We are looking at Deuteronomy 5 again. Moses begins his instruction with the command "Listen!" (shama means hear, listen and obey; just like in English the three words are somewhat interchangeable) Yesterday I found myself thinking of Samuel but thought my meanderings had been quite long enough. And once again, as I prayed this morning, the lectionary text that appeared before me was the very one which I had been thinking about yesterday. Samuel (which consists of the root listen/hear/obey + el/God) is a little boy in the Temple. He hears a voice call his name. Thinking it is the old priest Eli he runs to him, over and over. Finally, Eli figures out it is God and so he tells the lad that if he hears the voice again he should say, "Speak Lord your servant listens." http://www.biblestudytools.com/rsv/1-samuel/3.html
To listen to the word is to be open in humility. It is to walk away from my prejudices and agenda. It is a difficult task which demands purification and holiness. So one must actively seek a pure heart in prayer and in self discipline. It is a hard work, but in the end all of our work cannot attain the goal without God's act of mercy and cleansing. We hear best through the prism of Jesus, His life and teaching.
Returning to the "10 Words" Moses begins with God's self designation."I am YHWH, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from a house of slaves. You shall not have other gods before my face."
Some of my friends find this off putting. They think God should not be so hung up on His status. I think such a reaction misses the point. God is not saying He needs His people. He is simply stating the facts. If my son or daughter were to give a talk and lay claim to someone else as the most significant figure in their life, I might be hurt, but I could not argue the point. In reality, I am sure that I am not the most significant person in their lives. If, on the other hand, they claimed that someone else was their father, I could and would say, "not true." Someone else may function more as a father, but I reamain their father. Reality is reality.
This is the point here. God (the Savior) declares His relationship (your God) and justifies His claim by referring to the deliverance from slavery (He is father in deed). Those are facts. We know from other places that God chose and saved because He loves Israel. Why Israel? Because Abraham responded in faith to the covenant, then Isaac, then Jacob, then the sons of Jacobs (the 12 tribes). The family relationship is grounded in the choices made by those who go before. They were not always faithful, but they were faithfilled. It was not always a healthy relationship, but it was always a relationship. Like most marriages, it was rocky, but it remained a marriage because there was no bill of divorce. The ups and downs occur inside the marriage which remains intact.
Some folks find fault with this narrative because it was written in a style foreign to their current way of expressing things. It seems "old and outdated." I guess for me that is not a problem, here is why. I assume that there is no timeless communication, that human language is limited (as are all things in this world) and trying to convey the perfection of God in imperfect language means that one has to listen and hear it in and through the context. I also think our current context is not better or superior, it is just different. Each context has its strengths and weaknesses. The deeper truth of God is timeless, so we need to listen deeply to hear that Truth resonating deep below the surface of the words.
We must also hear and listen through Jesus. He is the Perfect Deliverer from slavery. Egypt is a 'type' for sin and death. Thus, the demand becomes, through the New Covenant, broader and fuller. Jesus saves so we must worship God alone, as revealed in Jesus. If we are to understand redemption from slavery we must go all the way down to the root of slavery (sin and death and alienation from God).
Verses 8-10 speak of God's jealousy. The Hebrew kanna only occurs five times (Ex 20:5 & 34:14 and Dtn 4:24, 5:9 & 6:5) and each time is used of God. Hence, it is fair to think, that the word is used as a technical term and we must remember it is translated into English! It is not the regular word "jealous." It is a divine attribute. Hebrew words and usage are not always easy to convey into English [another example is the term "fear of the Lord"] For me (and most of us) 'jealous' is a vice. We equate it with some petty teenager who is so insecure that s/he demands the total attention of another. One helpful clue to all this is that the Hebrew also speaks of those who hate/love God. The binary terms (love-hate) are common in the Bible (including Jesus) and we must understand them in that context. Hate covers a wider range of response to include indifference. Hate really means 'not love.' It seems strong to me, but that is because the word has a different connotation in my culture. Likewise, jealous is a powerful word which conveys a deeper, more beautiful meaning. God is jealous for His people means that God's love is consuming, all encompassing, total. In truth He is God and so the truth is any alternative worship is a lie, it is dangerous for the worshipper (we must remember the nature of the pagan gods) and it leads to death (as it cuts one off from the Life Giver Himself). God's total love, His "jealousy" is the cause of the cross. God will do anything for love of His people, including emptying Himself and taking on human flesh/nature, and then emptying Himself further into death, death on a cross." A jealous love understood as "choosing to die for love of you to set you free from your bad choices" isn't so petty is it?
Couldn't God just let people worship whomever/whatever they want and still give them life? He could if there were no repurcussions or consequences to human behavior. Unfortunately, there are. If we choose another god, we buy into that god's total package. Worship and obedience change us. What we worship matters. St. Paul says the false gods are demons. Demon worship has to lead to no good end. Demons are just not good guys.
The threat to the third or fourth generation is balanced by a promise of blessing to the thousandth (for those who love Me). Be clear, this is hyperbole and it is concrete language. Obviously generational curses and blessings do occur. Just as obviously, there is more to the story. It may be helpful to remember that three (or four) generations can (and did sometimes) live together in one home. It was not that long ago that grandparents, parents and children shared the same roof. In fact the first five years of my life that is exactly what I experienced. In such a case what affects one affects all. The cursed life of grandpa impinges on the baby at his feet. However, a thousand generations (and this was pretty much as big a number as you would see. Sort of like millions was used in my youth) indicates an overwhelming torrent of mercy.
So who is God? The merciful Savior Who declares His endless love for His people and offers them covenant marriage. Like any true marriage, it is a combination which requires total self gift and fidelity. Anything less is a sham. Hence, there can be no other claim on the loyalty of the heart of the one in covenant. In Jesus, this covenant with Israel is open to all people. We are now co-participants.
It is interesting that the Hebrew you is in the plural when the 10 Words are addressed, but in the singular in each individual command. A reminder that us/me are both in play. It is personal and it is communal. And it stretches across time and space to encompass the generations not yet born as much as those that have passed back to dust.