Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me. (BCP p. 350)
Is the first commandment really a commandment, or is it a simple declaration of fact? In Judaism, the Ten Commandments are known as the Ten Statements, and the first “commandment” helps us see why. In the book of Exodus, God gives the commandments to Moses as the Israelites traverse the desert, having just been brought miraculously out of Egypt on their journey to the Promised Land. The first of the ten statements opens with a single sentence that recounts this event, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.” From it follows the seemingly simple commandment, “You shall have no other gods but me.”
There is irony and insight in the Exodus narrative. Moses had ascended Mount Sinai to speak with God, but the Israelites, having wearied of waiting for his return, created an idol, the infamous golden calf. Exodus 31 ends with Moses receiving “tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18); the very next chapter opens with the Israelites saying to Aaron, his brother and second-in-command, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex. 32:1). Aaron acquiesces and a golden calf, likely symbolizing fertility, is created.
As with other Biblical texts, the narrative here is terse. Multiple details all but tumble into one another. It is easy enough to see that the Israelites erred in desiring an idol, but their words to Aaron reveal something else as well. They identified Moses as the one who brought them out of Egypt; against this, the first commandment begins, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.” Error and transgression are inseparable. To these is added something else. The Israelites also wanted a god who would “go before us,” a figure of speech for divine protection and security. They wanted control of their situation, but they did not have it. The idol was supposed to reestablish their sense of equilibrium.
But can we ever really have control? More broadly, can we ever really have idols? Technically speaking, an idol is a false god, but idolatry is the propensity to believe lies of our own making. When we lie, we fashion truths in our own image and to our own liking — or at least we try to do so. But I have never met anyone who has lied to themselves successfully. We always know the truth.
Consider Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. Fully conscious of their nakedness, together they tried to hide from God. Amidst our deceptions and self-deceptions, we do not crave the company of others but their codependency. In Genesis, God is an agent of disruption; he is free from the self-conscious concerns that drive Adam and Eve. The divine presence in Eden forces upon them a truth they would rather not bear. In Exodus, the first commandment repeats this scenario. It forces upon the Israelites — and therefore each of us — what we know, deep down, is always already true. No idols are available to go before us.
Some will affirm the words of Scripture but nonetheless still desire a sense of consolation and control. Religious clichés, even if well-intentioned, will be brought in. “Trust in God,” they will say. But divine providence is eschatological, not historical. Clearing away idols has nothing to do with establishing true security in this life, but in laying the groundwork for developing the virtues necessary for maturity. If idolatry is about the attempted possession of control, the first commandment is also a revelation of dispossession. We are not in control. Either we face up to this fact or we try to run from it.
Christians are called to forbearance (Gal. 5:22-23) — or, perhaps better, existential endurance. With or without us, truth will always have its day, pronouncing the last word just as it pronounced the first. No idol can ever truly go before us. With the first “commandment,” we are invited to accept this fact.
Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin.