“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exo 20:3)
So I’ve been binge watching Babylon 5, and I am struck by the degree to which this show involves religion, even a more accurate understanding that not all Christians are Catholic. One of the leads, played by the lovely Claudia Christian, is a Russian Jew. still observant when it fits the plot. Now, somewhere in Season 2, Dr. Franklin, the station’s chief medical officer, remarks that he is a “foundationist”, that is, he believes in God, but that every time we try to define God, He is always bigger. This intrigued me because that is a very humbling idea. When we try to define God, we must realize that our definitions will always fall short, because we cannot conceive God in our finite minds.
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (1Co 2:9-10)
In reading this first commandment, it seems like a simple thing. We don’t build or worship blocks of stone or wooden idols. We don’t sacrifice animals to the sky or the sun. However, I think there is more to this verse than meets the eye.
I have what may be considered a peculiar view of history. I take the Scripture seriously wherever it leads. When I read of the accounts of the Creation and the Flood, to the Tower of Babel, it seems a much better fit than the millions of years of evolutionary history I’ve been spoon-fed for years. Thus it seems to me that while the Bible tells us the essential truths of history, the secular world also passed down to us in the form of folklore and myth another history, much diluted by time and retelling. Where the Bible had the benefit of Divine shepherding over the centuries, the stories of myth did not. Myth tells of great deeds and great heroes, even gods, who lived ages ago. What should amaze us is that these stories exist at all, that there is something rather than nothing. What inspired these stories?
There are a few works that follow this line of inquiry, but the field has been ignored for centuries, especially now that the theory of Evolution has taken over academia. Isaac Newton wrote a book on history that made a serious attempt to reconcile the stories of myth and the ancient world with the Bible, called, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended To which is Prefix’d, A Short Chronicle from the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great (see On Amazon for Kindle). More recently I’ve seen it in Brian Forbes’ From Noah to Hercules (see Noah to Hercules on Amazon). I encourage you to take a look at some of these sources for yourself.
It seems fiction as we know it today simply was unknown in the ancient world. While there were certainly story tellers, our modern methods of printing and inexpensive materials, electronic distribution and so on didn’t exist. Thus anyone who committed a story to stone or clay did so because they believed it was true, or at least worth recording. They simply didn’t have time to invest or money to pay a scribe to write out what everyone knew was fiction (because everyone knew the stories as well as he did). We also know that stories were more often transmitted orally long before they were ever committed to writing and bear evidence of this in their patterns and forms. Whole epics were memorized. Thus while many of the mythologies we know today from the ancient world are grossly exaggerated, they have some basis in truth. Two cases help illustrate this.
One fantastic epic from the ancient world is Gilgamesh. Inscribed on an incomplete series of clay tablets and found in a ruined library of Ashurbanipal in 1849, the epic is the story of an ancient king, Gilgamesh, who lived in a historically verifiable place, Uruk, probably sometime in the 29th-24th centuries BC. Gilgamesh is famous for destroying a number of monsters in the ancient world, and built many cities. He met fascinating characters like Utnashpashtim, the survivor of the world-destroying Flood. Though the story of Gilgamesh is exaggerated, there may be pieces of it that can be verified.
Another is Homer’s works of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many of the events of the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, have only recently been understood as more accurate than we gave credit. Many ancients believed that the war against Troy to be a defining date in history, so that events were understood before the war and after the war. Troy itself, its ruins anyway, are believed to be verified on the west coast of Turkey. Troy VII (layer 7 of Hesilik) is believed to match the destruction of Troy in about the 12th century BC. Biblical Troas was located not far from the original Troy. Troy was a real place. The evidence for its destruction is real. When Homer (or the Homeric poets) wrote down the narrative at a much later date, it was a story told and retold, memorized for generations and shared as a morality tale and entertainment. However modern investigations into the story, including elements of its descriptions of geography have been verified as accurate. Extending credibility to the Iliad is easier than to the Odyssey, but being works from the same period should allow us to give Odyssey the benefit of the doubt.
Ancient history seems to be divided into roughly three periods, 1) the age of Titans (“of old”, Creation to 1689 AC at the Flood), 2) the age of gods (“of former times”, after the Flood, approx 4000 BC to about 2500 BC), and 3) the age of Heroes (2500 BC- to the fall of Troy). In each successive age, glory and honor diminishes. And this is why primarily we are not taught this, and why we favor Evolution. Evolution teaches that each successive generation is better than the last, so that our generation is certainly better than those of the ancient world. We have computers, after all. But we forget, even if our only evidence is the ancient structures like the pyramids, the problems we solve today with computers, they solved in their heads. Contrary to Evolution, when we study the Scriptures we find that ancient man was far more intelligent than we are today, not the knuckle-draggers we’ve been taught.
If we were to line this up against the Biblical record, I believe that the age of the Titans was the period before the Flood. The atmosphere was pressurized far more than now due to a canopy of water that lay over the whole earth. Animals didn’t need great lung capacities to support massive bodies and they grew to tremendous size, as did the rest of the natural world. People too took advantage of this highly oxygenated atmosphere and likewise grew to unusual sizes, even “titanic” proportions, to the point “there were giants (or, Nephilim) in those days.” Whether you believe they were giants, the result of genetic manipulation by the “sons of God” in Genesis 6, or that the Nephilim were the mighty offspring of their unions with human women, people were larger than life in those days. “These were the he mighty men who were of old.” God need not call them anymore than that. “Of old” (or, time before time) seems to be the Bible’s way of describing this time before the Flood.
The men and women who emerged from the Ark became the basis for the pantheons of gods told by their great-grandchildren, as these were not only taller than most, but lived extremely long lives, compared to their descendants. I find it interesting that Noah had three sons. In Greek mythology, the Titan Kronos had three sons, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. In Egyptian mythology, the world emerged from the Flood-waters and eight primary gods were responsible for the creation of the world. Strangely, it was eight souls that emerged from the Ark to repopulate the world. I believe the first few generations that emerged from the Ark became the basis for the mythologies the developed in the ancient world. While the Bible says little about the exploits of these ancients, focusing instead on the family of the promise, the mythologies are filled with their exaggerated exploits. Gilgamesh may well the secular name of a king mentioned in Scripture, Nimrod. (See http://davelivingston.com/nimrod.htm)
In the Bible, there is a curious proverb attached to the “ancients” in 1 Samuel 24:13. The proverb is, “out of the wicked comes forth wickedness”. But the word used for the ancients is more closely defined as “men of former times” or “of the east”. This is a curious designation, since the people who emerged from the Ark traveled south along the mountain ridges while the flood waters receded and the plains dried out, then they descended west from the mountain ridge and gathered in the plain of Shinar, the site of the original Babel. This site is considerably further south than the Ararat mountains where the Ark landed. The Bible has a sense of its own antiquity.
The age of Heroes follows on and describes the generations that followed the gods. The Iliad and the Odyssey takes place in the age of Heroes, but not in the age of the gods. The Exodus takes place in the age of Heroes (1440-1400 BC) as does the stories of Joshua, Samson and David. It is into this time that Scripture takes us into the story of Israel in earnest. When God gathers His people at Sinai, He first warns them about worshiping other gods. God isn’t worried about a cabal of imaginary or fictional deities that hold the attention of men for a time. I believe he is referring to the pantheon of men and women who lived after the Flood and were at first revered by their progeny, and were later worshiped, their stories told and retold, until they were no longer recognized as merely human.
We are prone to honor our heroes. We build statues in their honor. We put their faces on our currency. We tell and retell their stories until they pass into legend. Did George Washington really cut down a cherry tree to show he couldn’t tell a lie, or did someone invent the story, using that name, to teach a moral lesson (ironically, since the story wasn’t true)? How often today do we invoke the authority of those long dead to establish a point? (“Lincoln once said . . .”)
It seems that God had more in mind here than telling us not to make up gods and then serve them, but to resist our natural tendency to honor and glorify the dead (um, Catholic saints?), venerate them in our memory and eventually make them an authority in our thought-lives (Charles Darwin anyone?). It is a challenge to us to whom we give authority to in our thinking, and a challenge to our worship.
Who are the gods in your life? Your parents? Why does Jesus say:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luk 14:26)
‘Why does Jesus challenge the authority of those in our own lives? Who do you give permission to guide your thoughts?
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (2Co 10:5)
Some say they worship reason, but how do they define reason? But there are lots of ways to define reason, and sometimes, it is simply what makes a person happy at any particular time. By whose definition do they define it? For someone somewhere gave them the idea that Reason ought to prevail. And if it is not Reason that guides your actions, then what does? Who holds sway over your mind if not God?
“Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:20-22)
I believe with this first commandment, we’ve been taught for generations and lulled into thinking that the Israelites were ordered to stop worshiping fictions, but I am afraid the truth is much more unsettling. These statues, rituals and ideas of men were based on real people of the distant past, whose stories and legends passed down to them, but without the fact-checking of divine inspiration. Instead, their stories were conflated and padded with the desires of sinful men, to manipulate and coerce others for the sake of power. Who were the priests and soothsayers if not the most powerful men of their age? If we are not aware of this, our ancestors may become the same for us, our overlords from the grave, because we were not careful to “have no other gods” before Him.
God knew this tendency was within all of us to make sacred those we revere, to honor our heroes and glorify their memory. Thus even in the midst of idolatry, there a grain of truth. 1 Corinthians 10:10 says that sacrifices to idols are sacrifices to actual demons, real spiritual powers. Why wouldn’t the demons rejoice when God and His transcendent nature, greater than all we can ask or imagine is ignored in favor of finite, limited creatures (Romans 1:23)?
Thus His first commandment is very simple, “Have no other gods before Me.”