Painting by J. Kirk Richards
The following verses immediately precede and give context to the ten commandments:
And God spake all these words, saying,
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Exodus 20:1-2
Egypt is a richly symbolic word in Hebrew. It is the dual form of a word that can mean border, limit, besieged place, defense, enclosure, fortified, or strong. The root verb of this word can mean to hold in and confine. In Egypt the children of Israel inhabit a house of bondage. Literally and symbolically they are in servitude to the Egyptians, in part as an oppressed people and in part as accomplices, in building the strong enclosure that holds them in and confines them in a temporal and spiritual prison. Symbolically Egypt is truly a house of bondage of dual nature—temporal and spiritual, death and hell, Egyptian imposed and self-imposed. It is the prototypical worldly tabernacle or temple sphere represented by the outer court in which sacrifices are performed. It is in Egypt that the Passover is instituted immediately preceding the Exodus, symbolic of the deliverance of the Israelites by the Lord.
Egypt is an eternal type, representative of worldly association. Exodus is an eternal type of salvation, a separation from Egypt and journey towards and into the Promised Land and eventually heaven and the association found therein. Each of these spheres and every other sphere is completely described and governed by the association its inhabitants desire. Association may be viewed as the basic medium within which all matter and beings exist.
These ancient and eternal truths are not at all removed from the current world and daily life. There is nothing more immediate and important. What is our Egypt in the context of community, family, and other associations? What is our Egypt in terms of our own natures? In what ways are we accomplices in building our own imprisonment and misery? Where do we find exodus?
What type of associations do we desire, and how strongly do we desire them? That, in the end, through God’s grace determines the sphere we inhabit in this world and the next. Again there is nothing more immediate and important.
Moses rejects Egypt and chooses an individual exodus long before the Exodus of the children of Israel that he is called by God to lead. He rejects the riches, honors, and power that are his to enjoy in Egypt and chooses instead to maintain his integrity and to associate with God and humble people in the wilderness. Forty years later he is reluctant to return to Egypt because it is completely foreign and repugnant to him.
It is in this context of association, desire, choice, Egypt, and Exodus that the ten commandments point the way towards salvation through God’s grace.
Even more than this, the ten commandments are salvation.
To have no other gods before the one true God, for instance, is not a restriction, but instead the greatest possible blessing—being more and more one with God, eventually knowing God completely. It is finally and fully to leave spiritual Egypt behind and associate with God.