By Eric D. Barreto

How many of the Ten Commandments can you name? If you are like most Americans, the number is far below the full ten. A 2007 survey reported that most Americans could rattle off the ingredients of a Big Mac more readily than the Ten Commandments.

And yet the Ten Commandments play an unquestionably powerful role in our culture and politics today. The image of Charlton Heston hoisting a pair of stone tablets over his head is indelibly etched into the pop culture psyche. Debates about the placement of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols in public buildings continue to roil communities all around the United States. It is clear that the Ten Commandments are powerful cultural and religious symbols even if our knowledge of their actual contents is fuzzy at best.

What is the source of the power of the Ten Commandments? How can they draw so much attention, so much furor, when so few know them, let alone comprehend them? To begin to understand their continued power, let’s turn to their originating story in Exodus 20.

Curiously, the narrative begins not with the listing of the first and thus most important rule but with the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian captivity. That is, these commandments are rooted not just in God’s power to enunciate them but in the Israelite experience of deliverance and salvation. These are not just good pieces of advice from a powerful God but the required response of a grateful people. No other deity saved you from your chains, therefore you will call no other god by name.

The lectionary does then leave out some difficult parts of the passage. Specifically, it leaves out that God promises to visit the parents’ sins upon their children and grandchildren. The Lord God has a long memory apparently. While we may acknowledge that the mistakes of one generation may certainly have long-standing–even generational–consequences, it rings fundamentally unfair that we would be held responsible for the sins of our parents or grandparents. How do we make sense of this now strange rationale?

After prohibitions against using God’s name flippantly and a demand for Sabbath observance, Exodus then turns to commandments we can all seemingly embrace. Respect your parents. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal people’s stuff. Don’t lie. Don’t look at your neighbor’s property with jealousy.

But of course, even these commandments are complicated. When is the taking of human life not murder and thus permissible?  Debates about war and the death penalty are not easily settled by merely pointing to the commandments, for their absolute prohibitions meet uneasily with the complicated nuances of daily life. Can stealing ever be justified? Can lying ever be done for the sake of the other? That is, can a lie be a kindness? Most striking to me is the now archaic cultural assumption in verse 17 that houses, livestock, wives, and slaves are all equally property of the powerful. Even these seemingly straightforward commandments are complicated by the messiness of everyday life but also by the huge gaps between the cultural assumptions of antiquity and today.

As the narrative closes, we hear not just from God but from God’s audience. For the Israelites who bore witness to this event, the presence of God was sobering and frightening. These commitments were not to be taken lightly. The thunder, lightning, smoke, and tumult that accompanied God’s voice was a humbling show of might. So powerful is this God that the people urge Moses to speak to God for them, for direct contact with God–they presumed–would prove fatal.

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A Ten Commandments display in the public schools in rural Virginia has sparked local protest among those who support it, and an ACLU lawsuit against it.

According to Exodus, the people feared the God who spoke to them from the cloud. And yet I wonder if the content of the Ten Commandments might not have also caused them to shake. Perhaps they feared because they recognized not only the power of the one who spoke to them but also the significant requirements and reflection the commandments demand. Perhaps we too should shake if we hope to abide by these admittedly difficult and complex calls to be in peace with God and one another.

Why does furor continue today over these commandments? Are they merely relics of an ancient people and an ancient time? Are they absolute rules for all time and all places? Are they mere but powerful symbols deserving of special enshrinement in public spaces? I wonder if as people of faith our relationship to the commandments today is more complex than these alternatives.

The Ten Commandments are not primarily a set of universal rules, a binding list of dos and don’ts for all people at all times and all places. They don’t seek to summarize all the world’s wisdom on two stone tablets. Instead, the Ten Commandments are integral to the identity of a particular people at a particular place. The Ten Commandments were first spoken to a people who had been delivered from enslavement, who had been provided sustenance in the wilderness, a people who had been both faithful and feckless. With that last count, we could all relate, I imagine.

To be sure, the Ten Commandments certainly enunciate basic morals that all kinds of people would embrace. One would be hard-pressed to find peoples or cultures who would willingly endorse murder or advocate lying. Then again, we would be hard-pressed to find any people or cultures that do not also flagrantly violate these basic beliefs. These absolute prohibitions usually become situational limits applicable only when consistent with our other goals or desires.

But ultimately, the story of the Ten Commandments in Exodus is less about proper behavior than it is about identity. Who are we? What is our relationship to God? What is our relationship to one another? We tend to separate these foundational questions, compartmentalizing each to a separate realm of reflection, but the narrative in Exodus conjoins these queries.

Public debates about the propriety of the displaying of the Ten Commandments often revolve around a concern for rules, for an unchanging sense of law and order in a world that is constantly in flux. Even as the world shakes beneath our feet, we have two stone tablets to remind us how to act and who we are. It is precisely this intense mix of human emotions, beliefs, and identities that make the public display of religious symbols so difficult to discuss but also so important.

In these debates, however, we may lose the primary orientation of the Ten Commandments. They are not primarily guides for good behavior, for their simplicity masks the complexity of moral and theological reflection. The Ten Commandments are not mere symbols either. Their power does not come from public display and recognition.

Instead, the Ten Commandments are primarily about the identity of God, the character of God’s followers, and our relationships to one another. Our identity, our theology, and our relationships are all inter-mixed in a set of commandments we may find indispensable but also–if we are honest–incredibly difficult to understand and embrace fully.

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