God spoke all these words:
I am God, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of a life of slavery.
No other gods, only me.
(Exodus 20:1-3, the Message)
In these beginning words of what we call the Ten Commandments, God is reminding the Israelites of a few important things. First that God delivered them from the bondage of slavery. At this point of the Exodus story, the Israelites have been wandering in the desert. God has provided for them all along the way, but that does not stop the people from complaining.
More importantly, God wants to be in relationship with God’s people. Which may be why there is an element of obedience implied here. To obey God is to affirm God’s desire to be in relationship with us.
God also reminds the Israelites that they should not worship other gods. Have you ever noticed some of the caution warnings on products? Some are pretty bizarre. For example, on a washing machine, the label reads, “DO NOT put any person in this washer.” Or on Apple’s website, “Do not eat iPod shuffle.” Or on a chainsaw, “Do not hold the wrong end of the chainsaw.” We are pretty certain that someone did that bizarre thing that warranted the warning label.
The same is true here. The first commandment to only worship God is because the Israelites at the time were prone to worship other gods. While the Abrahamic faiths are monotheist, the Israelites lived in a time and culture of polytheism. The worshiping of multiple gods was the norm. And, you might imagine a number of them being tempted to worship multiple gods as they wandered through the wilderness.
The polytheist gods were like a catalogue of gods. You could browse the list and find what you were in need of. For example, if you needed help in areas of fertility, you would worship to god Baal. Or if there were issues of pregnancy in your marriage, you may worship the goddess Kathirat.
God is asking for loyalty in the midst of the relationship which God has entered in with God’s people. Martin Luther in his Catechism says that to have no other gods before Yahweh is to fear, love, and trust God in all things and in all ways. What might that look like? The other nine commandments offer a glimpse.