The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt when Moses was born. His mother and sister were imagined placing little Moses into a basket and setting the basket in the river Nile in their attempts to save him from the wrath of the Pharoah. These were the original infanticide days, as would be recast in Christian scripture with Herod playing the role of Pharoah and Jesus playing the role of Moses (or maybe you haven’t noticed that before).
Poetically, it was Pharoah’s daughter who found the baby and hired none other than Moses’ sister to be his caretaker.
Enraged at the cruelty imposed upon an Israelite by an Egyptian, a Moses now several years older killed the Egyptian and fled Egypt to live as a shepherd until such time as he encountered that proverbial burning bush, from which a voice instructed him to return to Egypt and to free his fellow Israelites from their enslavement.
It was in this conversation (Moses wasn’t quick to just say, “Sure,” you understand), that the first name for God was offered – a name worthy of an entire lesson on another Sunday morning.
The first name for God was offered as I Am, or I Am that I Am. Have you considered the implications of, in a sense, invoking the name of God with every statement that you begin with the words, “I am?”
In other words, if every statement you begin with the words, “I am,” were a prayer, which statements would you still choose to utter? Think of some of the statements you might begin with, “I am.” Would the words that follow elevate or diminish? Would the words that follow speak to your highest possibilities or your lowest fears?
And let me take advantage of this pause to remind you that biblical material need not be factual to be true. The association of factuality with truth is a much later idea which would have completely stymied the writer or writers of this morning’s narrative.
So, at this point in our tale, Moses returned to Egypt. The Israelites were protected from a number of unthinkable events (this was the locusts and the boils situation) by marking their doorways with the blood of a lamb. You’ll recognize this as a juncture celebrated by what our Jewish brothers and sisters call Passover.
The Israelites were protected from a number of unthinkable events before they finally embarked toward their freedom with Moses.
Following some indecisiveness (shall we say), Pharoah sent his army. His army pinned the fleeing Israelites against the Red Sea at which point the sea parted, allowing the Israelites to slip through only to engulf the Egyptian army to its death.
The Israelites began a long trek through the desert, landing at the base of Mount Sinai where God is imagined to have said to Moses, “Come up the mountain...”
And Moses climbed Mount Sinai only to descend some 40 days later, ultimately to present his companions with the 2nd version of what we would call the Ten Commandments, the 2nd version being those tablets that replaced those smashed by Moses upon finding his companions worshipping a golden calf.
“Will these people never learn?” I can just hear him saying. Shaking his head.
Now, as I’ve said so many times before, humans have fashioned gods in our image from those first etchings in cave walls. It’s been suggested that we are, in fact, hardwired to project ourselves onto the without.
We are hardwired to perceive human faces in trees, to assign human motives to hurricanes, to ascribe human genders to vehicles. If I were to ask whether your car is a boy or a girl, most of you would have quick answers.
If you’ve ever been the honored companion of a dog, you know about your tendency to impose human feelings on Fido.
“Fido is sad. Fido is happy. Fido is curious.” And these might be benign enough, but you know it doesn’t end there. This projection goes on to find us saying things like, “Fido is jealous of the neighbor’s Cadillac. Fido is worried about the global economy.”
Humans have fashioned gods in our image from those first etchings in cave walls.
With the rise of hunting tribes, humanity fashioned gods of strength and stamina. With the rise of agricultural societies, humanity fashioned gods of earth and stars. With the rise of city-states, humanity fashioned gods of might and conquest.
So, that gods have faces mirroring everything from geography to circumstance doesn’t speak to the nature of god, you see – it speaks to the nature of humanity. The early Hebrews didn’t fashion a seven-day week because they knew a seven-day creation mythology. The early Hebrews fashioned a seven-day creation mythology because they knew a seven-day week. “Of course, God would work for six days and then rest and reflect on the seventh. It’s just the way it’s done.”
Because we’re hardwired to imagine gods with arms and legs, to imagine gods as temperamental, fickle beings - to project self onto the without, in a very real sense a pursuit of matters spiritual requires an eclipse of matters physiological. Said more clearly: surely, we can admit that God is more than our human projections.
If you’d like to read more about any of these ideas so far, check out Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy by John Shelby Spong, God: A Human History by Reza Aslan or any books of translation by Dr. George M. Llamsa.
And so, I might suggest that in an early church context in which God was often perceived as lawmaker and judge, that the revelations of Moses would be translated as commandments and imagined as etched in stone should come as no surprise.
But I have this deep intuitive sense that this speaks more to context than to content. I mean, does God really issue commands? Or is it humanity that tends to do that?
Even when we turn to modern translations from the original Hebrew, we find the softer Ten Ideas or Ten Words or Ten Declarations. Personally, I relate to them as the Ten Revelations.
Now, these Ten Revelations (if you will) were received by Moses where? On a mountaintop. This imagery of a mountaintop saturates Hebrew scriptures and makes notable appearances in Christian scriptures as well - notable appearances such as, “He went out to the mountain to pray, and, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain,” and, “Six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain,” and even in Revelation, “And he carried me to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city.”
It was on a mountaintop that some walked for the first time. It was on a mountaintop that some saw for the first time. It was on a mountaintop that some spoke for the first time.
I think it can be said that biblically speaking, a mountaintop is not just a mountaintop. It’s where inspiration is experienced, it’s where power is unleashed, it’s where vision is gained. So, perhaps when God was imagined to say, “Come up the mountain,” he just as easily could have been imagined to say, “Come up to where inspiration is experienced. Come up to where power is unleashed. Come up to where vision is gained.” He just as easily could have been imagined to say, “Come into a state of high-mindedness.” And Moses answered that call.
And so maybe the Moses character was saying that in a state of high-mindedness, we have no other gods. In a state of high-mindedness, we don’t make graven images or take the name of God in vain. In a state of high-mindedness, we don’t kill. In a state of high-mindedness, we honor fathers and mothers, we don’t covet our neighbor's stuff, commit adultery, steal or lie. In a state of high-mindedness, we remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.
Said another way, maybe the Moses character was saying that in a state of high-mindedness, we come to realize that for the countless unique ways in which humanity would experience and express God, God remains unaffected and undivided; that for the countless unique ways in which humanity would experience and express God, each is merely a unique description of that singular ground of being from which all life emanates and into which all life retreats. We come to realize that our religions, our words, our books, our idols, our saints, our rituals, even our teachers and our avatars become as graven images – as mere pointers at best - to be heeded by all, but worshipped by none. And in such a realization, we stop using the name of God to separate, to diminish, to limit, to exclude. Or, in such a realization, we stop using the name of God in vain.
Maybe the Moses character was saying that in a state of high-mindedness, we come to realize such a compassion that we begin to perceive life in its myriad expressions as sacred. We come to realize such a compassion that the beetle and the leaf and the tree and the goat and the cow and yes - our human mothers and fathers - all fall within its wide embrace. We come to realize such a compassion that the intentional killing of anything stands as an offense to the very souls of us. The countless blinders we’ve adopted to block the cruelties of our daily lives from our vision are stripped away and we soften our walk.
Maybe the Moses character was saying that in a state of high-mindedness, we come to realize that our seemingly insatiable drive to accumulate more and more and more gives way to the realization that all of it belongs to us and that none of it belongs to us, at the same time. The myths of ownership and possession are laid bare as the arrogant illusions which they are. We come to realize that we are, at best, the honorary caretakers of everything so generously offered by the transient experience that is a human incarnation. We come to realize that the drive to covet and to take and to steal are reflections of an inability to see the profound privilege that it is to be a member of the family of life, the undeniable equality and right to be shared by every member, and the mechanisms of nature that would support and sustain all in a beautiful equilibrium.
And maybe the Moses character was saying that in a state of high-mindedness, we come to realize what we might call the sabbath consciousness. We come to realize that ours is to do that which is ours to do, ours is to become that which is ours to become, ours is to give to that which is ours to give, knowing like this patriarchal figure, that if we come to find ourselves standing on that ridge looking across the river into that promised land still afar, we can rest, nonetheless. We can celebrate the contributions we’ve made, even as we trust another generation to continue the journey.
Maybe the Moses character was saying that. The Ten Revelations of Moses aren’t giving instructions for how to climb the hill, you see. They’re painting pictures of what it’s like at the top. The Ten Revelations of Moses are describing how it is to live in that state of high-mindedness.
Now, I can relate to this Moses who, let’s say, had that mountaintop experience in which he came to realize the unity of existence, the sacredness of life, the honor of being and the responsibility of humanity, only to come down and find people still being people, to find people still gathering around the countless golden calves of modern life.
And maybe you can relate to coming down from such a mountaintop - from a state of high-mindedness - to the disappointment of people who are still telling lies, to the disappointment of people who are still destroying nature, to the disappointment of people who are still abusing animals, to the disappointment of people who are still amassing stuff and yes, to the disappointment of people who are still starting wars.
Maybe you can relate to Moses who smashed those first tablets in what might be interpreted as a moment of deep disappointment.
So, maybe the lesson we can take from the Moses narrative on a day such as today is that while we might allow ourselves a moment of deep disappointment, ours is to go back up the mountain, nonetheless, and ours is to continue to walk the unity of existence and the sacredness of life and the honor of being and the responsibility of humanity back down into those valleys of people being people as many times as it takes.