— On Other Gods; the First Commandment —
Exodus 20:3 is a peculiar verse, because it hinges on the peculiar word elohim; the common word for God, god or mighty one(s).
The phrase al-pani (our words 6 and 7) is very common, and is most often translated with "on the face" (of the earth, or a town, or a person, etc). The word pani comes from the verb pana, meaning to turn, and its translation with "face" seems too specific. Rather it means the more general "features."
The particle 'al (our word 6) comes from the verb 'ala, meaning to go up, climb, ascend. And all derivations of that verb, obviously have something to do with going up, or being high, or highest. The divine name El Elyon, for instance, comes from this same verb, and means Highest God (Most High God).
The most direct translation of Exodus 20:3 is therefore: "There shall be to you no other powers above My face," and that is strange, because the Living God is the only one. Or isn't He?
Is God the Only One?
The answer to this paradox lies in the word elohim, which is a word that is slightly more common and slightly less reserved than our word "god". We use the word "god" strictly to indicate a deity of some sort, and perhaps figuratively (through the sub-meaning of idol) to denote an intense obsession (for money or power or speedy cars, etc). The word elohim however came forth from the very first inklings about the existence of God, and calls upon His most obvious attribute: Might.
There are many powers in this world (from the four natural forces up to physical prowess, mental strength and finally spiritual forces that influence the behavior of groups; such as mentioned in Daniel 10:20). The quantum leap into mono-theism goes accompanied with the most ancient word for God, the plural word Powers used singular: "And then Powers said, I'll do this and that..."
Echo's of this still ring in scenes such as Mary's prayer, "For the Mighty One has done great things for me," (Luke 1:49) or Christ's description of His position, "you will see the Son of Man sitting off the right of Power..." (Matthew 26:64).
The word elohim is most commonly used to indicate either YHWH or any of the forbidden idols or un-gods. Usages of the word elohim that do not denote either an un-god or YHWH are rare but they exist.
Occurrences of Elohim that don't mean God:
• Genesis 23:6
(Green:) Hear us, my lord. You are a [not translated ] prince among us...
(KJV:) Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us.
• Exodus 4:16
God explains to Moses that his brother Aaron will be a mouth to him, while Moses will be an elohim to Aaron. No construction with "god" or "God" for elohim stays true to context or Biblical theology:
(Green:) And he shall speak for you to the people. And it shall be, he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be a god for him.
(KJV:) And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God .
• Exodus 7:1
Same as previous. Some (NAS) translate with "as God," but that's untrue to context and theology.
(Green:)And Jehovah said to Moses, See, I have made you a god to Pharaoh; and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.
(KJV:)And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.
• Exodus 21:6
This verse is strongly debated. Half of the translations render "God" but that seems difficult logistically. Others read "judges"—as this scene is after the Exodus 18 internal organization of Israel and the installation of a team of judges—either direct or per foot note (NAS). The Statenvertaling even suggests that God wants the master to take his slave to "the gods," which is obviously a most peculiar translation.
(Green:) his master shall bring him to God ...
(KJV, Webster:) Then his master shall bring him unto the judges ...
• Exodus 22:9
Same as before, except that Green now translates "God" and NAS "judges," with "God" in a side-note.
(Green:) ... the case of both of them shall come to God . Whom God declares guilty, he shall repay double to his neighbor.
(KJV:) the cause of both parties shall come before the judges ; and whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbor.
• Deuteronomy 10:17, Joshua 22:22 & Psalm 136:2
And what to think of this one: Moses, Joshua and a Psalmist declare the Living God the elohim of elohim. If the second occurrence of the word elohim is to denote un-gods, the real God holds a very precarious, if not forbidden station...
The famous phrase "Lord of lords," may be best understood by our word "Emperor": the regent of many sub-regencies, or "President" over many sovereign State-governments, and certainly suggests God's usage of ruling agencies under or in His government.
(Green:) For Jehovah your God , He is the God of gods , and the Lord of lords, ...
(KJV:) For the LORD your God is God of gods , and Lord of lords, ...
• Psalm 82:1
(Elohim stands in the company of El, in the midst of elohim he judges.)
(Green:) God stands in the assembly of God ; He judges in the midst of the gods.
(KJV:) God standeth in the congregation of the mighty ; he judgeth among the gods.
(NAS:) God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers.
• Psalm 82:6
(Green:) I have said, You are gods , and all of you are sons of the Most High.
(KJV:) I have said, Ye are gods ; and all of you are children of the most High.
(NAS:) I said, "You are gods , and all of you are sons of the Most High."
• Psalm 138:1
If this occurrence of elohim means un-gods, King David is saying something similar to, "Dear wife, I'm singing your praises in front of a bunch of prostitutes." King David is probably pointing at the kings of the earth he mentions in verse 4.
(Green:) I will thank You with my whole heart; I will sing praise to You before the gods.
(KJV:) I will praise thee with my whole heart: before the gods will I sing praise unto thee.
Some occurrences of el not meaning God:
• Ezekiel 31:11
(Green:) so I have given him into the mighty hand of the nations.
(NAS:) therefore, I will give it into he hand of a despot of the nations.
• Ezekiel 32:21
(Green:)The strong of the mighty shall speak to him from the midst of Sheol;...
(NAS:) The strong among the mighty ones...
• Genesis 31:29
(Green:)It is in the power of my hand to do you harm...
(NAS:)It is in my power to do you harm...
• Deuteronomy 28:32;
(Green:)And no power shall be in your hand.
(NAS:) But there shall be nothing you can do.
Even scenes where God seems to state that He is the only elohim in existence (Isaiah 44:6), the words that distinctly denote existence (hawa/ haya) and the negation thereof (lo) are omitted. In stead, the text leans towards the idea that any elohim that operates outside God's legislation, is worthless, as good as nothing or brought to such.
The phrase "other gods" is common in Scriptures. The word aher (our word 5 is its plural) comes from the verb ahar, meaning tarry, delay. This specific word does not simply denote another equal, but much rather a following or secondary (even lower). "Other gods" fall into two categories:
- Vain idols made from wood, stone or gold to which absolutely no power is attributed, and which are often referred to as un-gods or not-gods; the things that are deemed elohim by their makers but not-elohim by God.
- Forces of any kind, mostly those that control a group or nation, and which are very real, but not to be worshipped.
The First Commandment does not at all negate the existence of "powers" apart from God (the alternative would be pantheism, which is a heresy). In stead it calls upon the free access to God all mankind is rendered by right, and the most lethal sin of placing anything in front of Him as an obstruction. In fact, the First Commandment clearly resounds the oldest commandment of them all,
"From any tree in the garden you may eat freely, but from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:16, 17)
There are to be no powers between any human and the Creator, and this includes governments, theologies, sciences, fears, the Pope, saints, any limitation, any vicarious instrument, person or institute out of any motivation whether benevolent or not. Nothing and nothing at all is to be between man and Maker. As Paul writes,
"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38, 39)
But probably the most endearing parallel to this Prime Directive is in the famous words that Jesus utters as He says,
"Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me..." (Matthew 19:14).
Abarim Publications translation of Exodus 20:3:
Exodus 20:3 (Deuteronomy 5:7), "And there are to be no lesser powers between you and Me."