When They Ask

“And it shall come to pass, when ye are come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, ‘What mean ye by this service?’ that ye shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.'”
And the people bowed the head and worshipped (Exodus 12:25-27).

After so many years, things were proceeding very quickly.

God had been terrifying the Egyptians with plague after plague. The final plague was about to come upon them; Israel would soon be released. Moses is preparing the people for their imminent departure.

One would think, in such circumstances, that there was enough to deal with for the present. Mobilizing a large group of people for a treacherous journey is a daunting proposition. And yet we see Moses providing legislation regarding the Passover and its expected future observance in the land of Canaan! What is going on?

Moses understands the immense significance and meaning involved in what God is doing for Israel. Yes, God is delivering this specific generation of Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage, and toward deliverance and the land of promise. But this is the story of God and Israel and the basis of everything that will come later. God is the God of Israel because of His promises to their fathers and because He delivered them from the land of Egypt. God loves Israel, and that love was declared powerfully in that deliverance. God is worthy of all honor, praise, glory, and obedience, because He is the Creator and acted powerfully against the Egyptians in ways no other god ever even claimed to act.

Therefore, the Passover was not merely for this generation of Israelites. The Passover was for every generation of Israelites as a way of continuing the story of Israel and its God. Each successive generation, in turn, would come to an understanding of the God of Israel and the acts of deliverance He wrought for their ancestors. For those Israelites enjoying the blessings of the land of Israel, it was a moment to give thanks and to appreciate what was done to allow them to enjoy the life they lived. For those who found themselves cast out from the land of Israel, the remembrance fostered the cherished hope that God would again act powerfully in their generation for their deliverance as He had so long ago.

The observance is very intentional, designed to be full of meaning. It is the perfect means of communicating a message across the generations: children will participate and will want to know what is going on. God has provided Israel with the most important teachable moment for successive generations: if the children do not understand why they should honor the God of Israel as their God, the time will come when they will have no reason not to turn their backs on Him and to follow after other gods. If they do not understand what makes the God of Israel distinctive and special, worthy of all honor and glory, they will not honor or glorify Him.

That generation of Israelites did not prove to be as far-sighted in their understanding; they would end up dying in the wilderness. The next generation would enter the land of Israel; but of the generation afterward it could be said that they did not know the LORD or the work He had done for Israel (Judges 2:10). Little wonder, then, that we read of all the sinfulness, rebelliousness, and idolatry of that and successive generations in the days of the Judges. Far later, in the times of the later kings of Judah, we are told that they observed the Passover in ways not seen since the days of old (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:1-27, 35:1-19). If the Passover is not being observed, then Israel is not remembering the act of deliverance which God wrought for them. If the Passover is not being observed, then the next generation has no opportunity to ask for understanding as to what it means. If the next generation never has that opportunity, they never learn about who God is and what He has done for Israel. All of a sudden, Israel’s idolatrous and rebellious history makes more sense.

Religious experience in activities that are laden with spiritual meaning are extremely important. They remind us of God’s saving acts of deliverance, His goodness, His power, His love. They are designed to help us to keep a proper perspective, always thankful for what God has done, remembering why we honor God as the Lord of our lives and how all things are to flow from that submission before Him. Yet, just as importantly, such experiences give children the opportunity to learn about God and what is really important. God has provided such teachable moments for us so that we may have opportunity to impart such understanding to our children as we have received from those who have gone on before us. This is not a task to be off-loaded upon someone else; we are given the opportunity to explain to our own children the reason why we believe God is Lord and how He has powerfully acted in order to provide deliverance and salvation for all mankind.

But that conversation can only happen if we are participating in God’s work and participate in those actions invested with spiritual significance. That conversation can only happen when we really believe that God is Lord of our lives and that all things should flow from our submission to Him. Our children can only see the power of God’s saving activity when they see it not just explained but lived as well. If we merely pay lip service to God while serving idols, our children will see it. If we live as if we do not know God and what He has wrought for mankind, then our children will more likely than not continue in that same path. But if we honor God as Lord, our children will likely do the same.

Children’s questions are extremely important; that is how they learn about life and what is really important. Let us take the opportunities we are given not only to explain to the next generation what God has said and done, but why we should even follow God in the first place, recounting His glorious saving acts for mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

When They Ask

The First Commandment

“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

The First Commandment