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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

One God

Several weeks ago I wrote about viewing Scripture as a six act play. Act 1 was the creation of the heavens and earth and the placement of Adam and Eve in Eden. Act 2 was the rebellion of humanity against God. Act 3 began with the call of Abraham and the birth of the Israelites. It continues up to the birth of a child in Bethlehem.

Act 3 began with the call of Abraham and the saga of his family down through Joseph and the sojourn of the people into Egypt. The next scene is the Exodus of the people from Egypt and into Canaan (after a lengthy detour.) It is immediately after there departure from Egypt that God takes Moses up on Sinai and explains what he expects from his chosen people.

It is significant that the Ten Commandments begin with God identifying himself as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” and not as the creator and sustainer of the universe. His instruction is based on his special relationship to a people he has chosen and not just as supreme Lord. The Ten Commandments are to be moral and ethical foundation for his chosen people in contrast to the rest of the world.

Catholic and Lutheran traditions believe verses two and three of Exodus 20, to be a preamble. They split verse seventeen into two commands, one being about “coveting your neighbor’s house” and the other about “coveting your neighbor’s wife. This makes three commandments concerning our relationship to God and seven about our relationship to each other. Most Protestant traditions see verses two and three as the first command and view verse seventeen as one command. This makes four commands about our relationship with God and six about our relationship with each other. Either way, there is a clear division into two types of commands. Look first at the God focused commands.

Why no other gods and no graven images? As I noted in earlier posts, fallen humanity must worship. Being estranged from God through sin we create false gods to give the illusion of order and meaning to our lives. It has been common to erect symbols as representations of our gods to make these gods more real to us.

Abraham had come from Babylonia where there were many Gods. The Israelites had just left Egypt where there were several gods. Also, the Israelites were about to enter Canaan with its panoply of Baal and Asherah gods. The Ten Commandments interject something startling into history. They insist on monotheism. “No other gods before more me,” does not mean Yahweh should be first in line among other gods. It means there are to be no other gods before, or in, his presence.

A common symbolization of the gods in Babylonia, Egypt and Canaan was as cattle. The irony of the biblical story is that just as Moses was receiving his instructions, Aaron was “passing the hat” through the camp to collect gold so he could make a golden calf. Upon completion, he said "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:4 NRSV) The Hebrew Elohiym is the word translated “gods” here and it is one of the names of God, although it can have other connotations.

Some commentators suggest that Aaron was not outright rejecting Yahweh but was mixing the worship practices of the region with worship of the God. These practices entailed extremely licentious behavior. Syncretism was the sin here and it would plague the people for centuries in Israel. God was denouncing any representation of him, and he demanded that he alone should be worshiped according to his directions. He also proscribed any use of his name that would trivialize or minimize his authority.

Finally, there is no known precedent to the Sabbath in ancient culture. The lives of the ancients were a continuous oppressive effort to survive. Work was ceaseless except to worship the gods from whom they hoped to earn divine favor. God entered the picture and told his people that their survival depended not upon their frenetic efforts but upon their faithfulness to him. The Sabbath was a time to cease from labor and thereby demonstrate their reliance upon God. It was also a time for people to become reconnected with God and his purposes. The Sabbath was a defiant contrast to the oppressive fearful lives of the people in the land.

The worship of God alone combined with Sabbath observance was a direct assault on the illusions of the surrounding cultures.


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