In January, I climbed Mt Sinai. Readers of the Hebrew Scriptures know Mt Sinai is where God gave Moses the stone-engraved set of Ten Commandments. At the time, you may recall, Moses was escaping Egypt with his Israelites en route to the ‘promised land’. Mt Sinai is geographically roughly halfway there, being in the middle of the Sinai Peninsula. It is today part of Egypt.
At the head of the valley leading to Mt Sinai is St Catherine’s monastery. It has been continuously operating since the 4th century, and is home today to 30 Greek Orthodox monks. It is famous not just for its antiquity, but also for its forbidding defensive walls, one of which is adorned with a mosque, other ancient buildings, and a church, and, importantly, for its superb icon collection.
Updating the Commandments?
My daughter Kate and I doubled the number of guests residing there. Outside those protective walls, we were guarded by an anti-aircraft gun, multiple police roadblocks, and soldiers in strategic spots dotted along the valley walls.
In Australia, I had done some pre-trip polling about the current usefulness of the existing Ten Commandments. Was a new set overdue, some revision needed maybe, or were the existing ten cast in stone, so to speak? Most people, I found, had either never thought about it, or thought I was heretical.
Secretly, you see, I was hoping God would give me an ‘upgrade’ on Mt Sinai. And to avoid carting around stone carvings and problems of excess airline baggage, I would bring along my own ‘tablet’. A simple digital download would do.
There are several ways to the Mt Sinai summit. For the fit, there are the 3000 ‘steps of repentance’. My lack of fitness forbade such unnecessary repentance, and anyway that route was closed. Then there is the ‘easier’ route, a long and circuitous slog, capped with 500 further purgatorial steps to the top. You could avoid much of the slog by taking a camel to the purgatorial steps.
We stoically slogged to the summit at 2285 metres, to be rewarded with ‘divine’ views of a palleted desert-coloured landscape, bony bleached and broken mountains divided by deep ravines and gullies.
Ideally, you climb to see the sunset or the sunrise. We chose the sunset, knowing we would be descending into darkness. Head torches, however, meant there were lamps to our feet and light to our path (Psalm 119; 105).
Before our climb, we did seek out the ‘burning bush’. Fenced off inside St Catherine’s monastery, it looked rather healthy and well clipped. There was, as the Bible says, no evidence of any burnt bits. And it didn’t re-ignite for us.
At its summit, Mt Sinai is crowned with a church and a mosque, small yet poignant reminders of religious territorial markings. Under the church is a cave where Moses is said to have waited out his 40 days for divine instructions. Being modern, we didn’t need to linger that length of time for any digital download.
With our Bedouin guide, Kate and I and some stray cats sat out the summit sunset. It was truly spectacular, and I confess to seeing the light, but concede failure on acquiring a new set of Commandments.
Downloading some new Commandments
Not to be deterred, and adopting the ancient Hebrew practise of hassling, nagging, and attempting to negotiate with God, I thought I should at least propose a new set of Commandments. God willing, here goes :
- There is One God (no change there!).
- Worship that One God (don’t be distracted or misled by ‘idols’ such as work, fame, and fortune).
- Respect your fellow beings (no murder, assault, stealing, bearing false witness. Respect your folks. In fact, respect all folks young and old).
- Be truthful and honest at all times (take note, bankers).
- Respect the Creation (praise daily in your prayers, while working to reduce your carbon footprint. It’s not the economy, stupid, but stewardship).
- Take responsibility for your actions (wide enough to cover adulterous activity).
- Work for the greater good of all (or, as the Jewish quip has it, you can’t die until you have done something good for someone else).
The observant will note that Respect for the Sabbath has gone, inevitable with our 24-hour shopping and seven-days-a-week work. Idolatrous, clearly, but Upgrade Commandment 6 requires you to look after yourself, in mind, body, and soul, probably the whole point of the Sabbath being about rest and reflection.
Coveting, too, is gone. The only people who covet these days are politicians and political parties seeking to gain or hold onto their power. If we can’t now smite them, we can vote them down. On the other hand, coveting my neighbour’s ass is probably harmless.
Go onto Google to find quite a few suggestions for new sets of Ten Commandments. Atheists seem to like the exercise, with Christopher Hitchens advocating a classic commandment: ‘turn off the f…ing mobile phone (you can have no idea how unimportant your call is to us)’.
If I have convinced you with my proposed Seven Commandments, just wait until I go to work on a new set of seven virtues and seven deadly sins.
Startled, I have just remembered a prophet’s poor prospects in his own country.