Ten Commandments, Take Two

March 8, 2017

It’s a Jeopardy question any Sunday School kid should be able to answer: The Lord gave Moses these on Mount Sinai. “What are the Ten Commandments, Alex?” The Ten Commandments, you are correct!

But less known and even less reflected on is the bit of Bible trivia which recognizes that there were two sets of Ten Commandments. In Exodus chapter 19, Moses ascends Mount Sinai. In chapter 20, he receives the Ten Commandments. Then, from chapters 21-31, all sorts of covenant regulations are given. Moses descends with these tablets of the Law, written by the Lord himself, to find the people worshipping an idol – already breaking one of the commandments! In his anger, Moses destroys the tablets. In the Lord’s anger, he nearly destroys the Israelites, but Moses entreats him not to do so. Then Moses goes up the mountain again, so the Lord can rewrite the Law on new tablets.

But the Law is not the main attraction this second time: the Lord himself is. The Lord, who had given Moses the name YHWH from the burning bush, now gives to all of the Israelite people an expanded version of his name:

a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression, and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.
(New Revised Standard Version)

The Lord’s very name, according to himself, is mercy and grace, steadfast love and faithfulness.

So why does the Lord give this name to Moses now? The Lord rewrites all that he wrote before (11 chapters worth!), but why does he add to it?

There’s a very simple reason: Moses asks him to. In 33:13, he says, “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.” Moses asks God to show himself to Moses and, by extension, to the people.

Moses, the great lawgiver, realizes in this story just what he and the people need, and it’s not the Law. The Law is good; Moses, after all, receives a second copy of it. But what they really need is to know God, to know that he has forgiven them, to know that he will be with them. The Law is good; it comes from God. But it is no substitute for God himself.

Moses comes away from the second encounter on Sinai with more than a second set of the Ten Commandments. He comes away with the Lord’s name, the guarantee of the Lord’s forgiveness and presence.

Today, God speaks to us in many and various ways: through prayer and worship, through theology and study, through the voices of Christians, through the world. And we would be foolish to ignore any of these good voices. But they are no substitute for hearing the Lord’s mercy, compassion, and steadfast love, straight from the source. And, as Christians, we have not just this name, as Moses did, but the fullness of God’s love in Jesus.

What we need is not more thoughts about God. Heaven knows we have enough of them. What we need is Jesus: God’s name made visible. Because of Jesus’ love, compassion, and faithfulness to the world and to us, like Moses, we know God and know that we have found favor in his sight.

About the Author
  • Wesley Joseph is in the third year of Western Theological Seminary's Distance Learning M.Div. program. He serves as seminary intern for discipleship and organist at Hopewell Reformed Church (RCA) in Hopewell Junction, NY. In his free time, he enjoys getting lost in the Catskill Mountains, but does try to stay on the trail when his wife, Brittany, comes along.

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