Have We Been Misinterpreting the Second Commandment All Along?

'Thou shalt have no other gods before me' can be taken in different ways, one being, Me first, the godlets next

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The stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral, showing the tetragrammaton - the mysterious name of God, transliterated as YHWH; in Winchester, Hampshire, England.
The stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral, showing the tetragrammaton - the mysterious name of God, transliterated as YHWHCredit: Oddworldly, Wikimedia Commons
Elizabeth Sloane
Elizabeth Sloane
Elizabeth Sloane
Elizabeth Sloane

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20.3)

The Second Commandment is generally interpreted as meaning that the Jewish people should worship only one god, YHWH, and that there is no other god. However, the qualification “before me” have led some scholars to debate whether that was the original meaning of the commandment ostensibly handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai, in around 1400 BCE.

Far from forcing people to give up the worship of other deities, some scholars theorize, the commandment actually laid down a heavenly hierarchy, with YHWH at the top. YHWH was to be worshipped and sacrificed to first, before any other gods. Then they could get theirs.

Early Judaism did not deny the existence of other gods. The Biblical story of Exodus categorically acknowledges and affirms the existence of other gods. It paints the plagues of Egypt not just as war on the pharaoh, but as a war on the gods of Egypt: “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements” (Ex. 12.12).

Therefore, it cannot be said that Biblical writers at this point had any notions about denying the existence of other gods, as later writers would, or to pushing their people towards monotheism.

Cultic figures by Jerusalem

The complaints of the bible writers, and the attempted reforms by King Josiah (c. 649–609 B.C.E.) are good indications that polytheistic worship by the Israelites persisted long after the legendary escape from Egypt.

Certainly, the practices of worshipping a divine pantheon arose from deep antiquity: It can be traced archaeologically from the Iron Age (10th – 6th centuries B.C.E.) through to the Babylonian Exile.

Inscriptions from around Israel from the Iron Age bear the name of “Ashera”. An 8th century tomb in Khirbet el Qom, between Hebron and Lachish, in the territory of the Biblical kingdom of Judah, has a prayer inscribed in it invoking YHWH and Ashera. The location of this site in Judah strongly suggests that the inscription is Judahic.

Also, numerous Inscriptions in Kuntillet Arjud, in the Northeast part of the Sinai Peninsula, are dedicated to “YHWH and his Ashera.” While this site was not in Judah itself, the inscriptions were written in Hebrew, making it clear the site was Judahic.

There is also a plethora of female figurines that have been at least tangentially associated with local religious practices. Judean "Pillar Figures" have long been associated with Judahic religious practices relating to Ashera:

This however may be part of a tendency to link any object whose purpose is unknown to cultic practices, which is not necessarily correct.

A recent excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority at the Iron Age IIA site of Tel Motza, west of Jerusalem, in what was the Biblical kingdom of Judah, yielded a temple with figures more similar to finds from non-Judahic sites in the Negev than they are to the Judean Pillar Figures. These figures are both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic.

A horse figurine from Tel Motza.Credit: Emil Salman

The IAA is not sure of the exact nature of these figures, but their location in the temple suggests a cultic purpose. In any case, their location within a Judahic site suggests the possibility that a foreign religious practice may have been adopted.

Fragments of figurines found at the Tel Motza templeCredit: Emil Salman

Ba'al as a weapon

Erin Darby, an expert on religious studies from the University of Tennessee, cautions against interpreting these figurines as evidence of a state-sponsored polytheistic religious practice. Fine, but it does show that early practitioners of Judaism evidently did not interpret the Second Commandment to mean that YHWH should be worshipped exclusively.

In fact, the Israelites seem to have only became monotheists after the Babylonian Exile.

“The calamities which befell the Judeans in the burning of the First Temple and in their exile to the shore of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates had a chastening effect upon them, and this may be one of the causes which revolutionized their relationship to their God," wrote the late Solomon Zeitlin, a professor at Yeshiva University in New York, in 1944. "Before the exile the Jews regarded their God as the God of the land and superior to other gods, but they also worshipped other deities."

The idea that early Israelites believed that their god was superior in their land fits with the mindset of ancient cultures and with the idea of a heavenly hierarchy.

The stele of Baal with thunderbolt found in the ruins of Ugarit.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It has been theorized by historians that certain Canaanite gods and goddesses, such as Anat, Ba’al, Astarte, and Resheph were adopted into the Egyptian pantheon because, in their own land, they were believed to be superior to the Egyptian gods. Therefore, the Egyptians would need their favor to conquer Canaan in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550 – 1200 BCE).

A female figurine dating to the Middle Bronze Age, 5,000-9,000 BCE.Credit: Israeli National Maritime Museum

The Egyptians still maintained, and in many cases preferred their original gods, but the newer deities filled in gaps for concepts that were new to the Egyptians.

Some scholars disagree with this interpretation. Richard Elliot Friedman, a Biblical scholar and professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, suggests that because God was universal, the use of “before me” had a universal presentation, that “one simply cannot have other gods” (Friedman 2001). This does not however, rule out the acknowledgement of other deities.

However, the archaeological and historical evidence suggest what Carl S. Ehrlich, Professor of the Hebrew Bible at York University, has speculated, that Judaism went through a long period of theistic development. It originated a polytheistic religion that developed, over time, into a monotheistic faith (Ehrlich 2010), in which other gods were not merely inferior, but outright dismissed.



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