On Facebook over the past year or two, I have seen a quote or a meme that went something like this:
“If your religion causes you to hate, then you need to change your religion.” I wonder if it might be possible to rephrase that quote also to read as follows: “If your God causes you to hate, then you need to change your God.”
Today, we explore and excavate the 1st of the 10 Commandments. In the much earlier Exodus 34 version of the 10 commandments, the first Commandment reads: vs14 “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
But in the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the first of the 10 commandments reads almost identically: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
It could be argued that the 1st of the 10 commandments has cast a long and dark shadow over human civilisation over the centuries, having been at the very least a catalyst for much of the religious exclusivism, division and even violence in the world.
It is true that as soon as you set up what you might regard as the true religion, worshipping the one true God, it raises questions about others who one regards as not following the one true religion or worshipping the one true God. Centuries of religious conflict have shown that this does not often end well. Claims of protecting the one true religion have led to the crusades. It also led to Muslim invasion of North Africa, parts of Europe and the middle east from around 650 AD, It led to the 30 years war between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, where heretics were burned at the stake. The claim to follow the one true religion has also motivated people in more recent history who joined ISIS only to commit the most horrendous crimes with so-called infidels being beheaded. This has even included those who they believed followed the wrong sect of Islam.
This dark shadow of religious exclusivism and religious violence is one that can be found already in Deuteronomy 17:2-5 where instructions are given, purportedly by God through Moses, that if anyone were to bow down and worship other gods, including the sun or the moon, such people should be taken to the city gates and stoned. We ignore the dark shadow of religious violence that has accompanied the first Commandment at our peril, lest we do the same thing.
Secondly, despite what one can call the dark shadow of death and violence that accompanied the First Commandment with the threat of death by stoning in Deuteronomy 17, it can also equally be argued that there is also a light that shines from this commandment despite the shadow that accompanies it.
That light firstly shines forth from the idea expressed in the preface to the first commandment that this God of the Israelites, is a God who sets enslaved people free. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. And from this central conviction, flows some of the very best aspects of the religion of the ancient Israelites, the idea that God, YHWH, is concerned with matters of justice and injustice, that YHWH is concerned about the poor, and those at the bottom of society. This is quite a profound religious conviction. Most of the other religions of other surrounding nations were primarily concerned with fertility. Manipulating the gods and goddesses to make sure that one’s flocks and fields were fruitful and multiplied. This often entailed going to visit the temple prostitutes to act out sexual rituals of fertility that would move the gods and goddesses to act on your behalf.
But by contrast, from within the people of Israel, who felt the conviction that YHWH had acted on their behalf when they were oppressed slaves, a new form of religion grew with a concern for justice, fairness and mercy. It remains one of the unique contributions of the Jewish faith and scriptures that prophets could stand up and call people to account for their religious failure to care for the poor, the widow the orphan and the oppressed. And all this flowed from the central conviction in the preface to the first commandment that YHWH had saved and rescued the people of Israel from slavery.
Thirdly, it might be argued by some that the light that also shines forth from the first commandment, is the growing conviction that flowed from it that there is only One God, one Supreme, over-arching Wisdom and Intelligence that holds all things together. This wasn’t necessarily the case in the earliest understanding of the Israelites. Early on, it seems that YHWH was primarily conceived of as a tribal god. And so in the book of Judges 11:23-24, there is an assertion that the Israelites live under the power and protection of YHWH, while the Moabite nation were understood to live under the authority of their own god, ‘Chemosh’. Each nation was understood to have their own tribal God. In the Exodus 34 version of the 10 commandments, the second commandment was not to make alliances with other nations. And the reason being, that if you made an alliance with another nation, you were in fact making an alliance with that nations gods.
Many scholars argue that it was only later, as Israelite religion developed under the prophets and later in the exile, that Jewish thinking became truly a monotheistic religion, with YHWH conceived of as the only true God, who was in fact the God of the whole world. And with this belief flowed the birth of the idea of the one true faith or religion and the shadow that went along with that.
And so in their earliest understanding of the first commandment, “You shall have no God before me” it is most likely that many of the ancient Israelites understood it to mean that they owed their particular loyalty to their own tribal deity, YHWH, because in their understanding YHWH had rescued them from the land of Egypt, the land of slavery. To worship YHWH alone was not necessarily a statement of monotheism, in other words, the belief that there is only one God. But perhaps the exclusivism of the first commandment found it’s logical conclusion in the later Jewish idea, that there is only one God.
Joy Davidman suggests that this shift to the monotheist idea that there is only One God was a major one. Before this shift, the world was conceived of as a wild and chaotic place. A jungle of warring powers: wind against water, sun against moon, male against female, life against death. And presiding over this chaos was a pantheon of warring, backstabbing and fighting gods and goddesses.
But the conviction that there is One Supreme Deity which rules over all things begins to suggest that despite the seeming chaos of the universe, the universe is in fact one process, created by one Maker, One Divine Intelligence or Wisdom. Joy Davidman suggests that this was one of the greatest discovery’s ever made, for although modern science may have ditched the idea of God, it operates from the basis that the universe is one process, and idea that flows directly from the development of monotheism.
And so, out of this rough and sometimes barbaric people and religion, where people could be stoned to death for worshipping the wrong god, there were also growing some profound religious ideas about justice and mercy, and also the conviction that ultimately a seemingly chaotic world was ultimately ordered by One Divine Intelligence and Process that ultimately holds all things together.
Lastly, I would like to briefly consider the First commandment in light of the person of Jesus. It should always be remembered that Jesus was Jewish, and coming from his own Jewish roots, Jesus would also have affirmed that there is only one God, One Supreme, Divine Intelligence and Wisdom ordering the world. But perhaps Jesus’ own unique contribution was the way in which Jesus took the Jewish religious concepts of justice and mercy to their logical conclusion: that God is love, and that to live in love is to truly know and worship God.
This is perhaps most profoundly illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan. From a Jewish perspective, the Samaritan religion was defective and false. They did not belong to the One True faith. But in the parable the Samaritan, the heretic is the one who is revealed to be in true alignment with the spirit of God. It is the Samaritan, and not the Jewish Priest or the Jewish Levite, who is found to be acting in accordance with Scripture --- by loving his neighbour as himself. According to Jesus, the Samaritan, the unbeliever, the infidel, the heretic is by implication, closer to fulfilling the greatest commandment to Love God with all his heart, mind and soul. The Samaritan according to Jesus parable is the true worshipper of God, not because he believes in the correct doctrine, but because he is in harmony with the spirit of love and compassion, which he acts out towards his sworn enemy, a Jew who has been hi-jacked, robbed and left for dead.
This has enormous implications for how one re-interprets the first commandment in light of the person and ministry of Jesus. The true worshippers of God are ultimately not the one’s who hold the correct doctrine, who practice the correct religious rituals, who read from the correct scriptures. The true worshippers of God are in fact those who act in ways that are loving, merciful, just, fair and kind towards other people, even if they don’t belong the same race or nation.
If the first of the 10 commandments says, “You shall have no other God beside me”, then the implication of the life and ministry of Jesus is that we should have no God, beside the God of Love. The God of Love, Mercy, Compassion is to be our highest value, our highest object of worship.
Ultimately what the parable of Jesus reveals is that it does not in the end matter which religion or faith tradition you belong to, or even by what name you refer to God. In the end, the only thing that matters, is kindness, compassion, mercy and love. Cor 13:13 Faith, hope and love. These three remain, but the greatest of these is love.