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.
Who do you love?
Okay, whom do you love; whom do you serve, whom do you trust?
Who is there to pull your bacon out of the fire when things get hot? Who is there for you? This is the last in a series on the Ten Written-in-Stone Laws which formed the basis of Israel’s understanding of who they were as a people and what it meant to live fruitful, whole (holy) lives. Looking at this very first law, as always, we must begin at the beginning: what did this law-word mean to those who first received it?
This first commandment contains a few phrases which are similar to elements in the preambles and historical prologues of all the ancient high-king treaties. Those sections of the treaties were the propaganda wherein an overlord king, having conquered (‘rescued from bondage’) some vassal nation, announced to his new subjects all the “good” which had already been done to them by his nation, their new oppressor. When Israel first received these laws, they probably did not fully know it yet, but God really had rescued them from an awful situation so in this one case, the words about liberation were actually true. God had no plan to destroy them; they had been rescued for their own good.
In the old treaties, immediately following (what was usually) this propaganda was the first stipulation: a summary imperative on the exclusive rights of the new sovereign to full allegiance from his new subjects [see Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 150, 151]. Law-Word One is exactly that: “no other gods before (or beside) me.” ‘No secondary agreements, no hedging, no side bets: just stick with me,’ says Yahweh.
This very first law forbid Israel from making any other treaty with any other ruler, be it a god or a human – another high king – representing another god. For Israel this meant there could be no competing alliances between Israel and anyone. The distinction we make so easily in our culture between “political” and “religious” allegiances was unknown in the ancient world. A treaty was a treaty and Israel would have considered a distinction between a sacred world and a secular world within creation to be so much avel! Which it is. There is a reason why this law is first. Keeping every law assumes you keeps this one. Work around this law with “this and that” distinctions and you can be pretty certain you are breaking most of the rest of the laws as well.
Not that Israel did not try to make such distinctions when they were convenient. For centuries, especially among the northern tribes, a separation was assumed between agricultural life and military life, a sort of private/business, public/government partition. On the public/government side was the regular worship of Yahweh, the official god who was presumed to be especially good at national emergencies and war. On the private/business side of the barrier was Baal, a rather sexy thunder and lightning god, the perfect god for people who want rain just when they need it and at no other time.
Eventually, though, as Francis Schaeffer wrote, “the lower story” devours “the upper story” until it was all Baal, all the time! And then the northern kingdom, Ephraim/Samaria, simply ceased to exist as a nation, as a distinct people. They had not broken just this law or that law. They had compromised Law One: deep, deep trouble. Why? Because what God promises in the treaty is to rescue, preserve and defend those who keep covenant with him. Those who find and work loopholes? Not so much.
Isaiah ben Amoz, prophet to four kings of the southern kingdom, Judah, around the turn of the seventh century, BC, ran into another problem with Law One. He spent many chapters of what we call “Isaiah” arguing against foreign alliances with other nations, precisely because any alliance with any other nation made Israel the vassal of that other foreign power and put other gods ahead of, before, Yahweh, even if people kept worshiping at the temple. Any such international agreement violated this first commandment.
So, for instance, when King Ahaz was planning to make covenant with the high-king of Assyria, he was confronted by Isaiah who urged him to trust God alone for his future (Isaiah 7-8). And, when Ahaz’ son, King Hezekiah, who had broken covenant with the Assyrian empire, along with many other small countries, panicked and tried to bribe his way back into the “good graces” of cruel Emperor Sennacherib, Isaiah declared the king and his advisers had no more ‘vision’ than someone deep down in a valley! While everyone else was celebrating on their rooftops, Isaiah said he wanted a secluded place to cry because the king was willing to trust any thing or anyone except Yahweh for his nation’s prosperity and future. Judah’s military leaders, said Isaiah, had been defeated from a distance without even being given a chance to fight! Isaiah reveals that God was all ready to spring a great trap against Assyria’s huge army which would destroy them outright, but first, the king had to trust God in order for Judah’s great victory to work out (Isaiah 22)! And when the king called upon God for help? He got it, big time.
God did not always require the nation to refrain from making covenant with other, greater nations. When Judah had sunk to its lowest level, God actually commanded its king to make and keep a treaty with the great power, Babylon. In that case, however, King Nebuchadnezzar was requiring Judah to keep a treaty with him in the name of Yahweh, not in the name of the gods of Babylon! So when it looked like King Zedekiah was going to break this one good treaty and make a treacherous new one with Egypt, in the name of the Egyptian gods, the prophet Jeremiah warned the weak and foolish king that if he did this, his nation would, as a judgment from God, be swept away. Of course, Zedekiah broke the covenant anyway and the nation was carted off to Babylon for seventy years.
Six hundred years later, in Jesus’ day, Israel was again in a compromised relationship with a great empire, Rome. The leaders of Israel had made a deal with the Roman emperor which preserved some shreds of Jewish independence by putting a partition up between a kind of private/Yahweh worship and a public/Roman emperor service. A key to this compromise was the Jews’ promise they would not support any other king, even and especially a Jewish king, against Rome’s Caesar. So, worship at the Jerusalem temple and at the synagogue of your choice, but work full-time to maintain Roman rule over all imperial politics and especially, business.
So what do you do with Jesus, the Messiah? ‘Messiah’ was just a Hebrew word which meant “oil-poured-on-the head.” In Israel, however, because it had often served as a description of God’s anointed kings, it became a short form of the longer phrase ‘ho meshiah melech’ (the anointed king). All throughout the gospels, that Jesus is this waited-for-one is kept an open secret because it was illegal to even talk about replacing Rome’s rule with an independent Jewish king. And then in a grand reversal of tactic, Jesus came into Jerusalem as the king! He used the same road each new king had ridden, right after his anointing, on his way to the Temple for his coronation, many centuries before (see, I Kings 1)! No more whispered innuendo, Jesus came out as the anointed one, the king of not only Israel but of the whole world. Which is why Israel’s authorities had to engineer his execution quick before the Romans retaliated against the entire nation for breaking the Roman version of Law One. Whenever you make a new treaty, you automatically break the old one.
And when Jesus’ new community was born in fire, they kept on calling their man, Yeshua ho Meshiah; Jesus the Christ; Jesus, the King! That Jesus is Lord and King was the very earliest confession of the new community, founded on the confession of Peter: ‘You are the messiah, the christ, the one whom God adopted as his son in Psalm 2! The king!’ The Christians, in order to once again keep oldie, moldy, Law One, had to break out against the Roman compromise which enslaved God’s people to the oppressive Roman ways of doing things! The very establishment of a new movement which sometimes called itself the kingdom of God, was a breakaway from both Rome and its little vassal, Israel. By making allegiance with Jesus, the Christians were giving an exclusive treaty to Israel’s god, but without Israel’s Roman compromise. Very dangerous stuff, from the very beginning.
No surprise, then, twice in Acts in cities where Paul had recently founded new congregations of Jewish and Gentile Christians, (chapters 17 and 18) the unbelieving Jews tried to set the Romans against Paul and these infant communities on the grounds Paul was supporting a new king other than Caesar. In the first case, at Thessalonica, they claimed this explicitly; in the second, at Corinth, his accusers claimed Paul was teaching the new Christians to live contrary to “the law.” From the text it is clear the Roman governor, Gallio, thinks Paul’s accusers mean the Jewish law, but I think a good case can be made they meant the treaty which forbids Jews from seeking or even hoping for another king, namely, especially, the long-awaited messiah of God.
That was, of course, precisely what Paul was proclaiming, a new world-order under a new king, not merely of Israel, but of the whole of the earth as well as all of heaven. Years later, when Paul was arrested and he knew he would soon be executed, Paul did not complain in a letter (II Timothy) to his protegé, Timothy that he had gotten a bum rap or that he was innocent of some trumped-up charge. Paul had been preaching a glad, good news about a new king whom God had raised up “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:21).. Can anyone think of any names that claimed to be in authority right then, in that day?
Every Roman emperor, beginning with Octavian, called himself ‘Augustus Caesar,’ which meant, as they would have understood it, “The Lord, Worthy of All Honor and Praise!” Octavian, the adopted son of the slain general and ruler, Julius Caesar, signed all his letters, Octavian, Augustus [most worthy] Son of [the] God [Julius]: “Octavian, the Worthy Son of God!” this was the same Caesar who claimed to have brought peace to the world through the power of the terrifying cross! These were blasphemous words, titles and names.
Paul was guilty as charged and he knew it. He viewed himself as having been poured out for the cause of the conquering high-king Jesus beside or above which neither Julius nor Octavian nor any other could stand in that age and no president, premier or CEO can stand today, in this, “the age to come.”
How does this very first Law-Word speak today? How do we live this law out of love? In the new agreement which God has made, he claims all of heaven and all of the earth as the realm of his authority. He claims not that his people may not enter into other agreements, but that those contracts, treaties covenants and pacts may never claim supremacy over King Jesus. We cannot love God with everything we have got if part of our life is actually devoted to someone else. God must come before anything else.
These are fine words in theory, but what does it look like in practice? Christians have struggled with this for centuries: who should come first? Does this mean I must love God more than my family? More than my spouse? My job? My country?
The answer, of course, is all wrapped up in the word, “gods.” As we discussed in my post on Law-Word Two, if I make an idol of my wife or of my political views or of my toys, I am in trouble. An idol is a false god. And when I serve, that is, I avad-work for and thus depend on anything as my hope, as that in which I trust, it does not make any difference what I shakha, that is, formally bow down to on worship days, because the things I avad are my real gods. So, if my wife is the one I trust, the one in whom I hope, she is out of place in my heart and she must put back where she belongs. Which, for Karen, like most people, most of the time, is exactly what she wants. Karen does not want to be my god; she wants to be my wife for nothing is more awful than to be someone’s finite god.
In the same way, if my family is more important to me than God, then it is in competition with God and it is being ruined as a family. And if my allegiance to my country has so warped my view of God that I have come – as many have done throughout the centuries in many, many nations – to confuse the kingdom of God with my country, then I can neither fully serve God, nor can I be the loyal citizen of my country, nor the patriot which I may be called upon to be. Idolatry always distorts what is otherwise good in creation.
On the other hand, should my family or marriage or country somehow come after God? Should my career or country take a back seat to God? Not if my family, my spouse, my career and my country are “in place.” If my marriage is not in competition for first place in my heart, then I am fully free to love God by loving my spouse. If I have not turned my family into an idol then there is no competition possible, because the Lord wants me to love God by loving my family. If I have not confused the United States with the kingdom of God nor turned God into the special protector of the U.S. as some sort of new chosen people, then I am called upon to contribute proudly and fully to my nation as an expression of my love for God. The issue is, are we worshiping creatures as though they were our creator? Then we have a serious problem for God does not hurry to save those who work around him. But if not, then loving all these “neighbors” is a sure way of loving God with everything we’ve got. God showers blessing on those who seek to love him in all they do.
So where does this leave us? Things are not as they should be now; the creation is a rather confused mess with a lot of little finite gods running around. However, our first step toward making things right is to love only God with everything we’ve got. And the second step is to love ourselves and every other creaturely thing as our good neighbors. Only when we love God alone as God and deal with each other as loving creatures in need of all sorts of restoration do we move toward the healing and health which we know is coming:
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21:1-4a
There is a reason why Law One is Law One. Loving God and not hedging that bet leads to this, our future together. Let us take heart, be comforted and encouraged. And being encouraged, let us, until that day, do together in creation works which will be reflected in the heavenly city which is coming down with God the Lamb in its midst.