The First Commandment reads:
- And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3)
The first, most basic, and most important commandment — or is it the first two commandments? Well, that’s the question. We’ve only just gotten started and we’re already mired in controversy both between religions and between denominations.
For Jews, the second verse is the first commandment: I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. It doesn’t sound like much of a command, but in the context of Jewish tradition it does. It is both a statement of existence and a statement of action: God is saying that he exists, that he is the god of the Hebrews, and that because of him they have escaped slavery in Egypt.
In a sense, the authority of God is being rooted in the fact that he has helped them in the past — they owe him in a big way and he intends to see that they don’t forget it. God defeated their former master, a pharaoh who was regarded as a living god among the Egyptians. The Hebrews should acknowledge their indebtedness to God and accept the covenant he would make with them. The first several commandments are, then, naturally concerned with God’s honor, God’s position in Hebrew beliefs, and God’s expectations as to how they will relate to him.
One thing worth noting here is the absence of any insistence on monotheism here. God does not declare that he is the only god in existence; on the contrary, the words presume the existence of other gods and insist that they should not be worshipped. There are a number of passages in the Jewish scriptures like this and it is because of them that many scholars believe that the earliest Jews were monolatrists rather than monotheists: worshippers of a single god without believing that theirs was the only god who existed.
Christians of all denominations have dropped the first verse as mere prologue and make their first commandment out of the third verse: Thou shalt have not other gods before me. Jews have generally read this portion (their second commandment) literally and simply rejected the worship of any gods in place of their own god. Christians have usually followed them in this, but not always.
There is a strong tradition in Christianity of reading this commandment (as well as the prohibition against graven images, whether that is treated as the second commandment or included with the first as is the case among Catholic and Lutherans) in a metaphorical way. Perhaps after the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion in the West there was little temptation to worship any other actual gods and this played a role. Whatever the reason, though, many have interpreted this as a prohibition of making anything else so god-like that it distracts from the worship of the One True God.
Thus one is prohibited from “worshipping” money, sex, success, beauty, status, etc. Some have also argued that this commandment further prohibits one from hold false beliefs about God — presumably on the theory that if one believes that God has false attributes then one is, in effect, believing in a false or incorrect God.
For the ancient Hebrews, however, no such metaphorical interpretation was possible. At the time polytheism was a genuine option that exerted a constant temptation. For them polytheism would have seemed more natural and logical given the wide variety of unpredictable forces people were subjected to which were beyond their control. Even the Ten Commandments is unable to avoid acknowledging the existence of other powers that might be deified, insisting merely that the Hebrews not worship them.
Regardless of whether one looks upon this entire set as the first commandment (like the Jews do) or regard only the third verse as the first commandment (as Christians do), this is perhaps the single most significant barrier to attempts to erect monuments to the Ten Commandments under state auspices. A civil society in which all religions are equal cannot very well take such an obvious and significant move that basically insists that one religion or religious tradition is True and all others are False. Individual believers may hold such a position, but it is certainly beyond the scope of government authority.