I’m sure we’ve all been in this kind of situation. You’re in a public place, when you overhear a conversation between two people. Some part of what one of them is saying catches your attention, and whether you really meant to or not, you end up listening just a little bit longer. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all eavesdropped at some point, and maybe for some of us, it’s really interesting when we do. When you only hear partway through the conversation, it becomes a challenge almost to figure out what this conversation is about and why it’s even going on.
Well, that is today’s reading from Exodus. We have been dropped into the middle of a conversation between Moses and God, no context, no background, no real clues about what this conversation is about. Sometimes our lectionary—the way we organize readings each week—is annoying like that. So what, exactly, is the context of this strange conversation?
This morning’s story from Exodus has a weird number of parallels with teen movies from the eighties, for some reason. Do y’all recognize this basic plot structure? Parents are going to go away for an overnight trip or something, leaving the less-than-popular but responsible kid in charge. Somehow word gets out about it to the kid’s peers, and before you know it there’s a party. Responsible kid decides to join in because, hey, it’ll make him look cool. Then the parents get home early, find the party happening, and it hits the fan.
Now, I get the feeling that directors of those films weren’t looking to Exodus for an outline for their stories, but the parallels are there. But of course, this is Exodus, so there are a few more things going on than a plot to party while mom and dad are away. See, last week we got the first part of this story, and then we skipped the dozen chapters in between to get to this week’s reading. So what happened in between?
There’s this old movie that you may have seen called The History of the World: Part One by Mel Brooks, and I’ve always gotten a pretty good laugh out of it any time I watched it. But one of the best parts was right toward the beginning, in the scene where Brooks is playing Moses, coming down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Only, he’s got three tablets instead of two, and it is very clear he is struggling to hold them all. And in the course of the scene, he’s shouting to the people of Israel down the mountain:
“The Lord! The Lord Jehovah has given you these fifteen—” and then he slips and drops a tablet, and it just shatters on the ground. Moses stares at it for a moment in shock, says “Oy,” and then looks up, holds up the two remaining tablets and says “Ten! Ten Commandments for all to obey!” Ah, it gets me every time.
But thinking about that scene this week, I got caught on that word Brooks uses: “obey.” I think, when we read the Ten Commandments, we do read them that way. This is a list of the ten most important, biggest rules in the world, and we should obey them. When we learned them in confirmation, most of us probably remember Luther’s repeated way of introducing each commandment. “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that…” It was taught to us as a list of rules to follow. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong—but maybe it’s not all they are.
If this story from our Exodus reading feels like déjà vu, it’s because there are a lot of things similar to last week. Remember, last week we heard about the Israelites complaining about how hungry they were, how there was nothing to eat in the desert, and how it would have been better for them to have stayed in Egypt where there was plenty of bread and fleshpots for food. This time, however, the people are thirsty.
They are thirsty and the conversation seems to go the same way. There is murmuring. Then they call out Moses, insisting that he brought them out to die in the desert, and that it would’ve been better if they had stayed in Egypt. But this complaining has a bit more urgency to it. See, with the food, we know that the human body can survive about three weeks without food. But water—without water you are done for in three days. If there isn’t any water in the camp, it’s not just a matter of low blood sugar. It’s a matter of life and death.