Connections 03.03.2024: More than Words

Exodus 20:1-19

I don’t think it’s a good thing that the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the Ten Commandments is the recent history of confrontation about if, when, and where the Commandments should be displayed. It strikes me as ironic that showing off ten bullet points summing up these laws has become a sign of faithfulness and commitment to God’s ways.

After all, God does not instruct people to turn the tablets into wall-hangings or statues for all to see—unlike the “great commandment” in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which was supposed to be recited to children, bound to ones’ hand and forehead, and written on ones’ doorposts and gates. There is no such instruction about the Ten Commandments. In fact, the tablets were kept in a closed box. Moses called upon craftspeople to build the Ark of the Covenant to house the tablets; then the Ten Commandments would reside contained at the heart of the community, in the holiest part of the tabernacle and later the temple (Ex 25:16; 1 Kings 8:9). Most of the people likely never saw the list for themselves; only the priests who served in the innermost sanctuary would have had access to the Ark, and they didn’t run a gift shop with Ten Commandments fridge magnets and cross-stitch samplers.

The important thing about the Ten Commandments wasn’t (and isn’t) to prove ones’ faithfulness by propping up a replica of the tablets, but to live out ones’ faithfulness by committing to the real thing.

It’s easier just to put up a statue.

But the Commandments are more than words. Carving them into granite and setting them in concrete in front of courthouses and city halls (or printing them in big bold font on posters for classroom walls) has very little to do with how we honor God or care for one another. When we mistake exhibition for devotion, we treat God as a shallow rule-monger who only cares about the show we put on and not about the changing of our hearts. When we mistake exhibition for devotion, we treat one another as a captive audience and not as a community. And when we mistake exhibition for devotion, we treat our own faith as a performance and not as a life.

Discussion

  • Who were the original recipients of the Ten Commandments? Why do you think God did not instruct the people to display the Commandments where everyone—including people who were not part of the community—could always see them?
  • Consider the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Why do you think humans have long sought to immortalize things in public statues? According to the poem, what warning should we remember about the nature of human-made monuments? What danger do we run when we treat the Ten Commandments as a monument?
  • Are there benefits to displaying the Commandments publicly within the community of believers? Are there benefits to displaying the Commandments publicly outside the community? How would this be consistent or inconsistent with the Bible’s instructions about the Commandments?
  • As you study Exodus 20 this week, reflect on why some people feel strongly about displaying the Commandments. How would keeping the Commandments at the spiritual center of our religious communities differ from having them “front and center” in public life? What would it mean for us to keep the Commandments at our “heart”? How does it affect our witness to publicly display biblical texts like the Ten Commandments but then live in ways that are contrary to those teachings?

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is the lead editor of Connections. She is a graduate of Samford University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband Scott and sons Sam and Levi live in St Louis, Missouri. In recent years, Nikki has written Smyth & Helwys curricula as well as devotionals for d365.org and Baptist Women in Ministry. She weaves clergy stoles, knits almost anything, and dreams of making her dreadful novel drafts into readable books. She blogs about faith and making things at amovingyarn.wordpress.com.

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