Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments: 2. Only the One God
Ex 20:3 You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me.
In the first of these meditations we emphasised the need to observe the historical context when approaching these laws. That is as important with this verse as it was with the previous two verses. The law is simple and straight forward: God says, “I am God, there is only one of me, so don’t worship anyone or anything else.”
Bear in mind Israel had only recently left that fear-driven, superstitious nation, Egypt, which we are told had over 2.000 gods. Many had similar characteristics and appeared all over the country but with different names. Birds, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, frogs, cattle, dogs, cats and other domesticated animals were considered to be the living images of a particular god or goddess. One historian declares, ‘All parts of life were covered and there were gods for beer, plants, digestion, the high seas, female sexuality, gardens, partying etc.’
The best known gods of Egypt we may have heard of – Ra, the god of the Sun, the most important god, lord of all the gods. He was usually shown in human form with a falcon head, crowned with the sun disc encircled by the a sacred cobra – judge of the dead, and father of Horus, god of the sky (the Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was the ‘living Horus’) – Tefnut, goddess of the rain – Anubis, who guided the dead to the next life via the court of Osiris in the Underworld – Sobek, god of Nile who had the head of a crocodile, and many others (followers of ‘The Mummy’ films will know some of these names)
In Canaan, gods we come across in the Bible were Asherah, the walker of the sea, a mother goddess, Baal, god of fertility, Dagon, god of crop fertility, Molech, god of fire, and there were also many, many others. A simple Google search reveals that virtually every nation had ‘gods’.
Later in history we may be more familiar with the Greek gods – Zeus,. god of the Sky – Hera goddess of marriage, mothers and families – Poseidon, god of the Sea – and so on. Following them, the Romans with their gods, mostly the same but with changed names, for example, Zeus, the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and god of the sky and thunder, Pallas Athena, is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, Mars was the god of war, Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation, and so on.
A study of such gods shows us four things:
- First there were lots of them! In fact there were gods for any and every situation or feature of the world.
- Second, they created or maybe were the result of superstitious fear, the insecurity of living in a changing, uncertain world.
- Third, they were never benign, it seems; they all required some form of appeasement.
- Fourth, when these gods took human form or were thought of as being in human form, they also took on human foibles and struggled and fought with one another and did not have humanities best interests at heart!
And then God reveals Himself, first to the Patriarchs of what became Israel, and then to Moses and then to all of Israel. There are suggestions that He had already revealed himself to others. Studies of ancient Chinese suggest that they knew of this creator God who had the same characteristics as revealed to Israel. In Genesis, when Abram had just rescued Lot, we find the king of Jerusalem came to him: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” (Gen 14:18-20) Note that he was a “priest of God Most High” who also describes God as “Creator of heaven and earth”. There is clearly prior revelation here about the Lord.
Now, perhaps, we can see why the first of these ten commands is so important. They bring us a requirement, that is supported by all the knowledge of Him that we pick up in the Bible, that He is one, He is the Creator of all of existence, He is thus all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise and He is eternal These are some of the minimums that come through in the Bible about Him. It also declares that He is love, He is good, He is holy, and He is perfect. In other words He is utterly different from any of these other ‘gods’ we have been considering.
The call to follow Him alone is, surprisingly and contrary to the crusading atheists claims, a claim to be free of superstition and a call to come to one who will bring, love and goodness and security. For Moses and his people they already knew something of Him as revealed through His dealings with the Patriarchs and now His deliverance of them from Egypt. He was a God who appeared to want to be friendly, a God who had the power to deal with enemies on one hand, and bless His friends on the other.
Everything we know of these other ‘gods’ makes us want to shy away from them and their demands and the superstitious fear-filled life, and everything we come to know of Him says here is one who we would be foolish to reject. It is only that self-centred and godless propensity that we all have which the Bible calls Sin, that makes us suspicious and fearful.
It also makes us want to stand on our own two feet and foolishly think we can cope in life without Him, hence the popular ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’ attitude that is the popular expression of the rebellious aspect of Sin. In the folly of Sin we cannot believe that this God who claims to be the one and only God is loving and good and desires the best for us, but that, as we say, is the folly of Sin. The call to “have no other gods beside me,” is in one way a common sense call in accord with reality because there is NO other God, merely the imaginations of superstitious fear. Away with it!