No Other Gods

October 22, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


In 2002, when Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore refused to remove a granite monument of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, he claimed that he was simply acknowledging God, and argued that acknowledging God wasn' t against the constitution. Many Americans who were watching, and especially religious liberals, saw it another way. We knew that posting the Ten Commandments was not just a neutral way to affirm one' s personal faith, but a public affirmation of the Judeo-Christian tradition' s one Supreme Being. Many of us watching this story were aware of the fact that the Ten Commandments, a Jewish code of law, are particularly popular with the kind of conservative Christians who have a very different idea about the separation of church and state and the blessing of religious pluralism than do religious liberals.

A judicial ethics panel agreed with this point of view, and decided that Roy Moore was more devoted to the Ten Commandments than he was to the law of our religiously diverse land. They unanimously voted to remove him from office in November of 2002.

While I do know that Mr. Moore made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2006, I don' t know what happened to his 4 foot high, 5,280 lb. copy of the Ten Commandments. It was displayed in various sites around the country for his supporters (and maybe some curiosity-seekers) and I just hope to God all that granite didn' t end up in a landfill.

Of one thing I am fairly certain: even Moses, who was said to have received the Commandments directly from God, didn' t drag them around with him after God dictated them to him. He received them, and he got on with the business of living by them and creating a community that would also abide by them. That community would become the nation of Israel; a people who were bound not only by national identity and geographic destiny but by the covenant with the God who first revealed himself in a burning bush.

It' s an incredible story, the beginning of the religion that would become Judaism as told in the book of Exodus. It' s full of magic (turning sticks into serpents! pillars of fire! plagues!), special effects (frogs dropping from the sky! rivers running with blood!), and casts of thousands running across the dry bedrock of the Red Sea. When I say Moses, who do you think of? Charlton Heston. It may not be particularly reverent, but it' s hard not to feel that this story is pure Hollywood! It is for that reason that the Ten Commandments are perhaps more ingrained in our popular culture than in our religious culture.

Before we read the Ten Commandments just a moment ago, did you remember all of them? Let' s review: No other gods, no graven images, no taking the name of the Lord in vain. Remember the Sabbath. Honor your parents. No killing. No adultery. No stealing. No lying about what someone else did. No hankering after your neighbor' s stuff or his spouse or servants.

Christopher Hedges in his book Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America writes, "The first four [commandments] are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relations with others… The commandments are one of the earliest attempts to lay down rules and guidelines to sustain community. The commandments include the most severe violations and moral dilemmas in human life… They were for the ancients, and are for us, the rules that, when honored, hold us together and when dishonored lead to alienation, discord and violence."

And yet it is my experience that modern people – even church and synagogue-going ones, have come to regard the Ten Commandments more as Ten Suggestions than rules we must honor for the good of ourselves and our society --you know, a good idea if you have the time (especially that thing about honoring the Sabbath), but coming from such an ancient context that they don' t really resonate anymore. I myself could certainly be accused of this attitude until this summer, when I – and I' m not proud of this – studied the Commandments in real depth for the first time. They were not given much attention in my divinity school courses, so I began with Exodus and Deuteronomy – both of which have versions of the Decalogue, and found that there is much more to the Ten Commandments than just obvious, common sense advice about how to be a decent person.

This year, we will look at each of the Commandments one or two at a time, and this morning we' ll focus on the first in depth and briefly at the second.

The list begins with this requirement: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

It is with this commandment that the entire history of monotheism is begun. Take that in for a moment. This is where monotheism truly begins. Although this God was the same deity who spoke to Abraham, monotheism did not really take hold as a religious idea before Moses' encounter retold in Exodus. It begins here, with this God, whose real name cannot be uttered and so is sometimes referred to by his initials: Yod Heh Vav Heh, or "Yaweh" for short. You didn' t know that "Yaweh" is a nickname, did you? It is; for the unspeakable name of God.

So what is this first commandment about? Why is it there, why is it first?

You shall have no other gods before me.

Let me dare to speak in the voice of YHVH for a moment, in order to give you a fuller sense of what this means in the Biblical context. If I get struck by lightening, you' ll know this was a bad idea.

Here, in my own words, is God :

"Look, people. Hear me. I brought you out of Egypt and slavery. I am the great I AM, Elohim. The Name. We are going to have an intimate and reciprocal relationship. From this point on, religion isn' t about burning incense to this little god over here in order to get a good crop or to get a baby, and it isn' t about sacrificing a goat to that little god over there in order to win a war. I' m telling you, I' m IT. I am the God. And I am calling you, right now, into a life of relationship with Me that isn' t based on rituals, but on a code of conduct that guides your inner life and your outer actions. I am the God who is teaching you for the first time in human history that there is one Divine unity behind all those little local gods you worshiped before. I am the one God who is telling you that how you behave with one another should be, and can be, a reflection of the divine order itself. Religion from this time forward is not just about praying to your favorite god or goddess who does something for you now or in the afterlife, it is about the morality of your lives, now, today. And I' m going to make it really clear to you how it this works – I' m going to give you very clear rules -- and you will obey me, and it will work all for the best in the unfolding of history as it should be."

And so this God gives a series of laws (there are over 600 more given a little bit later)) and certainly they' re not the first moral code known to history – but they are the first to be dictated, if you like, by a God who claims not only to be the most powerful and fierce deity around, but the only legitimate one.

Just for fun, let me give you a list of some of the popular gods and goddesses of the ancient world around the Hebrews, and you can get a sense of how outrageous this new God might have seemed to those who heard what Moses had to see when he came off the mountain with the Commandments:

You had Baal, the Semitic god (or gods) of sun, rain, thunder, agriculture and Astarte, his consort, goddess of love and war;

Ishtar, the Babylonian high mother goddess of fertility, love and war;

Asherah, the great Canaanite goddess, who may have been a consort of an earlier Israelite god ;

Anu, the Sumerian sky god and king of heaven;

Beelzebub, the Philistine Canaanite prince of the air, lord of the flies.

And so on and so on. It is important for us to appreciate the fact that these gods were beloved by the people. They were very, very real to them, living forces present in nature in whom people put their faith and trust and devotion. We cannot understand the second commandment against making idols, or graven images, unless we know that in ancient times, people made, little clay figurines of their gods, and larger idols too of more precious materials, and they actually worshiped those. The figures weren' t just representations of the god or goddesses; in some cases, they were believed to contain the spirit of the deity, as in the little household gods that Russell Crowe' s character carries around with him in "Gladiator." This new God, YHVH, wasn' t having any of that. He might manifest himself in a pillar of fire or a cloud that hovered over his people, or as a voice or a mighty wind, but he couldn' t be contained in any man-made thing. None of the other gods ever said this. This was new.

So asking the people to ditch these gods was more than revolutionary; it was unprecedented, and we have no analogy for it in our experience. We cannot imagine how different a worldview Moses was proposing, or dictating to these people who had been captive under pharaoh, and how offensive it would sound to everyone else. I don' t want to minimize or trivialize the very serious reality that the subsequent history of this god as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (also known as the Old Testament) acts like a tribal warrior king, arbitrary and murderously competitive and insanely controlling. All I have time to say on that subject this morning is that those were very violent times, this was a revolutionary concept, and a meeker god who made the same requests would probably not have had any followers past Moses' own lifetime.

It is no wonder that the Hebrews spent the next many generations testing the boundaries of this idea and testing this new god. The Bible speaks of their many rebellions, the most famous of which was the construction and worship of the golden calf. And of course we are still testing it. We are in the midst of a global struggle between the monotheistic faith traditions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of these three have roots in the same moment in history, that is to say, the theophany of God' s revelation of God' s self to Moses as a single force -- a revelation that began way back with the story of Abraham. All three groups tend to be pretty certain that their version of what was revealed is the best version for the sake of the unfolding of human history as it should be, although there are Christians, Jews and Muslims who are sincerely open to the insights and influences of the other two traditions.

But here' s the thing. The question before us here today isn' t so much, whose version of God will you believe in, but do you believe in the first place that the world is a sacred place imbued with holiness? Does anything about this dramatic, cinematic story speak to your thoroughly modern soul – do you feel connected in any fashion to that ancient people who were the first to be introduced to the idea that there is a sacred unity binding us all together, and that it somehow wants to have a relationship with humanity? Even if you would not personify that universal energy in the Biblical character of God (who, by the way, changes drastically through the many subsequent books of the Bible) – do you have an intuitive sense of the unity of this whole planetary project?

I know this congregation fairly well by now and I believe that whether we are atheists, humanists, Christians, Buddhists – whatever spiritual path we are on or none in particular – we do all feel a sense – an intuition -- of the sacred pulse of life, and the unity of all living things, and their interconnectedness and interdependence. For most of us, love is the great hint that something sacred is going on here. The capacity for awe and wonder we all share is another big hint.

If we do not exactly believe in a great "I AM THAT I AM," (which is how God introduces God' s self to Moses) we may believe in a great "THERE IS THAT THERE IS"—in other words, there is a moral dimension in creation itself that does make demands on us-- and there is therefore an inalienable rightness to the quest to live in ethical relationship with others. It is part of the divine order. If you did not believe this, I do not think you would be in church.

I myself hold out hope that we are somehow hard-wired for the moral quest. To evolve morally as we have evolved physiologically is our spiritual task as human beings. Might it be a biological imperative, too? An evolutionary one? A question for another time.

"You shall have no other gods before me," says this God. "This is a holy world and you are living a sacred story, and don' t you forget it." I imagine God saying to us, "You are highly sophisticated creatures, you children, and I know you. You will increase your knowledge with each subsequent generation. You will build magnificent, complex edifices and house in them vast libraries of knowledge, institutions of power, systems of governance and domination, machines that can take life or that can save it. I am the great I AM, says this God, and I can see where this is going. Soon enough – thousands of years in your time but just a mere blink of the eye in mine – you will be capable of understanding and manipulating almost all the intricacies of creation. When that happens, my children, you will be tempted to worship yourselves and the things you have made in your own image. You will make idols of many unholy things. I' m telling you today, don' t. You cannot worship these things – these fleeting, ephemeral things -- and live as you were meant to live. And if you do not live, so dies the only conscious witness to the whole of this beautiful creation. Orient your hearts, therefore, toward reverence, humility, awe and relationship, and live."

I close with the words of Christopher Hedges,

"The commandments hold community together. It is community that gives us our lives, even in pain and grief, a healing solidarity… The commandments call us to reject and defy powerful forces that can rule our lives and to live instead for others, even if this costs us status and prestige and wealth. The commandments show us how to avoid being enslaved, how to save us from ourselves. They lead us to love, the essence of life."

As we delve deeply into the Ten Commandments together this year, may they help us cultivate reverence, and honor the holiness at the heart of being. The Ten Commandments are an expression of the first covenant between human and divine recorded in all of history. May we receive their wisdom in the hopes that they will prove a blessing to our own covenant and our own community.