Grace and the Ten Commandments

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

Martin Buber was a committed and devout Jew.  The story of the Ten Commandments and Torah is the central narrative in the Jewish faith story.  And yet Buber asserted that encounter with God never includes the conveyance of legislation – laws for everyone to follow. More than anything else, it was Buber’s enigmatic and seemingly contradictory position on divine command that inspired me to write my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation: Free Will, Morality, and the God of Abraham.

This Sunday’s first reading is an exchange between Moses and God during the story of the Ten Commandments.  A close reading of the entire story reveals that it is not nearly as simple and straightforward as we might recall.

Moses goes up and down Mount Sinai numerous times in the lead-up to the issuance of the Ten Commandments.  Each time he prepares the people to receive the divine law and each time they declare that they will keep the Covenant. (Exodus 19:8, 24:3, 24:7).  But by the time Moses returns with the stone tablets in hand, they have already broken the prohibition against idols, having built for themselves a golden calf.  Moses famously smashes the stone tablets.  The Covenant that the people insisted they would keep has been broken before the ink dries.

What is remarkable about the following passages is that God asserts He will keep His part of the
Covenant anyway.  When Moses arrives with the replacement tablets, the people don’t promise to do better. They simply head off to the Promised Land to collect on God’s promise.

Buber’s enigmatic position reflects that the Covenant and all of Torah is not the law we must keep to earn God’s love.  It is the law God knows we are incapable of keeping.   We assert that we have free will and that we use our free will to obey God and earn His love.  What Exodus and, indeed, many Biblical narratives suggest is that we don’t have free will, cannot obey, but receive God’s love anyway.  Grace.

Image: Mount Sakurajima, Japan (Exodus 19:16)