The 1st Commandment
“You must not have any other gods before me”.
In my lockdown spare time, I’m revisiting my long-ago degree in Hebrew and Old Testament, and I’m taking a fresh look at the 10 Commandments. In doing so, I’m discovering things that we’re not always made aware of (assuming, of course, that these ‘commandments’ are still of interest to us!)
Recent scholarship and archeological research has shown that the Israelites were originally native Canaanites (Palestinians in modern terms), who lived among the other Canaanite ‘nations’, each of which had its own chief god. In the case of the Israelites, this was Yahweh. You may now be wondering where the story of the Exodus came from. The most likely answer is that these native Israelites were joined, early on, by a like-minded group which had indeed escaped from slavery in Egypt. Their dramatic story was taken over by those whom they joined and, in repeated tellings, became greatly (and ‘miraculously’) embellished.
In Canaan, as was common elsewhere, people worshipped a multiplicity of gods as an ‘insurance policy’. It was better to be safe than sorry! Since the Israelites were no exception to this, Yahweh clearly felt the need to issue this commandment and that’s why, throughout the Bible, he’s constantly telling his people off for ‘going after other gods’.
Apart from the chief gods of the individual ‘nations’, the overall Canaanite god was El or Elyon (the most high), and there are fascinating verses in the Hebrew Bible which tell us how Elyon distributed the various ‘nations’ among the gods under him, Israel being given to Yahweh – “When the Most High (Elyon) gave to the nations their inheritance … Yahweh’s portion was his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Jacob being another name for Israel). Yahweh, being now the universal God of Judaism and Christianity, recalls the headline, ‘local boy makes good!’
We’re nowadays inclined to forget that the Bible was written many centuries ago, when people had very different ideas from ours. So this commandment takes it for granted that there are lots of gods. What it demands is simply that the Israelites put Yahweh first before all the others. In practice, however, it took a long time for the idea of one god, to the exclusion of all others, to be generally accepted by them.
What relevance does this have for our 21st century? If, by ‘God’, we mean the ‘ultimate reality’ then, of course, there can’t be any other, or ‘ultimate’ would have no meaning. The world’s religions, however, continue to offer us a variety of gods, and the result, too often throughout history, is competition and conflict, violence and slaughter. These gods, despite Richard Dawkins’ best efforts, are not going to go away any time soon. Only if they begin to be seen, at best, as secondary to the one, universal ‘ultimate reality’ that binds us all together, whoever or whatever that might be, can there be some hope of a better and a brighter future.