Commandments 1-3: The Priority of God
We’ll begin our look at Social Justice in the Law with the centrepiece of that Law, the Ten Commandments, beginning with the first three:
Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 You must have no other gods before me.
4 Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. 5 Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. 6 But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way. (Exodus 20:1-7 CEB)
Many separate the 10 Commandments into two groups: the first 4 are deemed religious law and the latter 6 deemed social law. Personally, while I see the advantage of that distinction for the modern world, I’m not a fan of that distinction. The ancient world did not distinguish between religious and social in the same way we do in more recent history. The Sabbath earns its own post, but for now, let’s deal with the first three.
YHWH commands that the Ancient Israelites have no other god before him. Let’s think practically what this would mean in the Ancient Near East. Some other nearby religions offered human sacrifices for their gods. Some allowed or even encouraged a wide range of social hierarchies, although it is true that many also attempted to minimize inequalities relative to their culture as a whole. It is true, however, that none were as advanced in the protection of the weak in society as the Israelite Law. If YHWH’s commands take priority over the commands of other gods, it means that his vision of society is the one implemented by the Israelites. It also should be noted that this isn’t distinct from the previous sentence so remembering YHWH before any other god is remembering the great liberation that YHWH brought them.
To understand why not having idols is indeed a social issue, we need to return to our discussion of the Tselem of God. There in the creation story we saw that we are supposed to be the one bearing God’s image on Earth, which includes acting as idols acted for other religions: the representatives of God. This representing includes a variety of things, including carrying out justice in the world as God desires. The ban on building physical idols, then, could easily be seen as shirking our identity as representing God by passing that duty over to physical objects instead.
The third commandment may not really be that different from the second commandment, which makes sense since they would have all flowed together in the original text rather than being separated into separate commandments. A name in the Ancient Near East was more than just an arbitrary label. It was a representation of your entire identity. The Israelites would be going out identifying themselves by the name of their God. If they were to carry this name but act in ways completely contradictory, that would be a destroying of the value of that name.
We can see the parallel today. If you ask what people think in association with the name Christian, you’ll receive mostly negative responses: judgemental, hypocritical, repressive, and more (see unChristian by Kinnaman and Lyons). The reason is that enough Christians – not nearly all, of course, but enough – act in these ways while carrying the label of Christian. In other words, we often use the Christian label – Christ’s name – in vain.
All three commands then are saying pretty much the same thing. We may even falsely divide them into three separate commands when it should be more like an introductory paragraph for the practical details that follow. The Israelites are commanded to keep God first in their lives. This is not some abstract religious statement but a very practical one that commands that they look like God in the world and they act in ways consistent with God’s character when they bear his name.