God’s instructions for humans are both simple and complex, both straightforward and multilayered. Tracey Emin prompts us to consider the many layers of meaning that may attend a simple phrase. So, too, Pablo Picasso’s line drawings of bulls have a crisp elegance even while one knows they are the expression (and the product) of a multiplicity of experiments in depicting his subject.
Neither work is facile. What does it mean to fall in love? And what makes the place where it happened so special? Emin poses questions with her work that reward sustained reflection. Meanwhile Pablo Picasso’s sketches have a simplicity and clarity born of diligent work and painstaking analysis of the subject.
Analogously, the statements in the Ten Commandments are immediately transparent while also pregnant with layers of meaning. It might take a lifetime, for example, to discover the implications of ‘honour thy father and thy mother’. So, too, the prohibitions against murder, lying, adultery, theft, and covetousness are all indexed to an infinitely-modulated world of human reciprocity.
All the more so God’s declaration that ‘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’ (Deuteronomy 5:6). In arresting, staccato statements, God confronts us with what it takes to have strong, loving relationships. A stripping away of the idols of our own making, in favour of the absolute truth of God, stands as the necessary condition of such flourishing.
And yet, God’s face is nowhere to be seen in this passage. In a book that depicts both a deity capable of parting the seas and also a people who will conquer a multitude, a single man emerges as the central figure. Deuteronomy 5 cements his centrality. Just as Moses’s head is the only thing in Gustave Moreau’s sketch, so God does nothing in Deuteronomy without his chosen servant. God’s speech is simultaneously Moses’s words. The entire text emerges from Moses’s mouth, in a series of three speeches. He stands ‘to declare … the words of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire’ (Deuteronomy 5:5). Moses embodies God’s thoughts, words, and power in human form. He operates as the source of all wise instruction and the judge of all that is just.
We too may see the divine only in the other human beings with whom we are in relationship. Moreau’s Moses reminds us that the human face may be that vehicle through which we encounter God most intensely. Indeed, Moses’s concentrated gaze in Moreau’s sketch evokes the God of Deuteronomy, whose character is made manifest in both compassion and unyielding intensity.
The compassion that Deuteronomy proclaims is that of a God who saves people from bondage; it depicts a deity who commands people to rest each week, despite all that need be done, so they never forget that liberating act of compassion; it teaches about the LORD who desires that ‘you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land’ (Deuteronomy 5:33).
But beware! Complacency has no place here. ‘You must therefore be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you’ (Deuteronomy 5:32–33). The compassionate God remains prepared to judge disloyalty; he has a power greater than the fiercest strength of any bull, and requires faithfulness to his instructions. The eyes of Moreau’s Moses may remind us of how the divine gaze penetrates our external façades and of how this God perceives what rebellion lurks inside us.
Emin’s neon remains an apt representation of the apparent tensions in humanity’s relationship with God envisioned by Deuteronomy 5. God’s love for his people glows warm and bright, ready to meet them in the place they stand, wherever that is. But to experience this love, one must accept a risk—that God’s fierce determination to make us fit for such relationship might, like the electric current in the neon tube, cause us pain.
44 This is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel; 45these are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which Moses spoke to the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt, 46beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peʹor, in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the children of Israel defeated when they came out of Egypt. 47And they took possession of his land and the land of Og the king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who lived to the east beyond the Jordan; 48from Aroʹer, which is on the edge of the valley of the Arnon, as far as Mount Siʹrion (that is, Hermon), 49together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah.
5 And Moses summoned all Israel, and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your hearing this day, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. 2The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. 3Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day. 4The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, 5while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:
6 “ ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
7 “ ‘You shall have no other gods before me.
8 “ ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 9you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 “ ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
12 “ ‘Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; 14but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. 15You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
16 “ ‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
17 “ ‘You shall not kill.
18 “ ‘Neither shall you commit adultery.
19 “ ‘Neither shall you steal.
20 “ ‘Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
21 “ ‘Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’
22 “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them upon two tables of stone, and gave them to me. 23And when you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders; 24and you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire; we have this day seen God speak with man and man still live. 25Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire, as we have, and has still lived? 27Go near, and hear all that the Lord our God will say; and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you; and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me; and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have rightly said all that they have spoken. 29Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their children for ever! 30Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandment and the statutes and the ordinances which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess.’ 32You shall be careful to do therefore as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33You shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land which you shall possess.