As we go through the summer, our worship focus is going to be on the Decalogue – the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses to present to the people of Israel.
In 2004, I was serving as a youth pastor at Fieldale United Methodist Church, just outside of Martinsville. That fall, we had a travelling evangelist visiting from Texas. He was no small man. He stood about 6’ 7”, had size 14 cowboy boots on, and he wore a Stetson that seemed to provide shade for everyone in his presence.
He came to one of our youth meetings and spoke with the youth group. As he introduced himself to the group, he reached in his pocket and pulled out $100 bill. He said to the youth, “If any one of you can name all ten commandments, I will give you this $100 bill.” I immediately raised my hand, confident I had just hit the jackpot; but he didn’t call on me.
I had only one youth who was even willing to give it a try. A sophomore at the time, she was one of my older students; a bright one at that. Yet, she failed to name all ten. In fact, I’m not sure she was even able to name seven. I have to admit, I was eager to try, I was a college student who still believed $100 could go a long way. However, I’m not convinced that I would have named them all – certainly not in the order given by God to Moses – and perhaps not fully understanding the ones I could have named.
The Texas evangelist rightly educated us, sharing each of the ten by name. As he put the $100 bill back in his wallet, he said to me ashamedly, that over his many years of travelling, he’s never had to go back to the bank to pull out more money. In all his travelling, speaking almost weekly at a different church, no one had correctly named all ten.
Now, I know that you are an educated group, so I’m not going to call in to question your ability to name the ten. I’m simply going to assume that if I offered you each a chance at the $100, that I would be broke before the day’s end, because you know all 10 – at least well enough to name them. But I do wonder – as the universal and worldwide church – do we know the commandments. I mean, beyond saying, “thou shall not steal,” or “thou shall not use the Lord’s name in vain,” do we really know the ten commandments?
To be fair, I’m not sure I fully understand the ten. I’m not sure I understand their implication on the lives of the Israelites in the day they were delivered by God through Moses, nor am I sure I comprehend their full implication in our lives today – living in the year 2016 in a vastly different place, nation, culture, and community, with a very different understanding of God. So, I’m inviting you this summer to journey with me as together we seek to better understand the foundational laws of our faith, their implication upon the community to whom they were delivered, and how we should understand them today. Without grasping the underlying foundation of our relationship with God and with one another, how is it we are to live in right relationship with God and with one another? If you miss a week, I invite you to find the sermons online and keep up so we can grow in our faith together.
I am convinced that to understand the ten commandments today, we must understand them as they were first presented to the people of Israel. The ten commandments were offered by God to the people of Israel through Moses as they were wandering in the wilderness, having left their lives of slavery in Egypt in search of the promised land – the expected final destination, which they were persuaded would be filled with the blessings of God’s glory.
In Egypt, the people were expected to obey the commands of the Pharaoh, a god-like leader worshipped by his followers. In the midst of the transition through the wilderness, God evidently felt it necessary to outline the foundational tenants of the relationship the people should have with God, and the relationships they should have with one another. Indeed, the 10 commandments can be broken into two groups – 4 dealing with our relationship toward God, and 6 dealing with our relationships among community. God sought to name the structure of a new community, which lifted up God as Lord, and held in balance the relationships among those living in community.
One of the primal reasons for such a set of laws is to outline the external command to which the people will give their lives. The question wasn’t if the people should live under command, it was “which external command would have its way with the people?”[i] Having come through over 200 years of answering to Pharaoh, the people of Israel were given a new set of commands, a new understanding of who gives the commands. The Exodus wasn’t about unqualified freedom, it was about an exchange of masters.[ii] It was giving up the human-deity of the Pharaoh for the One true God.
The new set of laws were given to provide a radically alternative society that is comparatively different than the society set up by the demands of the empire – an empire defined in the age of Moses as Egypt. An empire defined in the age of Jesus as the Romans. An empire defined in our age by any number of imperialistic, hierarchical, and structured governments.
If we back up to verse 1, we read first, “Then God spoke all these words.” What we hear in the following commandments is said to be coming directly from the voice of God. The first commandment is offered in two parts. First, there is a statement of truth that is followed by the law expected to be followed by God’s people. God speaks in the first commandment this profound imperative, “I am the Lord your God.”
Before calling upon the people to take any action, God first takes action. This God is an active God, a holy God, “whose holiness stands against every rival claim to sanctity.”[iii] The first call of God is to acknowledge that the salvation offered – for the Israelites, this meant the liberation from the Egyptians – is not a freeing act that should be interpreted for personal gain. God was not leading the Israelites into a place of personal worship. The first statement of God in delivering the ten commandments is offered to ensure we don’t run with our independence seeking to redeem our own glory. “We live in a culture where submission to any authority other than our own egos is considered unduly authoritarian and unfair, [so it should come as no surprise that] command-obedience is difficult for us.”[iv] Yet, we must understand God’s intent in naming first and foremost, “I am the Lord your God.” God’s redemption is not an invitation to complete freedom absent any command; instead, it should be understood as a gift to be received that we may live freely and obediently in relationship with a creative and loving God, who seeks to break the yoke of oppression and injustice in the world.
When you hear the words of God speak, “I am the Lord your God,” you should immediately be reminded of God’s redeeming work, which led the Israelites from the oppression of the Egyptians. You should be reminded of God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ, which frees humanity from the oppression of sin and death. This redeeming work of God is not named at the first to free you from service, but simply to define for you the person in whose image and purpose you have been created. We are the Lord’s, the Lord that is our God.
The commandment then continues with the statute of the law, “you shall have no other gods before me.”
In the days of Moses, the question for every ancient culture was not, “is there a god?” The universal question was, “which god is the right god?” The text was written in a world defined as polytheistic and henotheistic. Polytheism is “a pattern of faith and identity that lacks any one center of value and power of sufficient transcendence to focus and order one’s life.”[v] In other words, there is no central god. There are multiple gods who each serve a valuable role in the existence of life. For example, there was the god of the sun, the god of the wind, the god of the harvest, the god of the seas … each played a specialized role, no one receiving more attention or focus than the other.
The alternative faiths were based on henotheism. Henotheism suggests that there are individual gods worth our full attention for a significant period of time, but that no one god ultimately is worth our life-long devotion. Henotheism is defined as an exclusive allegiance to one deity among others, without the denial of the reality of other gods.[vi]
Thus, God’s words in this first commandment don’t dispute the presence of other gods. “You shall have no other gods before me” does not seek to deny the presence of other gods in the world. Understanding God’s words being spoken into a poly and henotheistic world is significant for our understanding the commandments today. We often claim that as Christians, we are monotheistic. Monotheism denies the mere existence of other gods, allowing for the reality of only one God, who is our sole focus of devotion.
Martin Luther, a protestant reformer in the 16th century offers this definition for our assistance, “A god,” he says, “is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with our whole heart.”[vii]
The ten commandments don’t begin with an assumption that we deny or refuse to acknowledge the presence of multiple gods. It was common – rampantly normal – in the age of Moses that there were other named deities from which God sought to distinguish himself. In today’s day and age, we claim that our faith is radical monotheistic – again, that is, we acknowledge only the presence of one God, and that God is the God of our allegiance. But I’m not so sure that doing so is a healthy and faithful following of the first commandment.
At its intent, “The first commandment is a tacit acknowledgement that there are always claims of an ultimate sort confronting us, other gods.”[viii] The call of the first commandment is not to say that other gods don’t exist. “On the contrary, it assumes that they do have a definite reality just as it assumes that there are people who have them as gods, who give their hearts to them.”[ix] To not be willing to admit that there are other claims for our allegiance and devotion, would be a failure on our part to understand the intent and underlying principle of the first commandment.
These other ‘gods’ hide in our periphery as “value-centers and objects of devotion,” yet by not labeling them as the ‘gods’ that they are, we find ourselves justified in pledging to them our devotion.
By categorizing ourselves in the modern religious world as monotheistic, meaning we deny the presence of any god other than the one true God, we have endangered the relationship between ourselves and God that God intended to structure in the first commandment. We must admit that our communities of faith are monotheistic in principle yet rarely so in fact because, apart from our willingness to set God above self-serving ideals, naming our objects of devotion as gods that stand in stark contrast to the God of all Creation, what we create is a domesticated version of God, naming his purpose as to serve and glorify us. We claim that God is blessing our acts of devotion because they are just “part of God’s call” … when in reality, those acts of devotion are nothing more than created gods – value-centers – places we seek refuge in times of need – ideas and objects we turn to for security above and before we turn the one true Lord.
The first commandment – “I am the Lord your God; thou shall have no gods before me” – should function as a constant reminder for us today that we are indeed in need of the redemptive power of the Lord, offered in the gift of life in Jesus Christ, that we may be freed from slavery to sin and death. We must turn from the many gods, experienced in our allegiances to institutions, organizations, politicians, objects of devotion, and any other entities that manifest a false hope in this life or the next. For the redemptive power of The Lord, the grace that led the Israelites from the Egyptians, the love that sent Christ to the cross, it offers us freedom from the gods of this world. The first commandment calls us to claim The Lord as our commander, and to place ourselves first and foremost in the service of God’s will. So may it be. Amen.