“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
The great moment is upon Israel. YHWH has delivered Israel from Egypt and slavery with a strong arm and with mighty deeds (Exodus 6-14). He is physically sustaining them in the desert wilderness, seeking to make them His chosen people (Exodus 15-18). He has brought them to His holy mountain, Sinai; they have consecrated themselves; He is speaking, reminding them regarding who He is and what He has done (Exodus 19:1-20:2). God now begins the commandments that Israel must keep to receive the blessing.
When lists are made there is often emphasis placed on that which comes first. Therefore, what is the first commandment that YHWH gives to Israel? What, of all the commands He will give, does He highlight?
That Israel shall have no other gods “against” or “before” His face, if we attempt to render the command more literally. As is often translated, that Israel will have no other gods before/beside Him.
That might seem a little strange to us today. Of all the plagues and difficulties of humanity, YHWH focuses first on other gods? Is YHWH being megalomaniacal or utterly self-possessed, as the Gnostics would later suggest?
We must first understand the mindset of the people who lived in the ancient Near East. Every nation then had its own specific god– a “national god,” if you will. Moab, for example, had Chemosh (Judges 11:24); the Philistines had Dagon (Judges 16:23). If your nation was prosperous and successful, it was evident that your national god was blessing you. If disaster came upon you, then your national god was angry with you. On top of the national gods were the gods of natural forces and things of that sort– El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, or group of gods; Baal, the storm and fertility god; Astarte his consort; Yam the god of the sea, and so on and so forth. All the nations believed in these gods– even the gods of the foreign nationalities.
Therefore, the temptation was very great for Israel to see YHWH as their national god and believe in all of the other gods of all the people around them. In turn, everyone else would believe that YHWH was the god of Israel, but in no different way than, say, Chemosh was the god of Moab.
What would be the big deal if this happened? If Israel does not understand that YHWH is distinctive and different from all other “gods,” then they will not understand how the law YHWH is giving them is different from the laws of the nations around them. If they accept the religious views of the people around them, they will follow the customs of the people around them. This concern is entirely justified– and this is precisely what will take place in Israel’s history. They will fall into the trap we have described, always understanding that YHWH is the God of Israel, but acting as if He is just one of the divinities of one of the nations of the ancient Near East. Little wonder, then, that they start engaging in the abominations of the world around them!
We must also understand that God’s concern here– idolatry– is one of the most fundamental dangers of life. Paul will later show in Romans 1:18-32 how man’s depravity begins with the rejection of God as the One True God, the Creator, to whom all creation is subject. This rejection takes place when man begins to serve some aspect of the creation rather than the Creator.
A lot of people, when thinking about this idea, think about Egyptian “gods” and their presentation as animals and the like, or people bowing down in fear before the sun, moon, rivers, and being terrified when eclipses and the like take place. All of those are ways that people, throughout time, have taken the creation and turned it into a god or many gods.
But such idolatry does not stop there. The same impulse that led people to make gods out of sun, moon, fire, wind, and water now leads people to make gods out of themselves, money, desire, power, sex, science, their nation, and a whole host of other “gods.” They are all part of the creation that God made as very good (Genesis 1:1-31), but when they are made to be the reason for life, or absolute, they become gods that people serve.
This is why the first– and highlighted– commandment is for Israel to have no other gods before/beside YHWH. This need not mean that YHWH is legitimizing the existence of other “gods”; far from it (cf. Isaiah 44, 1 Corinthians 8). The problem is not that there actually are other gods out there– the problem is that we humans will either serve the One True God or we will invent a god or gods to serve. And then there are the times when we try to do both– to serve YHWH while serving our idols. This cannot be tolerated, not because YHWH is truly megalomaniacal, but because, as Jesus says, when we have more than one god, we will love the one and hate the other, or hold to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24). We cannot love YHWH and therefore the Creator and Source of life while we elevate something He made to a position equal or greater to His in our lives.
As Israel was not to have other gods than YHWH, Christians are to guard themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). We must clear all idols from our hearts to serve the One True God. Let us do so and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry