One sentiment that almost all people are against is oppressive religion. Many have experienced the horrors of religion gone wrong; religion that is focused on stringent rules and controlling others. It is exactly this sentiment that has caused many to give up on religion all together. The rules and commands are archaic, burdensome, and too hard to follow. As an example, many point to the Old Testament law; these rules handed down by God that the people must keep perfectly or be considered unfaithful and thus punished. The crowning moment of these Old Testament laws is the Ten Commandments, given at Mt. Sinai to the people of Israel after they have left Egypt.
It’s easy to view the Ten Commandments as another set of rules. To read them in Exodus 20, or later in Deuteronomy 5, and experience them as simply another set of laws. Do not kill. Do not steal. Honor your father and mother. A list of rules that is relevant for every community in the world. If everyone would just follow these ten laws, there would be less conflict in the world.
Yet to pull them out and view them as just another set of laws is to forget that the Ten Commandments are presented within a greater narrative. God did not just randomly pick a time to share the Ten Commandments, and the rest of the law, with Israel. Instead, these ten commands are the direct result of liberation.
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:1)
From the very beginning, God is defined not just as a deity who is greater than humanity, or even a deity who is in charge of the entire world. Instead, God is defined as the very one who has brought about redemption. God heard the cries of the people. God saw the oppression of the Egyptians. God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and God acted to change the narrative.
Not only is God defined, but Israel is also defined. Israel is not just a tribal nation of free people, as all people deserve to be free. Israel is the people who have been freed from slavery. Slavery is oppressive. It’s easy to fool ourselves in our enlightened world to believe slavery is a thing of the past. We have forgotten the horrors of slavery. At one time Israel had a prominent position in Egypt, but that time is no more. Israel has been oppressed and enslaved mainly because they are different. They are a different ethnic group, and they are enslaved because of their differences. Pharaoh fears them, so he sets harsh task masters over them, demanding they spend all of their energy to help build up the structure of Egypt. Later, Pharaoh begins to kill all of the baby boys; oppression for the purpose of keeping them in their place. Slavery was horrible. Israel had no way out.
Until God stepped in to redeem them. It was the Lord God who with a mighty hand and outstretched arm set Israel free from slavery. Israel’s freedom is a gift. Israel is not just free, they have been freed. They are free from. This now becomes the basis of their relationship. Israel is willing to follow because Israel understands they have been freed.
It’s interesting, we don’t necessarily like the idea of rules or stipulations anymore. We are glad to be away from oppressive religion, and we don’t necessarily enjoy rules or commands. Grace is the word for today. Religion and church used to be oppressive, but luckily rule keeping is a thing of the past.
Yet, as Patrick Miller argues, it could be that the reason we find rule keeping to be burdensome and oppressive is because we have forgotten what it means to be in slavery. We have no concept of what oppressive slavery is, the type of slavery that takes our life away. Thus rule keeping is burdensome and disruptive. It’s important to note that Israel had no problem accepting the Ten Commandments and agreeing to follow them. (Yes, they later failed at following, but in the moment they spoke with one voice “everything the Lord has said we will do.”) They were grateful for a new life, and responded with gratitude to God by accepting the commands. Perhaps the reason we sometimes lament that the commands are burdensome is because we don’t really think we are enslaved. While we know we are sinners, how often do we actually admit that we are slaves to sin. And it’s only because God came in with a mighty hand and outstretched arm (the arms of God on the cross) that we are even at a point where we can follow.
We were enslaved. We were stuck in sin. Our choices separated us from God. We had no hope of finding freedom….But we are now free. We have been freed from. And God is asking, will we keep the stipulations as a way of life? Will we live a freed from ethic, in response to past redemption and in anticipation of future benefits? God has redeemed us; our response is to follow.