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No. 31: The First Word

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 31
Copyright (c) 1994 Biblical Horizons
February, 1994

As we consider the Age of the Law, which begins with the public enthronement of Yahweh (the Second Person of God; the Son; the Word) on Mount Sinai and then in the Tabernacle, we need to consider the Ten Words. These are generally called the “Ten Commandments,” but that is an unhelpful and misleading name for them. The Bible calls them the Ten Words, and never calls them the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 4:13, 10:4). The New Testament uses the word “commandment” (Greek: entole) to refer to all parts and aspects of the Law given at Sinai: two great commandments, many least commandments, etc. Thus, we might speak of the Ten Words as the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, the phrase “Ten Commandments” has driven out the phrase “Ten Words,” so that the actual nature of the Ten Words is not clearly understood.

The Ten Words contain more than commands. They contain historical facts (“who brought you out of the land of Egypt”), theological statements (“for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God”), threats (“visiting iniquity”), promises (“showing lovingkindness”), rationales (“for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth . . . “). The same thing is true of the rest of the “laws” given at Sinai, which are called “ordinances,” for which reason it is not correct to speak of Exodus 21-23 as a “law code,” nor is it accurate to speak of it as “case laws.”

Thus, the Words and Ordinances (Ex. 24:3) are not “laws” or “commandments” in the usual English sense of these words. We don’t really have a good English word for the Sinaitic “Law.” We might use the word “Torah,” which means “teaching,” and of course any teaching from God has absolute authority. Exodus 24:12 calls the Ten Words torah, but it also calls them mitsvah, which means “something commanded.” Thus, the Ten Words and the many Ordinances are a combination of teaching and commandment from God. For simplicity’s sake and because the word already has pretty good connotations for our purposes, I shall call the “Mosaic law” by the name Torah.

Thus, “Biblical law” is something a bit looser and broader than what we think of as law. It is God’s authoritative teaching and commandment, which would form the foundation for a specific law code, but which would also form the foundation for wisdom and insight. Thus, when Paul speaks of the condemnation of the “law” (torah), he refers not only to condemnation that comes from breaking commandments, but also to condemnation that comes from not living in the full stature of human holiness. To put it another way, Torah has both a legal and a personal dimension to it. When we use the English word “law” or “commandment,” we miss the personal, teaching side of Torah. Issuing from the mouth of the Second Person of the Trinity, Torah is both Son (person) and Word (content).

What does the Torah actually say? As it stands, what the Torah commands in the way of salvation is exactly what the Gospel commands. When we understand this, we can understand that many people kept the Torah blamelessly, and found salvation. “And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and judgments of the Lord” (Luke 1:6).

Start at the beginning of the Torah: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before Me.” What does this, the First Word, command? It tells us to put our final faith and trust in the true God, the only God there is, who has redeemed us from bondage to sin, the curse of His wrath. Now, this clearly is exactly what the Gospel commands us to do as well.

Second, the Torah provides a series of orders that we are to obey. This is also the teaching of the Gospel. Those who put their trust in God are to obey Him.

But that is not the end. Suppose we sin? The Torah says that when we sin, we are to come back to God through the sacrifices that He has instituted. This is exactly what the Gospel says as well: When we sin, we come back to God through the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

So, was it possible to be saved by keeping the Torah? Certainly, in the full sense of keeping the Torah. Those who kept the Torah (a) put their trust in God, who had redeemed them, (b) strove to obey Him, and (c) when they sinned, returned to Him through the substitutionary sacrifices.

Thus, what the Torah said is simply the preliminary form of what the Gospel says. This is why Paul so often praises the Torah.

With this in mind, let us consider the First Word in detail.

The First Word

The First Word provides salvation and redemption as the context in which the Torah comes. It begins, “I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This statement is sometimes said to be the prologue to the Ten Words, but the next phrase says, “you shall have no other gods before Me.” The “Me” must refer back to “Yahweh,” and thus links the two statements. The first statement is, in a sense, a prologue, but it is also part and parcel of the First Word.

I am Yahweh. While the name Yahweh was known to the patriarchs in Genesis, its full meaning could not be disclosed to them. God revealed to the patriarchs the name El Shaddai, which means God Almighty. God was making promises to them, and He told them that He was all-powerful, so they could afford to trust Him. Now God is going to keep the promises made to the fathers. Thus, only now can God reveal Himself as the one who keeps promises. That is the basic meaning of “Yahweh”: The God who keeps the covenant made with and the promises made to the fathers. Exodus 6:2-8 shows this relationship between the two names.

Your God. Yahweh is their God, the God of Israel. There are, as we shall see, other gods, but only Yahweh is El Shaddai, the Almighty. Only Yahweh is the creator of heaven and earth and of humanity. Thus, only Yahweh is the supreme God. When Yahweh states that He is their God, it means that He has reconciled Himself to them. They are no longer alienated from Him. Indeed, “your God” implies marriage, and in the Second Word Yahweh says that He is jealous of any affection given to other gods or to substitute gods made by human beings (cf. Ezk. 16).

Who brought you out of the land of Egypt. To understand the land of Egypt, we have to recall that Israel was going to be put into a land “that flows with milk and honey.” The first land that flowed with something was the land of Eden, for a river arose in Eden, flowed down into the Garden of Eden, and from there to the rest of the world (Gen. 2:10). Genesis 13:10 says that the Circle of the Jordan, before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, was well-watered, like the Garden of Yahweh, like the land of Egypt.

Egypt was like the land of Eden, and initially it was a good place for God’s people to be. The Hebrews were settled by Pharaoh in the land of Goshen, the best part of Egypt (Gen. 47:6). At this time, Pharaoh and the Egyptians were believers, and they favored the priestly nation.

Because the Hebrews fell into idolatry and failed to maintain their true witness (unlike Joseph), God raised up bad Pharaohs to oppress the Hebrews (Josh. 24:14). God changed the paradise into a hell. Now God is delivering the Hebrews from this fallen Eden, and is taking them to a land that flows not just with water, but with glorified water. Wine, milk, and honey are forms of glorified water.

Out of the house of slavery. In the book of Exodus we begin with the Hebrews enslaved and building storage cities for Pharaoh�the title “pharaoh” actually means “great house.” We end Exodus with the Israelites redeemed and building a house for Yahweh, in which is stored the Ten Words, Aaron’s rod, a pot of manna, and twelve loaves of bread (cp. Gen. 41:48). This is another house of bondage, but this time the liberating bondage of service to Yahweh, God of gods.

Pharaoh was a god, as we shall see: a junior elohim ruling a land given him by God. Pharaoh chose to try to make himself equal to the God of gods, and thus (like Adam) lost his land. Now God comes and makes Himself not only Israel’s heavenly ruler, but also her earthly ruler as well. Yahweh is the true Pharaoh, the true Great House in which we live and move and have our being, the true earthly God. This points forward to the time when Yahweh will be incarnated in human flesh, serve as a carpenter building houses, and ascend to be king not only of Israel but of all the nations of the world.

The old house stank, both the river and the land (Ex. 7:21; 8:14). The new house has incense in it. The old house was dark when God put out the sun; the new house has a lampstand with seven glorious lights on it. In the old house we were hungry; the new house has twelve loaves of bread in it. This is what it means for Yahweh to deliver us from the old house of bondage.

You shall have no other gods. The word for God in Hebrew is Elohim, which is a plural word. When used of the Creator of heaven and earth, it implies the Tri-unity of God. Since, however, human beings are made in the image and likeness of Elohim, it is appropriate to call human beings elohim. The Hebrew singular word el refers to might or power. Thus, the elohim are the “powers,” and Elohim is the ultimate Power.

What we find is that only certain human beings are called elohim, those who have matured to the point of exercising judgment and rule. It is such men who display God’s Elohim-rule over the earth. Paul’s phrase “the powers that be,” or “authorities on high” (Rom. 13:1-3) is virtually equivalent to the Hebrew “elohim,” gods.

Specifically, who are the other gods that actually exist? First, they are the angels, who have been given some rule over human affairs during the Old Creation, when humanity was in its childhood. The Bible calls angels “sons of elohim,” or “sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). If you are a son of God, you are in some sense a god yourself.

The Bible says that the Torah was given through the ministry of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). No such gods were to be worshipped. Fallen angels, like Satan, might seek to receive divine honors themselves (Mt. 4:9), and human beings, being idolaters, might seek to give divine honors even to unfallen angels; even the righteous might fall into this trap (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).

The other group of gods that really exist are human rulers. Psalm 58:1 begins: “Do you speak righteousness indeed, O gods? Do you judge uprightly the sons of men?” (or, “Do you judge uprightly, you sons of men?”) Whichever translation we take, it is clear that men are here addressed as gods. In the first case, they are the human gods who judge other men. In the second case, they are identified as sons of men. The psalm contrasts the false judgment of these gods with the true judgment of the ultimate Elohim (v. 11).

Psalm 82 begins: “Elohim takes His stand in the congregation of the elohim; He judges in the midst of the elohim.” Verses 2-4 make it clear that this assembly of gods is a human law court. In verses 6 & 7 God says to these gods: “I on My part said, `You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High’; nevertheless, you will die like men and fall like one of the princes.” We see from this that becoming a god is at God’s appointment. (Cf. John 10:34).

Similarly, Philippians 2:6 says that Jesus, being incarnated in the form or image of God, did not try to grasp equality with God (as Adam did), but remained humble until God exalted Him.

The judges of Israel are called elohim, gods, in Exodus 21:6; 22:8, 9, & 28.

Because Mormons and other heretics speak of human beings as gods or as little gods in the sense of being literal offspring of Mr. and Mrs. God, orthodox Christians have been very reluctant to deal with these passages in the Bible. We must not, however, permit heretics to bully us away from Biblical language and concepts. Adam was made in God’s image, and in His likeness. It seems clear that the likeness is something that might increase with maturity, for in Genesis 3 the tempter suggests that Adam seize greater Godlikeness, and God even says that Adam has become like “one of Us.” Partaking of the Tree of Rule makes a person a god in the secondary sense, a ruler and a judge. Adam seized this station without waiting for God to bestow it upon him.

Thus, in terms of Biblical language, it would be appropriate for us to speak to Congress and say, “You men are gods, under God’s appointment. You’d better shape up or you will die like mere men!”

As concerns the First Word, then, there really are other gods, and we are to give them appropriate honor. But such other gods are never to be confused with the Creator God, Yahweh. They are never to be given the honor given to God alone.

The First Word also forbids worshipping the powers in nature. This is because, Biblically speaking, the powers in nature are angelic, in some ways connected with angelic activity. (See Jordan, Through New Eyes, chap. 9.) Angels are gods, but may not be worshipped as God, though they may be honored as bearing in some sense the likeness of God.

What about false gods? If other real gods may not be preferred before, or treated as equal with, God, then clearly the inventions of the human mind may not be either. It is really the Second Word, however, that deals with the fabrications of human beings, including those of the human mind.

Before My face. The First Word does not say, “You may have no other gods,” but “You may have no other gods before My face.” We do have other gods: church elders, civil rulers, mature people in general, angels. But such gods are never to be put in a par with God.

Covenantal Idolatry

The First Word prohibits Covenantal Idolatry, treating anything other than God as God, while the Second Word focuses on Liturgical Idolatry and the Third Word focuses on Practical Idolatry. Yahweh is the Covenant Maker. He brought us out of bondage and has made Himself our God. To treat any lesser “power that be” on a par with Him is covenantal blasphemy.

Thus the focus of the First Word is on God’s ultimate and absolute authority in all of life, including worship and all other spheres of activity. There is a specific application of this Word to worship. Yahweh’s Face or Presence was about to be enshrined in the Tabernacle. Apart from the Tabernacle, God was enthroned in heaven. Whatever honors men might show to other men, such as bowing to them, they were never to offer sacrifice or send up incense to any god but God.

More generally, we find that Adam turned away from God and made the Serpent his god. He made the Serpent his authority, and thus put another god before the true God. As I mentioned above, angels are the powers that run the natural world, so that we are not surprised to learn that behind the serpent was a fallen angel, a god but not God. Covenantal idolatry means to treat anything created by God as on a par with God, and that always means to make it more ultimate than God. For some sinners, Nature (angels) is the idol, while for others Humanity is the idol. As Western Civilization dies we see both today: New Age environmentalism and secular humanism. Both nature (angels) and humanity are indeed “gods” in the senses we have been discussing, but neither is the Creator God, and neither can redeem us from slavery in Egypt.

The twin gods of nature (angels) and humanity define for us two forms of idolatry, what Herbert Schlossberg has called Idols of Nature and Idols of History. (The third kind are Idols of Liturgy, with which the Second Word is concerned.) In practice, undeveloped societies worship and come into bondage to powers of nature and to ancestors. Powers of nature are angelic, as we have mentioned, and such powers invade human life and humble us. We should look through the lions, tigers, earthquakes, plagues, floods, etc. and see that God is dealing with us through His angelic servants as they manipulate nature under His command. But when men focus on the servants, the “spirits” in water, trees, animals, etc., then they become idolaters.

Human gods are the aged, the elders, the judges. Most particularly, therefore, they are the ancestors. The ancestors have gone ahead into the world to come, and rule from there. Certainly it is true that the saints in heaven, though not yet glorified through resurrection, have become more godlike than they were on earth. Yet, whatever power ancestral tradition should exercise in our lives, making us respect the wisdom of the ancestors, we should never confuse such respect with the absolute authority of God. Yahweh made this very plain when He announced that He was the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He was far above the ancestors, and in fact the fathers worshipped Him. Thus, to elevate Church Tradition and the “Church Fathers” on a par with the Bible, the Word of God Himself, is a very serious form of covenantal idolatry.

(In fact, the so-called “Church Fathers” are not the fathers at all. The fathers are Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, etc. The early church is, so to speak, the infant offspring of the Old Creation church, and the leaders of the early church would be better called the “Church Babies.” We should indeed pay attention to what God taught them, but the Church is called to mature in history, and if we do not allow ourselves to progress beyond the first few centuries of the Church we are idolators who worship false ancestors. This is one of the gravest sins of the Eastern Orthodox churches.)

The period from Moses to Solomon presents the fundamental sin of Israel in terms of the First Word. Israel was at that time a tribal society, and we shall have to investigate the nature of tribalism more fully at another point. Here it must suffice to say that tribal societies are close to nature and close to their ancestors. Large faces with big eyes are placed on totem poles or in houses of masks (icon shrines), representing the ancestors who watch to make sure the tribe never deviates from what they established. Thus, historical maturation and development are blocked. This was a backhanded benefit to the pre-Christian world to the extent that it prevented the maturation of sin, but for a Christian society it is Satan’s way of preventing Christianity from maturing under the leadership of the Spirit. The early Church moved into tribal societies, and the icons of the Eastern Churches are nothing more than ancestral masks, only the ancestors are now spiritual ancestors rather than physical ones. The Eastern Churches commit the sin of breaking the Second Word by bringing the false accoutrements of pagan religion into the worship of the Church, and the Eastern Church has rejected historical maturation for over a thousand years, remaining close to infancy.

Tribal societies, being close to nature, worship the powers of nature: Baal the storm god, for instance, or the spirits of wolves, trees, fresh water, etc. Such nature gods are often conflated with the ancestors.

(to be concluded)