“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Before I get rolling on the whole Ten Commandments thing, I need to make a few clarifications and disclosures. First, for the record, I am not a member or believer in any Judeo-Christian religions or traditions. My personal beliefs (or lack thereof) are not relevant to the discussion at hand, except insofar as to establish that I am not speaking as a believer. Second, I was not raised “in the Church” as it were, but my parents didn’t keep me away from it either, and my sister and I did go to Sunday School whenever we wanted. My parents let us find our own beliefs, and I grew up with the King James Bible, so that’s the version of the Ten Commandments I’ll be looking at.
Now that I’ve gotten all of those provisos out of the way, let’s move on to the easy stuff, shall we? I mean, unlike the Bill of Rights the Ten Commandments are pretty straightforward, right? Well… actually no. Setting aside any controversy about their use, the Commandments themselves have a long and interesting history of not being as clear as they could be.
For this first commandment, what throws me is that I hear a lot of people try to defend the idea of “One True God” using this, even though a proper reading of this Commandment doesn’t lend itself to any such interpretation. Far from it; every reading I can make of it suggests multiple gods, in multiple possible configurations. If you are willing to completely abuse the English language I suppose you could make that reading, and I’ll include that one in order to let folks judge it for themselves, but I’d love to hear someone explain to me how you honestly get to a non-tortured version of “one god” from this.
So here’s what I’m reading: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”; sounds like an acknowledgement of other gods. How to interpret that in the context of Judeo-Christian belief? Like so:
Polytheism – Reading it as “there are many gods, I am just the most powerful and most deserving of worship.” You can actually envision a full pantheon of deities that includes one superior figure demanding to be held in full respect above the others quite easily. Odin All-Father, Zeus, or even Osiris (before that whole death-rebirth thing, but that’s a whole other Christian mythology comparison) could handily fit into this role, although in fairness I don’t see this being likely in the full context of the other writings and material around the Commandments.
Kathenotheism – Reading it as “there are many gods or spirits, I am just the most powerful/the others are simply aspects of my glory.” While it would take a little bit of stretching to get it within either the strictest bounds of the definition of kathenotheism or else the strictest interpretation of the Commandment, I still think it takes fewer mental gymnastics than the idea of using this to support monotheism. So imagine it with me: there are still gods or spirits of fields or seasons or what have you, but they are all subservient to the One True God. This isn’t strictly polytheism in that a migrating/herding culture would only worship one subservient spirit at a time and would still always be worshiping the highest deity as the supreme being. Another possibility would be seeing each of these lesser spirits merely as manifestations of the One True God, which takes us into functional monotheistic territory, but is still very different from what is typically described as the monotheism that is derived from the Ten Commandments.
Henotheism – Reading it as “Maybe there are other gods, maybe there aren’t, but I am YOUR god, and there aren’t any others worth bothering with.” This is the one that I think is most likely, and I think a lot of scholars have probably trod a lot of this ground already to be perfectly honest. Henotheism basically is the idea “I worship my god, you worship yours”. Henothesists don’t deny the existence of other gods (or at least the possibility of them), the just don’t particularly care. Considering the origins of Judeo-Christianity in a part of the world that had multiple other, older, much stronger pantheons in existence, I find it difficult to believe that any new religion would have evolved and declared right out of the gate “oh, and by the way, no god exists except for the one we worship, and it’s not the fantasy creatures you’ve been making sacrifices to, because seriously? Animal heads?” Having the stones to say “my god can beat up your god” when you’re on the wrong end of the slave lash is already pretty impressive.
Monotheism – Reading it as “There are no other gods. I am the only one. Don’t notice the man behind the curtain.” As promised, I shall now explore this possibility. While as previously mentioned I find it difficult to believe any new religion would declare right out of the gate that everybody else’s beliefs are completely false, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before in history, so that’s not a complete stopper. The big issue I take with this interpretation is that it doesn’t make sense in terms of the text. If you drop the last clause entirely the Commandment becomes “thou shalt have no other gods”, which is what the assertion of monotheism is. The existence of that clause has to be accounted for, and it can only happen one of two ways, either temporally or through precedence. I’m fairly certain there is no one making the argument that the tribes that eventually became the people of Jerusalem had no religion of any kind before the events described in Exodus. So then the only remaining possibility (as I understand the proper use of the English language) is one of precedence. One does not have to acknowledge that other gods DO exist, only that if they did, they wouldn’t be worth bothering with (see Henotheism above).
I realize that invoking “the usage of the English language” in this case is pretty weak considering the number of translations that the source material has been through, but as long as people insist on using interpreted texts as the basis of their arguments and politics, I’m going to be a stickler. And that’s what it’s all about in the end for me: there are people in America who rely on the Bible to make political decisions, and even want to hang the Ten Commandments in public spaces. But these same people have radically different interpretations of what these texts mean, not just in terms of their personal beliefs but the public sphere as well.
Consider for example my most-likely interpretation of this, what may fairly be considered from a religious perspective the most important Commandment (hence why it comes first): the henotheistic perspective says there may or may not be other gods, but they aren’t worth worrying about. “I worship my god, you worship yours”. Sounds so perfectly American. Shoving your beliefs in the public square and insisting “that’s what America was founded on, and you should thank us for it”? Not so much.