“you shall have no other gods before me.”
— Exodus 20:3
he first and arguably most important of The Ten Commandments, or The Ten Best Ways, is “You shall have no other gods before God.” To demonstrate why Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, is worthy of our highest allegiance, the Hebrew Bible gives us a vivid tableau so spectacular and frightening that film-makers from Cecil B. Demille with The Ten Commandments to Steven Spielberg with Raiders of the Lost Ark have been unable to resist its inherently science-fiction aspect.
Exodus tells us that when God approached earth to give God’s people God’s greatest gift, the Holy Mountain was cloaked with impenetrable smoke and capped with volcanic flame and staggered from earthquake and deafened by God’s voice as if by thunder.
Moses warns the Hebrews, “Don’t touch the mountain, lest Yahweh ‘break out’ upon you.” Vivid verb: “to break out.” A wild animal ‘breaks out’ of its cage at the zoo; a convict ‘breaks out’ of jail; a virus ‘breaks out’ in contagion; as if God were a bottled but dangerous radioactivity you don’t want to jostle.
Moses is a hero to the Muslims as well, of course, and the way the Koran tells the story is that Moses asks to see God’s face, and God decides Moses isn’t ready for that yet, so God shows God’s face to a nearby mountain, which promptly disintegrates into a pile of dust and rubble and rock, so Moses falls down senseless and when he recovers himself, Moses says to God, “Never mind.”
In both its Jewish and its Muslim versions, this is a far-fetched story, first told around Bedouin campfires in the Arabian Desert 3,000 years ago, with coyotes howling in the distance and scorpions skittering across the sand.
The Decalogue is about 3,000 years old. This means two things: first it means that the Decalogue endures; we’ve been consulting it as our fundamental legal code for three millennia; every culture in every land in every age in every far corner of the earth tries to honor its strictures.
So it is durable, but it is also ancient. It comes from an age of ancient superstition and opaque ritual.
But if that science fiction story is a bit too much for your incredulous twenty-first-century mind to master, just remember that even a consistently secular organization like Alcoholics Anonymous tells a similar story in drier, more linear, more rational language. Step #1: you admit that you are puny before the powers of the universe, including alcohol, and on your own you have made a mess of your life. Step #2: you’ve come to see that only a power from outside your puny life and earthly things can possibly save you from the mess that you have made. Step #3: Surrender. Give it up. Turn it over to the Power from beyond the burning stars and spinning worlds.
The ancientness of the Decalogue presses itself upon us in another way. It says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” Not, “I am the only God,” but “I must be the first God.” The first commandment virtually acknowledges the existence of other gods. The first commandment does not foreclose on the possibility that other people will have their own divinities. We’ve not yet reached the radical monotheism of later Judaism and Christianity and Islam.
One Bible scholar said, For Moses and Israel, it was never a matter of having no gods; it was a matter of having the wrong gods. And I think that is our world too, so though this material is very ancient, in many ways, it anticipates our own. Like them, the danger for us is never having no gods; it is always a matter of having the wrong gods.
Still, the first commandment is a call to radical all-encompassing allegiance. I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other gods before me. The covenant between God and God’s people is like the covenant of marriage—it is not open; it is exclusive. “Forsaking all others,” we promise in our wedding vows. Just so here, in our relationship with God.
It is no accident that this is the first of The Ten Commandments. This Best Way is a first among equals; the other nine are just commentary on the First. It has been said that the whole Jewish-Christian Bible is nothing but a narrative unfolding of that first commandment.
Jesus famously summed up all ten commandments with his terse précis: “Love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself.” Four hundred years after Jesus, in North Africa, St. Augustine made it simpler still. “Love God, and do as you please.” That was the sum and substance of Christian ethics, according to Augustine. Love God and do as you please. It sounds terribly libertine doesn’t it, terribly permissive? Love God and do as you please. Libertarians love it.
But you see how the First Commandment sums up the other nine. If you love God, you will not use God’s name profanely. If you love God, you will never take what is not yours. If you love God, you will never eradicate innocent life. If you love God, you will always honor your promises, including and especially the marriage vow. You will never speak untruths nor excessively desire your neighbor’s plenty.
If you get this one right, the rest all falls into place. It’s so important to keep first things first. That bland, insipid cliché your parents kept drilling into your head: Chores first, play later. Homework first, soccer later. Grandparents first, friends later. In the world of business, Stephen Covey puts it like this: “The main thing is always to keep the main thing the main thing.”
You have probably heard the story of the guy who nailed a single ticket for Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara last year. He was living in San Francisco, but he was a Denver native and lifelong Bronco fan and when the Broncos won the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl was going to be in his own backyard in what looked to be Peyton Manning’s final performance, he decided to get himself a ticket.
He could only afford a single ticket, so he got his wife’s permission and got a ticket for a fortune on Stub Hub or something; he wouldn’t tell his friends how much he paid for it. But it was on the 50-yard line, so he was happier than the dog of the guy who empties the garbage at Outback Steakhouse.
He sat down in his seat and noticed that the seat next to him was empty. A 60-something woman was sitting on the other side of the empty seat, and at the end of the first quarter, his curiosity gets the best of him, and he leans over to the woman and says “Is this seat taken?”
“No,” she says, “that seat is empty.”
“That’s amazing,” he says. “Who in the world would have a seat like this for the Super Bowl and not use it?”
The woman gets all teary-eyed and says, “Well, that seat actually belongs to me. I was supposed to come here with my husband, but he passed away. We’ve come together to every single Super Bowl since we got married in 1967.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, that’s terrible. But couldn’t you find someone else—a friend or relative or even a neighbor—to take the seat?” The woman shakes her head and whimpers sadly and says, “They couldn’t make it. They’re all at the funeral.”
First things first. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Love God and do as you please. If we get that right, every other stricture falls right into place like a jigsaw puzzle. We can live in a world of many gods. That is to say, if God is first and above all, we needn’t deny the existence of other worthy, if subordinate, allegiances.
We can pledge our allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, or to the euphoric, miraculous Cubs, or to the Buckeyes, or to William Blair, or to the Helen of Troy we’re married to, because we will work like a dog for them, but we will never steal for them; we will die for them, but we will never lie for them; we will serve them, but we will never take innocent life for them; because we will never sell our souls; we will never prostitute our integrity.
Do you have any friends who are Jehovah’s Witnesses? If you do, you know that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not supposed to pledge allegiance to the flag, or really even to stand for the national anthem, because these public displays of national loyalty are encroachments upon the First Commandment to have no other gods before God.
Most American Christians think the Witnesses are being a bit over scrupulous, but it’s something to think about as we watch prominent American athletes protest a flawed republic in very public ways. In recent weeks, 18 NFL players have taken a knee during the national anthem; now college and high school athletes are doing the same. It raises the question: how do you express your loyalty to an institution that sometimes falls short of its own ideals?
David Brooks thinks those NFL players are wrong to express their opinion in just this way. In his column in The Times on Friday, Mr. Brooks says, “The answer to what’s wrong with America is…America.” Good point.
I heard a touching story a while back. After Pearl Harbor and until the end of World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were confined in concentration camps throughout the American West. These were American citizens, just like you and I. They lost their jobs and their property and their homes. In many cases families were separated. The camps were freezing in winter and insufferably hot in summer. It was pretty terrible.
The most prominent of the camps was at Manzanar in eastern California, not far from the Nevada border. The Manzanar interment camp had a bank, a hospital, a hog farm, a chicken ranch, an orphanage, baseball teams, and a Boy Scout troop.
Once, during their long and unjust internment, some of the righteously aggrieved inmates decided to protest their imprisonment by trying to tear down the American flag at the center of the camp. When the Boy Scouts got wind of it, they encircled the flagpole as a last line of defense against the desecration of the flag. I guess they decided that the answer to what was wrong with America is America. Football players and Boy Scouts: personally, I respect both ways of expressing allegiance to a flawed republic.
One last story about the pledge of allegiance and then I’ll quit. I don’t know if you ever came across the articles or books of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, but I came to admire her writings. Ms. Harrison spent her childhood and youth as a Jehovah’s Witness attending public schools in Brooklyn, which of course complicated her life in essential ways. A couple of times a week at her grade school in Brooklyn, the whole school would gather in the auditorium for an assembly, and every assembly began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, which of course was a fraught time for a Jehovah’s Witness at the age of 12. One year, she noticed that before every Assembly, her teacher somehow managed to walk into the auditorium next to her, and when they found their seats, he would always take his place on her right side, and when the time came for the Pledge of Allegiance, he would place his right hand over his heart, and he would grab her right hand with his left, and hold it till the Pledge was finished. That way this young Jehovah’s Witness wouldn’t have to stand out as a rebel or a misfit. Years later, Ms. Harrison would say, “I have always loved him. How could I not have loved him, my beautiful teacher.”
I don’t know: that beautiful teacher just sounds to me like a guy who loves God above all, and his student as himself.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Love God. Get that right, and then you can do as you please.
Quoted by Huston Smith in The World’s Religions (Harper San Francisco, 1991), pp. 236-237
Walter Brueggemann, quoted by Patrick Miller in The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 30.
David Brooks, “The Uses of Patriotism,” The New York Times, September 16, 2016.
Todd S. Purdum, “U.S. Starts to Dust Off a Dark Spot in History for All to See,” The New York Times, Jun 20, 1998, A.6
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “Women and Blacks in Bensonhurst,” Harper’s Magazine, March, 1990.