“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.”
The first commandment in Exodus 20 establishes for the people of Israel, who are newly without certain governance, having been successfully and miraculously led out of their situation of slavery in Egypt, the fact that their new situation is under God. First of all, and most importantly, the Israelites are to understand that Yahweh (LORD) is the God who performed miracles, who led them safely out of slavery and who promised them a life of freedom and security. The Israelites are instructed not to place worship of any other god before Yahweh, the LORD God, who is now the only God who the Israelites worship. The first commandment becomes the foundational premise for all other commands that appear in the biblical text that follows. Because of this great act of compassion, the Israelites must devote their whole selves and future generations unto God.
In the ancient world, covenants were traditionally made in the presence of a nation’s god. Much like in the way Americans remember the establishment of our present allegiance—”one nation, under God”—ancient people established systems of government under the supervision of their respective nation gods. The Israelites were no exception. They had lived many generations under Egyptian influence (400 years according to the biblical text!) and were no doubt very familiar with local customs and legal representation. When Moses, as God’s chosen vessel, led the Israelites out of slavery, out from under the oppressive hand of Pharaoh in Egypt, the Israelites became a nation committed to God.
In today’s world, this commandment comes to a general public who either accepts the existence of one God or does not. Perhaps, the best way to understand this commandment today is to think about it as a commandment about faith in God, which leads to obedience. Not only does this scripture state that God will be first, but it presumes that God is. In a very orderly fashion, this first commandment leads the rest. The community that had come out of Egypt together and who, together, witnessed the miracles of God’s leadership, were now summoned to live the challenge of becoming a God-imagined community. They would live together according to God’s standards, instead of bending to the ways of human systems. The first commandment calls us to lay aside devotion to human ambition or levels of hierarchy so that we may have a more full life in God’s community.
Exodus 20 speaks of a God who is compassionate, who shows real concern for the people who wish to follow him. The LORD God of Israel has a new way for the ancients. God’s path promises to lead them into a community wherein every person plays a single part of a unified whole. Obedience and trust are the keys to a faithful community. God has made the first pledge by leading the Israelites out of slavery. What follows is the people’s trust in God as a faithful leader.
Over time, the biblical text reveals that God’s people were not satisfied to follow God in faith. They desired a nation and system of law that looked like those nations around them. This is remembered in many texts as the reason for the demise of the Israelites as a unified nation. The prophets later see this as a warning. God has made a plan for humanity; yet, it remains humanity’s own choice whether or not to follow. Wisdom may be heard in these words spoken by Moses’ successive leader, Joshua, “… as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).