The Eleventh Commandment

The ten commandments are just the beginning of the law in Exodus 20. There are many more laws to come–in fact, exactly 613 laws by the counting of Orthodox Jews. How many laws are in the ten commandments themselves? It seems obvious that there are ten in the ten commandments! Yet, I was interested to find that in the way the Orthodox Jewish community counts the commandments in Exodus 20, there is another commandment that comes just before the ten that the Christian tradition counts. Before God commands, “You shall have no other gods before me,” God says this: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Orthodox Jews understand those words, the divine introduction, as a command.

In this “eleventh commandment”, there is no “do” or “do not” that we expect in most commands. But commandments and laws are much more than direct dos and don’ts. At the core, a law is a pattern for living, a guideline or expectation for behavior. It is even a claim on how we think about ourselves, our lives, our world. If I say to one of my daughters, “I am your Dad, and you are my daughter,” is that a command? No “do this” or “don’t do that” in that statement. Yet contained in that statement are certain values, expectations, traditions, and assumptions about a way of being, a pattern for living, for me and for my daughter.

A pattern for living is present when God says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It is an “eleventh commandment” that comes first, before the other ten, because it sets a basic, profound pattern for living. This is the truth for our lives: the LORD, YHWH, the great I am, is our God. Like any other command, we can embrace and follow it, or we can deny and flee from it, but it is still the law, the reality in which our lives exist. The “eleventh commandment” comes first because our God stands at the beginning, before any dos and don’ts, before any other laws. The “eleventh commandment” unmistakably claims that this God brings you to freedom. The God who delivers the captives out of slavery into the promised land, this is our God who carries us from brokenness to healing, from confinement to liberation.

This “eleventh commandment” that comes before the others is important for us to hear in this time of turmoil. In the midst of it all we wonder, “What should we do?” This command comes first to say we must remember that the living God claims us–we must listen to this God who is the source of freedom and life. To hear the command that YHWH is God, the source of true life, makes us ask where we truly look for freedom and peace. Will this war bring peace? It will not–there will be more. Will weapons and security measures bring us freedom and peace? They will not–there will always be threats. Will demonstrations and resistance bring lasting peace? No–there will always be a need for more. Will the economy and the stock market bring us security and peace? No, they will not.

God says, “I am God–the One who gives freedom and life.” God commands us that God is our hope, our power. Worshipping God may be the most powerful witness for peace in this world because worship is a witness beyond ourselves to the God who is our true source of freedom and hope. This command of God sets the pattern for our living. This is a radical command for us and for our culture: in the midst of war, in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of fear we are to witness to the sovereignty of God, the reality of the One who is our God and God of all. It is a command to worship, to praise, to question, to pray, cry, confess, lament, to the LORD God who stands before and in the midst and beyond the future of this time.

Gordon Wiersma is a pastor at Hope Church RCA in Holland, Michigan.