“You shall have no other gods before me”
The Ten Commandments… The Ten Commandments get a bad rap today. I’ll be the first to admit though that I myself when hearing about them often think, “old… outdated… a bad movie…” But recently, after spending some time reflecting on them and reading through Exodus, I’ve come to have a different take. In fact, I think the Ten Commandments in their day could have been somewhat akin to the love & peace message of the hippie days.
You see, when you take into consideration the culture and context of when the Ten Commandments were given you’ll find that they were really moving the people to a different way of living. A way that was much more caring and considerate of others than the way they were used to living. And in fact, when Israel entered into their promised land they were supposed to post the Ten Commandments at their border and I can imagine those not so inclined to be as kind and loving as the commandments called them to be would have even been a bit embarrassed at this mushy love stuff that they were now supposed to live by.
So what were these commandments, how were they in contrast to the practices of the day, and how could we better interpret them in our day? For surely God constantly and consistently works to move us to higher understandings of peace, goodness, and love. That’s what we’ll attempt to take a look at with the commandments.
So, commandment one…
“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3
With this command, the first and most obvious contrast was that the people had many other gods they considered more important than the god of their fathers who had just brought them out of slavery in Egypt. If this weren’t the case God would not have needed to say it. 🙂 Essentially God is saying, “Look, I know you don’t really know me that well yet but I just saved your butts from being slaves another 400 years while those other so-called gods you knew of in Egypt really did nothing for you because, surprise, they don’t really exist. So, let them go the way of wood in fire and I will be your god and you will be my people.”
And can you see it? How embarrassing in a social sense this might be? That they would all of a sudden only look to this one deity, new to the scene, that no one really knew? That Israel would turn away from all the well known, accepted, and established deities and practices of soliciting help from them and look only to this one new-to-town deity? It would seem like foolishness. And if this god had just shown up and given this command, it might be foolishness, but that’s not what happened.
What happened was this god showed up and acted with power. He acted in such a way that each of the powerful signs he did to bring Israel out of Egypt corresponded to the supposed power and domain of an acknowledged god in Egypt. The god of the Nile was powerless to act when the god of Israel acted on the water and so on, all the way up to the god that Egypt offered their first born to was powerless to save when the god of Israel acted. Not only this, but the god of Israel then showed Himself as care taker and able to protect when He parted the sea, provided food and water, and manifested his guiding presence in many different ways.
After all this however, the people of Israel still found it hard to change the things they believed and the way they were living. They even went so far as to make a calf out of gold and start soliciting it for help at the same time this god of their fathers was manifesting his power to them on a mountain top. Ironically Israel ran away from God to a piece of metal while He was trying to reveal himself because that’s what they were used to. And so, is it any wonder why God had to spell it out for them in words since they still didn’t get it? And so He says, “Don’t have any other gods before me. Hello. I’m the one here actually talking and acting. Do you see that piece of metal doing anything for you? Has if ever talked to you? It’s not going to help you. It can’t. Stop wasting your time with it. You’re doing yourself no good with it. I’m trying to actually help you here if you’d pay attention and let me.”
But of course, a real God can indeed be a scary thing. An actual and alive being with that much power? And an encounter with Him is likely to send one running for help if he is not seen as good, or still running for help if he is seen as good and we know ourselves not to be good. But that’s for another discussion.
So to recap, God, really quite unknown at this time, intervenes in the life of Israel rather dramatically, and pulls them out of Egypt. He then begins to nurture their new relationship, explaining He is above and before all these other god’s they have known and they now need to leave them behind and follow Him.
So how about for us now, many centuries later, and in a day where its not the norm any longer to solicit a handful of deities for help? A day where instead, the belief of the existence of any kind of deity is easily looked upon as foolishness?
To this day does the first commandment still speak? I think it does, but perhaps not as, “Have no other gods before me.” Perhaps instead something like, “Have Me as the Father of fathers before you.”
You see, in our day we don’t relate to gods in the same way anymore, our culture is different. We do however relate to and can understand the idea of mentors, teachers, or fathers. We can innately recognize, at least in part, the difference between a good father and a bad one. Perhaps that’s why Jesus, when teaching his disciples to pray started with, “Our father…” instead of “Our god…”. Perhaps this ultimate deity known to us as “God” is bringing us to a further understanding of Himself something like this… “Great, you’ve understood me as the God of gods, now understand me as the Father of fathers, for I am so much more than a god.”
Consider for a moment the idea of “have no other fathers before me.” Consider the idea of an actual, real, and living deity being your father. That could be a pretty scary idea given what power He has already shown Himself to have and that He could use that power to grow His children. But that too is another discussion.
And so as we consider this first commandment for our day, does this deity this time show up with just words and say, “I will be your father. Have no other fathers before me?” Does He ask us to just go along with it, looking like fools? No, he has again in this day and age shown up and acted in a way as to prove himself to be the only good father. He has proven his power even over that which all other fathers wish to save their children from but can’t… power over death and power to give life forever to His children.
This god/father, in our day, again manifested himself to His people. But this time sending His own son (Jesus) who, being rejected to the point of death, was then raised to life again. What other father can do that? In so doing, this Father of fathers assures us of His ability to indeed be the Father of fathers. And they (the Father and Son) in essence say, “Look, don’t run away from us again. We will love and care for you and show you how best to live this existence called life. We know you don’t fully understand, but we will help you, show you, and teach you, and we have everything at our disposal to help do so. We are overlooking and pardoning all that you’ve not gotten right, both intentionally and unintentionally. Only let God be your father now, not anyone else, and We will keep you in life even beyond this life. There is so much more We want to show you.”
And so still in our day, even today, as God has said and acted in the life, death, and life again of His own son… all people everywhere have the invitation and opportunity to enter into a relationship with the Father of fathers. And His first commandment still rings true… “Have Me as the Father of fathers before you.”