Grace and the Ten Commandments - Part Two

Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai as the LORD had commanded him, taking along the two stone tablets.

Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, "LORD." Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out, "The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity." Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own."

Exodus 34:4-9

So, if the transmission of the Ten Commandments was not divine legislation imposed on us by God; if Torah is not what we must do to receive reward and avoid punishment, then what is the over-arching point of all this back-and-forth among God, Moses and the people?

God does not treat the Israelites as an invader would: arriving on the scene, imposing His will, and demanding tribute.  The relationship between God and the people is consensual.  God offers the people a all-encompassing relationship to the divine.  They are free to refuse but eagerly accept this wildly generous gift.  God is not imposing commands, He is offering a deal; a Covenant.  And it is essentially a deal in which one side, the people, receive all the benefits and the other side experiences nothing but frustration and disappointment.

This was an extraordinary innovation.  Prior to the Jewish narrative of God as inviting a relationship (“I will be your God and you will by My people”), the divine imposed itself violently on the people and demanded, in the case of the Canaanite god, Ba’al, child sacrifice, just to be permitted to continue to exist.   

In this Sunday's reading, after God expresses His mercy, Moses bows to God and asks Him to travel with them. This is not a relationship built on law.  We have lost this sense of the consensual relationship to God.  We see God as demanding belief, demanding compliance and if we fail, imposing punishment.  The Exodus story suggests an entirely different relationship.

Image: Mount Sinai