I chose to use today (frankly, just to save us a little time!)
Of course, the Summary is not original to BCP or Christianity, nor was it invented by our first teachers, named Jesus and Paul. These are, in fact, the words of an ancient prayer in Judaism, called “Shema Israel” (Hear O Israel), which its modern observants still recite twice daily. The prayer appears in the book Deuteronomy 6:4-5, whereas the full Decalogue precedes it immediately in 5:6-21, and is also found in Exodus 20:2–17.
Dating these portions of scriptures depends on who is interpreting them, and whether one connects them to the events of Exodus (13-16th century BCE), or the whole of prophetic tradition (8th BCE), or simply the life and worship of ancient Israel (even later date). I should also mention here, in case you ever noticed, that the numbering of the commandments also differs from one tradition to another: some might amalgamate the 1st and 2nd commandment, and hence split the 10th, and vice versa.
But to whom do we traditionally attribute the authorship of Deuteronomy? (Hint: it’s the same person as the main character of Exodus!) Yes, Moses, “unequaled for all the signs and wonders… to perform... and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power… 120 years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses”. These would be the words of Moses describing himself, if he really was the sole author of the book! So of course, Moses was a legendary figure, but still based on history.
According to the Rabbinical tradition, he was born in Egypt in 1391 BC of the priestly tribe of Levi; other scholars place his birth a few centuries earlier. He was nearly murdered as an infant when the Pharaoh decided to curb the growth of the Hebrew population in Egypt. In a desperate attempt to save Moses, his mother placed him in the river Nile, adrift in a basket -- echoing neatly the image of the Ark we discussed a couple of weeks ago, and prefiguring our baptismal references, perhaps? Rescued by an Egyptian princess, Moses lived in the royal circles, until he murdered an Egyptian slave-master at the age of 80. This caused him to flee “into Midian”, referring either to the northwest Arabian Peninsula, or the settlement of the descendants of Abraham through his second wife. There, Moses’ leadership and prophetic career took off with the sighting of the burning bush on Mt Horeb, the survival of the plagues, and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.
These events serve to prepare the reader for the main point of Exodus: Moses’ reception of the Sinai Covenant. This is the third OT covenant between God and people, about which we read on Lenten Sundays. Mt Horeb of the burning bush and Mt Sinai is actually the same place. YHWH’s appearance this time is accompanied by fire, smoke, and the blare of a ram’s horn. Unlike Noah’s and Abraham’s covenants, for the fulfilment of which God is unilaterally responsible, this set of commandments (plus a bunch of other rules for life, worship, and construction of the portable worship space) are the terms of the Sinai agreement. These were Israel’s responsibilities, although frankly, they synthesized the pre-existing moral code of the Ancient Near East, and most other human civilizations that rely on “The Golden Rule” in order to function. God’s side of the deal centered on helping them reclaim their ancestral land of Canaan.
The covenant was sealed, as usual, with a sacrifice and a meal, and prefigured Jesus’ Last Supper and our Eucharist. Together with his people, Moses then wandered in the desert for 40 years -- a journey that should have taken only a few weeks, if it wasn’t for the apostasy of his people, and their relentless, paradoxical longing for their slavery days! (Jesus is faced with many similar temptations for 40 days.) There, God enabled Moses to perform a set of miracles, which sustained the people despite their propensity to fail the agreement. Bread, and once even quail, rained down from heaven and miraculously fed the people, as Jesus did when the hungry multitudes gathered before him. Hidden sources of water sprung under Moses’ rod, as it did from the side of Jesus, crucified. Moses repelled the attack of the nomadic desert tribe by holding high his rod, and relieved the agony of snake bites by lifting a bronze snake on a pole, as Jesus was lifted up on the cross. Moses then dies at the age of 120, and re-appears on Mt Tabor -- a nod to all OT mountains -- to talk to the transfigured Christ.
Just imagine leading 2-3 million people out of slavery, and dealing with their grumbling for the whole 40 years. The land of your ancestors is yet to be taken back from its current inhabitants, but you are perfectly sure that it’ll all work out, given the miracles, and God’s presence in the fire, smoke, and even a real glimpse of his back. Yet, when these unworthy people are finally ready to enter the promised land, you alone - you, the most/only faithful one - are held back... Your journey ends here, on Mt Nebo: only to sneak a peek of all the milk and honey. Because once, distracted by the clamour of your people and your own thirst, you hit a rock with your staff when God asked you not to. Not fair?
I was asked recently, “why pray if God has his own idea of what is right for me?” Well Moses didn’t follow God so that he could enjoy life back in Canaan. He did so because he had a real intimate connection with God, based on God's self-revelation. Moses loved God, and felt loved. Did it matter that he never drank the milk and ate the honey, if beyond Mt Nebo something much greater awaited? The land that he saw across the river and the words he had inscribed on the stone tablets were his gifts to his people. As for himself, he was content with the spiritual experience of the Promised Land, which he had and would always have. Let’s continue to discern which of our own life’s blessings are intended for us, and which are meant to be passed onto others.