We didn’t have a song for the Ten Commandments.
When I was a kid growing up in a white fundamentalist church and a white fundie private Christian school, we had songs to help us learn most of the many, many things we memorized. We had a song for the books of the Bible, plus another song just for the minor prophets* (the trickiest part of that). We had a song for the 12 disciples, a song for the tribes of Israel, and a song for the fruits [sic] of the Spirit. We had songs for dozens of the hundreds of Bible verses we were taught to memorize.
As far as I remember from Sunday school and Vacation Bible School and Bible classes at Timothy Christian School, though, we never learned a song to help us memorize the Ten Commandments. We just had to straight-up memorize them.
And we did. We all did — not just the kids at my church and Christian school, but the kids at every white fundamentalist or white evangelical church and Christian school. We all learned the Ten Commandments and most of us, no matter how many years later, can still recite them in the same sing-songy, simplified King James language we used when reciting them in unison back in Sunday school.
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.
- Honor thy father and thy mother.
- Thou shalt not kill.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness.
- Thou shalt not covet.
If you’re Jewish or Catholic or Lutheran, that listing and numbering may trip you up a bit as different from the formulation of the Ten Commandments in your tradition. The 20th chapter of Exodus doesn’t number them for us, after all. But the version above is the one that most low-church and nondenominational white evangelicals use. It’s the one that the big white evangelical publishing houses that dominate Sunday school curriculums use. And it’s the one that white Christian nationalists use for the plaques and monuments they’re trying to install in courtrooms, statehouses, and city halls all across the country.
Our various Christian ways of numbering these commandments diverged from the original Talmud back around St. Augustine. The original version listed “I am the Lord your God” as the first commandment, but Augustine relegated that bit to a “prologue” since it didn’t seem to include any actual commandment per se.
Most Christian traditions either leave out this “prologue” or else we lump it together with the rest of our “first” commandment the way the cheerful little slide from a white evangelical Sunday school lesson does here to the right.
I commend whoever created that image for including not just the “prologue,” but also the ellipsis there: “I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before me.”
That ellipsis is important. It’s the rare acknowledgement that the “first commandment” we all memorized leaves out something very important. It leaves out information without which it becomes impossible for us either to understand or to obey that commandment.
It leaves out what Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 actually say:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You see what that ellipsis leaves out? This is crucial information. Who is talking here? Who is giving us these commandments? Which God is the God before whom we shalt not have any other gods? How is it that this God above and before all other gods chooses to identify? How does this God tell us to think of God? What does this God command us to understand as the nature and character of this God’s divinity?
This and only this: the God who “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
That’s a very specific God. And it’s a very different God from the God we were taught to worship and honor and obey when we stood and recited “the Ten Commandments” back in Sunday school and VBS and Bible class at Timothy.
A part of this — the smaller part — has to do with the awkward way we Christians relate to this story as the children of Cornelius. We were never slaves in Egypt and we were never brought out of the land of Egypt. We are, instead, as Paul put it, people who have been “grafted” into this story by grace. We’re the Margot Tenenbaums of Exodus (“This is my adopted daughter …”) and partly we gloss over “the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” because it’s uncomfortable being reminded of that.**
The larger part, though, is that White Christianity is “the house of slavery.” We read the Ten Commandments as white Christians who were never “brought out of the land of Egypt” and our first and wholly understandable impulse is to think, then, of where we fit into this story and into this commandment. Our second impulse — also wholly understandable, if shameful — is to realize that the answer is obvious and damning, and therefore to do whatever we can to stop ourselves from thinking about where we fit into this story. Because we know that we’re Egypt. We’re Pharaoh. We’re “the house of slavery.”
And it is therefore something far worse than merely awkward or uncomfortable for us to regard “the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” as our God, before and above all other gods. That’s not just uncomfortable, it’s terrifying.
It was so terrifying, in fact, that we needed to cobble together whole new forms of theology just to avoid dealing with it. A new hermeneutic was designed to make possible a “biblical” defense of the house of slavery. Even more impressive, in its own warped way, was the new soteriology created to provide some possibility of reading this story that didn’t have to end with the plundered Egyptians dead upon the sea shore.
And this new theology became our new religion. It’s our “tradition” — a tradition that still includes training our children to memorize our carefully paraphrased rendition of the Ten Commandments.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” we all recited as children, but the antecedent to “me,” the God we were to serve before all others, wasn’t the same God as “the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This God whose name we invoked was a God of the house of slavery — a God that blesses it and seems to be indistinct from it.
* Here, again, is the Minor Prophets song (to the tune of “Did You Ever See a Lassie?”):
Let us learn the minor prophets
Minor prophets, minor prophets
Let us learn the minor prophets
There are 12 of them in all
Hosea, Joel, Amos, Oba-DI-ah
Jonah, Micah, NA-hum, Ha-BAK-uk
** This uncomfortable glossing over turns out to be hugely consequential because this is not the only commandment or the only set of commandments the “God who brought you out of Egypt” gave that emphasizes this. It’s a refrain throughout the books of Moses. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Or “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Or “do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” White Christianity tends to regard itself as exempt from such commandments since, after all, we never needed to be brought out of the land of Egypt.