In many respects, the first of the Ten Commandments seems to be of uniquely towering significance, when compared with the other nine recommended for close study this weekend. In my view, this is for the reason that the first sets the stage for all the others.
The famous 10 (out of approximately 613 recorded mandates attributed to the Prophet Moses) merit consultation with at least some of the body of scholarship produced especially by Talmudic elders of the Middle Ages and even those of the European Renaissance, whose work has helped ground us in the evolving meaning of certain Hebrew words, phrases and other allusions, often by stressing their use in everyday as well as special liturgical settings.
Post-modern scholarship also has contributed mightily to our understanding, which is why, over my lifetime, I and many like me have also consulted regularly the 20th century work of the late Professor Nahum Sarna of Brandeis University’s Hebrew Bible division, as well as a great gift, in my estimation, of the 21st century, namely, the exceptionally clear translation into American English with clear, helpful commentary by Professor Robert Alter of the University of California at Berkeley. All of the foregoing has fashioned a blessed and uplifting understanding of and commitment to our faith in the Old Testament, as well as the New, even when approaching the Hebrew Scriptures.
Here is an important example — one to which I alluded at the outset. What may initially be expected and indeed may appear to be the first of a series of ten mandates — “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” — first establishes an understanding that these commandments are not simply categorical imperatives (“do it because God said so!”), but instead constitute what we owe for our Divine deliverance. In more evangelical terms, one might say, “I will obey the God who ‘saved me’” or “I owe obedience, in all the ways that follow, to the LORD, who bought me out of bondage at a mighty price.” And of course, we promptly note the use here of the Sacred Tetragrammaton (the holy, four-letter word that we capitalize as “LORD”). It is the name of the Divine, told to Moses from the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai.
Indeed, first noticing the importance of first being saved, when approaching Moses’s Ten Commandments and others of the prophet’s mandates given on the LORD’s behalf, we remember the foundational song of Miriam and the other women on the far side of the “Yam Suph,” that is, the Sea of Reeds (called in the anglophone world, the “Red Sea”):
“Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed triumphantly; the (enemy slave-holder) horse and its rider, He has thrown into the sea.” Or “Hallelujah!, I’ve been saved by THE God; so I will obey THE God and God’s prophet Moses!”
– The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., J.D., LL.D., D. Min., K.St.J, is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain, and he previously served churches in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.