No Other Gods Before Me
No Other Gods Before Me
by William Klock
In Exodus 19, Moses went up Mount Sinai while the Israelites waited below. He ascended into a thick cloud. There was thunder and there was lightening. And the from the cloud the Lord spoke. What we’ve seen these last two Sunday is how the Lord initiated his covenant with Israel. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” The Lord named Israel his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. Israel has been chosen by the Lord to be his representatives amongst the nation. They were to be the people in whose midst the Lord dwelt. Adam had rejected his vocation to be God’s image-bearer in the world. Now Israel has been chosen to bear God’s image, that the nations might have a glimpse, not only of God at work in the world, but to have a glimpse or a foretaste of Creation set to rights. Israel—assuming she chose to follow and obey the Lord—would be a people in whom the nations would see both humanity and Creation ordered and functioning rightly—or least approaching something like that.
In response to the Lord, the people declared, “All this we will do!” And he responded by instructing Moses to consecrate them—to set them apart, to make them holy, to make them his people. Instructions will follow. Those instructions focus on two things. First, and this is much of the rest of Exodus, they detail the building of the tabernacle, the structure in which the Lord will take up his dwelling. The rest is what we often think of as the “law”—the details about worship, sacrifices, diet, ritual purity, how the people are to live together and settle their difference, and a host of other things. The Lord will mediate these instructions through Moses. But first he speaks directly to the people and gives them what we call the “ten commandments”. The Prayer Book refers to it as the Decalogue, which is closer to the Hebrew. In the Old Testament this passage, which takes up the whole of Exodus 20, is always referred to as the “ten words”. These ten words aren’t exhaustive. You couldn’t build an entire legal code around them, but they do outline the essentials of how Israel is to relate to God and how they are to relate to each other in order to model or to witness godly order.
The Decalogue begins to show Israel what it looks like to be set apart. And remember, Israel was set apart for the Lord’s use. The torah was Israel’s end of the covenant. We see this in the fourth word: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” This is something we’ve often overlooked as Christians. I remember when I was little being told, “Honour your mom and dad and you’ll live a long life.” I bet some of you were told the same thing. But that’s not what Exodus 20:12 says. These are covenant stipulations for Israel. The Lord has chosen a people for himself. He’s about to lead them into a land he has claimed for himself. And the condition for Israel to live in that land in the presence of the Lord, is to obey his commands and instructions. Disobey and the Lord promises judgement and exile—that part comes later. I say it often, but it bears repeating because we so often forget: context is everything. We can certainly draw application for ourselves from the Decalogue and the rest of the torah, but we need to first read them with the understand that they were given to Israel as her covenant stipulations. You and I do not live under that covenant. Jesus brought that covenant to its fulfilment. It is no more. We, his new Israel, live under a new and better covenant. In the old covenant Israel was given the torah that she might fulfil her covenant duties. In the new covenant Jesus has given us, his new Israel, the Spirit that we might fulfil ours.
So my plan for the next couple of months is to look at these ten words one by one. I want, first, to try to understand them as Israel would have and then, once we’ve done that, explore how they inform us as we follow Jesus and walk by the Spirit as new covenant people.
So, as they say, the beginning is a very good place to start. Look at Exodus 20:1-3.
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
What did this mean to ancient Israelites gathered at the base of Mount Sinai as the Lord thundered from the thick clouds? What was the Lord wanting of Israel? This was his word to them. We need to understand it in that context before we can ask what it means for us.
Notice, first, that the Lord begins with a reminder of the covenant, of who he is and who they are. He is the Lord—the I AM—and he is their God. Not Ra. Not Isis. Not Baal. Not Asherah. Not Moloch. Those were gods worshipped by their neighbours, but they were not the God of Israel. And the Lord reminds them of what he has done to make them his people. He has delivered them out of the house of slavery—and what a show it was. They had seen the power of God manifest in astounding ways and all for their sake. The unspoken statement here is, “This is what I have done. I have done it and no other. And I have done it for you.”
This is sort of the preamble. The Lord has called Israel into a covenant with himself. She has agreed. These are now the terms. And the first term follows naturally: “You shall have no other gods before me.” If the Lord is Israel’s God, you would think it would naturally follow that Israel would worship him and him alone. Does he really need to spell it out? Well, yes, he does. And he has to because idolatry comes naturally to the human race. Calvin was spot on when he wrote that the human mind is a perpetual forge of idols. Israel’s history is a testimony to this fact. And this is precisely what the Lord is addressing here. And yet it may not address the problem in quite the way we’re used to thinking of it.
The most important words here are “before me”. What do they mean? If we look at how this prepositional phrase is used in this way (specifically when it’s used with a personal object) in the Old Testament, it has the sense of “in my presence”. Some examples would be Genesis 11:28, “Haran died before his father Terah.” The sense is that he died in the presence of his son. Or Genesis 50:1, “And Joseph fell before his father and wept.” He wept in the presence of his father. Or Leviticus 10:3, “I will be honoured before the people.” I will be honoured in the presence of the people.
So why would the Lord tell Israel not to have any other gods in his presence? We know it was a problem, because that’s exactly what Israel did. The people not only brought other gods into his land, they even brought them into his temple. Why would they do this? Here’s where it’s helpful to understand their thought-world, the cultural river in which they swam.
You see, it’s entirely natural for us to accept the idea that there’s only one God. The influence of Christianity—and Judaism and Islam as well—on the modern world has been profound in this respect. In contrast, for most of our history, human beings have believed in a plethora of gods. There are still places where that’s normal, but in our culture the prevalence of this idea of a single god is so powerful that even people who aren’t Christians (or Jews or Muslims) default to it. Our pop-culture assumes one god: the Big Guy, the Man Upstairs, that sort of thing. No one swears and says, “Oh, my gods!” They say, “Oh, my God!” But ancient people didn’t think this way. They had gods for everything. There was often a great creator god. Sometimes that god had had to battle other gods before taking his supreme place. Sometime that great creator god had become old and was sort of like a god-emeritus while his son now had control of things. There were really important gods who represented nations and various aspects of nature: sun and moon, earth and sea, fertility and death. But the most important gods for the average person were the gods of clan and family and of hearth and home. Few ordinary people had altars to the big creator gods in their homes. Big gods didn’t have time to hear the prayers of ordinary people. No, ordinary people had altars to their family gods and to the small-time gods who oversaw their homes and fields.
In many ways the way people viewed their gods paralleled the structures of their governments. There was a king, a small number of nobles, and a host of bureaucrats. The king dealt with the big issues and so on down the hierarchy to the petty bureaucrats. So, accordingly, kings and the nobles worshiped in the temple of the great creator god, but the ordinary man or woman would worshipped the gods who oversaw more practical things like this year’s harvest, the calves and lambs to be born in the spring, or the birth of a child.
The other relevant and important difference between them and us is their sense of community. Ancient peoples emphasised community over individuality. There were no libertarians in the Ancient Near East. People didn’t think in terms of individual rights. Everything was about the community, submission to it and what was good for everyone. We get a glimpse of this right at the beginning in Genesis where the Lord declares, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Ancient people would have thought the same of their gods. Their gods operated in community too. They had divine councils. Even the Lord has his heavenly council, which we get a glimpse of here and there in the Old Testament. We see God’s working in these communities in the myths of the ancient world. The great gods would meet to hold council. They would make decisions about the fate of nations and even of men and women. And we see them often arguing and fighting with each other. Each had his or her own turf and agenda and they fought—just as kings and nobles would often fight and argue in their councils.
This is the worldview, if you will, in which the Israelites were steeped. This is what they knew from Egypt. This is what they would soon be surrounded with in Canaan. It was how gods worked in their thinking and to think otherwise would be sort of impious and unnatural. It would be sort of like the guy who, today, might shout “Oh, my gods!” Everyone would think he’s kind of weird.
But that’s just it. The Lord wants his people to be the weirdos of their world. He wants them to be different—not for the sake of being different and weird, but because the world is a mess—and idolatry is the root cause of that mess—and he wants his people to witness to the world who the one, true God is and what his Creation looks like rightly ordered.
One way to illustrate just how strange a concept this would have been for them is to think of our own world. Perhaps it’s fitting since, in our age, Government and the State have become one of our great idols and substitutes for God. But consider that if you have a minor dispute with your neighbour, you’d call the by-law enforcement officer. If someone steals your car, you call the police. If you need a building permit, you go to the building permit office at City Hall. If you’ve committed a serious crime, you’re brought before a judge and jury for trial. If you think a law should be passed, you convince your MLA to take it to the legislature—or your MP to Parliament. Now, we do have a queen. She governs us. But none of us would dream of calling the Queen because the neighbour’s dog keeps pooping on your law, because you need a building permit, or because someone stole your car. She doesn’t hear or issue verdicts on court cases. All of these things are handled by her representatives, officers, and bureaucrats and judges. Imagine there’s an abandoned car parked on your street and your neighbour says, “That’s it. That car has to go. I’m calling Buckingham Palace!” You’d think he’s crazy. But that’s essentially what the Lord is telling Israel to do here. He’s saying, “I’m not like the gods of Egypt or Canaan. I work alone. When you need something, don’t go to the altar of your family gods, don’t go to the gods of fertility or death or sun or moon, come straight to me. I made it all. It’s all mine.”
The sort of liturgical story of creation we have in Genesis 1 gets at this. One of the important things it does is to undermine this ancient idea that things like sun, moon, and stars were gods or that anything or anyone other than the Lord had jurisdiction over them. In the beginning he gave them shape. They have no being or volition of their own. They’re “things”. He made them and he controls them. He alone.
It’ll take Israel a very long while to figure this out. It’s interesting that this first commandment doesn’t say, “There are no other gods, just me.” I commands only that Israel bring no other gods into his presence. Commentators have pondered on this for thousands of years. I think Robert Dale, the Nineteenth Century Congregationalist, may have been onto something when he preached on this passage. He pointed out that right doing often precedes right thinking. To worship the Lord alone, to have no other gods in his presence, would lead naturally over time to the acknowledgement that the Lord is God alone. The fact is that Israel had seen the power of the gods of Egypt. We tend to brush off these ancient gods as old superstitions, but the people believed they had power and those first chapters of Exodus certainly seem to indicate they did. Pharaoh’s magicians copied what Moses did. How is hard to say, but Paul does speak in 1 Corinthians of the pagan gods as demons. The world was different before the powers of evil were bound by Jesus. I think we forget that. There were powers that deceived people and led them into idolatry. But what the Exodus showed to the Israelites is that the Lord was infinitely more powerful than these other gods. He was the one who looked out for his people. And that’s why he introduces this radical command by reminding them that he is the one who brought them out of Egypt. The Lord here is less interested in teaching the people that these other gods don’t exist, but that they are powerless before him. In doing this—and in combination with the way in which he trounced the gods of Egypt—he robs these false gods of everything that might have made them worthy of worship.
In other places in the Old Testament, the Lord compares his covenant with Israel to a marriage. He is her husband and she is his bride. He will care for her and she is to love him and him alone. This is her witness. The Lord is king in Israel. Israel largely failed to be this witness to the nations, but from time to time she was faithful. There were times when the nations witnessed the power of the Lord and those passage anticipate the day when Jesus, fulfilling Israel’s calling and mission, would draw the nations to the Lord.
So what does this mean for us? Think about the way in which our redemption parallels Israel’s. God acted with great power and defeated the king and the gods of Egypt. He stripped them of their power. He stripped them of any worthiness for worship they had. He also demonstrated that, so long as he was looking after them, his people had no reason to fear those earthly powers. The Lord, the God who is I AM, showed his people that he and he alone is creator, that he and he alone governs the cosmos, and that he and he alone is worthy of worship.
Has he not done even greater for us? He came amongst the Israelites in cloud and fire. In Jesus he has come amongst us in both humility and in power. While he dwelt in the midst of Israel, he remained distant. The people could approach from a distance, but could not bear his presence. The nation could camp around the tabernacle, but could not enter the holy of holies In Jesus God became one of us that we might draw near and in giving us his own Spirit, he has made us his tabernacle. In the Exodus the Lord stripped Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt of their power and freed Israel from her bondage. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Lord has despoiled our great enemies, sin and death, and delivered us from their bondage. In our baptism, the Lord has called us through our own Red Sea, to submit in faith to his King, to receive the gift of his Spirit, and to be his people for the sake of the world.
What he did with such a great display of power when he delivered Israel from Egypt pales in comparison to what he has done in delivering his new Israel from sin and death. We ought no less than they to worship him and him alone and to have no other gods before him. We do have pantheons of our own. We are just as prone to worshipping Mammon and Mars, Aphrodite and Caesar: money, war, sex, power, and the state. There are plenty of others, too. Either we set them alongside the Lord as sources of our security, robbing him of our trust and worship. Or we allow ourselves to have divided loyalties and in that way our false gods take on infinite form. Brother and Sisters, set them all aside. Trust in the Lord and the Lord alone. Let go of everything else. Worship the Lord and the Lord alone. If it interferes with following him, if it takes you away from worshipping him with your brothers and sisters on Sunday, if it leaves you no time for private worship and the study of his word during the week, if gets in the way of discipling your children, you are robbing God of his due. Whatever it is, set it aside. Have no other gods before him. Remember that we are his people, redeemed at great cost, we owe him our all. And remember, too, our calling. As his people, his precious possession, set apart and made holy, we are by our worship and our lives together meant to lift the veil on God’s new creation. When the world looks to the Church, it should catch a glimpse of creation ordered rightly—a people who no longer practise idolatry and in whom the life of God is manifest. We are the people who no longer live in fear of sin and death. We are the people who no longer live for self, manifesting the works of the flesh, but a people who live full of love, joy, hope, and peace and who bring to the world the fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of God.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in today’s collect we acknowledge the good things you have in store for us. Let us recall, too, the good things you have done for us. Let us remember always the deliverance you have wrought for us from sin and death by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Remind us who we are. Remind us of who you are. Remind us of the love and grace you have shown us, so that our hearts will be filled with love and gratitude in return. Cause our hearts to so overflow with love for you that we set aside anything in our lives that competes with you for our worship and affections. This we ask through Jesus our Lord. Amen.