(Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20)
On the eve of Valentine’s Day 2023, a gunman opened fire on the campus of Michigan State University, killing three MSU students and critically wounding five others.
In the aftermath, Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University emailed the student body to express solidarity with MSU students and faculty and to express remorse for the horrific event. The email read, in part: “The recent Michigan shootings are a tragic reminder of the importance of taking care of each other, particularly in the context of creating inclusive environments.”
But at the end of the note was a curious line in fine print: “Paraphrase from OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI language model, personal communication, February 15, 2023.”
Oops! The sympathetic email had made use of AI (artificial intelligence) to write a note about a very human and horrific human tragedy! What? The staff couldn’t take time, or find the words – their own words — to compose an authentic letter of sympathy? They had to resort to an AI chatbot?
The student body was outraged, and administrators were not amused. Those who were responsible for creating the letter stepped back from their responsibilities, and one of them admitted that using ChatGPT was in “poor judgment.”
Most people would agree. But aren’t there times when ChatGPT might be a boon for overworked administrators? PR people? Grad students? Pastors?
Need a funeral sermon fast but you’re out of inspiration, ideas and, frankly, intelligence? Your brain is tired and on overdrive. Right now, you need artificial intelligence.
And we’re not referring to the Holy Spirit.
You could try ChatGPT. According to one source, ChatGPT is “an artificial intelligence trained to assist with a variety of tasks.” But with the language component, it is able to generate “human-like” text so that a conversation can ensue with true mortals such as us. Hence, the “chat” of ChatGPT.
What about the “GPT”? These letters derive from the learning model the application uses and stand for Generative Pre-trained Transformer. Does that help?
You ask ChatGPT a question. The AI chatbot then considers the request and responds accordingly. But does it work?
Kai Cobbs was a sophomore at Rutgers University who needed help on a paper about the history of capitalism. He turned to ChatGPT. His friends swore by it, saying it could generate long, intelligible essays on any topic imaginable. Cobbs gave it a try.
The result was awful. The undergrad thought he’d get something coherent, logical and reasoned. Instead, he had a mishmash of unintelligible jargon to which he’d never sign his name. He concluded that “artificial intelligence might just be dumber than humans.”
Cobbs’ experience notwithstanding, academia – while viewing AI bots as a convenient tool, like autocorrect, grammar checkers or calculators – is concerned and views AI-generated work as plagiarism.
The problem with that point of view, according to Emily Hipchen, a board member of Brown University’s Academic Code Committee, is that “If [plagiarism] is stealing from a person, then I don’t know that we have a person who is being stolen from.”
A dive into today’s text shows us that it is precisely this ambiguity that HI (Highest Intelligence) is trying to avoid. HI is otherwise known as Y-H-W-H or Yahweh, a name that is a sequence of the Hebrew consonants Yod, Heh, Waw and Heh, and called the tetragrammaton. But for us, right now, we might call it ChatGOD!
Now ChatGOD gets right to work: “Then God spoke all these words” (v. 1). And Israel held its breath. Was this to be a terrible outpouring of wrath and anger? An incomprehensible diatribe announcing retribution, penalties, and various curses?
No. The following 17 verses hold the pride of place not only among the legal material in Exodus, but in the annals of ethics and codes of social behavior the world over. These “utterances,” as the Hebrews would call them, stand at the head of the history of human moral development. For the children of Israel, it is the first statement of law once the story of Moses’ life and the escape from Egypt and the arrival at Mount Horeb ends.
In a few words, ChatGOD touches on major theological and social themes that will guide the lives of the Hebrews for millennia, and establish an ethical framework that is, perhaps, the most well-known of all such moral codes in the world.
Unlike ChatGPT, whose output might be a chaotic miasma of conflicting ideas and themes, ChatGOD is clear. The author and speaker of this text is the voice of reason and logic. (You don’t want to be stolen from, so do not steal, etc.) It is this clarity that accounts, in part, for the longevity of the Ten Commandments and for their longevity as a useful moral compass. They are a brilliant statement of law; one of the first in the history of humankind.
The Ten Commandments are stated as imperatives. Thus, the word commandment. “You shall …,” “You shall not …,” which makes them laws of do’s and don’ts and laws that are applicable in all times and circumstances. As Immanuel Kant would have it, there isn’t a person on Earth who doesn’t know, and even believe, that to steal something is to act against a universal moral principle that has been in place forever and in all places.
Same goes for murder and telling untruths.
Ethicists and philosophers have stated these same ideas in other forms, but none with the clarity of the Ten Commandments. Consider Kant’s Categorical Imperative, for example. For Kant, the supreme rule of law was one imperative formulated in two ways — sort of like Jesus’ response to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Kant (1724–1804) said in his seminal work, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” He then added: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end and never as only a means.” This is good stuff, but for a nonprofessional or ethics novice, it reads like something ChatGPT spit out.
Not so with God’s words. Although the Mosaic Law includes 613 commandments, the first 10 sum them up nicely. Unlike other laws that require conditional or causal reasoning – “If you do X, then Y will occur” – the Ten Commandments state no conditions under which they apply and mention no penalties for their violation. This doesn’t mean there aren’t penalties for breaking these laws – just that they don’t appear here in this simple list.
“Then God spoke all these words.” Lest there be confusion, this opening verse makes it clear that the following “utterances” do not comprise the Law of Moses, or so-called Mosaic Law. These laws are from the mouth of YHWH alone. And YHWH gets right to the point: “I am the Lord your God, … you shall have no other gods before me” (vv. 2-3). These verses answer the who and why questions. “Who are you, and why shouldn’t we worship whomever we please?”
The answer is: “I am the God who delivered you from Egypt and slavery! That’s who. And that’s also why you will worship me and only me.”
The second commandment seems to forbid making stone or wooden idols of foreign or strange gods for the purpose of cultic worship. However, in Deuteronomy 4:16, God tells the people not to make images of YHWH as well. In other words, YHWH does not want to be worshiped through the use of cultic statuary (a common worship form used by virtually all of Israel’s neighbors). The reason for this is that, “You saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire.”
So, here’s what we know: YHWH has no corporeal form (a god with no physical form), which was practically unknown in the ancient world. And the Israelites now made their most unusual theological claim: that YHWH is neither male nor female, young nor old, human nor nonhuman in appearance. YHWH is the young warrior king and the ancient of days. YHWH is mother and father, force of nature and personal companion. YHWH is all things. YHWH has all power. Images limit the imagination concerning the nature of God; therefore, one should never enshrine any single image of YHWH, for to do this would diminish the other aspects of YHWH’s nature and thus diminish YHWH’s perceived power.
This nuanced, even revolutionary, thinking is far beyond anything AI or ChatGPT could conjure in any sort of computer-generated, hardwired, hi-tech processing.
This is God we’re talking about here, and the Ten Commandments reveal the transcendent brilliance of YHWH far beyond the miracles by which the Hebrew children were delivered from Egypt.
So, what is this Decalogue in a nutshell? As Jesus noted in his chat with a lawyer recorded in Matthew 22:37-40, the stipulations of the law explain how mortals relate to both God and neighbor.
God initiates the covenantal agreement between God and humans – a specific human community, to be sure – at Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb). The people of God will never be in doubt as to what God expects of them.
Nor will they be in doubt as to how they are expected to behave in their clans, tribes and communities. They have duties to family and neighbors.
The nuts and bolts of these 17 verses create an astonishingly simple ethical structure for the enjoyment of both religious and social covenant relationships. This is not rocket science. This is not ChatGPT gobbledygook.
This is God with an amazing code of conduct. Adherence to the code will save humans a ton of grief, a fact that the psalmist repeatedly notes: “Happy are those whose ways are blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 119:1). Again, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).
And the benefits and rewards of signing up are impressive as well. Although God admits to being “a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (v. 5), YHWH also boasts that there is another side to the Divine Presence. YHWH will also show “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (v. 6).
In other words, when it comes to our sins, mistakes, faults and disobedience, God has short-term memory. God forgets easily. God loves long. Amen.