This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 1st December 2017.
The First Commandment
Last month I set myself the task of looking at the Ten Commandments as a guide to human happiness. This is harder than I had imagined. How do we know that we are happy? We find it easy to know when we are unhappy but I don’t go about thinking how happy I am. I think it is when we are unhappy that we can see how happy we had been before.
Now the Commandments were given to Moses when the Israelites were so unhappy in their wanderings in the desert that they began to reject God. They were so unhappy that they began to pine for the good old days when they were slaves being mistreated by the Egyptians. They had been told that God would lead them to a new land where they would have all the good things they wanted. Now they couldn’t see any sign of this Promised Land and they felt that God had failed to provide what He had promised.
Does this sound familiar? Sometimes I hear people complain that they have prayed to God for a solution to a problem and they have seen no answer. Why doesn’t God give us what we ask for? In the first commandment God sets out to clarify the nature of our relationship. He says, “I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt not have strange Gods before Me.” You might notice I’m using the old fashioned ‘thou’ rather than the more familiar ‘you’. That was deliberate. Thou is a singular form. God is making it plain He is talking to me, not just the whole group; this is means me. He is telling me that he is the one who will decide what to do and when to do it. I don’t call the shots.
If we look at where we get this commandment from we go back to the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy we find,
“I am the LORD 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.
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
That’s a much stronger version than our modern instruction. If we are going to get along with God we are going to have to understand the true nature of the relationship. We didn’t elect God and we are in no position to dismiss Him. God is making it plain that if we do then we will not prosper.
God is also pointing out the folly of worshiping some other ‘gods’. His list would seem to prohibit worship of animals but that is not really the whole story. We can understand the folly of worshiping an animal. Our understanding of the nature of living things precludes the possibility of them having any special powers. Praying to a horse will get you nowhere. Bookmakers understand this and make lots of money from it.
We may be at risk of worshiping other ‘gods’ though. Our attitudes to God today might betray some similarity with those of the Israelites wandering in the desert. We now seem to have a tendency to blame God for things. I think the New Testament may have given rise to this. We are told in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus could command a storm to stop.
“They woke him and said to him, ‘Master, do you not care? We are going down! And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!’ and the wind dropped and all was calm again.”
Mark 4:39, 40
Now some of us think we can call on God to sort out anything that threatens us. They question where was God when the earthquake struck? Why was my child allowed to die? They even blame God for causing disasters as a punishment for our bad behaviour. Do we really believe that God sent AIDS to punish the wicked?
In the first commandment God tells the Israelites that He decided to lead them out of Egypt. It was not their idea. God intercedes in human events when He decides to. It is not our decision. The Israelites could only see the desert that surrounded them. God has a much wider vision and he is not bounded by time. Our big mistake is that we think we can understand God. I can’t really understand what God is never mind understand His plans.
God knows we can’t understand what he is so he is making it simple for us. God is in charge. He is not Santa Clause, bringing us the things we ask for. God gives us what we need for our place in his plan. That’s why He doesn’t let me win the Euromillions; it’s not what I need to follow His plan. I can’t really see that it would do me any harm but just as God led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, I have to remember that he is leading me out of the bondage of sin. My vision is just as restricted as that of the Israelites so I have to trust that God can see where he is leading and trust to His mercy.
In western society we seem to have decided that God has it wrong on so many issues. We have decided that sanctity of life is inconvenient. God’s idea of all human beings being of equal value does not fit with our modern world. We don’t see life as a gift from God but something we control. In a sense we could be accused of going beyond the worship of false gods. We could be accused of thinking of ourselves as being God. We can decide when life begins and ends. We can now decide whether we are male or female, or something else.
Of course our transition into gods is incomplete. We are still limited in our length of life. Research is proceeding to ‘switch off’ the gene that tells our bodies to stop repairing itself so that we can live for hundreds of years if not forever. This idea of living forever has great support from some very wealthy people. If you have more money than you can spend in a lifetime immortality is very attractive. Who knows what the State Pension age will be if that comes about.
History shows us that human beings who think they are God have never brought us any good. I might be of being old fashioned but I’ll stick with the belief that there is only one God. That job is taken and they are not recruiting anyone else.
As God says in the First Commandment, those who reject Him will suffer and those who love Him will be loved in return. I know whose side I’m on.