Imagine yourself in the arid wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. It's barren. Water and food are scarce. The sun is harsh all day long. You've been here for days. Months. Years. Time doesn't mean much here. There is only all-day-every-day. Wait here a bit longer.
This is where the Israelites find themselves in Sunday's Old Testament reading (Ex. 20). All this coming on the heels of the thrill of liberation after over four centuries of captivity and enslavement in Egypt – the most powerful and advanced civilization in the known world. The people have toiled in the hot sun day after day in an attempt to stay the whip of power.
But as the story goes, their God, the one who had promised to never leave them finally brings them out of captivity by the hand and staff of Moses. For many, doubtlessly, their thoughts and questions veered as violently as their allies-turned-captors – "Just when we had begun to come to terms with this good-God nonsense, we get signs and wonders? Freedom? Why now, after four hundred years?" So here they are, in the midst of the wilderness, lost somewhere in the bipolar tension of knowing that God led them out of Egypt with a promise of abundance, and the current daily reality of more sun, more sand, more disorientation.
According to Hebrew tradition, it was the prophet Moses who wrote the book of Genesis. This is the context in which the descendants of these wanderers would have heard these stories, not the least Jesus himself. So let's try to imagine the story again.
Here they are together in the desert, at risk of forgetting what they had been told for generations, of their creator God who was repeatedly revealed to be different from all the surrounding deities. They are people of a promise-God whom their ancestor, Abraham, made a covenant with (Gen. 22). When God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac – the miracle, the promised kid to two elderly & infertile wanderers – Abraham, who, as a father would have been obviously troubled, doesn't seem to question the request. Why? Well, what deity out there didn't like to be appeased by child sacrifice? Abraham knew this. This is what the gods of their neighbors ask for. But just at that last moment, as Abraham walks the tightrope up Mount Moriah between hope in promise and assuming the status quo, God steps in as if to say, "Thanks for obeying, but I'm not like the others. I don't need to be appeased. Do I drink the blood of goats (or children)?" (Ps. 50:13)
Abraham & Sarah's descendants have again found themselves on that same tightrope, balancing between hope in their promise-God and four hundred years of captivity and enculturation in a society where the assumption is that the gods must be appeased and satisfied. And here, in the wilderness, these free people find themselves still captive to their divine disorientation. On numerous occasions they stoop to cynicism, wishing they could go back to Egypt – at least there they had enough food to keep working and an idea of where they'd be the next day. And the day after. And the years to come.
But then Moses, having been educated – an Israelite by blood, but an Egyptian by upbringing – writes down their story. And the story says that their Creator-promise-God brings something out of nothing. Light, solid ground, fertility – flourishing life & beauty – out of the deep void of chaos. Not only that, but their God does this in rhythm. Day. Night. Day. Night. Day. Night. Day. Night. Day. Night. Day. Night. And after six days, rest. Completion. Fulfillment. Goodness. Peace. Promise.
This creator dwells with the creation, walking with them in the "cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8). This God rests, continuing to cause things to flourish and further creation and beauty through the creation itself. And this creation is good, complete, naked – needing to be nothing more than what it already is – and not ashamed.
But the people question: "Is God really with us? Does our creator-Promise-God really dwell with us? Cool of the day? Have you felt how hot it is?" And they wonder with fair reason. Don't we still? Barrenness doesn't look like Promise, at least not to our eyes. Like having spent years in a dark room and all of a sudden someone turns on the light, it’s difficult to see.
And around this time, as the story goes, God begins to give Moses instructions for the Tabernacle (a tent of dwelling), as if to say, "If the creation story isn't enough, build me a house so I can live among you." Interestingly, the creation story in Genesis and the instruction for the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) mirror each other (this is a whole other story, but you can learn more here: http://amzn.to/1DeHwgN). The point is this God intends to dwell within and with the creation. And like any of the countless temples in Egypt, a temple needs at its forefront an image-bearer of the deity. Finally, as seen in Sunday's reading, God gives to the people a pronouncement.
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. This is a new house, the one I created "in the beginning," where we dwell together.
You shall have no other gods before me because all the others need to be fed, need to be appeased. Don't treat me like them. I love you. I don't live in the center of a volcano. I live with you.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. Why? You need no other image of any god in this temple because you have each other. Your faces. When you look at your brother, or sister, or mother, or father – or enemy, – you see my face.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for I will not acquit anyone who misuses my name because my name is creator-promise-God, deliverer, Beauty, Goodness, Wisdom. Don't sell yourself short.
Remember the Sabbath (seventh) day and keep it holy. You used to work all day, every day, but I am giving you a new rhythm to live by – the very rhythm by which I created you. I want you to rest, to dwell, to stop. Don't let the ways of Egypt break you and squeeze you into its mold. Sit and wonder with me each week. We can behold together.
Honor your parents because they are why you exist and parents are how I continue to build my house. And even if they break my creation, if they break you, remember me and what I said when I created you: very good.
You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal or covet or lie. Do not exploit others. Do not exploit creation. Do not take what is not yours because I have given you myself. Do not be jealous because jealousy is mine, and my jealousy is for you because I am Your God and you are my people, my creation, who I long to dwell with." (my paraphrase of NRSV)
The desert is dry. It can be barren. But stop for a second. Rest. Wait.
And until your eyes have adjusted,