No Other Gods Before Me (Ex. 20)

In my previous post on the Ten Commandments, I spent some time exploring a bevy of the other rules and regs that fill out Exodus but don’t get the same kind of attention the official “Ten Commandments” receive. But what about those first ten laws — is there anything seemingly amiss with them?

Many of these commandments are pretty straightforward. No stealing, murder, adultery — none of those prohibitions would be terribly controversial (although murdering and thieving mistresses might not care for them). And lying, dishonoring your father and mother: these are rules generally based on keeping social order. But of course, all of these rules come only after the First Commandment. And if it’s first it’s probably pretty important. Though most everyone out there is probably pretty familiar with the First Commandment, let’s review its exact text:

You shall have no other gods before* me (Ex. 20:3).

Commonly, we tend to think of this line as God’s law for monotheism: he is basically noting that he is the only God in existence. In other words: “Seriously, dudes, Marduk or Vishnu or Eric Clapton are not Gods. I’m the only one, man.” But this, in fact, is an incorrect understanding of the law. Rather, the First Commandment refers to “monolatry.” “Monotheism” is a word we see often enough that I don’t need to define it–“monolatry,” however, is a little different, because, in recent times, most of our religions have generally shied away from it. “Monolatry” refers to the worship of a single god–but not the holding that no other Gods exist beside the one you worship. Or as James Kugel puts it (he’s so much better at this): “the devotion to a single deity while at the same time accepting the existence of other deities” (How to Read the Bible, p. 243). So. really, God is saying, “I know Marduk is pretty badass, and Vishnu’s sweet too, and don’t even get me started on Clapton, holy cow, and it’s cool to believe in them, but don’t worship those guys — just worship me.”

To explain why this commandment refers to monolatry rather than monotheism requires two points. First, a jarring event that occurs later in Exodus. This is noted in Exodus 32–Moses comes down off the mountain after getting the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, only to find the Israelites worshiping a Golden Calf. Wait — hold on — let’s take a moment and put ourselves into the ancient Israelites’ sandals (or whatever they wore). Assuming your entire population has been miraculously delivered out of Egypt, through plagues and a parting sea, and your response, now, is to worship a golden bovine? Are they serious about this? What is going on? Well, this behavior is simple to explain if we assume that the Israelites, at this time, were not wholly monotheistic; rather, it is clear that at least a significant contingent of them believed in worshiping gods other than YHWH for other purposes. So thus the First Commandment is not about telling them that those other Gods doesn’t exist — which they wouldn’t believe anyway — but that they should stop worshiping them. (c.f. YHWH noting in Ex. 20:5 that he is a “Jealous God.”)

The second point is the form in which the Ten Commandments take. Without delving too much into the history, scholars have found that the form of the Ten Commandments bears a striking resemblance to ancient agreements called “suzerein treaties,” which were basically treaties between a dominant party (“suzerein”) and a subservient part (a vassal state, etc.). These treaties, which predate the Ten Commandments and were found throughout the Near East, took a generally standard form, specifically noting at the beginning a self-identification of the speaker and a demand for loyalty. Self-identication/loyalty demand is exactly what is going on in the First Commandment. Hence God not holding forth that he is the only God (as a king wouldn’t argue that he was the only King) but rather that his people must be loyal to him, as he is their king.

So there you have it — a closer examination of the First Commandment reveals the traditional understanding of the Ten Commandments (as an exclusive, straight-forward list of morality principles) is probably ahistorical and incorrect. It would be more accurate to think of it as a King’s contract for social order and government.

*Some versions of the ancient text have “besides”

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