From a time before the journey began, the Israelites had many opportunities to know that God was with them. Prior to leaving Egypt, his presence could be felt as plagues took their toll on their Egyptian overlords but left the Children of God untouched. As the journey in the wilderness began, God’s presence was visibly manifested as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night; both leading them and protecting them from their enemies. The parting of the waters at the Red Sea demonstrated how God’s power could work through his servants. When the people were hungry, he gave them meat in the evening and bread from heaven in the morning. When his children thirsted, God caused water to gush out of the rocks.
One might be tempted to take stock of the evidence of God’s presence and think that the Israelites must have known without a doubt that God was with them and would always be with them. However, this was not the case. Time and time again, the People would cry out to God, thinking that they had been abandoned. In spite of all the miraculous signs, without something tangible to hold on to, they lost sight of the Presence of God in their midst and felt lost and alone.
Knowing the weaknesses of his people, God chose to give them the tangible sign that they longed for. Amid this wilderness experience, in that place of anxiety and vulnerability, God gave his people a gift that would serve as a constant reminder of his presence. It may not have been what they expected. Other nations had idols to look to, but God would not be found in an idol. The Egyptians had priests with mystical powers, yet God would not condescend to reveal himself in parlour tricks. God chose a sign that would challenge both the mind and the heart. God gave his people the Law.
In the giving of the Law, the expectations of God’s covenant with his people were codified and spelled out. It was put together and summarized in a way that could be understood by the simplest of people. Love God. Love your neighbour.
There was not likely anything new in what we call the Ten Commandments. The Israelites were a moral people who knew that it was wrong to lie, and to kill, and to steal. We also know that they already knew something about observing the Sabbath as they had previously been instructed to gather enough manna each week to see them through the Day of Rest. It was also not the first time that they had lived under a law. They had lived under Pharaoh’s law in Egypt; it had been the means of their oppression.
What was new was that God would choose to formalize a way of living as a sign of his presence among his people. Loving God and loving neighbour. God would be personified in his people as they lived the Law from day to day. It was also new in that living under this Law was the opposite of oppression; it was freedom.
God knows our weaknesses and hears our cries for help. He does not abandon us. He is present to us when we are present to him and when we are present to our neighbour. He is present in our neighbour’s consideration of our own struggles. When we love God and love our neighbour, he is present. When two or three gather together in his name, he is there in the midst of them.