As Dr. Peterson mentioned last week, we will be working through the 10 Commandments, or 10 Words, this semester in chapel. He introduced the topic last week, and it is now my task to begin with the first commandment. The initial challenge we face, though, is where exactly the first commandment or word starts and ends. You may have noticed this already, but they are not numbered for us. Later in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the writers refer back to these “10 Words” or Decalogue (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4), but they don’t enumerate them for us. Depending on which of at least three different numbering systems you choose, you could come up with 13 words. But, since the text says there are ten, and “Triskaidecalogue” just doesn’t sound right anyway, we’ll stick with ten. But, again, which ten? And what are the parameters of the first?
For our reflection on the first word today, I choose to add what Jews consider to be the first word. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” We tend to think of this as the prologue and not to number it, but it is the first of the 10 Words for the Jews. How does this set the tone for what follows? Why is this important? The emphasis from the very start is on God’s prior relationship with his people. He is not an unknown entity acting as a tyrant. God does not give the law as an outsider imposing rules on a strange people. He redeemed Israel, so he gives the law in light of his loving, redemptive relationship that he established with the Israelites. The appropriate response to God’s action is obedience prompted by a reciprocating love. Thus, the 10 Commandments are an expression of divine love, not given as a burden on Israel, but for their flourishing.
And then the rest of what we generally consider the first commandment: “Have no other gods before me.” Here we have clearly laid out before us what is the hallmark of ancient Israelite religion—monotheism, the strict worship of one God. But if by monotheism we mean that no other spiritual beings even exist, then this is certainly not monotheism. The commandment itself does not discuss whether other gods exist. Presumably, they do, but that is not the concern. Israel simply should not be concerned about other gods. The relationship that God established with Israel in the exodus, not to mention in his prior covenant with Abraham and his seed, is an exclusive relationship. God’s “jealousy” will be made explicit in the second commandment. The prophet Hosea later compared God to a lover who was jealous of any competition.
The question of exclusive devotion to this particular God, Yhwh, confronted each Israelite generation—the exodus generation that fell in the wilderness, the generation that survived the wilderness and entered the land, the pre-exilic generation of Hosea, and the post-exilic generation that re-entered the land. Each Israelite generation had to answer the question, what does it mean to serve only Yhwh, to obey and trust only him? These were live questions in a culture of polytheism, the cult of the dead, and spiritism. Whether or not the other gods actually exist, they are not worthy of true worship and allegiance. This lesson is taught clearly in the book of Exodus. All the gods of Egypt, including Pharaoh himself, are humiliated before the power of Israel’s God.
On the one hand, this commandment could seem irrelevant in a day when none of us is tempted to devote ourselves to Amun-Ra, or Baal, or Ahura Mazda, or Zeus, or any of their colleagues. Strictly speaking, this is the easiest command for us moderns to keep, for we have eliminated all the other gods as so much mythology. In a sense, modern atheists keep the letter of this law, for it is true that they place no gods higher than Israel’s God.
On the other hand, it is the spirit of the law that should interest us most with this and all of the commands in Scripture. And the spirit suggests that gods may mean something other than personal, spiritual entities. In that case, what might qualify as other gods today?
John Calvin said, Don’t transfer to another what belongs to God (Institutes II.viii.16). The assumption is that when we transfer to another what rightfully belongs to God, then that other becomes another god to us. Calvin’s advice assumes we know what it is we have that properly belongs to God. So what should belong to God? Our devotion, our resources, our attention, our heart, soul, and strength, our very selves, all belong to God. Our deepest love and desire should be for God. Then what does it look like to give those things to another—to someone else or something else? So let’s ask ourselves: What is of ultimate concern to us? To what are we devoted? To what do we pay most attention? What pursuits capture our hearts? What do we love most? What really gets us excited? What comes to your mind when I ask those questions? Money, sex, security, country, family, entertainment, social media, distraction, sports, stuff, those little cake donut holes? Any of those could become of ultimate concern and could very well be your false god in competition with the true God.
It’s a good exercise to take the commandments that are stated negatively, which includes most of them, and try to state them positively. Let’s state this commandment positively. It is something like, “Attend to God.” Or as Deuteronomy 8 puts it, “Don’t forget God.” When you get to the land, and you’ve eaten and had your fill, don’t forget God. When you build fine houses and settle down, attend to God. When your herds and flocks grow and your gold and silver increase, don’t forget God (Deut. 8:10-14). My friends, that is our culture, and that is us. We have arrived in the land and settled down. Our gold has increased, and so have our bellies. Watch out! Have no other gods before him.
In his Small Catechism of 1529, Martin Luther goes through the 10 Commandments and restates and applies them for his day. He restates the first commandment thus: “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” First, as a matter of utmost importance, the fear and love of God. Your relationship to God in Christ is the foundation of your life. And this truth, the fear and love of God, is also the foundation for every other commandment. All of Luther’s explanations of the subsequent commandments begin with, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not…” form idols, murder, steal, covet, and so on. In other words, if we truly fear and love God, if we truly obey the first commandment to put God first, then all the rest follows. If we fear and love God, we won’t misuse his name or dishonor parents or commit adultery or give false testimony. If we put God first, then we will love God and love neighbor, which sums up the 10 Words and the whole Torah. If the first commandment were actually obeyed, it would really be the only commandment that is necessary.
I would submit, then, that if we are having struggles with any of God’s commands, we would do well to re-focus ourselves on the first and greatest command. By God’s grace in Christ, may his Spirit empower us toward this end, to fear and love God above all else.